Sailing back to Readhead’s heydays

John Readhead & Sons poster.
John Readhead & Sons poster.
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Today we journey back in time to when a South Shields shipyard was producing vessels that sailed the seven seas and provided employment for thousands of men.

The shipyard was John Readhead & Sons Ltd and our navigator on this journey into the past is Geoff Henderson, who used to work there.

Geoff’s recollections are just one of the many nostalgic articles contained in The Streets of South Shields, Volume Five, a fascinating booklet which has been compiled by learners of the Workers’ Educational Association.

Here’s the start of John’s fascinating account:–

“The firm of John Readhead & Sons Limited was a well renowned company of shipbuilders and ship repairers.

“It was established in 1864, at Corstophine Town and had previously been located at the Lawe at a yard, off Pilot Street.

“As the firm grew, they expanded to the West Docks site; its location stretching from River Street (Readhead’s Gut was at its river end) along Templetown (now Commercial Road) past Mattew Todd’s (ships’ chandlers) complete with dock tower, turning into West Holborn, which led to the Laygate end of Middle Docks.”

Geoff said the distance along the riverside from the Gut to the Laygate end of the docks repair yard would be approximately one quarter to half a mile, and contained within that area would be the shipbuilding stocks (keels) ship repairs, dry docks, cranes and the many buildings, housing all the traders’ stores, supplies and materials required for the jobs.

“Many local men and boys learned their trade/craft at this firm, and at its height, when the yard was fully employed building and repairing ships, there would be about 2,000-plus people working there.

“Many trades are involved in shipbuilding, starting with the designers and draughtsmen, putting on paper the owner’s requirements.

“The actual structure of the ship, ie steelwork etc, involves platers, welders and riveters. When the basic structure of the ship is complete, the finishing trades go aboard. These are the shipwrights, joiners, plumbers, although some of these are involved in the early stages of the build.

“The firm was a thriving family business for a good number of years, with a great deal of loyal employees, many of whom spent their entire working lives there.”

Geoff explains that Readheads specialised in building cargo/passenger ships of 10 to 15,000 tons deadweight.

“The ships were famous for their durability, and most lasted well past their scrap date.

“Ship owners recognised this and many favoured the shipyard, indeed Haines Line contracted more than 80 ships from the firm, and the Strick Line was also another regular customer.

“However, the decline in world trade and the economical downturn took its toll on the company.

“Readheads was eventually nationalised, together with Swan Hunter into the Tyne Ship Building Consortium, in 1976.

“Conditions, however, continued to be difficult, and Readheads eventually closed in 1984.”

Next time, Geoff details his days working at the shipyard, along with a colourful look-back at Shields as it used to be in the days gone by.

The Streets of South Shields group meets on a Wednesday, between 10am and noon, at Talbot Road Methodist Church, in South Shields.

For more details about the group, contact Janet Wylie on (0191) 455 4830, 07954 413542 or email her on 54janet@live.co.uk