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Introduction to Mitchell's Low Walker shipyard

Charles Mitchell's Shipyard - History

Charles Mitchell's Shipyard - Family Tree

Newspaper Articles

Charles Mitchell's Shipyard - Ships

Charles Mitchell's Shipyard - Shipyard Trades

Icebreaker Krassin

Hercules and Simson Tugs

Mitchell's Ships 'Milner & Montagu'


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History of the Low Walker Shipyard

When I started work at a Walker engineering company which was located right next to the river Tyne , I recognised the remains of the launch ways of a shipyard, which were protruding out into the river but were only visible at low water.  

Launch ways as they are today

From my former years as a shipyard worker I knew that there must have been many a ship launched down those ways amidst all the noise, the clamour and excitement that accompanies such an exciting event. But now, sadly, they stood silent and forlorn, a remnant of a great industrial past.
However my curiosity was aroused and I decided to do some research and find out more about the old shipyard. The research revealed a fascinating success story.

Map of the yard c1915

Old maps of the river Tyne showed that there were many shipyards located in the Walker area but this particular one had been Mitchell’s Low Walker yard. The shipyard was founded by Charles Mitchell. He was born in Aberdeen on 20th May, 1820 and served his apprenticeship with Simpson & Company, iron founders of Aberdeen, before moving to Newcastle in September, 1842 to work for John H. S. Coutts, a yard owner, also originally from Aberdeen. Charles worked for Coutts until 1844 before moving to work in London and then travelled extensively in France, Germany and Italy. He then returned to Newcastle in 1852 to set-up his own Low Walker yard next to the Coutts yard. His first vessel, Havilah, was a coaster for the Australian trade and was launched in February, 1853. Several other vessels were constructed and his seventh ship was ordered by German owners and named Hesperus, but on completion in December, 1854 was bought by the Admiralty and sent with a cargo of iron rails from Walker to Balaclava for the Crimean War railway. More vessels, including paddle steamers were built for use on Indian rivers, the Nile in Egypt and on Russian rivers in connection with the Russian Black Sea grain trade.
Charles married Ann Swan, third child of William and Ann Swan of West Farm, Walker on 9th May, 1854 and gained two practical brothers-in-law in Charles S. Swan (whose widow went into partnership with George B. Hunter in 1880 to create the Swan Hunter shipyard) and Henry Frederick Swan.
Many ships were completed under the Mitchell name up to 1882, with three of them being launched in a unique triple launch at the yard in 1856. Yard nos. 15, 17 and 18 were launched simultaneously – an event that was never repeated on the Tyne and which must have been quite a spectacular event.

Ships for Russia

In 1858 two ‘kits’ for screw steamers were supplied for erection on the Volga under the supervision of Charles Sheridan Swan, while in 1864 Henry Frederick Swan, who had joined the yard as an apprentice in 1858, was despatched to St. Petersburg to build five small warships. Russian owners were important to the yard with orders from 1868 continuing to flow to the Low Walker yard for many different types of vessels. The yard built over 90 vessels of various types for Russia and Charles Mitchell, together with his business partner Henry Frederick Swan, set up a shipbuilding yard for the Tsarist government at St. Petersburg. Several warships were built there under the company’s direction. In recognition of his services, Tsar Alexander II made Charles a Cavalier of the Order of St. Stanislaus, a rare honour for a British shipbuilder.
The first undersea telegraph cables were being laid at this time and the Hooper Telegraph Company ordered a ship, in 1873, to lay 5000 miles of cable off the South American coast. Mitchell was asked to build her in a very short time and Hooper was ready in one hundred days.
The first British gunboat built at the yard was Staunch of 1867, and was fitted with a 9” Armstrong muzzle-loading gun, and then some 27 similar gunboats were built by the yard up to 1881. A Japanese cruiser was built in 1880, and two cruisers and several gunboats were completed for China in 1881, and the Chilean cruiser Esmeralda left the river in 1884, having been designed by George Rendel, Managing Director of Armstrong’s Elswick ordnance works. She was the result of a merger between William Armstrong and Charles Mitchell in the new company Armstrong, Mitchell & Co. Ltd. in 1882. William Armstrong had established a company at Elswick in 1847 and had become one of the worlds leading armament manufacturers. Plans for a new shipyard to build warships only, next to the Elswick works, were laid in 1883. The Low Walker yard was now to concentrate on merchant shipbuilding, especially of tankers from 1885.

Famous Tanker

The world’s first ocean-going tanker
Photo courtesy of Tyne & Wear Museums

A first for the Low Walker yard was the Gluckauf for the Deutsch-America Petroleum Company which was launched on 16 June, 1886. She was completed in July of that year as the world’s first ocean-going tanker, having been designed by Henry F. Swan to carry 3500 tons of oil from America or the Black Sea to Europe.
The Deutsch-America Petroleum Company placed orders for many sister tankers at Low Walker and the yard went on to complete 100 tankers up to the outbreak of war in 1914. Some twenty tankers were for the German register. Sixty tankers came under the British flag. Tankers were also completed by the yard for the Belgian, Italian, Dutch, French, Russian, American and Japanese registers.

