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John Readhead & Sons - Introduction

John Readhead & Sons - History

John Readhead and Sons - the People

List of Readhead built Ships

Readheads Ships, including photos

The Technical Offices & Head Office

The Engine Works & Drawing Office

Readhead's Timeline

Local Memories

The Steel Trades

The Outfitting Trades

Other trades

Royal Visits

More photo's

Newspaper & website publicity

The West Docks

The Readhead Family Tree

Readhead's Customers

Local Pubs, social scene, sports, Ashley House & Woodies sho

The Readhead Shipping Line

Readhead's Launch Photos


Photos 2

Readhead Ship Photo's

Readhead Ship Photo's 4

Readhead Ship Photo's 4

Readhead Ship Photo's 3

Readhead Ship Photo's 2

Message Board


Mail Form


John Readhead & Sons - Introduction

Readhead's shipyard - 1964

There is a more comprehensive Readhead's website now under construction on my main website at;-

This website is dedicated to recording the history of the South Shields Shipyard of John Readhead & Sons and their employees.
The site is continually being up-dated.
Copyright 2006,2007

The Beginning of Shipbuilding in South Shields.
(The following is extracted from ‘The Borough of South Shields’ by George B. Hodgson published in 1903.)
The increasing importance of the Harbour Boroughs attracted to them not only seamen, but ship owners and shipbuilders. About 1720, in defiance of the claims of Newcastle, which had decreed that none but freemen of that town should build ships on the river Tyne, and that no vessel should be constructed at Shields, a certain Robert Wallis, commenced building and repairing ships in a yard adjoining the Coble landing in Pilot Street. He was formerly warned that this would be a breach of the Charter rights of Newcastle. The Corporation sent down an Alderman with a posse of officers to forcibly hinder the work but the Newcastle dignitary was treated to an involuntary bath in the river when his boats’ gang plank was shoved off the landing.
The Corporation brought two actions at law against Mr. Wallis, both of which he successfully defended, and thus destroyed for ever the veto so long imposed by Newcastle on shipbuilding at South Shields.
The inflation in the value of shipping in the seventeenth century soon induced others to open shipyards in the town.
Naturally the development of shipbuilding led to the building up alongside it of many subsidiary industries, such as rope and sail making, anchor and chain cable forging, block and mast making, etc.
With wooden shipbuilding as so important an industry, the shipwrights and carpenters became a large and powerful community. They were very strongly organised, and were exceedingly tenacious of the many and curious customs connected with their craft, of which one was the wearing of tall hats as part of their working dress. The earlier organisations seem to have been of the character of benefit societies rather than Trades Unions. One rule was the ‘lewance,’ or allowance of beer, given to the workmen at various stages during the construction of a vessel. Another curious custom was that at a launch, every apprentice was expected to plunge into the water with all his clothes on, to assist in recovering the floating timbers which had formed the launch ways. The practice was indeed compulsory, for a lad who tried to shirk this unpleasant duty was certain to be flung bodily into the water by his comrades.
A long and bitter strike of shipwrights and carpenters, which took place in 1841, had its origin very largely in an attempt by the employers to abolish the beer allowances.
Initially the building of iron ships was opposed by the Unions, but the shipbuilders of South Shields were prompt to adapt themselves to the changed conditions of trade, and quickly commenced building steamboats when the demand arose for that class of craft.
The earliest marine engineering works in the town were those established in 1826 by George Rennoldson. In the late 1830’s Thomas Dunn Marshall acquired what had been Woodhouse’s shipyard at the Lawe, and commenced building steam tugs. About 1860 Marshall’s moved their shipbuilding yard to Willington Quay at North Shields. John Softley, who had been manager, and John Readhead, the engineer, commenced business as shipbuilders on the site of Marshall’s old shipyard in 1865.
In October 1874, the great depression following the period of excessive inflation led to the dissolution of the firm.
Mr John Readhead then commenced business on his own account in the same yard and this led to the establishment of the world-famous John Readhead shipbuilding firm which was to provide employment for the people of South Shields and district for many decades to come.

