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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

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Readhead's Timeline

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The History of John Readhead and Sons shipyard

Readhead's yard c1964

In 1965 Readheads celebrated its centenary year. To commemorate this a book was written by Rodney Towers covering the events of the 100 years. The book gives a great deal of information about what it was like working in the yards over those years and I feel it is perfect for the first chapter of this website;-
Readhead's 1865 - 1965
By Harold Towers, J.P.
Chairman and Managing Director 1965
The growth of any enterprise usually reveals a story full of individual endeavour, courage and skill. But a story of shipbuilding can often go further. Ship work has for long been the breeding ground for men of special character and there have been many colourful personalities amongst them. Shipbuilding still remains for the most part a man’s job and for many of us it is also our life.
We hope that this short account of our history will contribute towards a clearer understanding of the way in which tradition and craftsmanship have grown to become such an integral part of the West Docks.
We are proud of our record of 100 years in shipbuilding; proud of the quality of ships we have built; and above all proud of the generations of Readhead personnel who have manned the various departments of the firm over the years, thereby playing so important a part towards earning the good name that we believe our Company presently enjoys.
A sense of responsibility to maintain this tradition must be ours, as we enter the future determined to design and build the specialised ships which modern ideas in sea transport demand.
How it started
1965 AND 100 YEARS OF SHIPBUILDING; not unnaturally a time for reflection on past achievement. Throughout this time Readhead – built ships have been quietly and continuously slipping their shipyard moorings and heading for sea. A long line of ships to transport the multifarious nature of seaborne trade; ships to serve with the Royal Navy; tugs to tow larger hulls in port; tough ocean tramps for nomadic voyaging; cargo liners for express and specialised services. Ships to fulfil all these functions and more have sailed from Shields, carrying, as they go into ports the world over, the name of Readheads, a little bit of Tyneside, and thereby drawing attention to a region whose industrial eminence was founded upon ships, coal and steel.
But where did the story begin?
“I know not where to seek, even in this busy country, a spot or district in which we perceive so extraordinary and multifarious a combination of the various great branches of mining, manufacturing, trading, and shipbuilding industry, and I greatly doubt whether the like can be shown, not only within the limits of this land, but upon the whole surface of the globe.”
Extract from the speech of THE RIGHT HONOURABLE W.E.GLADSTONE, M.P., Chancellor of the Exchequer, on his visit to Newcastle upon Tyne, 1862.
By mid – century the tempo of the Industrial Revolution showed few signs of slackening; new opportunities continued to open up over an ever widening front and Tyneside had clearly emerged to become a leading centre of industrial growth. 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 thr 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.

Readhead and Softley – 1865 to 1872

Ship No. 1 was a small collier brig named “Unus”, built to the order of South Shields ship owners, Messrs. Hodge and Williamson. She was a vessel of 183 tons and her dimensions were 99.3 ft by 22.5 ft by 12.6 ft. Completed in October, 1865, she traded to the Baltic, to France and to the Mediterranean under the command of Capt. W. Hodge.
For seven years the partnership prospered during which time 87 small craft were completed, and with the meagre facilities of those early days, it must have been a highly creditable performance to have continued to turn out between 8 and 12 new vessels per annum. Sailing vessels, passenger ship tenders and steam paddle tugs figure predominantly in the records for this period, and the first iron screw cargo steamer with a deadweight of 700 tons was built in the year 1868.
Meanwhile results of another partnership made by the founder were beginning to show themselves – five sons and two daughters had arrived to represent the next generation.
During this period, Ship No. 12, a 370 ton iron sailing barque named “Lizzie Leslie” and built to the order of Messrs. Turpie and Harbutt, North Shields, gained a mark of distinction for being the first ship ever to be classed 100A. I. with Lloyd’s Register. This nomenclature adopted by Lloyd’s meant it was henceforth assumed that an iron or steel ship would be able to remain in the first class for 100 years as against the 12 years thought at that time reasonable for a wooden ship to do likewise. The “Lizzie Leslie”, which apparently traded to the West Indies, had dimensions of 122 ft by 26.4 ft by 17.4 ft. She was completed in October 1866. Ship No. 58, a paddle –tug named “Washington” and completed in 1870 for Messrs. Martin of London, had a long service career that lasted for 82 years before finally being despatched to the breakers. Records also show that in 1872 the steam wherry “Willie”, named after the youngest son of Mr. Readhead, was built ‘for selves’ and remained in service at the West Docks for 44 years before being sold to a freshwater boatman on the river. Today the Company still carries a reputation for longevity of service, the roots of which can be traced back as far as this first historical period. Another early reputation was for the design of screw steamers specially suitable for trading in the Black Sea and Mediterranean regions. The year 1872 saw the trading partnership with Mr. Softley dissolve, Mr. Readhead then laid his hands upon both the oars.

The picture below is of the Tug 'President', built in 1876, and was in service for 83 years.

