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Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson, Ltd.

Swan Hunter is internationally renowned as a world class shipbuilder. During a 130 year existence, Swan Hunter built over 1,600 ships of various types including more than 400 naval vessels. The Swan Hunter name is synonymous with innovative design and quality and the river Tyne shipyards of Swan Hunter have been the birth-place of many fine ships of almost every type and size for more than a century. This magnificent record includes ships for practically every nation.

Wigham Richardson Neptune Works

Located at Wallsend and Walker-on-Tyne, the shipbuilding industry of this firm carried back to the early days of iron ships, where in 1842 the first iron vessel ever built on the river Tyne - namely, the Prince Albert - was launched from the site of the south yard, which was purchased some 18 years later by Mr. John Wigham Richardson when he founded the Neptune Works. A Mr. Coutts had first laid down the Walker Shipyard in 1842 and had built what might be regarded as Britain's first steam collier, the Q.E.D. Despite a promising beginning, Coutts' venture did not succeed. The yard was taken over by a London firm but with no better results.

Historically a number of different dates suggest themselves as a starting point for the story of Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd. but is generally accepted that it all began in 1860 when John Wigham Richardson, 23 years old son of a distinguished Yorkshire family of Quakers, armed with a little paternal capital and a brave desire to become a shipbuilder, purchased a small shipyard at Walker-on-Tyne. The area of the shipyard was then only four acres, with a frontage of 107 yards, and having three berths, the longest being 320 ft. Two hundred men at most were then employed, and the maximum annual output of ships was about 4,000 gross tons.

Mr. Wigham Richardson's business at his 'Neptune Works' began modestly enough. In 1860 the shipyard had three berths, covered no more than four acres of ground, had a river frontage of just over a hundred yards and gave employment to about 200 men. Wigham Richardson appointed as manager of his new enterprise another gifted young man named Charles John Denham Christie, the grandfather of one of the Directors of Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd. until the formation of Swan Hunter Group Ltd. Together these two men, who eventually entered into partnership, steered the firm through many early difficulties. That the business eventually succeeded in stabilising itself was mainly due to Wigham Richardson's indefatigable questing for new orders, combined with Christie's first- rate knowledge of ship design and construction.

In 1872, the firm began making its own marine engines and boilers, a new works for this purpose being erected to the North of the Shipyard. These works were extended in 1879 by the acquisition of neighbouring premises. Some time afterwards, the boiler works formerly attached to the engine works were removed to new premises further north and this occasioned an increase of nearly double its size for the machine shops and erecting shop of the engine works. This extension, together with two new building berths built to the north of the existing shipyard in the late 1880's, meant that Neptune Works now covered some 18.25 acres, with a river frontage of about 1,100 feet.

In 1899 when it was decided to make the firm a limited company in the style of 'Wigham Richardson & Company Ltd' an extensive reputation had been gained for the construction of high class ships and particularly for those with specialist duties.

C. S. Swan & Hunter

In the year 1852, Mr. Charles Mitchell, who had been a ship designer with Mr. Coutts, also started his own shipbuilding business at Walker. In 1854 he married the oldest daughter of Mr. William Swan of Walker, an event of some importance to this story, since one result of the marriage was that two brothers of the bride, Henry Frederick and Charles Sheridan Swan, eventually joined the Mitchell undertaking. The business prospered to the extent that Mitchell was soon looking for additional space and, to this end, in 1871, acquired a small site at St. Peter's (further up-river towards Newcastle) where two of his associates began building ships under the style of Coulson, Cooke & Company. In 1873 this firm moved to a larger and more suitable site, some 6.5 acres in area, at the river-front of Wallsend and bordering the shipyard of Shlesinger, Davis & Company which had been opened in Wallsend Parish in 1863.

