Who was Charles Palmer? Jarrow's shipbuilding giant and how he helped shape the town we know today

The name Palmer still means much in Jarrow. The shipyard shaped the town, even after it closed in 1933. But what was the story?

Beginnings

Charles Mark Palmer was born in King Street, South Shields, on November 3, 1822 the fourth of seven sons and one daughter.

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His father was George Palmer, ship owner and previously captain of a whaler. His mother Maria was from Monkwearmouth, Sunderland.

Charles Palmer's statue, opposite Jarrow Town Hall. It was unveiled in 1903.

After training in shipping in Newcastle, Charles was sent to Marseilles for two years representing his dad’s business interests. When he returned to the North East aged 22, he was expected to join the family firm, but had other ideas. He was highly motivated.

In 1845 he went to work for John Bowes, the County Durham moneybags of Bowes Museum fame. Bowes made Palmer a partner in his Marley Hill Coking Company; a smart move. Had Charles been born later, he’s the sort of bloke who would have been a regular on Dragons’ Den.

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Palmer’s acumen led to dramatically increased sales. By the 1850s Marley Hill incorporated 14 collieries, annually produced a million tons of coal and exported to France.

In 1851 Palmer leased his first shipyard. He already managed railways between mines and Jarrow staithes. Transporting coal by ship too gave him as much control as he could have possibly hoped for.

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As this street name shows, Palmers Shipbuilding has not been forgotten in Jarrow.

This led to the formation in 1852 of Palmer Brothers & Co, shipbuilders usually referred to simply as Palmers. Charles founded it with his older brother George.

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Spectacular success

Wednesday, June 20, 1852 was the big day. The company launched its first ship in Jarrow, the steam collier (a coal-carrying ship) pointedly called the John Bowes. The naming ceremony was performed by Charles’ wife Jane.

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According to a newspaper report, the ship would “if successful, completely revolutionise the coal trade in this country”. She was also “a fine looking vessel” and able to carry 600 tons of coal, mainly between the Tyne and London.

She was successful too. Faster and bigger than her rivals, in five days John Bowes could transport the same amount of coal which would take two average sized colliers at least a month. The ship would be in use for another 81 years, before sinking in a storm off the northern Spanish coast in 1933.

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The John Bowes was a triumph and Charles Palmer became a very big noise aged only 29.

In 1856 Palmers launched the first of many warships, a 16-gun floating battery and named HMS Terror, just to dispel any doubt that it was definitely a warship. It was deployed in the Crimean War.

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The business expanded into Hebburn, as well as Howden on the opposite bank of the Tyne and the company was renamed Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company Limited in 1865.

It was building all manner of ships: battleships, cruisers, cargo ships and eventually oil tankers. One destroyer built on the Tyne in was called, strangely, HMS Wear.

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A giant in Jarrow and Hebburn

Palmers’ importance to Jarrow cannot be overstated. At its peak it employed 10,000 people. Over 900 ships were launched in its history.

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A 1901 magazine article said: “At the date of the establishment of the shipyard Jarrow was a small colliery village, known only to antiquaries as the home, more than 1,200 years ago, of ‘the father of English literature,’ the venerable Bede.

“It is now, however, an important industrial town, with a population of over 40,000 inhabitants, who are all mainly employed in, or depending upon, Palmer’s works. So completely, in fact, is the town identified with the works that Jarrow might more appropriately be called ‘Palmer’s Town.’”

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But it wasn’t all plain sailing, so to speak. An early passenger steamship, SS Connaught launched in 1860, but sank on its maiden voyage off the coast of Boston, Massachusetts. The wreck was only discovered in 2012. Connaught doesn’t share the infamy of the Titanic as all 591 passengers and crew were saved.

(In 2015 an Australian billionaire wanted to build a replica Titanic, for reasons best known to himself. It never happened. The tycoon’s name was Clive Palmer).

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Decline

Charles Palmer retired from the business in 1893 (George had retired in 1862) after an annual loss of £33,000 (about £4.3 million today). The Howden yard closed in 1912.

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Palmers recovered. It was unsurprisingly active during World War One. But perhaps its most famous ship was commissioned slightly earlier, in 1913.

HMS Queen Mary was a battle cruiser in the thick of the war before being sunk at the horrific but indecisive Battle of Jutland in 1916. There were just 18 survivors with 1,266 men lost. The whole battle claimed 8,645 lives.

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Palmers continued as an industry titan until the Wall Street Crash of 1929 brought the beginning of the end. The company collapsed beneath a mountain of debt in 1933 and was subsequently asset stripped. This economic disaster led to the Jarrow March of 1936.

The Palmer name survived for a time when Vickers-Armstrong took over the Hebburn dry dock. This was finally sold to Swan Hunter in 1973 and the Palmer name was erased, but never forgotten.

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Charles Palmer’s later years

Charles amassed a fortune from his shipbuilding and other businesses. He supported Jarrow by funding a hospital, schools and churches. He created a building society, helping almost half of the town’s houses to become owner-occupied

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He was knighted, then made a baronet in 1886. He became Jarrow’s first Mayor in 1875 and again in 1902. He was also elected as a Liberal MP for the town between 1885 and his death, after spending 11 years as MP for North Durham.

He died in London in 1907 and is buried at All Saints Church in Easington, North Yorkshire.

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