John Readhead and Company – 1872 to 1888

The picture above is the 'Sagunto'built 1875

Between the years 1872 to 1888, 152 ships were constructed, of which there remains today one astonishing link with this very distant period. Ship No. 114 was a small iron screw cargo vessel built for Messrs. J. J. Sister and Company, Valencia. Today this 90 year old veteran is still steaming round the Spanish Coast and she is thought to be the oldest steamship still operating in European short sea trades. Launched in 1875 as the “Sagunto”, she presently carries the name “Enrique Maynes” after seven changes of ownership. Her original two-cylinder compound steam engine of 1,480 h.p. built at the Readhead engine works gives her a present-day speed of between 8 and 9 knots on a consumption of 7 1/2 tons of oil per day.
The steam tug “President” was another famous little ship. Built as Ship No. 124 in 1876 for the Limerick Towing Company, in her later years she rendered yeoman service on both Tyne and Wear. She was finally scrapped in 1959 after 83 years, and as someone commented at the time “they built ‘em to last in those days”.
The stream of newbuildings continued and by the end of the seventies the founder was casting his eyes around for a site that offered more space for the present but which would also allow further development as the need arose. Allow an article of the period, written some time after these expansive steps had been completed, to take up the story:
“The thorough technical knowledge possessed by Mr. John Readhead, the founder of the firm, combined with his exceptional energy and enlightened enterprise, soon created a most valuable and substantial business: and the original premises, which were situated at the east end of the town, and are still retained by the house for certain industrial processes, became, in time, too circumscribed for the requirements of the output. Messrs. Readhead and Sons, therefore, purchased the extensive West Docks property, which had long been well-known as one of the most extensive wooden-ship building and repairing yards in the northern counties.”
July 14th, 1880, was the actual date of the transaction and this was the signal for iron and steel shipbuilding to commence at West Docks. Work continued meantime at the Lawe yard whilst the new site was being prepared. The article continues;-
“They proceeded to provide all the mechanical and other appliances of the most approved modern type for the construction and repair of iron and steel steamships and sailing vessels. So complete is the working plant in the engineers’ shops, boiler shops, forges etc., including a large number of hydraulic machines, that the firm are able to compete, as to cost of production, with any other house in the trade in the United Kingdom.”
The new yard opened with three berths which were later increased to four. Shops for joiners and carpenters were sited along the present open welding area and the head office, a large old country house, stood facing the river on ground now occupied by No. 4 monotower crane. The former head office was not demolished until 1910. New engine and boiler shops were built and it is of interest to note that production commenced on the same sites that remain in use today.

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. With the growth of steam shipping, however, the establishment gradually fell into desuetude, and a few months ago Mr Young disposed of it to Messrs Readhead and Co., who have for the last few years carried out on a highly successful and increasing business in Pilot Street, at the low end of the town. Upon the acquirement of the premises, Messrs Readhead at once set to work to adapt them to modern needs, and during the present week the first steps in the direction of building a steamer of about 3000 tons burthen – namely, the bending of the frames – has been taken. The extent of the yard is about six acres, and there is a water frontage of over 900 feet. The building yard is situated on the westernmost side, and in it Messrs Readhead have at present arranged for four launching berths, the length of which will be from 350 to 400 feet. By the increased facilities afforded by the new yard, and the readiness with which vessels can be launched and finished alongside of the quays, the productive power will be equal to seven or eight berths at the present yard; and as a proof of this fact it may be stated that the vessel just started is expected to be launched in about three months’ time. About a third of the entire space will be covered by the necessary buildings. These comprise the machine sheds, measuring 150 feet by 117 feet, in which will be placed all the furnaces and the machinery for bending and punching the plates and preparing generally the iron work of the hulls. To the rear will be the smiths’ shop, and above will be the drafting lofts and a suite of commodions offices. The greater portion of the machinery will be new and of the most improved character. The boilershed is 130 feet by 80 feet, and the engine, fitting, and erecting shop is 140 feet by 80 feet. The joiners’ shops are 100 feet by 40 feet, upon the base being saw mills and steam joinery machinery, whilst the sail lofts are placed on the upper storey. The motive power will be supplied from five or six large boilers, the smoke from which is carried off by three chimneys, each 85 feet high. At the quay corner on the west side Messrs Day, Summers and Co’s (Southampton) patent tripod shearlegs, capable of lifting 60 tons, have been erected. The old West Dock House has been utilised by transforming it into a suite of general offices. In order to minimise any danger from fire, hydrants and apparatus have been provided at all necessary and convenient spots. With regard to the docks it may be stated that the westernmost one has been filled up; and the firm have in view the extension of one at least of the other two, so as to meet the demands of modern times, the length to which it can be extended being about 400ft. Extensive as the present premises are, they yet can be increased by carrying the quay out into the river a distance of 48ft. – the river line laid down by the Tyne Commissioners.