The company motto: Adapt, Adopt, Improve.

John Readhead

John Readhead spent his early years following the trade of a millwright at an Earsdon colliery, but upon reaching the age of 32 he decided to move across the river to South Shields where, in 1850, he started training as a shipwright in the shipyard of Thomas Marshall. What prompted him to take this decision we do not know, but we do know that the course he chose was to prove of momentous consequence.
Mr. Marshall was a pioneer in the business of building ships in iron, and his shipyard, situated on the Lawe, was the first to construct an iron vessel on the Tyne. From the start, John Readhead was instructed in the newest skills, and as the years passed he must have considered himself fortunate indeed to have found his niche in a yard that was so far ahead in the business of iron shipbuilding. He must have been quick to learn and of an adaptable nature for before long he became Marshall’s manager. John Readhead served under Mr. Marshall and worked closely with him for fifteen years but the time arrived when he decided to push out his own boat. The founder’s fourth son, later Sir James Readhead, made an interesting reference to this period in a speech dated 1927: “When my father thought the time had come to start business he did so. He started in a small way down at the low end of town”. The best way seemed to lie in forming a partnership with another Shieldsman, Mr. J. Softley, and they set up on the Lawe at a yard off Pilot Street.
The first accounting ledgers reveal the day the story opened, and it was on March 1st, 1865, that Mr. Readhead and Mr. Softley set down £2860 of their own capital for a joint venture to be known as Readhead & Softley – a partnership that was to last until 1872.

The yard in 1850

The area where John Readhead set up his shipyard was a wood shipbuilding yard as depicted in this picture for 1850 (Picture courtesy of Rodney Towers)

Newspaper Article Tues 19 Apr 1881
Many and frequent have of recent years been the changes, from a commercial and industrial point of view, wrought upon the banks of the Tyne; and the most recent, as itmust inevitably prove of the most important, so far as the borough of South Shields at least is concerned, is the transformation of the old wooden shipbuilding establishment known as the West Docks, and situated close to the Tyne Dock entrance, into a yard for the building of large and powerful steamers. Originally a portion of the Jarrow Slake, somewhere about a century, it was reclaimed by filling it up with London ballast, and, in the hands of Messrs Nicholson and Horn, became a building yard of considerable importance, the launching berths and the three graving docks being constantly full, and indeed frequently inadequate to meet the requirements of the time. The original firm was succeeded by the late Mr Cuthbert Young and Sons, about 70 years ago, and some 40 or 50 years since the present Mr James Young, J.P., succeeded to the concern. Whilst under the proprietorship of the latter gentleman the building and docking of wooden vessels was carried on successfully for a great number of years. Up to a quarter of a century ago one of the docks was the largest on the Tyne, and the building was carried on until the year 1866, when the last vessel, the barque Aspirant, was launched.

An aerial view of the yard in 1948

The shipyard consisted of three modern equipped berths available, for vessels up to 500 feet in length; they were serviced by six Monotower Cranes, 2 of 10 tons and 4 of 7.5 tons.
A deep water Fitting Out Berth was provided at the end of building berths.
The Fitting out berth was capable of accommodating vessels up to 450 feet in length. Serviced by 60 ton and 3 ton Electric Cranes and Steam Travelling Cranes. Engine and Boiler Shops run parallel to this berth.

An aerial view of Readhead's shipyard and docks in 1948. The surrounding area is shown greyed out but the rows of terraced flats where many of Readhead's employees lived can still be seen (Picture courtesy of Rodney Towers)

Three Generations of Readheads

Three Generations of Readheads;
James, John and James H (Picture courtesy of Rodney Towers)