About a year later, however, in 1874, the firm ran into financial difficulties and it became necessary for Mitchell to take over the Wallsend shipyard. This he entrusted to the management of his brother-in-law, Charles Sheridan Swan, who continued the work of the firm through mixed fortune until his untimely, accidental death in 1879, when returning from the continent after a business trip, he fell from the bows of a paddle steamer and was struck and killed by one of the paddles. It was about this time, however, that George Burton Hunter, a young Wearside shipbuilder who had earned a reputation on the North East Coast, had dissolved his partnership with a Mr. S. P. Austin and entered into negotiations with Charles Mitchell and H. F. Swan. The outcome of this was a new partnership with Charles Swan's widow in the style of C. S. Swan & Hunter, with Hunter as managing director.

George Burton (ultimately Sir George) Hunter, the grandfather of Sir John, who would later become the Chairman of the Swan Hunter Group, was a man of outstanding technical and commercial ability, whose interests extended far beyond his professional life. He associated himself with the interests of the Wallsend community, already expanding round the shipyard. He found congenial occupation with 'C.S.Swan & Hunter', being called upon to run this business almost single-handed until 1895, when he brought about a remarkable transformation in the Wallsend shipbuilding scene.

When he took over, the yard covered less than seven acres, with a river frontage of less than one hundred yards. In 1883 he acquired the adjoining land of a chemical manufacturer amounting to some 16 acres, constructing upon it what was then known as the East Yard, making the company's total area for the two yards 23 acres, containing six building berths.

In 1897 the company acquired the adjoining shipyard of Schlesinger, Davis & company which increased the yard's total area by a further seven acres. The latter yard was re-equipped to handle a new type of construction for which the company then become famous - the construction of floating docks. In 1902, however, the Schlesinger Davis yard was reorganised for still more spectacular purposes, namely the preparation of two new building berths, 750 feet in length, for the construction of the largest types of ships.

Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson, Ltd.

Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson, Ltd. was an amalgamation effected in 1903 of the following firms: C. S. Swan, Hunter, Ltd., Wigham Richardson and Co., Ltd., The Tyne Pontoons and Dry Dock Co., Ltd. The works were situated at the deep bend of the River Tyne on its north bank, about three miles to the east of Newcastle. They covered an area of about 78 acres, with a river frontage of some 4,000 ft. The premises comprised shipyards, a yard for building floating docks, engine and boiler works, a dry dock (550 ft. long and 76 ft. wide at entrance, with a depth of water of 26$ ft. over the sill), and two floating docks capable of lifting vessels up to 350 ft. long.

The new Company acquired a controlling interest in the Wallsend Slipway & Engineering Company Ltd., marine engineers and ship repairers, situated some half a mile down-river to the east. Later in the same year the Tyne Pontoons & Dry Docks Company Ltd., whose installations lay between the Wallsend West Yard and Neptune Works, was purchased by the new company, to form what became to be known as the Dry Docks Department. This latter acquisition gave the company an unbroken river frontage of some 4,000 feet, and works covering nearly 80 acres. The 1903 amalgamation enabled the firm to contract for and build the famous 'Mauretania' which held the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, for 22 years. Not only was the Company now able to deal with all aspects of shipbuilding activity, namely, the design and construction of the hulls and machinery installations, but was able to concern itself with the repairs, overhauls and renewals necessary to keep ships in the highest condition to meet the demands of sea-going commerce, which 'tolerates no make-shift'. It was at this time that the works of Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd., began to take form and appearance which they kept for the next fifty years.

In the dry-dock department many important repairs and alterations to ships have been effected. To cite a few noteworthy contracts, mention may be made of cutting in two and lengthening by 60 ft. the Norddeutscher-Lloyd steamer Wittekind; extensive repairs to the Australian steamer Miowcra, which, after being stranded at Honolulu, was brought to the Tyne, a voyage of 14,000 miles, and completely repaired ; constructing and fitting a new forward end, 180 ft. long, to the Canadian Pacific Railway Co.'s Milwaukee - this vessel was stranded off the coast of Scotland, and by means of dynamite was cut in two, much in the same way as the operation on the Sucvic, the old and new parts of the ship were put into dry dock and successfully joined together; fitting a new bow to the end of the Russian ice-breaker Ertnack : partly replating the British Admiralty's oil-carrying ship Petroleum.