Iron and steel shipbuilding at the West Docks began in 1881 with ship No. 167,
A screw steamer named “Jane Kelsall” and built for Messrs. W. D. C. Balls & Son, North Shields. Progress was good and there is little doubt that the main reason for continued success lay in the proven technical ability of Mr. John Readhead aided by his four sons, particularly the energetic James. They had shown the greatest courage and wisdom when deciding to invest their capital in the most modern shipyard machinery available. Meanwhile the steamers that Mr. Readhead and his men constructed were beginning to be their finest advertisement. From this fact springs one of the most interesting of Readheads legends.
St. Ives, in Cornwall, was the home port of numerous small sailing schooners and brigantines that traded under the ownership of a local family by the name of Hain. Three generations of Hains had all taken to the sea and had quietly changed a primitive fishing business into a deep-sea shipping organisation. But these Hains were really sailors first and men of business second. However in 1851 a fourth Edward Hain was born and, after schooling, he joined the St. Ives’ branch of Bolithos Bank, where he gained considerable experience in accounting before moving to London to obtain commercial practice in a tea merchant’s office. In 1878 he returned home, aged 26, and presented an ultimatum to his father that they must embark upon the ownership of steamers of much greater size than the sailing ships up to then owned by the concern, or he would not remain in the family business. Edward Hain had already heard mention of Readhead steamers, and so decided to make a special trip to inspect the yard of Mr. Readhead. He arrived one day quite unannounced and walked in through the gates to have a look round for himself. At the time James, his father’s shipyard manager and also aged 26, was discussing a problem with one of his foremen when he espied this young man wandering in the yard. James returned to his foreman and said “Who’s that man wandering about my yard and what is he doing here?” The foreman could proffer no help and so James decided to investigate for himself with a ready mind to request the gentleman to leave the premises. He made contact but fortunately was quick and sensitive enough to detect from the opening remarks of Mr. Hain that he must show a different hand at once. Edward Hain was conducted on a full tour of the yard and was afterwards introduced to Mr. John Readhead.
However one cannot help but surmise over the probable impressions that each of these young men must have left upon the other on this occasion, for here were two men whose progressive minds must have soon recognised the fact that each was trying to forge his own individual way along closely similar paths. At any rate the direct results were that in 1878 Mr. Hain, by placing an order with Mr. Readhead for a screw steamer named “Trewidden”, caused the first page of the longest chapter in Readhead history to be written.
“Trewidden” was built at the Lawe yard as Ship No. 146; she was of 1,730 tons and 115 h.p., the contract price being £18,000. A second ship followed two years later. Between 1881 and 1888 thirteen further vessels were launched from the new West Docks yard for Edward Hain and Company. Friendship between the Readhead family and the Hains of St. Ives soon became firmly established and the framework of one of the most outstanding owner / builder associations in British shipbuilding was beginning to emerge. Today the Hain Steamship Company has merged with another member of the P. & O. group to become Hain-Nourse Ltd, but our happy associations with this new company still continue. An impressive total of 87 ships has now been handed over to these owners from the yards of John Readhead and Sons – our proudest record.
In the second year of the new yard Ship No. 177 was named “John Readhead”. Her owner was a Mr. Franz Rathkens and this gesture was the mode of his tribute to the personal skill and craftsmanship of her builder. Newbuilding at the rate of twelve and thirteen ships a year continued steadily; several repeat orders were taken and further new clients were brought to South Shields. These included companies such as R. Harrowing & Co., Whitby, R. MacAndrew & Co., London, and Stathatos Bros., Rumania.

John Readhead and Sons – 1888 to 1909

West Docks from river - 1890

In 1888 Mr. John Readhead, then aged 70 took into partnership his four sons, Robert, John, James and William Bell, in order that the business should be carried on within the family. During his later years, he played a prominent part in public life and it is illuminating to quote from an article of those times;
