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British Industrial History

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W. Pickersgill and Sons

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William Pickersgill began shipbuilding in 1838 in the North Dock area of Sunderland. The firm transferred up-river to Southwick in 1851 and the original partnership was dissolved. The company became a family affair. The company made barques, brigs and snows, one of which demolished the outer wall of a riverside house on the other side of the river when it was launched!

The Company was known as W. Pickersgill and Sons Ltd from 1838-1958 and Austin & Pickersgill Ltd from 1958-1986.

By 1838 William Pickersgill Senior (1823–1880) was building ships with Mr Miller in the North Dock

1847 Birth of William's eldest son, also William (1847–1936)

1851 The partnership of Pickersgill and Miller transferred to Southwick, where they took two other partners, Rawson and Watson, but Rawson and Watson soon became a firm on their own, but still continued to build ships at Southwick[1]

1851 William, a ship wright, and his family were living at Monkwearmouth Shore[2]

1854 launched his first vessel.

Built more than 30 ships

1861 William and family were living at Southwick[3]

1863 the partnership was dissolved

William Pickersgill (the younger) was apprenticed to a timber yard before working as a carpenter and then as foreman in his father's yard.

1869 He became a junior partner in the firm.

c.1872 Birth of William's son William John

A traditional shipyard, Pickersgills built 46 wooden ships, the last firm on the Wear to do so.

1880 Launched the last wooden ship made by any yard on the Wear - Coppername

The firm had bought more land to extend the yard, in order to be able to build iron ships,

1880 Whilst building its first iron ship, SS Camargo, William Pickersgill Senior was killed in an accident.

William Pickersgill took over as managing director, joined by his two younger brothers, Charles (c.1850-1895), and Frederick (c.1860- ).

1881 Charles was a junior member of the firm, employing 250 men and 30 boys; Frederick was an assistant draughtsman[4]

1885-7 Pickersgill managed to keep the yard going during the depression of 1885–7

By the end of the 1880s the yard had changed from iron to steel construction, following the lead of the Clyde shipyards.

By 1891 Frederick was a member of the firm[5]

1893 The last ever Sunderland full-rigger Margarita was launched in July.

By 1901 William John was a shipyard manager[6]

1907 William John Pickersgill, became managing director and incorporated the yard as William Pickersgill and Sons Ltd. Frederick Pickersgill left the firm and became a shipwright[7]

1909 The main products of the yard were tramps, cargo-liners and colliers. The Queen Alexander bridge was built next to the yard and ships were launched directly under the bridge.

WWI Output was a dozen ships, five standard WAR 'A' and 'B' types of tramp plus a number of small naval vessels. Also during this period five cargo liners were either built or completed at the yard.

1914 Directory: Listed as Iron Ship Builders of Crown Road, Southwick, Sunderland (William Pickersgill and Sons).

1915 William Pickersgill retired

1920/21 The post war boom was followed by the slump and many orders were cancelled

1923 Pickersgill (along with five other yards) had no launches at all this year.

1924 Things began to look better with 15 tramps ordered and built between 1924 and 1929.

1930 The yard closed down due to the Depression and did not open again until late 1935.

1935-39 Ten new tramps were built, one of which was 100% financed by the Government under the Scrap & Build Scheme.

World War II The first tramp launched after the outbreak of WWII, on 9th December, was Daydawn. Sadly, she was sunk by U-boat in the north Atlantic 10 months after completion. A number of tramps were then built for the Government. The company took over the neighbouring Priestman yard and with input from the Admiralty became known as the West yard. The West yard made frigates and landing craft.

During World War II, Pickersgill’s took over the neighbouring Priestman yard.

Post War After the end of the war, the East yard had a boom time of ten years with many orders coming in for replacement ships damaged in the War. In addition the yard won a number of contracts for colliers.

1954 William Pickersgill and Sons merged with S. P. Austin and Son in September, becoming Austin and Pickersgill. The two berths at West yard, Southwick were expanded but was followed by closure of the three berths at East Yard.

1957 The yard was acquired by a consortium led by London & Overseas Freighters Ltd along with Lambert Brothers Ltd and the merchant banker Phillip Hill, Higginson Ltd.

1958 The last ship from the East Yard was launched on 5th February: the ore-carrier Needles for the Clyde Shipping Co. Ltd, Glasgow. The first ship to be launched from the new West Yard was Essex Trader in April of the same year.

1960 The construction of the new East Yard (which had started in 1958) was completed in this year. The total cost of the improvements to the yard was in excess of 2.5M. The refurbishment greatly reduced building times with tramps being completed in 26 weeks instead of nearly 50 weeks as previously. Ore carriers were completed in between 20 -28 weeks.

1963 The Welsh Herald became the first British ship to be fitted with comprehensive automatic alarm scanning and data logging systems. During the 1960s the yard built bulkers of varying sizes up to 30,000 dwt eventually focussing on the B25 size.

1963-65 There were very few orders for the yard during this period. The yard attempted to reposition itself in the market by supplying replacements for the 20 year old "Liberties" built during WWII in the USA. These new designs were a global success and production was stepped up at the Southwick yard and also farmed out to six licensees.

1963-Early 1980s The SD14 ship came on to the market and proved to be a great success. They were all powered by Sulzers engines, 153 in total, to give a service speed of 14 knots. There was some experimentation with different engines but over one hundred SD14s were made during the building programme itself.

1966/67 - The yard adopted an unique way of building larger bulkers; the vessels were built in two halves and later joined together in dry dock. Sygna and Happy Dragon were two ships resulting from this technique.

1970 London & Overseas freighters Ltd took full control of the yard with 26 ships ordered by companies associated with Basil Mavroleon.

1975 As the switch to building bulkers began, the yard was modernised at a cost of £27M, £9M of which came from the British Government. Production of SD14s was then speeded up.: a completed stern section could be slid across to the main building berth for construction of the forward half and launching. The yard was one of the most modern in Europe, allowing production line assembly of two ships at the same time.

1981 The new SD16 design was completed: these huge ships had a swimming pool on board along with Sulzer diesel engines which could propel the vessel to a speed of 15 knots.

1983 The last ever SD14 was launched from the Southwick yard on 17th November. The yard began to experience a number of problems from this year onwards: there were allegations of extensive welding cracks to the main structure of a B30 bulker and the owner refused to take delivery of any further three ships that had been made. Extensive repairs were required and this took until August 1984. This in turn required the restructuring of the finance arrangements to the owner.

1984 A new Managing Director, George Parker, was appointed, and the yard finally managed to sell its last B35 bulker, Pomorac, in early 1985.

1986 The yard mainly made simple but steelwork-intensive flat topped barges for the North Sea Oilfields. The yard became the Southwick Yard of North East Shipbuilders Ltd on 1st April. It began manufacturing Danish ferries, known as Superflex ferries.

1988 The last Mark IV Superflex ferry was launched from the yard in December. The British Government closed the yard in the same month.

1990 The yard was demolished and the site levelled for redevelopment


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. A history of shipbuilding on the Wear by J A Marr [1]
  2. 1851 census
  3. 1861 census
  4. 1881 census
  5. 1891 census
  6. 1901 census
  7. 1911 census