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13 November 2014

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You are in: Wear > History > Shipbuilding > History of shipbuilding on Wearside

Ship being launched

Ship being launched

History of shipbuilding on Wearside

Once dubbed "the largest shipbuilding town in the world" and dating back to 1346 we look back at what it used to be like building ships on the Wear.

It all started back in 1346, when Thomas Menvill had a shipbuilding yard in Hendon.

Throughout its history Sunderland has had over 400 registered shipyards. Below are some of the key yards in the development of the shipbuilding industry.

Map of yesteryears shipyards on the Wear

The Wearside shipyards

The work

With the introduction of iron and steel construction a new group of workers emerged. These were the boilermakers or sometimes known as "the black squad" and were paid by piecework. This meant that the boilermakers could earn a lot more money than the shipwrights, who were only paid timework.

Workers had to arrive no later than 6am. If they were late the gates were locked and they lost one quarter of a days pay.


Life was tough. Death and injury were commonplace and compensation payments were not regulated until the late 19th Century. This had a devastating affect on the families.

Shipyard worker welding

Welding on the shipyards

Things did improve by the 20th Century but accidents were still a daily occurrence. Medical officers were appointed at yards and safety equipment started to be used.

By the end of the 1960s safety committees existed in most yards and, with the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, accident rates were greatly reduced.


Strikes were a regular event in shipyards. As the workforce grew more trade unions and more disputes developed.

The Sunderland Engineers strike of 1835-1883 was one of the longest on the Wear.


The shipbuilding industry suffered regular fluctuations in demand for new ships or repair.

Dockworker in a crane

Shipyard crane in 1907

There were three great depressions with the first being in 1884 -1887. There was mass unemployment and for the lucky ones who were still employed had their wages reduced.

The second occurred in 1908 – 1910 after a national fall in ship production. The worst one of the three was in the 1930s when there was a huge fall in demand after the boom of World War I.

The depression had a deeper impact as fewer men wanted to join the industry and many left to join other professions.

After World War II

Sunderland continued to lead the way however production increased worldwide and it became more difficult for British yards to compete.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s more yards closed or merged. In 1977 the shipbuilding industry was nationalised and job losses followed.

In 1980 the last two remaining yards merged, then only eight years later on the 7 December this last remaining yard on the Wear closed bringing shipbuilding in Sunderland to a sad closure.

Brief history

(1346) - First shipyard in Sunderland.

(1814) - Three yards with 31 ships under construction.

(1815) - 600 ships being built in 31 yards.

(1840) - 76 shipbuilding yards.

(1846-1854) - Third of ships built in the UK were from Wearside.

(1868) - Iron hulled ships overtake wooden ships.

(1880) - Last wooden ship was built.

(1893) - Last sailing ship was built.

(1888-1913) - 22% of the ships are made for export.

(1914-1918) - 16 shipbuilding yards.

(1939) - Eight yards increase to nine due to the war.

(1950s-1960s) - Shipyards close or merge due to competition.

(1977) - The industry is nationalised.

(1978) - 7535 people work in the yards.

(1980) - The last two remaining shipyards merge.

(1984) - 4337 people work in the yards.

(1988) - Last remaining yard closed on 7 December 1988.

last updated: 06/05/2009 at 09:42
created: 18/01/2008

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