Of warships the company docked many battleships, cruisers, and torpedo-boats for the Governments of Great Britain, the United States of America, Japan, Italy, Portugal, Norway, Argentine, Chili, Brazil, and China. The normal capacity of the shipyards was 120,000 gross register tons a year. In 1906 this firm established the record for the amount of tonnage turned out in one year at one yard, the total tonnage launched being 127,000 tons.

The largest ship constructed before the Great War, the Cunard Co.'s R.M.S. Mauritania, even exceeding her sister ship, the Lusitania, was built at this yard. The overall dimensions of the ship were 790 ft. long and 88 ft. broad and her displacement about 40,000 tons. The main engines are four Parsons' steam turbines, each on a separate shaft, and each driving one propeller. The average service speed is to be 25 kts., and to maintain this speed the power of the main turbines will be about 50% more than has ever been installed in any mercantile ship. This company has also built for the same owners the Ivernia, 600 ft. long and 14,000 tons gross register, the Carpathia, 13,500 tons, and the Ultonia, 8,056 tons.

A special feature of the work done in this yard was a large number of passenger and mail steamers for Channel and coasting services. One of the fastest examples of these vessels was the twin screw Princess Victoria, in the service of the Canadian Pacific Railway Co., and mention may be made of the Khedivial Mail Steamship Co.'s twin screw Osmanieh, and of the triple screw turbine steamer Immingham, owned by the Great Central Railway Co. Among many companies ordering steamers from this yard may be mentioned the Cork Steamship Co., Ltd., who have had 20 steamers built here; 24 for the Hansa Line of Bremen ; 18 for the Adria Royal Hungarian Sea Navigation Co. ; and 12 for Messrs. Elder Dempster and Co-in fact, almost all the large and important steamship companies have at one time or another had vessels built by this firm.

Floating docks formed another leading speciality of the company, and the following are among the most important of the many orders which have been successfully executed : A dock lifting 12.000 tons buiit to the order of the Spanish Government and towed out to Havana in 1897 ; one for the Stettiner Maschinenbau Actien Gesellschaft " Vulcan." For the British Admiralty a large dock was built and sent out to Bermuda, in the West Indies. This dock was 545 ft. long. 126 ft. broad, and has a lifting capacity of 16,500 tons. Early in 1904 a dock was delivered in Durban Harbour to the order of the Natal Government. This was followed by a dock for the Suez Canal Co. at Port Said, and in 1905 facilities for repairing ships in Africa were increased by a dock for the Nigerian Dry Dock and Engineering Co., on the River Forcados, West Africa. Two docks built for the Japanese Government and one for the Riasan Uralsk Railway Co., in Russia, were not towed to their respective destinations, but were despatched in pieces and re-erected on arrival. Another remarkable structure built by the company is the large floating coal depot owned by the British Admiralty. It was the first of its kind, and proved a great success ; 425 ft. long, 68 ft. broad, its storage capacity is 12,000 tons of coal. It is equipped with 12 Temperley transporters, operated electrically, and fitted with a large number of coal shoots for rapidly filling bags without shovelling.

Seeing that two of the largest warships can be berthed at the same time, this floating depot practically gave the equivalent of 1,000 ft. of quay frontage. Among the most noticeable features of the works are the immense glass-roofed sheds covering four of the building berths of the Wallscnd shipyard. The largest of these sheds is 740 ft. long, with a clear width inside of 100 ft. and a height of 140 ft. The length can be extended any time to 900 it.