The train ferry Baikal

The frames of the Russian icebreaking train ferry Baikal take shape at Armstrong Mitchell’s Low Walker Yard, Newcastle , in c1895 – 1896.
Photo courtesy of Tyne & Wear Museums
One of the most interesting projects was a ship built in 1899 for the Russians. It was the train ferry Baikal.
The ship was intended for service on Lake Baikal in the middle of Siberia. The Baikal was assembled on the slipway, but was then dismantled. The various sections and parts were afterwards shipped to St. Petersburg and then transported thousands of miles to the shores of the lake where the vessel was reconstructed and launched in 1899. A team of engineers from the Tyne led the work of rebuilding the vessel.
German and British owners continued to order many dry cargo liners. The Australian coastal passenger steamer Yongala built in 1903 could carry 240 passengers, while the Louisiana built in 1896 was the first North American trader for Danish ferry company DFDS. The suction dredger Archer was completed in 1900; the Isle of Man Steam Packet ferry Viking in 1905 was turbine-propelled. Three floating cranes were built; two for the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board, and one in 1906 for Rangoon Docks.
The cable ship Restorer built in 1903 for Cable & Wireless Ltd further demonstrated the yard’s willingness and ability to tackle all types of ships. Even though the Elswick yard was supposed to build all the warships, for over the 14 years to 1899 Low Walker built 11 small warships. In 1897, during a period of British naval and armaments expansion Armstrong, Mitchell & Co. Ltd purchased and amalgamated with the Manchester based armaments firm of Sir Joseph Whitworth & Company to become Sir W. G. Armstrong, Whitworth & Co. Ltd.

General Office

The General Office on White Street as it is today.

Charles Mitchell had died in August, 1895 while still active and going daily to work at the yard but there were now no Mitchell’s on the Board. Warship-building at the Elswick yard had increased. A new yard was set-up near Low Walker Yard which became the famous Vickers Armstrong’s Naval Yard. The Low Walker yard continued to build tankers and other merchant ships during the war, particularly for the new British Tanker Co. Ltd. and a number of Standard Type ships were also ordered by the Shipping Controller.
The Low Walker Yard completed some interesting ships in the 1920s including three more heavy lift ships for Norway. A dozen tankers were completed with seven of them for Eagle Oil including three of 18000 dwt., the largest ships ever built by the yard. In 1925 the newsprint carriers Humber Arm and Corner Brook were completed for the newsprint trade from Newfoundland to New York for the American market.
A lean spell of building during and around the depression years meant yards were closed down, but Low Walker was re-opened in 1942 to build standard ‘B’ type Empire tramps of 10,000 dwt. A further few coasters and military oil barges were completed before the yard closed down for the last time in 1948 and all building had by then been switched to the huge Walker Naval Yard nearby.

Trackway Entrance

Running parallel with Mitchell Street where yard employees used to live, and alongside the General Office is the old, sunken track way which led down to the yard. It passes underneath White Street via a tunnel, sloping towards the river.

Unusual yard entrance

Many thousands of shipyard workers will have passed in and out of this entrance during the lifetime of the yard.

Tyne God sculpture

There is a sculpture mounted outside the present engineering company offices which depicts the ‘Tyne God’. Either side of the face is a carving of what appears to be a rigged, wooden ship, one of which looks like it is under construction, and the other completed. It is thought that there may have been two of these sculptures; one mounted either side of the shipyard entrance gate and they may well be from an earlier wood-shipbuilding yard.
Additional reading;- British Shipbuilding Yards by Norman L Middlemiss;
Lost Shipyards of the Tyne by Ron French and Ken Smith From Walker to the World: Charles Mitchell's Low Walker Shipyard.
Charles Mitchell 1820 - 1895 Victorian Shipbuilder by D.F.McGuire

Walker Hospital

Charles Mitchell built the Walker Hospital, Airey Terrace, Walker in 1870. His workers each gave a halfpenny per week to help with running costs. Treatment was free for accidents which happened in the shipyard. Other local companies later paid into the system, which provided above-average health care. The hospital was renamed Walker Park Hospital, and was taken over by the National Health Service in 1948. It finally closed in 1977.
A photo can be seen on the website;-

St George's Church, Jesmond

St. George's Church, Jesmond was consecrated in 1888. Charles Mitchell appointed his shipyard architect, Thomas Ralph Spence, to design and build St. George's. The result is a Church with a splendid Italianate tower dominating Jesmond and an ornate chancel, baptistry and roof of great artistic merit; the use of tile and mosaic in the style of Art Nouveau is particularly striking. The organ is one of the best in the diocese and the musical tradition continues in the context of the Family Communion.

