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Last Shipyard

You are in: Wear > History > Last Shipyard > Going, going, gone...

The ferries Superflex Kilo and Superflex Mike leaving the Pallion yard on 9 December, 1988, the last vessels to do so. Photo: Sunderland Museum

The last vessels to leave Pallion

Going, going, gone...

On 7 December 1988 it was announced that the last shipyards on the Wear - North East Shipbuilders Ltd at Pallion and Southwick - were to close.

It was a bitter time, for many reasons. The conservative government had been promising to look for a buyer but it was later revealed that a deal had been done with the EU to reduce shipbuilding output in the UK.

In the end it was NESL in Sunderland - the result of a merger between the nationalised Austin Pickersgill and Sunderland Shipbuilders Ltd only two years previously - that they closed.

In 1988, when the closure was announced, Kenny Downes was 46 and working for NESL. He says: "We all waited with baited breath knowing underneath that it was bound to happen.

"But, even then, when it did happen, it was still a bit of a shock, still hard to take, because we'd put up a terrific fight.

"We fought a worthy cause, as we thought, in order to try and keep the shipyards open in Sunderland and unfortunately it wasn't to be, it was out of our hands.

"It had been out of our hands for a long time but we didn't realise."

Kenny Downes, former NESL worker

Kenny Downes

Finding work

Kenny remembers: "Some people finished and never worked again, people of certain ages so they've got no chance, late 50s early 60s, they had no chance of finding any work again, so they had to make the most of what they had.

"And, of course, there was very little other type of work because...not only the shipyards, there was associated work with shipyards felt the effect as well."

Kenny was one of the first to be made redundant and be offered training. He got work, but in Holland. After Holland he worked on the nuclear submarines in Birkenhead.

"Unfortunately," he says, "the government changed the next year and the nuclear submarine programme was stopped." Some of his friends had moved their whole families there.

When Kenny left school at 15 he expected a job for life: "It was the norm in places like Sunderland to either go into shipyards or the mines. I had family in the mines, I had family in the shipyards.

"When I first started serving my apprenticeship I had about seven cousins and uncles working around me. Unfortunately," he adds, laughing. "Keeping me right, advising."

Done deal

They'd fought to keep the yards open and, when they found out the deal was already done, he says they felt bitter. "Parliamentarians...were not honest with us.

"There was possibly one, Kenneth Clark, who said in parliament when we were there to lobby, who came out in parliament and just said straight, 'I see no future in British shipbuilding'.

"At that point I just turned round to the person sitting next to me in the Strangers' Gallery and said, 'Well we couldn't get a clearer message than that'. And it proved to be the case.

Billy Angus, former NESL worker

Billy Angus

"We put up a terrific fight, we had help from MPs, a lot of people, and they knew it was a just cause, everybody knew it was a just cause, except the people that mattered had already done a deal in Brussels."

His friends now live all over the country, having gone looking for work. Some never came back, like many of Billy Angus' friends who went abroad for work.

Suicidal

Billy was on the last launch that left the Southwick yard, or Austin Pickersgill's as they still used to call it.

The closure announcement was a blow: "I was gutted. My family was gutted; I had a wife and three young boys. And I was panicking. How was I going to pay the mortgage?

"We were the biggest shipbuilding town in the world at the time and, for people to say we couldn't build another ship in Sunderland, it was an absolute disgrace, it was diabolical.

"It was a political issue and decisions were made elsewhere and a lot of people in Sunderland were downright suicidal."

Alan Milburn in 1988

Alan Milburn in 1988

Alan Milburn, now MP for Darlington, was the coordinator of the Save our Shipyards campaign in 1988.

He remembers it being a huge issue in the north-east of England: "What struck me at the time was that, not only, if the yards closed, were there going to be lots of people who lost their jobs, many thousands, not just in the yards but in supporting industries.

"And, not surprisingly, those facts galvanised the whole community - in Sunderland, in the broader region - behind the campaign to keeps the yards open.

"The problem was the government at the time just wasn't listening.

He still believes the yards were viable: "Not only were they the most modern shipyards in the whole of Europe, not only had they had literally tens of millions of pounds of public money, taxpayer's money, invested in them but also, the thing that people tend to forget is, they had a very viable order book worth tens and possibly hundreds of millions of pounds."

Sacrifical lamb

"The truth is," Alan Milburn stresses, "a political deal had been done between Mrs Thatcher and the European Commission which meant that shipbuilding capacity in the United Kingdom had to be reduced.

The British Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher taken on 7 December 1988 while holding talks with the Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev Photo: Getty Images

Margaret Thatcher on 7 December 1988

"Unfortunately NESL in Sunderland was the sacrifical lamb.

"Sunderland was going to pay the price for a behind-the-scenes political deal.

"Because Harland and Wolff in Belfast was so politically sensitive and it was really the competitor yard to NESL that, in a sense, that one was always going to be kept open.

"But what was wrong was for the government at the time not to come clean about that."

He says the fight taught him an important lesson: "You can have the best case, you can have the best argument in the world but, unless you've got your hands on power, then nothing changes."

Peter Callaghan, currently the managing director of Pallion Engineering was, in 1988, the union convenor fighting the closure of NESL.

Peter Callaghan in front of a ship in a dry dock

Peter Callaghan

He says: "I think there's still a lot of resentment. Not so much on why it was done but how it was done.

"I mean, not only did 2,300 people lose their jobs in the shipbuilding industry, but also we've denied future generations the opportunity to work in what was the biggest shipbuilding town in the world."

As for the future of shipbuilding on the Wear, Peter thinks time is of the essence. Unless former workers are brought back in and new apprentices taught, he thinks that in five years time the skills will be lost.

As managing director of Pallion Engineering he clearly wants to keep some sort of similar industry going on the Wear: "What we thought was that if we could retain the facilities, or a facility like this one, then we've always got a chance. If we haven't got the facilities then we can't go back.

"Hopefully we'll see some kind of shipbuilding on the Wear, not back to the halcyon days of the '70s and '80s but the aircraft carriers are very much on our radar. We're looking to try and get fabrication work for those. You never know, we've got a good facility, they could possibly build ships again."

last updated: 01/12/2008 at 15:43
created: 28/11/2008

You are in: Wear > History > Last Shipyard > Going, going, gone...



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