“Mr. John Readhead senior, the founder and head of the firm, has necessarily much of his attention monopolised by the gigantic combination of skill and capital which is represented in his business. But his powers of organisation and administration are exceptionally strong; and he is able, therefore, to devote much of his valuable time and energies to the service of the public. He has naturally taken a deep interest in everything pertaining to the welfare of South Shields and its inhabitants, whose prosperity has been largely augmented by the operations of his firm. Thus he has, for many years, been an active member of the Corporation of which he is now an Alderman, having on two occasions, served a term of office in the mayoral chair. He is, likewise, a Justice of the Peace for the Borough and County of Durham, and he worthily represents the interests of the town on the River Tyne Commission.”
The founder’s eldest son, Robert, was in charge of the Engine Works and he too became Mayor of the Borough on four occasions in later years.
In 1867 the fourth son of the founder, James aged 15, started work in the Lawe yard under his father and Mr. Softley, and to quote his own words in later life, “fortunately or unfortunately I took the shipbuilding side.” James was undoubtedly alert, intelligent and extremely forceful from the very beginning. By the time he was 21 he was shipyard manager in the new West Docks yard and from then on he was always jockeying for the position which, in 1888, proved to be his strength. The founder was senior partner but James had established a shareholding in excess of the other partners combined. From 1888 until his death the shipyard was always referred to as “my yard” and after 1894 nobody was ever left in any doubt as to who directed the firm and gave the lead to the future. From this era we have a letter written by Mr. James Readhead dated October 25th, 1890, and typed out on what he describes as “a patent writing machine”, which is quite remarkable for its clarity.
Whilst at the Union British School, South Shields, in his early youth, James had become acquainted with a young Walter Runciman. This same Walter ran away to sea aged 12 and so started a journey that led him to the very top of the ship-owning profession. Ship No. 244, a steamer of 2,650 tons wt. and named “Blakemoor”, was ordered from West Docks in 1888 for Walter Runciman and Company. It was this contract which marked the beginnings of another association, destined to run for many years, this time between James Readhead and Walter Runciman. These two men became the firmest of personal friends, each always eager to pool his point of view and knowledge for the benefit of both.
In this period 17 ships were built for Walter Runciman and Company whilst concurrently the Hain legend was beginning to lengthen with the addition of 35 new ships to their fleet; in 1902/3 there occurred a run of six consecutive ‘St. Ives boats’, all carrying the white H on black funnels. However export work still accounted for a high proportion of the order book, and other companies building frequently at the West Docks during this period included Messrs. Bergh & Helland, Bergen; C. T. Bowring & Co., London; Messrs. Balls & Stansfield, Newcastle; Bateaux `a Vapeur du Nord, Dunkirk; Messrs. Chapman & Miller, Newcastle; The Cuban Steamship Co., London; J. & C. Harrison Ltd., London; The Prince Steam Shipping Co., Newcastle; and Messrs. Scrutton & Son, London.
Despite the size to which the Company had grown in 25 years and the fact that James was proving more than able to take the helm, the founder had yet to play his final hand. Floating repairs had been carried on for some time alongside the waterfront of the West Docks property and it was decided to strengthen this department by beginning excavations for a dry dock. The opening ceremony took place on February 1st, 1892. This dock has since been slightly extended in length to 330 ft. but the entrance breadth of 48 ft. remains as built. The excavations bit deep into the site of an old poor house in West Holborn, the new dry dock being separated from the shipyard by land occupied by H. S. Edwards Graving Docks, later Smith’s Dock Company.
The founder’s death occurred on March 9th, 1894 at the age of 76. However shipbuilding, marine enginebuilding, boilermaking and ship-repairing all continued to progress steadily. In 26 years the size of new buildings had increased from the 700 tons of the first cargo steamer built at the yard in 1868 to the 5,100 tons dwt. Of a cargo steamer built in 1894.
These were the days when the pubs were open before 6 a.m. in the morning and, close to the shipyard, the Cookson’s Arms used to reach great peaks of activity at this early hour. Tots of rum were laid out in rows on the bar counter and many were those who filed in to ‘sup up’ before moving out into the yard. The daily tot was marked up on a large slate with Saturday the day of accounting for all.