Long service employees in 1948

Many of Readhead's employees worked all their lives in the yard. There sons very often followed in their footsteps. This photo shows 72 employees in June 1948 with 40+ years service each (Photo courtesy of Rodney Towers)
Front row; (left to right) W.Russell, J.Johnson, W.Elliatt, W.Martin, A.Curry, G.Sampson, P.Robinson, R.Catley, J.W.Young, J.W.Parker.
Second row; (left to right) J.Channon, J.Waybret, T.Lowes, G.Yorston, J.Finn, W.Bell, J.Blair, R.Burr, J.Stonehouse, J.Patterson, D.Porteous, G.Armstrong, W.Sinclair, H.Reah, W.Maclean.
Third row; R.Porter, J.Wiltshire, J.Jackson, J.W.Lambert, A.Wood, D.Sanderson, G.Robson, J.W.Herriott, G.Henry, T.S.Orwin, W.Gordon, T.Mordue, R.Bertie, J.Slater, J.Peel.
Fourth row; W.Jackson, J.R.Brown, J.Plater, J.Hunter, W.Taylor, J.Jameson, H.T.Hibbert, J.Martin, J.Jeune, J.Cass, G.Phillips, W.Arthur, W.Lowes, J.Turpin, H.Cochrane, B.Woodhouse.
Fifth row; W.Mordue, J.Walton, T.Lindsay, A.Phillips, T.Goodsir, J.Allen, R.D.Balls, T.Charlton, T.Lamb, T.Dorward, B.Bradley, F.Cole, E.Dew, T.D.Brown, G.Mowat.

Readhead's yard was a major employer

There were lots of job opportunities at Readheads
On leaving school in South Shields, Readheads offered a lot of good
apprenticeships. It was the ambition of many local boys to gain
employment in the Yard. They had a choice of any of the following: - Administration, blacksmith, burner, craneman, carpenter, coppersmith, cabinet
maker, caulker, driller, draughtsman, electrician, engineer, gateman, timekeeper, labourer, joiner, loftsman, modeller, plater, plater's helper, plumber, painter, polisher,
red leader, riveter, riveter's hauder-on, stager, shotblast and ironsorter, shipwright, millwright,
ship's rigger, tinsmith, turner, or welder - each one a vital cog in every stage of production.
If you can give details of what each job involved
please let me know on;- or leave the info in the Guest Book.

About the Editor

Photo by Neil Falconer
This photo of the editor John Bage was taken in March 2007.
The remains of the launch ways of Armstrongs shipyard are visible to the right and in the background, the silent cranes of the last Tyne shipyard of Swans.

John Bage started his apprenticeship at Readheads on 17th August 1964.
He worked there until the mid seventies and through the big changes when Swan Hunter took over all the yards on the river Tyne and began
to merge or close the other yards down.
He left in 1975 to go to Sunderland Shipbuilders
and was there until the eventual closure by the
Conservative Government in 1989. He went back to
the Tyne, this time to the Press Offshore Fabrication Yard, later AMEC.
He went to Swan Hunter again for a short stay of
four months but realized that the great yard's
days appeared to be numbered, so he returned to AMEC where he remained until 1999.
He still works on the Tyne at a successful Engineering Company which, ironically, was a former shipbuilding yard at Walker.
Your help needed.
This website requires feed-back from ex-employees and their families, and indeed anyone with information, for it to be successful.
Please contribute by leaving your memories on the Guest Book page or by emailing me at;-

My main BAGE, CLASPER, DAWSON and MORRISON Family History Web-site is at;
Family History Help is at;-

Location Map

Location Map for John Readhead Shipyard in South Shields, County Durham, England showing the two slipways and the two graving docks.


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

Website updated;-

20th April 2007

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John Readhead & Sons - Introduction |John Readhead & Sons - History |John Readhead and Sons - the People |List of Readhead built Ships |Readheads Ships, including photos |The Technical Offices & Head Office |The Engine Works & Drawing Office |Readhead's Timeline |Local Memories |The Steel Trades |The Outfitting Trades |Other trades |Royal Visits |More photo's |Newspaper & website publicity |The West Docks |The Readhead Family Tree |Readhead's Customers |Local Pubs, social scene, sports, Ashley House & Woodies sho |The Readhead Shipping Line |Readhead's Launch Photos |Photos |Photos 2 |Readhead Ship Photo's |Readhead Ship Photo's 4 |Readhead Ship Photo's 4 |Readhead Ship Photo's 3 |Readhead Ship Photo's 2 |Message Board |Guestbook |Mail Form