All the sheds were equipped with overhead travelling electric cranes, and are well lighted by arc lamps. Electricity both for driving the machinery and for lighting was used everywhere. Hydraulic power was extensively used in all departments for lifting heavy weights and for rivetting, and there was also a large installation of pneumatic plant for rivetting, chipping, drilling, caulking, and other work. For installing on board ship boilers, large pieces of machinery, and other heavy weights the company had one of the most powerful floating cranes in the world, capable of lifting 150 tons. In addition to this floating crane there were large sheer legs both at the Neptune Works and at the boiler shops adjacent to the dry docks department.

The engine works at Walker comprised large machine shops, together with fitters' and erecting shops, and, with the boiler works, are capable of turning out each year machinery represented by 50,000 I.Hp. This department was largely supplemented by work done by the Wallsend Slipway and Engineering Co., Ltd., in which Messrs. Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson, Ltd., had an interest. The Wallsend Slipway Co. had a high reputation for building reciprocating and turbine engines, and also for repairing ships and engines. Their works were situated on the River Tyne, about half a mile to the east of the Wallsend shipyard, covering an area of about 51 acres. They comprised very large and modern engines and boiler shops, a foundry, a dry dock 544 ft. long, and two slipways for hauling ships up to 3,000 gross tons. At these works were constructed the machinery and boileis for the large express mail steamer Mauretania.

After the formation of ' Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson, Ltd.' in 1903 the firm went forward from strength to strength. In 1912, the company acquired Barclay, Curle & Company Ltd., shipbuilders, repairers and engineers on the River Clyde. During two world wars, the company contributed the full extent of its power to the construction, repair and conversion of all types of tonnage, naval and merchant to meet the ever increasing demands of these emergencies.

Between the wars, when many shipbuilding businesses succumbed to the difficult economic conditions prevailing at that time, the Company continued to trade. By keen and competitive prices, by keeping abreast of and often sponsoring the latest technical developments and by the pursuit of forward looking policies by the Directors, the Company maintained its position in the vanguard of shipbuilding enterprise. With the conclusion of the second world war, when it became apparent that the shipbuilding industry in Britain was about to embark upon a massive replacement programme of shipping lost in that conflict, it also became clear that the layout and equipment of the shipyards would be inadequate if the Company were to remain at the forefront.

The major reason for this was the technical change in production techniques when the steel structure of a ship was welded instead of riveted. This caused an evolution from the erection of the ship in single plates and bars to the construction of large prefabricated units. There are obvious advantages in doing a large percentage of the welding under cover with modern machine tools, one of the greatest being the continuous employment of the workforce concerned during the inclement weather, a factor which had caused the loss of a great deal of production time in the past while ships were being erected piece by piece on the 'open' berths.

Another reason for complete re-organisation of shipyard layout was the tendency for the average size of various types of ships to increase. Although existing berths appeared to be adequately long, their comparatively narrow width was in many cases the deciding factor in the size of ship they could build, while the lifting facilities with which they were equipped were not suitable for modern methods of ship construction. In considering the reorganisation of both the yards, these problems had to be considered.

Swan Hunter Group Ltd.

In 1966 Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd., merged with Smith's Dock Co. Ltd. which had a shipbuilding yard on the Tees and extensive ship repairing interests on the Tyne. The name of the new company became Associated Shipbuilders Ltd., and later Swan Hunter Group Ltd. which, prior to nationalisation of the industry, was a holding company with subsidiaries in shipbuilding, ship repairing, engineering and civil engineering.

Following the issue of the Geddes Report on the shipbuilding industry in 1966 discussions were opened with the owners of other shipyards on the Tyne on the subject of a possible merger of all the shipyards on the Tyne into one company. As a result, the Swan Hunter Group first acquired John Readhead & Sons Ltd. and then merged with the Naval Yard of Vickers Ltd. and R. & W. Hawthorn Leslie & Co. Ltd. A new company, Swan Hunter & Tyne Shipbuilders Ltd. was incorporated and all shipbuilding interests on the Tyne were transferred to the new company. Subsequently the name was shortened to Swan Hunter Shipbuilders Ltd. In January 1969 Swan Hunter Shipbuilders took over the Furness Shipbuilding Co. at Haverton Hill-on-Tees which had been scheduled for closure and a loss of 2,800 jobs.