John Readhead and Sons Limited – 1909 to present day

H.M.S. P31 was chosen to convey King George V on a tour of all naval establishments on the Thames.

In 1909, under the Companies Act, John Readhead and Sons became a limited company with private company status. The nominal capital of the Company stood then at £300,000 and a rearrangement of holdings took place between the four partners, Robert, John, James and William Bell.
The first meeting of the Limited Company took place on the 23rd January, 1909, with Mr. James Readhead as Chairman & Managing Director, Mr. John Readhead and Mr. William Bell Readhead as Directors and Mr. Thomas Readhead as the first Secretary of the Company. The first ship to be built under the Limited Company was No. 408 – appropriately enough for Mr. Edward Hain & Son and named “Trelissick”. In 1910 the present head office was opened together with the ‘bridge of sighs’ – the local name for the covered walkway that still connects the head office with the technical departments. In those days nobody was allowed to walk over the bridge except Mr. James Readhead, and for a very long time this continued to be his own private preserve. Seven members of the Readhead family were working in the yard at this time. The founder’s youngest son Willie, aged 50, was in charge of the drawing office, but he also had another officesituated over the old palters’ shed. One day the sight of the top storey bursting into flames brought Willie hurrying to the scene. He immediately climbed up into the office in an attempt to salve all he could, and whilst tearing his office apart, seemed quite oblivious of the imminent danger to his life. Bill Middleyard, foreman mason at the time, dashed up and hauled Willie out. Mr. Willie never spoke another word to his rescuer until the day he died some two years later! Mr Middleyard was also the man responsible for the converting of a public house into shipyard offices. The same building is used today but the interior has been subject to frequent alterations and rearrangement. After the old offices had been pulled down and the building berths rearranged, a little extra space was gained in the shipyard.
Edward Hain continued to dominate the new construction lists right up to 1922. By the time war broke out in August, 1914, the total of ships completed for that company had risen to 65. New tonnage for Walter Runciman and Company continued to slide off the stocks every year except when there were so many Hain boats on order it proved impossible to obtain a berth. In 1912/13, when in his sixtieth year, Mr James Readhead repeated an earlier record by securing contracts for six further Hain ships to be built consecutively. These years were prosperous indeed, and the continued success of the ship-repairing department stimulated a decision to build a second drydock.
Potts Quay, where the collier brigs used to discharge ballast in days past, was the site chosen for the new dock. Dimensions were fixed at 450’0” x 65’0” to complement the facilities of a rearranged shipyard, where ships of up to 450’0” in length to carry a deadweight of around 12,000 tons could be built. No. 2 drydock was finally opened on Nov. 14th, 1914. That Mr James Readhead had been the guiding influence behind this development there can be little doubt and such prescience of mind was completely vindicated in the thirties, when without the ship-repair department the company might well have collapsed during the years of depression.
On August 4th, 1914, Readheads immediately came under the control of the Admiralty. During the next four years, 1914 to 1918, the pressure was on, and the company launched and completed 20 steam screw cargo vessels with a dwt. carrying capacity totalling 156, 000 tons. This total included standard vessels of the ‘B’ type for the Shipping Controller and a ship which was converted during construction into an oil tanker for the Admiralty. The 9,000 ton R.F.A. vessel “Oletta” remains the first and only deep sea oil tanker constructed by the Company. In addition three ‘P’ class submarine chasers were completed for the Royal Navy and four lighters making a total of 27 vessels. The three ‘P’ class ships still hold the distinction of being the fastest vessels ever to be built by the Company. These ships were capable of speeds in excess of 22 knots. H.M.S. P31 was subsequently chosen to convey King George V on a tour of all naval establishments on the Thames. From the very beginning of the war the shiprepair department had also been wading through an exceptionally heavy programme of repair work. Mine or torpedo damage to hulls and machinery of merchant shipping frequently necessitated extensive structural repairs, whilst torpedo boats and destroyers were also docked for the Royal Navy. A long schedule of reconversions followed to carry the drydocks into the post-war era at wartime pitch.
With the ending of the Great War there was time for lighter entertainment, and on August 6th, 1919, Mr. James Readhead, who had spent many weeks organising a ‘welcome home’ for those of his men who had enlisted in the Army and Navy, provided a magnificent reception for them and their families in the grounds of Westoe Hall. Sports were organised for the children and marquees erected for tea and refreshments. St. Hilda Colliery Band rendered selections of music in the evening, and a spectacular fireworks display was put on by Pains, already specialists in these matters.
In 1920 both Princess Marie Louise and H.R.H. Prince Albert came to the West Docks on separate occasions, and were conducted round the premises by Mr. James Readhead. A souvenir booklet was published in honour of the visit by H.R.H. Prince Albert, in which there appears the following account of the Company written in the descriptive tongue of the day:
“The firm’s premises cover an area of over 16 acres, having a quay frontage of 1,500 feet, and are replete with the most modern types of Plant including a 60 ton Electric Crane of the latest description and Electrical Hydraulic and Pneumatic machines for carrying out the building and repairing of all types of First-Class Cargo Vessels, Marine Engines, Boilers and Auxiliary Machinery. The whole of the Machinery is electrically driven. The Firm is therefore in a splendid position to carry out most expeditiously the Building and Repairing of all types of vessels in an economical and first-class manner.
The Firm has also the advantage of making their own Engines and Boilers, and are thus able to turn out Vessels of a total carrying capacity of 50,000 tons and 40,000 I.II.P. per annum, and in addition to their facilities for the original construction of vessels and machinery the Firm owns two Graving Docks capable of accommodating vessels up to 450 feet in length, which enable it to carry out repairs to all description of Vessels and thus take its place amongst the leading Shipbuilding, Engineering and Repairing Establishments of the country. It is believed to be the largest private firm on the Tyne, and an important point is that the real Principals of the Firm are also the managers and in direct touch with their officials and workmen.
The Firm employ an average about 2,000 men under the assiduous supervision of members of the Company who are proud of the high reputation of their Establishment which in itself affords sufficient guarantee of the excellence of the work executed on the premises. It may also be interesting to note the unanimity and concord which exists between the Firm, their Staff, and their Workmen, which is illustrated by the fact that at present in the employ of the Firm are 52 foremen and officials, their united period of service with the Firm being 1,565 years, or an average of 30 years.”