Mitchell's Mansion

Mitchell had purchased the Burdon Sanderson family estate of West Jesmond with its grand mansion at the opposite end of Jesmond Dene to Armstrong’s home and proceeded to extend it and fill it with Victorian works of art. He was a patron of the Arts and Crafts architect Thomas Ralph Spence, Secretary of the Newcastle Arts Association and in true Victorian fashion was a dedicated philanthropist.

Freddy Shepherd buys former school La Sagesse
Feb 25 2009 by Adam Jupp, Evening Chronicle
EX-TOON chairman Freddy Shepherd has stepped in to buy an historic former Tyneside school.
He has splashed out more than £5m on La Sagesse, which shut down in August due to cash problems and falling pupil numbers.
The former private school for girls has enjoyed a prime location overlooking Newcastle’s Jesmond Dene since it first opened its gates in 1912.
Huge interest was shown in the Victorian Gothic mansion, but Mr Shepherd beat-off competition from developers across the globe to seal a deal for it.
Now, he says he wants to ask the city of Newcastle how best to make use of the site, which covers around 26,000sq metres and comes with 10-acre grounds.
Speaking as he gave the Chronicle a tour of the empty school, Mr Shepherd, 67, said: “It is a fantastic building with a great history and we just felt it was so important a local, Newcastle-based family took control of it.
La Sagesse includes Jesmond Towers, the former home of Tyneside shipbuilder Charles Mitchell. The school moved to the site after being founded by a Catholic order named the Sisters of La Sagesse, or the Daughters of Wisdom.
It went on to become a £3,000-a-term Roman Catholic private school, one of the city’s best, catering for boys aged three to 11 and girls aged up to 18.
The plot acquired by Mr Shepherd, through family firm Shepherd Offshore, includes the main school building, a chapel, a gym dating from the 1970s and the former convent which closed several years ago.
It was put on the market after the school’s closure was announced last summer due to rent costs trebling and pupil numbers dropping dramatically.
By the end, there were 180 girl and 20 boy pupils, along with 30 teachers and 14 support staff.
The La Sagesse site is Grade II listed, meaning there are several restrictions on how it can be developed. Inside, the building is decorated with spectacular stained glass and delicate wood carvings.
Grand fireplaces dominate many of the rooms, while antique radiators can be found in its corridors. The price tag was rumoured to be around £5m, but the Chronicle understands the Shepherds have paid upwards of that figure.
Mitchell’s own yard was set up in the 1850s, in Low Walker, and was later bought by Shepherd Offshore.
He had later bought a second yard in Wallsend, which he later handed over to brother-in-law Charles Swan, who set up Swan Hunter.

Pallinsburn House, Northumberland

Recently collectors from across the globe converged in a bidding war for the contents of plush Pallinsburn House, near Cornhill on Tweed, Northumberland.
The Grade II listed mansion - home of Tyneside shipbuilding heir Col Charles Mitchell and his wife Jane Lyell - was sold last year for around £6.5m.
Col Mitchell inherited Pallinsburn from his father, Maj Charles Mitchell, who bought the estate in 1911 with the fortune of his Tyneside shipbuilding grandfather. Some items will go to Sundrum Castle, in Ayrshire, which was owned by the family of Hope Hamilton, Col Mitchell's mother.

The Pallinsburn Estate was created by the Askew family between 1763 and 1813 and sold to Major Charles Mitchell, grandson of the founder of the Low Walker Shipyard in Newcastle and the son of artist Charles William Mitchell, in 1911. He rebuilt the house at vast expense in 1921 after his marriage to Hope.
The contents sale includes a Ziegler carpet valued at up to £50,000, family portraits, a pair of Regency Bergere chairs estimated at £10,000 to £15,000 and a set of 12 Brander Scottish dining chairs valued at about £7,000.
Hope Hamilton also brought with her items from her relatives' seafaring days, including the logbooks of her grandfather, Capt John Hamilton, who captured four canons from the French frigate The Medee in 1800.
Mr Pryke said: "We were clearing the granary where we found the complete record of the Sundrum estate along with the logbooks, diaries and sea chest belonging to Capt Hamilton. Items in the chest were still wrapped in paper dated 1805."
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DISCLAIMER; Although attempts are made to ensure complete accuracy, I cannot accept any losses incurred due to errors or mistakes within. Data has been sourced from many places and therefore can be subject to errors. It is the individuals responsibility to double check all information.

The End of a Shipyard

Photo c1950

A crane rail still visible today

The concrete has worn away exposing the original cobble stones used as the yard base.

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Introduction to Mitchell's Low Walker shipyard |Charles Mitchell's Shipyard - History |Charles Mitchell's Shipyard - Family Tree |Newspaper Articles |Charles Mitchell's Shipyard - Ships |Charles Mitchell's Shipyard - Shipyard Trades |Icebreaker Krassin |Hercules and Simson Tugs |Mitchell's Ships 'Milner & Montagu' |Comments |Message Board |Guestbook |Mail Form