An exciting recent donation of Sunderland shipbuilding archives

One of my hopes for the ‘We Mak’em’ Sunderland Shipbuilding archives project, when it started in June, was that it would encourage former employees of the shipyards and their families to come forward with fascinating additions to the collections we hold. Last month this hope was realised beyond my wildest expectations when we received a fantastic donation of documents for the shipbuilding firm, Joseph L. Thompson & Sons Ltd. This generous donation was made by Sarah Thompson, a member of that famous shipbuilding family.

It was clear from early on in the project that there were major gaps in the records for Joseph L. Thompson & Sons Ltd. In particular no Board of Directors’ minutes were known to survive and I feared the worst – that they had most likely been lost or destroyed. I am excited to report that, thanks to Mrs Thompson, we now hold a complete record of both Board and AGM minutes for the firm dating from its establishment as a limited liability company in 1894 up to 1954. The donation also includes a signed set of the firm’s annual accounts from 1894 to 1969. These are key records for anyone researching the firm’s history or indeed Sunderland shipbuilding in general. They give us a unique insight into the running of the firm covering a variety of subjects including orders, the development of the shipyard premises and the company’s financial position.

I’ve only been able to enjoy a quick browse of the minute books but have already come across a few interesting items. For example, an entry from July 1923 documents the decision to built two small colliers in order to keep the shipyard operational in a difficult economic climate.

Board ofb Directors minutes, 23 July 1923 (TWAM ref. DS.JLT/1/7/1)

The Board minutes for 10 February 1941 are also noteworthy because they refer to a hugely significant journey to the United States by Cyril Thompson, Managing Director of the firm. He headed an Admiralty Merchant Shipbuilding Mission to get American yards to construct cheap and economical vessels for the British Government to a prototype designed by Joseph L. Thompson & Sons.

As the minutes indicate on the return journey from America, the ship on which Thompson was travelling, the ‘Western Prince’ was torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic. Thompson and his fellow survivors escaped in lifeboats and were picked up by a tramp steamer, which took them back to Britain.

Board of Directors minutes, 10 February 1941 (TWAM ref. DS.JLT/1/7/2)

The Mission proved a success and contracts were signed to construct two new shipyards in Maine and California in order to build the sixty cargo vessels that the Admiralty wanted. As it turned out, the Mission was to have even greater unforeseen consequences. The Joseph L. Thompson & Sons prototype proved so popular that it was used by the US Government as the basis of over 2,700 ‘Liberty ships’ built at American shipyards between 1942 and 1945. It’s no stretch of the imagination to suggest that those ships were vital to the ultimate success of the Allied war effort.

The records donated by Mrs Thompson also include numerous other items of interest including a salaries book dating from 1878 to 1885, giving the names of officials and foremen during that period. Other aspects of the firm’s work are covered, with operational records such as estimates and books of lines plans, as well as publicity material such as photographs and scrapbooks.

There are a small number of impressive early photographs of vessels built by the firm, such as this image of the launch of the ‘Vencedora’ in 1860.

Launch of the 'Vencedora', 1860 (TWAM ref. acc. 5181)

The photographs also include several images of the ‘Coogee’, originally launched by the firm in 1887 as the ‘Lancashire Witch’. The ‘Coogee’ now lies shipwrecked outside Port Philip Bay, Melbourne, Australia and is apparently very popular with divers.

Photograph of the 'Coogee', late nineteenth century (TWAM ref. acc. 5181)

Before finishing this blog I must say a big thank you once again to Mrs Thompson for her generosity. There are gaps in the records of some of the other shipyards covered by this project and this recent donation has given me renewed hope that important documents, once feared lost, may yet emerge. If anyone is aware of such material I would be delighted to hear from them.


12 Responses to An exciting recent donation of Sunderland shipbuilding archives

  1. Andy Thomson says:

    What a fabulous slice of history!

  2. Russ Kennedy says:

    This new project by TWAM really excites me in the hope of re-kindling the memories of our world famous standing in the skill of shipbuilding.
    My father worked at JL Thompson’s from the age of 14 (1915) until he retired at age 65. I am sure that if was around today he would be “thrilled to bits” as they used to say.

    • Alan Hayward says:

      Thank you very much for your kind words. It’s great to know that the project is creating so much excitement. Once all the JL Thompson & Sons records have been catalogued I’ll make an announcement in one of my blogs so please do keep reading them. It would be fantastic if you could visit the Archives one day to look at the collection in person. I’m sure the records will include many plans and photographs of vessels that your father would’ve worked on. Thanks again.