At that time Swan Hunter Shipbuilders Ltd. owned and operated three shipyards on the north bank of the Tyne (i.e. Naval Yard at Walker, Neptune Yard at Walker and Wallsend Shipyard) and two on the south bank of the Tyne, (Hawthorn Leslie Shipyard and Readheads Shipyard) as well as the Haverton Hill Shipyard on the Tees. In addition, Swan Hunter Group Ltd. of which Swan Hunter Shipbuilders was a wholly-owned subsidiary, owned the shipyard operated by Smith's Dock Co. Ltd. on the Tees and shipyards building smaller ships, i.e. fishing vessels, tugs, etc. at Goole on the Humber and at Willington Quay at Wallsend.

In 1973 Swan Hunter Shipbuilders acquired Palmers Dock at Hebburn from Vickers Ltd. and between then and 1976 developed an entirely new shipbuilding complex named Hebburn Shipbuilding Dock. The numbers employed in the Tyne shipyards of Swan Hunter Shipbuilders was approximately 11,500 and a wide variety of ship types were built by them, including cargo vessels, bulk carriers, crude oil tankers and container ships of all sizes. They also built Naval ships of varying types for the Ministry of Defence as well as fleet replenishment ships for British or foreign ownership. In the 5 years prior to nationalisation almost 16M was spent on modernising the yards owned by the Company, including the cost of developing the new Hebburn Shipbuilding Dock.

British Shipbuilders Corporation

On 1st July 1977 Swan Hunter Shipbuilders Ltd. came under national ownership when in terms of the Aircraft & Shipbuilding Industries Act it became a member of the new Corporation named British Shipbuilders Corporation. The Corporation was initially organised into four industrial sectors but by 1980 this had been rearranged to create five trading divisions - merchant shipbuilding, warship building, engineering, ship repair and an off-shore division.

The shipyards for which the operating company Swan Hunter Shipbuilders Ltd. was made responsible to the Corporation were Wallsend Shipyard, Neptune Shipyard, Walker Shipyard, Hebburn Shipyard and Hebburn Shipbuilding Dock. At Hebburn Shipyard, No. 1 berth and some shop facilities would be integrated with the Hebburn Shipbuilding Dock facility. The remainder of Hebburn Yard would cease shipbuilding operation to become the base for a new training shipyard school for the North East of England.

At Walker Shipyard construction of ships would cease, but the yard facilities would be developed to establish this shipyard as an outfitting base for ships that would be transferred from the remaining three shipyards. The remainder of the shipyard at Walker would be put on care and maintenance basis. Swan Hunter Shipbuilders Ltd. then consisted of the four shipyards on the Tyne; Wallsend Shipyard, Neptune Shipyard, Hebburn Shipbuilding Complex and Walker Shipyard.

The Wallsend Shipyard was the first in the world to construct tankers of over 250,000 tons on a slipway. The first of these VLCC's was launched in May 1969. The association of this yard with the Royal Navy commenced with the destroyer 'Hope' in 1909 and since then over 100 warships were built. Production also included the aircraft carriers 'Illustrious' and 'Ark Royal'. One of the most up-to-date steel working facilities in the shipbilding world at the time was situated at the Wallsend Shipyard. Opened in December 1971 it produced flat stiffened panels to a maximum weight of 100 tons for use in all Swan Hunter Shipbuilders Shipyards.

The centralised Joinery Workshop at Wallsend Shipyard produced all panel and specialist furnishing for all the yards. Although construction of ships at Walker has since ceased, it was developed as an outfitting centre for the other new building yards. The Centralised Blacksmiths Production Facilities and the Central Accounts Department for Swan Hunter Shipbuilders at that time were based at Walker. The newly formed Tyne Regional Computing Centre, that provided computer facilities to Swan Hunter Shipbuilders and other shipbuilders in the region, was located at Walker Shipyard.

