Fascinating diaries to be made available to the public for the first time

Since my last blog in late April work has been going well on the ‘We Mak’em’ Sunderland Shipbuilding archives project. Colin and I have both been working on the project’s biggest collection – the records of William Doxford & Sons Ltd. Colin has been busy listing the many ship plans we hold for the firm, while I’ve been cataloguing its administrative records.

These administrative records include several series of desk and pocket diaries kept by directors and other leading members of the firm. Of particular interest are a series of 27 desk diaries kept from 1914 to 1941 by Karl Otto Keller. They are a complete set for those years, with the exception of 1938 for which no diary has survived. Keller is credited with the development of the Doxford Opposed Piston Oil Engine. This engine proved hugely successful and in addition to the hundreds built by Doxfords, many hundreds more were constructed by other companies in the United Kingdom and abroad under licence from the firm.

Keller was Swiss, born in Zurich in 1877. He came to England in 1903 and within a couple of years was appointed by Doxfords to work on internal combustion-engines. He left after four years to join William Reavell & Co. Ltd of Ipswich but returned to Doxfords in 1911 as Chief Designer.


Karl Otto Keller, 1877-1942 (TWAM ref. 1811/171/3)


His diaries give us a unique insight into the development of an important marine engine. There are plenty of technical details documenting the testing of the engine in the build up to its continuous trial under the supervision of Lloyd’s Register. This key trial started on 16 November 1914 and lasted for over 34 days before finishing on 21 December. When testing was completed on the 35th day Keller was clearly content. As he notes in his diary “Opening out proved most satisfactory result, no defects anywhere”.


Diary entry, 21 December 1914 (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/2/2/1)


The First World War brought with it a wave of intense anti-German feelings and despite the fact that Keller was Swiss he was not immune to these events. He mentioned this in his diary entry on 14 May 1915 when he noted “Deputation from the men went to see Mr Ernest [Doxford] regarding my nationality”.


Diary entry, 14 May 1915 (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/2/2/2


These problems were felt at all levels of society. This is reflected by King George V’s decision to change the family name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor in 1917. By coincidence that was the same year that he visited the Doxford premises.


King George V and Queen Mary arrive at Doxfords, 15 June 1917 (TWAM ref. 1811/177/1/4)



The royal party leaving the yard (TWAM ref. 1811/177/1/5)


Keller doesn’t express his emotions in his diaries so I can’t tell how much the questions of his nationality affected him. The subject was raised in less difficult circumstances at the opening of the North East Coast Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art on Newcastle’s Town Moor on 14 May 1929. In his entry for that day Keller gives a short account of his introduction to the Prince of Wales in the Palace of Engineering.

 “Mr Charles [Doxford] and self were introduced, Prince asked me, have you built the White Star diesel liner ‘Alcantara’, no Sir built by Harland & Wolff, where are you from – Doxford Sunderland – but you are not English – no Sir, Swiss – oh, oh, oh, fine show here”.


Diary entry, 14 May 1929 (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/2/2/16)


Advertisement for the firm's exhibit at the North East Coast Exhibition (TWAM ref. 1811/175/1)


The diaries allow us fascinating glimpses of the running of the Doxford Engine Works and the pressures on it. A particularly interesting entry on 31 March 1916 shows how the demands of the war effort brought other work to a halt. The entry reads:

“Mr Ernest [Doxford] & Mr Robert [Doxford] called at the Admiralty & were informed that our submarine engine would not assist in the present war & therefore must not be proceeded with any further until all parts for Destroyers are completed”.


Diary entry, 31 March 1916 (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/2/2/3)


There are also interesting entries referring to visits, meetings and labour disputes. An entry on New Year’s Day 1941 hints at some difficulties in labour relations, with Keller noting:

“By Government request all men on work of national importance should be at work. No men turned up for last night shift nor day shift”.


Diary entry, 1 January 1941 (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/2/2/27).


More sinister is the entry for 5 July 1941 containing a mention of “Sabotage by inserting steel drillings” (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/2/2/27).

Keller’s diaries are interesting on many levels – personal, local, national and international. Keller is significant not only as a marine engineer, but also an example of the positive achievements of immigration. Like the Czech engineer and entrepreneur, Miroslav Sigmund (whose personal papers the Archives also holds), he made significant contributions not just to the local economy but also to the national war effort. I hope that these diaries will be well used by many future generations of researchers.




5 Responses to Fascinating diaries to be made available to the public for the first time

  1. Fantastic project! I’ve been making on the same shipyard for the last few years – ‘Where Ships were Born’ examining the last working shipyard on Wearside. You can see it here – http://www.paulalexanderknox.com

  2. Roger Spoors says:

    Hi Alan, I’ve been researching my family history and my grandfather (George Spoors born 1905) and his father (William Spoors born 1867) both worked at Doxfords in Pallion. What would be the best way, if it is even possible, to view any staff records of their time at Doxfords ?
    Thank you
    Roger Spoors

  3. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Roger,

    Thanks for your message. We might well hold some relevant wage books if your ancestors were officials, draughtsmen or foremen. If you can let me know their occupations and whether they worked in the Shipyard, Engine Works or Brassfoundry then I’d be happy to advise you of any surviving records.

    Best wishes,


  4. Alison says:

    I was interested to read your post about Karl Otto Keller. An uncle of mine, who worked at Doxfords as a young man, told some fantastic tale about how Keller and Diesel were on a boat together coming to England, but when the boat docked, Diesel was nowhere to be found. The implication was that Keller had got rid of him. And my father, who was a wages clerk at Doxfords some time in the thirties, got involved in a labour dispute with Keller, which I think ended with my father leaving Doxfords. Unfortunately both my uncle and father are dead, so I can’t verify any of this.

  5. Alan Hayward says:

    Thanks for your message about Karl Otto Keller. Rudolf Diesel’s death in 1913 was certainly a mystery although I’ve never come across any suggestions that Keller was responsible. I assume that this was just a joke doing the rounds at the Engine Works. There seems to be a strong case that Diesel may have committed suicide on his way across to England.

    If you want to explore your father’s service at Doxfords then it might be worth looking through the wages books we hold. There are gaps but we hold an officials wages book for the Engine Works covering the period 24 November 1936 – 3 September 1940 (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/2/54/13). You could also take a look through Keller’s diaries to see whether he mentions a labour dispute. I hope you can be tempted to pay the Archives a visit. You can find details of our opening times and location on our website http://www.twmuseums.org.uk/tyne-and-wear-archives/visiting-us.html.

    Best wishes,


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