  3. Mr. T.W.Martin....Tom Martin says:

    who meet regularly. I was an apprentice Fitter/Turner with William Doxford & Sons Ltd., at the Pallion yard…’Fitting Out Quay’ and ‘High Shop’, and at Palmers Hill Engine Works and Fitting out Quay facilities, from 1951 to 1957. Following this I was a sea going Marine Engineer for three and a half years, eventually serving on ‘deep sea’ and ‘coastal waters’ up to, and including, Second and Chief Engineer positions.
    A Doxford apprenticeship was considered to be “the top of the tree”, and a unique opportunity to commence upon a valued marine career. There exists a fraternity of ex-Doxford apprentices, who meet regularly in a warehouse, containing a full-size 3 Cylinder Doxford Marine Engine, at ‘Beamish Museum ‘, where regular engine maintenance on the ‘static’ engine is undertaken, and lots of us ex-apprentices, continue our association with friends and colleagues .

    • Alan Hayward says:

      Thank you very much for getting in touch – it’s great to know about the fraternity of ex-Doxford apprentices. We hold a vast quantity of Doxfords records – covering both the shipbuilding and engineering sides of the business. I haven’t started work on those yet but hope to do so in a few months time. I’m confident that lots of fantastic finds will emerge and I’ll be sure to report them in future blogs. If I come across any unidentified documents where I need some expert advice I hope it’ll be OK to contact you about them. Best wishes for the New Year.

  4. Ian lawrence says:

    Trying to find information on a ship built by jl thompson in I believe 1890 named the anna moore. C an anyone help me.
    Thank you Ian lawrence

  5. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Ian,

    Thanks for getting in touch.

    The cargo ship ‘Anna Moore’ was launched in 1890 by J.L. Thompson & Sons, Sunderland under the name ‘Chelydra’. We hold hull and engine specifications for her (TWAM ref. DS.JLT/4/7/269) and a particulars and cost book relating to her (TWAM ref. DS.JLT/4/9/110). You’re very welcome to visit us to take a look at these documents and you can find details of our location and opening times on our website

    Best wishes,


  6. Christopher Taggart says:

    The cargo ship Empire Tristram was completed by J.L. Thompson in July 1942 where my father joined her as cook. She sailed almost immediately on P.Q. 18 to Murmansk. Does the archive hold any details or pictures of this ship.

  7. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Christopher,

    Thanks for getting touch.

    I’ve checked our catalogue and sadly we don’t have any photographs of Empire Tristram. We do have a general arrangement plan of the vessel (TWAM ref. DS.JLT/4/PL/1/617/1) and you’re very welcome to visit us to look at it. Details of our location and opening times can be found on our website

    It’s possible that photographs of the vessel might be held by Sunderland Museum ( or the National Maritime Museum (!cbrowse) so it might be worth contacting them. Good luck with your search for information.

    Best wishes,


  8. alan carson says:

    could you please get me in touch with sarah Thomson, my biological farther was joseph Philips of sunderland, his mother was Isabella Thomson, her mother was Isabella Thomson .that makes me her great grandson. the family tree seems to have come to a halt, I have been told by relations to my real farther that his mother married an Irishman. I was born in 31–12–47 in sunderland, can anyone help with more information, as I do not know sarah Thomson or whare she resides, thanks in advance,

    • Alan Hayward says:

      Hi Alan,

      Thanks for getting in touch. It wasn’t clear from my e-mail but Sarah Thompson wasn’t born into the Joseph L. Thompson & Sons shipbuilding family – she married into it. Her husband was Robert Patrick Thompson and you can see details of the Thompson family tree here I don’t know whether or not that changes your wish to get in touch with her.

      Personal details of our depositors and donors are confidential so I’m afraid that I can’t pass on Sarah Thompson’s contact details to you. I can write to her on your behalf, though, and pass on your contact details. If you’d like me to do that then please feel free to forward a message for her to our e-mail address ( Please mark the message for my attention and include your name, address and telephone number in it.

      Best wishes,

      Alan Hayward

  9. Caroline Hutchinson says:

    I have an ancestor named Cuthbert Hutchinson that owned a ship in Sunderland called the Chelydra and its name was changed to Anne Moore. I was wondering if anyone had any pictures?

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