An insight into vanished world of shipyard apprentices

BIG SMILES ... apprentices at the Mercantile Dry Dock, Jarrow.
BIG SMILES ... apprentices at the Mercantile Dry Dock, Jarrow.

TYNESIDE is known for having exported its engineering and other marine skills around the world over the years.

And in many cases they had their genesis in the river’s shipyards, where generations of young lads began their careers.

It seemed more like serving a sentence!

Ex-shipyard apprentice John Clark

This photograph comes straight out of that history, along with an engaging insight into the vanished world of the shipyard apprentice,

It comes from John Clark, in Hebburn, who, if I read things right, is the lad second from the left at the back.

The date, he thinks, is about 1955 and some of these youngsters were craft apprentices at the Mercantile Dry Dock, Jarrow.

With John in that back row are Bobby Mills, Joe Fitzpatrick and Martin Shaughnessy. The name of the lad in the front on the left, hiding his face, was Cuth (?) and next to him is Alan McCutcheon.

John started work at the Mercantile after leaving school in 1944.

“I was the office lad in the docking master’s office. The war was still on at the time,” he says.

From there, he progressed to serving his time. “Then, it seemed more like serving a sentence!” he remembers now.

But eventually, he became a shipwright journeyman, and went on to work in various yards over the years.

John, though, also has a nice literary flair and has also sent me some lovely lines he penned years ago, about ‘The Gang of Six’ meeting an ancient Greek.

The six are shipyard apprentices and the Greek is an old ship in dry dock, to which they are despatched to lift and mark limbers.

It’s much too long to reproduce here, but what follows is a charming description of entering an exotic environment – Greek ships carried livestock for fresh meat then – and of shipyard practices and features, like the pots of red lead, and paint ‘brushes’ that were really short lengths of thin rope, bound with sail twine.

The lads descend into the hold in darkness, where they encounter the noxious effects of the cargo of sulphur that the ship has been carrying.

They have to work quickly if they’re not to be overcome by the fumes.

Today, something like that wouldn’t be allowed: health and safety would see to that.

So it’s a salutory piece, and a reminder that although they remain much missed, we shouldn’t romanticise the old shipyards too much!