1921 shows two further orders for Dunkirk owners, La Compagnie des Bateaux a Vapeur du Nord, thus raising our total newbuildings for this company to thirteen. New work from France did not materialise again until 1947. However the first signs of slackening demand were becoming unmistakable and the swing towards a buyer’s market gathered momentum.
In 1922 Mr. James Readhead received a baronetcy for public services and, amidst widespread local acclaim, one event that touched him most deeply was the presentation of a silver vase made to him in the platers’ shed by officials and workmen of the yard to mark the high honour bestowed upon him. Today this replica of the Warwick Vase, towards which so many had contributed on that occasion, stands in a place of honour each launch day, symbolic perhaps of the common contribution from a diversity of people without which no ship could be built.
A few weeks later, the eldest son of the founder, Mr. Robert Readhead, passed away. Robert had managed the original engine and boiler shop at the Lawe shipyard, and when the business moved to the West Docks, he continued to head this important side of the Company until 1912 when he retired.
John, third son of the founder, began life as a seagoing engineer with Messrs. Harrowings of Whitby, and after rising to sail Chief Engineer, he left the sea in favour of the family business. John followed Robert as the Engine Works Manager and was well known for the meticulous way in which he used to supervise outside work come hail, rain or snow.
The same year a change in leadership occurred within the Hain Staemship Company. New policies soon emerged, one of which opened the door for other shipyards to build Hain steamers. Throughout the mid-twenties depressed world trading conditions were sharply reflected in the order book, and new outlets were urgently needed. 1926 came and went with only one new ship completed, but statistics alone can easily mask matters of the greatest significance, for Sir James had carried the Readhead flag into a new house. Beneath a roof in the City of London there occurred an exchange of views between owner and builder that sparked the beginnings of yet another association. This time the shipowner concerned was Mr. Frank C. Strick.
Ship No. 482 was the first ship to be built to the order of F. C. Strick & Co. Ltd., but she was taken over whilst on the stocks by the Turnbull Scott Shipping Co. However in 1927 a further ship was built and then in 1928 Sir James returned from London with what was surely the greatest single achievement of his entire business career. A run of newbuildings was commenced for F. C. Strick & Co. Limited, that carried the yard working at full capacity right into 1930; thirteen new ships and the cement was beginning to harden around the foundations of this most recent of connections.
Early in 1965 Readheads completed their 41st and 42nd vessels for the Strick Line Ltd; the 12,080 ton dwt. sister ships “Shahristan” and “Floristan”. Both vessels are equipped with 180-ton Stulcken derricks and electric deck cranes. There is extensive centralisation and automation in their machinery spaces. They have been specifically designed to expedite the handling of the very widest range of general cargo and thereby help speed British exports to the Persian Gulf. “Floristan” holds the distinction of being the first merchant ship built by the Company to break 20 knots on trial. Today if we were to try to value our connection with Messrs. F. C. Strick & Co. Ltd., it need hardly be said that the name Strick would head any list of our invisible assets. Two further ships are at present building at the yard, and it is the ardent hope of all Readhead personnel that this association may long continue.
On March 18th, 1930, Sir James Readhead, aged 77, died after a long and protracted illness. He had been with the company ever since 1867 and for the past 36 years had been its leader. No one person had been more closely concerned with the long record of growth and success than he. His powers of organisation were exceptional, and his loss was deeply felt throughout the yard and the entire Borough. Sir James’ elder son, James Halder Readhead, succeeded his father to the baronetcy and to the position of Chairman and Managing Director of the Company. Sir James H. had received his training in the shipyard and for some years had been quietly assisting his father.
In 1931 total depression enveloped the West Docks and between 1931 and 1937 only one new vessel was completed. Grass did grow on the berths and it was a time of great despondency and despair. It was a time of distress, deprivation and great hardship amongst the men who worked in shipyards and it was a time of great concern for those whose work it was to search for a future. The depression generated widespread thought concerning ways to alleviate its effects, one such result being National Shipbuilders Security Limited. This was set up with the aim of sterilising shipyard properties entering into voluntary liquidation in order to reduce capacity. It is fairly certain that they would have been interested in doing just this with John Readhead and Sons, but fortunately Sir James H. was able to stave off all would-be intruders.
Throughout this entire period, the drydock department were able to carry on the business of repairing ships. Without drydocks it is indeed doubtful whether the Company would have been able to weather the prolonged severity of the depression. But at last an upturn in the trade cycle began to reappear and the rearmament programme took the slack out of the economy. By 1937 the machines were turning once more and, in the following year, negotiations began for the purchase of the Smith’s Docks riverside property that separated the shipyard from the repair department.
The acquisition of Smith’s riverside premises was by far the biggest single step forward in the development of the Company since the building of No. 2 Graving Dock. A nearby ballast hill, known locally as “Johnston Hill”, was in the way of Corporation improvements at the time, and so a joint plan was drawn up between Readheads and the South Shields Corporation for the old docks to be filled up with “Johnston Hill” together with free transport and trimming. The whole operation would save the Corporation several thousand pounds as they would thereby avoid paying hopper transport to the sea for dumping. With the docks filled in, 14,500 sq. yds. Of new land and 227 ft. of river-frontage were gained and the Company became one complete inter-connected unit for the first time. The shipyard was considered to be well equipped with some of the latest facilities for plate handling; tubular derricks, steel uprights and lattice masts were all installed to facilitate construction. Up to now the yard had been building ships of up to 450 ft L. B. P. and 53 ft. beam but, with the latest acquisition, new areas became available of sufficient size to stimulate thoughts for an even more expansive layout. Plans were subsequently prepared for the construction of a modern plate preparation shed together with further alterations to the building berths in order to keep pace with the growth of hull dimensions.