Scott Lithgow Ltd became part of the off-shore division. In April 1981, following a steady contraction of the shipbuilding and offshore construction industry, British Shipbuilders embarked on a re-organisation program. As part of this program, the Scott Lithgow board decided to dissolve its individual operating companies and have all future operations dealt with through one company, i.e. Scott Lithgow Ltd . Shipbuilding operations at Cartsdyke Shipyard and Bowling ceased and Cowal Engineering closed. The Caledonia Joinery transferred to Lithgows and the Caledonia Fabrications transferred to the Scotts Engineering Company and Ferguson Bros (Port Glasgow) Ltd becoming a separate profit centre within British Shipbuilders.

British Shipbuilders Corporation was privatised in 1983 under the terms of the British Shipbuilders Act. The various divisions that survived under nationalised ownership were sold off throughout the 1980s as the corporation wound up its operations.

In 1984, as part of the Government's privatisation plan, Scott Lithgow Ltd was sold to Trafalgar House plc, to become a non-trading branch of that company's off-shore engineering division. The Port Glasgow yard was placed on a care and maintenance basis in 1986/7. Scott Lithgow ceased to trade in 1993 and the yard was offered for sale.

Swan Hunter (Tyneside) Ltd

After de-nationalisation and some difficult trading conditions in the late 1980's and early 1990's many of the facilities of the Group were sold or closed down. In 1994 the Wallsend Yard of Swan Hunter was put into the hands of the receiver. In 1995 Swan Hunter (Tyneside) Ltd was established by Mr Jaap Kroese who then acquired the shipyard which then diversified into offshore oil & gas construction as well as naval shipbuilding which is still continuing today.

Swan Hunter has a proud tradition of shipbuilding on the Tyne and the facilities have recently been enhanced to continue this tradition using modern methods of undercover ring construction for more efficient production of naval ships and commercial vessels. The skills required to produce high quality vessels have also been maintained and improved over the years, in a region where the local culture is still one of the few to embrace this industry.

In December 2000 the contract was signed with the Ministry of Defence for the design and build of two Landing Ship Dock (Auxiliary) vessels for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and for the supply of Lead Yard Services for a further two vessels to be built to Swan Hunter's design by another yard. The two 16,000 ton displacement LSDA's 'Largs Bay' and 'Lyme Bay' were built at the Wallsend yard which was optimised to suit the construction of these vessels in fully outfitted ring unit sections built entirely under cover, with the unit connections being executed within a floating building dock, enabling float-out of the completed ships without dynamic launching risk.

Swan Hunter successfully completed the conversion of the world-largest pipelying vessel 'Solitaire' for the Allseas Group in 1998. The project brought together first class innovative systems with the most advanced equipment to meet the highly challenging design criteria of the client, setting new standards for the pipeline installation industry. Prior to delivery of the stripped down bulk carrier hull, Swan Hunter carried out all the re-engineering preparations to identify, produce and later install all the piping, electrical, HVAC and control systems required to turn the vessel into a highly mechanised pipeline production facility with 400 man accommodation.

Swan Hunter maintains its decades of offshore oil & gas capability by designing, fabricating and constructing projects ranging from complex subsea templates and manifolds to the construction of major offshore platform facilities and FPSO's. The experience gained in the demanding offshore industry, including on-time delivery and 'smart procurement' methods have become central to the culture and approach of Swan Hunter in all its projects, and have been further adapted to its shipbuilding activities.

Swan Hunter has been involved in the decommissioning of offshore platforms and structures since 1996 when it undertook decommissioning and disposal of several jackets, bridges and decks on the Conoco Viking A project. The project was undertaken with due regard for all safety and environmental aspects associated with such a scope and the company achieved a level of 99% for recycling or reuse of the platforms.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:06:23 ZULU