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British Industrial History

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John Priestman and Co

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John Priestman and Co of Castletown Yard, Southwick, Sunderland were shipbuilders

1854 John Priestman was born

c.1868 He began his shipbuilding life as an apprentice, aged 14 at the Blumer shipyard.

After promotion, he then went on to become Chief Draughtsman for W. Pickersgill and Sons, the last Wear shipyard to change to building in iron.

1880 Priestman designed Pickersgill's first iron steamer in 1880.

1882 John Priestman left to open his own shipyard at Southwick to the west of the Pickersgill yard. Priestman's first ship, Troutbeck was launched followed closely by Acaster and Caerloch.

1883 Two more ships were completed, then ten further iron ships, and then the yard was closed for nearly five years.

1888 The yard's first steel ship Gemini was completed in October followed by a number of orders for various ship owners. The yard built 120 steel ships in the thirty- year period up to the start of the Great War averaging at four ships per year. The yard is best remembered for its "Tower-deck" which was similar to the Doxford "Turret" and the Ropner "Trunk Decker”. The Priestman "Tower's" unique selling point was that plating from the top of the tower deck sloped diagonally to the side of the hull. The first of such ships was Enfield completed in November 1897. Two further models were built.

1900 The yard's output was 20,362 tons of ships. Priestman and Co. continued to build tramps for Norwegian and British companies.

1907 The slump in freight rates had a knock on effect in the following years when only four ships were launched between 1908/09. However, orders for cargo-liners began to pick trade back up again in 1910. Twenty ships were completed up to the start of WWI.

WWI 15 ships of 67,255 tons was the output of the yard during the war years. In addition, two tramps were completed, and the Government ordered one WAR "A" standard type and five "C" types although many were not completed until 1919/20.

1914 Directory: Listed as Iron Ship Builders of Castletown Yard, Southwick, Sunderland (John Priestman and Co)

1919 There was a brief boom for the yard, but this was followed by a sudden slump in 1920/21.

1920s John Priestman was knighted in 1921. The yard focussed on building a dozen big tramps as speculation for management by Sir John Morrison. Sir John used profits from the yard to invest in South African goldmines which made him very rich. He was then able to fund 12 "on spec" tramps one of which, Barbara Marie, was named after his only daughter.

The Priestman tramps travelled between Swedish Baltic Ports to South Africa and then home via West Africa. They carried palm kernels, groundnuts and logs. They had five holds with no.3 hold between bridge and engineer's accommodation doubling as a cross bunker hold and full of coal for the long voyage to South Africa.

1920-30 A dozen tramps were built during this period for a number of different owners.

1930 Two more ships were completed before the workforce was paid off. The last two orders were Glenlea in August and Finland in June. A further ship, which was not collected, was put up for auction but withdrawn when only £20,000 was offered for it. Eventually it was launched in May 1933. Sir John Priestman was often spotted playing tennis in the yard with his Yard Manager during this slack period!

1934 The last ship to be sold by the yard was Rio Novo in September. Sir John Priestman received a Baronetcy.

1941 Sir John Priestman died. He was 87 and had been a great philanthropist to charitable, hospital and religious causes. He left over £1.5M in his will with much of it in trust for charitable causes.

1944 Although the yard had been closed in 1933, the facilities continued under Admiralty assistance. William Pickersgill and Sons then took over the yard for naval construction as their West Yard.

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