On September 3rd, 1939, war clouds gathered again, and with every shipyard alike, we were taken under the wing of the Admiralty for the duration of hostilities. The trend towards welded construction was becoming very evident, and so the fourth berth was dismantled to create the space necessary for welding small units. Meanwhile the new platers’ shed began to rise on the new land. The overburden of wartime demand soon had facilities fully extended once more and production was geared to building between five and six hulls per year throughout the war. Repairs and conversion work reached their highest pitch even sooner. And then quite suddenly every person at the West Docks was stunned to learn one May day in 1940 that death had struck at their leader, Sir James Halder Readhead. It came like a dagger from behind, made the more poignant by reason of his quiet personality, his great kindness, his reputation for fair dealing and his genuine concern for the welfare of others. He was a man greatly honoured and beloved by many and someone who gave of himself generously and without restraint to the industrial and social life of the neighbourhood. Several thousand townspeople, with almost every Readhead employee among the crowd, lined the funeral route from Westoe Village to the cemetery gates. He died in harness … a shipbuilder like his father and grandfather before him.
The Chairmanship passed immediately to Mr. Christopher Southall. Mr. Southall, a member of the board since 1936, brought with him a wealth of industrial and business experience from beyond the boundaries of shipbuilding. He was the first Chairman not to have held an executive position within the Company, but his guiding influence and wise counsel were straightaway directed towards the rebuilding of capital reserves.
Mr. Harold Towers, the only member of the fourth generation of the family to enter the firm in a working capacity, was elected Managing Director. Mr. Towers served his apprenticeship in the shipyard, joining the Company in 1929. He gained experience in both the newbuilding and repair departments before being appointed to the Board in 1936.
Later in 1940 Ship No. 519, “North Britain”, was launched midst the wailing of sirens. The ceremony was carried through without mishap, toasts to the new ship being drunk in the head office air-raid shelter.
Whilst darkness seemed to be drawing in on the international front in 1941, the real harshness of events suddenly became starkly visible on the premises. Air-raid damage during the days April 8/10th, 1941, was particularly severe. The joiner’ shop and sawmills were gutted; the new quay was rendered unusable; the dock fitting shop was destroyed by incendiaries and further damage to boiler-shop machinery and rivercraft was sustained. Three H. E. bombs added to the devastation and No. 2 dock gate remains twisted today as a result of explosions. But the damage could have been much more disastrous and the business of clearing away the rubble began at once. Production was slowed temporarily but in 1942 the new platers’ shed came on stream and output increased to six ‘Empire’ boats that year. This shop had been carefully designed and planned for the handling of plates using riveted connections. Overhead cranes, a one man punching machine, plate rolls and heavy flanging machine were all ainstalled, the combination of which produced a concentrated and highly efficient shop capable of handling up to 16,000 tons of steel per year. Towards the end of the same year Mr. Towers was selected to join a small delegation of shipbuilders who were to make an extensive tour of United States and Canadian shipbuilding establishments in order to report on new production techniques then being used to speed ship construction in those countries.
One morning in April, 1943, the telephone lines began to buzz with news of a very special event. In the afternoon of April 7th the firm was greatly honoured by a visit from Their Majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who were conducted round the yard by Mr. Towers and other members of senior management. Security was such that the men could not be warned until lunch time on the day of the visit, but the welcome was the warmer because of its spontaneity and a great fillip to morale was achieved.
Today it is interesting to learn that the outside tour had to be carefully planned so that at no time during the visit were Their Majesties more than a minute or so from the nearest air-raid shelter.
Special building in these years included Chants 60 and 61, designed to carry oil in bulk to support the Normandy landings, and two aircraft engine repair ships, H. M. S. “Moray Firth” and “Beauly Firth”. The latter went upriver to Palmers for completion, but “Moray Firth” was fitted-out in a ‘combined ops’ exercise with our repair department. H. M. S. “Moray Firth” was the only ship of several of her type to be wholly completed by one firm and she was certainly by far the biggest contract undertaken by the firm during the war years.
As in the first war, so in the second; the drydocks were hardly allowed a moment to breathe. Victims of E-Boat Alley, such as the colliers “Wandle” and “Firelight”, were both entirely rebuilt about their fore-ends; torpedo damage and the devastation of a direct hit in the engine room were repaired on the banana carrier “Eros”; drydock work for naval vessels also formed part of a continuous programme.
In 1944 the first Butters monotower crane was installed in the shipyard shortly followed by five others. Capital spending was continuing in the best traditions of those early years. When the war ended our contribution to the war effort for the six-year period 1939 – 1945 totalled 35 vessels. This included thirty-one cargo ships with a total carrying capacity of almost 307,000 tons and four special buildings for the Admiralty.
Strick Line were early in the market for new tonnage after the war but 1948 must go down in the firm’s annals as ‘export year’, for the entire output was for foreign ownership; three ships for Norway and one for Eire. At the end of this year the premises consisted of approximately nineteen acres and a river frontage of 1700ft. The scheme of extensions which involved the acquisition of the three old Smith’s docks had been completed and over 2,000 workpeople were employed. There were now three well equipped building berths capable of taking vessels up to 500ft. in length and 70ft. in breadth, with concrete foundations for keel blocks and launchways and concrete service roads on either side. There was considerable space for storing small fabrication units, and the six new monotower cranes were capable of covering the whole of the berth area. The mould loft was particularly spacious for the full-size development of structural details .The joiners’ shop, sawmills, blacksmiths’ shop and frame and furnace sheds had all been rebuilt during and since the war. Apart from a period in 1950 / 51 when the yard was closed for about a year, newbuilding continued steadily through the fifties. The decade was notable for the Strick Line maintaining an average of one newbuilding per year. Six deliveries were made to Greek owners, and Stag Line Ltd., North Shields, completely modernised their tramping fleet with a series of raised quarter deck bulk carriers built to a special design. Several ‘Baron boats’ for H. Hogarth and Sons Limited, became another regular feature.
After a period of 17 years as Chairman of the Board, Mr. Southall announced in 1957 that he thought it was time for a younger man to take his place. There followed the election of Mr. Towers to this position.
