Featured image: M Green & Sunderland Antiquarian Society

The History of Sunderland Tugs and Shipbuilding














Source: Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons 2.0 


Brewing, coal mining and glass making have all played a huge part in Sunderland’s history. 

But there’s one industry that’s played a bigger part in the city’s story than any other – shipbuilding.  

Sunderland’s shipbuilding history lasted over six centuries, during which it had over 400 registered shipyards and became the biggest shipbuilding town in the world.

Along the way the industry transformed Wearside and put Sunderland on the map.

Here’s a look back at the history of Sunderland tugs and shipbuilding.


The start of shipbuilding on Wearside 

Sunderland shipbuilding began in 1346, when Thomas Menville was recorded as building a ship in Hendon. 

Little is known about shipbuilding on Wearside until the 18th century, when improvements to the port helped transform Sunderland into one of Britain’s shipbuilding hubs. 

The town produced several commercial vessels in the 1700s, as well as warships that were used in the wars against the French. 


The 19th century

Shipbuilding in Sunderland continued to grow during the 19th century, with the number of shipyards along the Wear growing from nine in 1801 to 76 in 1840. 

By this time Sunderland was Britain’s most prolific shipbuilding town, with the 1835 Lloyds Register of Shipping chronicling that it was “the most important shipbuilding centre in the country, nearly equalling as regards tonnage and ships built all the other ports put together”.

Between 1846 and 1854, a third of all ships built in the UK were from Wearside.

At this time, most ships were still made of wood, with Sunderland’s first iron ship built in 1852 and the production of steel ships beginning in the 1880s. 


The 20th century 

During the 20th century, Sunderland shipbuilding was key to Britain’s efforts in the two World Wars.


The First World War

In 1914 there were just 16 shipyards on the Wear, due to ever-increasing competition from abroad and the change to iron and then steel construction.

These shipyards were responsible for building the majority of Britain’s cargo ships, which were the key to getting supplies to the front lines during the First World War. 

Demand for these vessels was so high that women were employed in the shipyards for the first time, which had a huge impact on women’s suffrage in the 20th century.


The Second World War

By 1939 the number of shipyards in Sunderland had shrunk to just eight, although this rose to nine due in order to supply wartime needs.

An incredible 27% of merchant ships produced in Britain during the Second World War were built at Sunderland. 

Of course, this didn’t go unnoticed by the Nazis, who made Wearside a regular target of bombing raids. This led to many children being evacuated from the area to safer areas of the country.


The last Sunderland shipyard














Source: Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons 2.0 


After World War II, Sunderland continued to lead the world in shipbuilding. But competition from abroad made it increasingly difficult for Wearside companies to compete. 

As the years went by, more and more of the town’s shipyards began to close or merge as the industry went into decline across Britain.  

The shipbuilding industry was nationalised in 1977, and substantial job losses followed. 7,535 people worked in the shipyards 1978 – this fell to 4,337 by 1984.

Sunderland’s last two shipyards merged in 1980, but eventually closed in 1989, bringing an end to over six centuries of shipbuilding in Sunderland.


Sunderland-built ships

Tens of thousands of ships were built on the Wear over the centuries. 

Among them was the City of Adelaide, which was one the fastest ocean-going clippers of its time upon its launch in 1864. 

The City of Adelaide held the record from the UK to Adelaide, Australia, until that was broken by another Sunderland-built ship, the Torrens

The Torrens was the last fully-rigged, composite (a wood hull over an iron frame) passenger clipper ever built. It sailed between England and Australia in just 64 days.

Sunderland produced some iconic ships in the age of mass production as well. In 1892, Sunderland-based shipbuilders Doxfords produced an innovative new hull design that became popular for cargo vessels, as its smaller deck size meant that it cost less to tax.

Just before World War II, Sunderland-based shipyard Thompsons designed a standard steamship that was easy to operate and could be easily and affordably produced. The design was taken to America, where it was mass produced on an unprecedented scale. It became known as the Liberty ship, and is credited as playing a key part in America’s efforts in WWII. 

After the Second World War, the SD14 was developed in Sunderland to replace the aging Liberty ships. The first SD14 was launched in 1967 from the Southwick yard. It was adopted around the world and became one of the most successful designs of its day.

Each of the 8,102 ships built in Sunderland’s shipyards since 1786 are commemorated in the Keel Line, which stretches across Keel Square. 

This monument to Sunderland’s shipbuilding past is 292m long – the length of the Naess Crusader, the longest ship ever built on the River Wear.

At its foot is the giant glass and bronze sculpture ‘Propellers of the City’, which bears the faces of over 300 of Sunderland’s shipyard workers.



As you can see, shipbuilding played a key part in Sunderland’s history. 

Hopefully this article has given you a sense of the influence Sunderland’s shipbuilding past had – not only on Wearside, but across the world.

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