Until 1957, all new vessels built at the yard, except two, had been engined and boilered using our own facilities. However the tendency for diesel to displace steam was now quite universal, and it was decided therefore to discontinue the manufacture of reciprocating machinery. The building of steam engines and marine boilers had been our business ever since shipbuilding began on the Lawe, but the days of the steam reciprocating engine seemed to be finally numbered; at least they were for the type of merchant ship that we were being asked to construct. Triple expansion machinery, in conjunction with the Bauer-Wach low pressure turbine, had been fitted to deliver up to 6,200 I. H. P. on a single shaft, and a number of the Fredriksstad ‘steam motors’ had also been built under licence. Tooling up for the construction of other means of propulsion has not been undertaken to date due to the very fluid state of development that marine propulsion units are passing through. Today the engineworks department concentrates on the design and fitting of main engine installations, and with the advance of automation into marine engineering, there has been a steady expansion of employment since the demise of the steamer.
Ever since the earliest days there has been another feature of Readheads that has now become tantamount to a tradition; this is to be found amongst the sovereign loyalty and long-service of so many employees. Characteristically this still exists at every level within the firm; something about it stirs a feeling of intense pride; and from it flows a warm current of co-operation in which is reflected, perhaps, the Company’s worthy record of achievement in the field of labour relations. In 1958 a scheme was inaugurated for the presentation of a gold watch to every employee of the Company who completes 25 years continuous service. So far 420 gold watches have been presented and many further awards have been made for those with records of 50 years and over. Appropriately enough this year Mr. Harold Towers, also Chairman of the Company, has completed 25 years in the seat of Managing Director. Few firms surely can rival such records of loyal service.
The provision of welfare amenities is well catered for at West Docks. The Company supports social and sporting activities for its employees, and the well equipped premises of “Ashley House” offer all the requirements of a modern Club with a licensed bar and lounge, T.V. and billiard rooms. The Club, opened in December 1961, is run and maintained by joint contributions from the Company and employees. Association and Rugby Football, Bowls and Tennis are played together with Inter-departmental Competitions. Annual events that also form an integral part of a composite Company include dinners, socials, dances and outings. The training of the next generation is a subject permanently under review. Day release is offered where technical subjects are concerned and full time sandwich courses are available to selected apprentices, thus enabling them to attain higher qualifications. Under the Company’s present apprenticeship scheme, prize awards for educational attainments and work progress have been latterly presented each year at South Shields Marine & Technical College.
1960 dawned with the news that Hain’s were back, and in 1963 one of the most widely known names in shipping, the Cunard Steam-Ship Co., Limited, came to South Shields for the first of a series of express cargo liners. Running concurrently with the arrival of new flags and funnels at the West Docks, the local skyline was being changed again in order to meet the growing demand for ships of greatly increased tonnage. Riveting squads have now all but vanished from the berths, and in their place the electric arc of the welder flashes out the message of technological advance.
In 1962 decisions were taken to enter the era of the bigger ship. Since that date the building berths have been reduced to two and a double width crane gantry stands in the position of the old centre berth. One new 40-ton level luffing crane, built to a new design at our request by Clyde Crane & Booth, together with one 10 ton monotower crane converted for travelling serve the two berths. Provision has been made for the gantry eventually to take two 60-ton cranes. A Hugh Smith cold frame bending machine has eliminated all hot furnace work, and a Messer flame planning machine speeds the preparation of plate edges for welding. A new fabrication shop has been erected adjoining the war-built platers shed with a crane hook height of 60ft. This year further extensions have begun on one of the berths so that the longest possible shipsmay be constructed within the present boundary limits of the site. But perhaps the most outstanding feature of our centenary year, 1965, has been that of contracting to build two ships of over 20,000 tons deadweight. Ship Nos. 619 and 620 will both be of the bulk carrier type, and they will take their place in local history as being the two largest vessels yet built at South Shields.
It is now difficult for Readheads to build ships of any greater size on the present site without the diversion of the main road that divides company property through the centre. Future development plans are being drawn up in close collaboration with the South Shields Corporation, and it is hoped that a joint proposal for development can be agreed upon so as to ensure the continuity of shipbuilding in the town. Today the shipyard is capable of constructing vessels up to 650 ft. in length and 80 ft. beam, dimensions from which it would be possible to obtain a deadweight of up to 30,000 tons.
And so history continues to be made. From a collier brig to a 25,000 ton bulk carrier in 100 years. Continuous but fluctuating growth there has been. So much more important therefore are the foundations, but if these were to be exposed, perhaps three qualities of man would shine through most strongly – courage, knowledge and hard work. These characteristics were certainly possessed by the founder and his immediate family, but could their secret have been that uncanny ability for gathering a team around them of similar men – men with the same qualities, the same determination and the same eagerness to probe the future as they themselves? We believe this was how it was. We believe this is how it should be, and we hope that this is how it may continue to be. Of change; it must be a continuous process. Sometimes it will be of far reaching and great consequence, but for the most part, small, though often no less vital in order that progress be maintained. History and tradition do still have meaning amongst Readhead craftsmen, and whenever a Hain or Strick boat is in the yard, right from the start one can detect that feeling of something extra being built into them to ensure the job being finished just that little bit better than the time before.
But only part of the story has been told above. The very foundations of solid achievement can most often be found in ’the daily round, the common task’.
For 100 years somewhere around 1,000 people have each day been adding their own colours to the fabric. Every person has been a contributor and their every action their contribution. Some of the traditions that were laid in the early years may now be moreclearly understood; that they have borne fruit has become apparent through the records of our achievements; achievements not only of a single individual but more of a team with a captain, and the very widest variety of skills have for long been encompassed within that team.
Shipbuilding records have been made at South Shields in the past. These have been broken once more in this our centenary year. The aim today is to break these again and to go on setting new standards, fired by an indomitable spirit and a determination to remain in the front line of British Shipbuilding.


Aerial view of Readheads showing the new crane between the remaining two berths (c1960)


West Docks from river - 1964

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