Launching the careers of two ‘Northern Stars’


The North East has produced many fine musicians. One of its most celebrated, Sting, has written his first musical The Last Ship, which is due to open on Broadway next year. Songs from the show were recently released in an album of the same name. The Last Ship relates to the dramatic decline of the Swan Hunter shipyard in the 1980s as it prepared for closure. As a young boy, Sting grew up in Wallsend in the shadow of that great shipyard and his childhood experiences clearly left a strong mark on him.

In a recent interview with the journalist Rob Fitzpatrick he mentioned one event in particular, which influenced the rest of his life. Sting remembers seeing The Queen Mother in the early 1960s as she was being driven past to launch a ship on the Tyne. As he recalls in the interview “That was when I got infected. That was when I thought: ‘I don’t want this life: I want that one’. Once I’d found a guitar to play I found a friend to help me get there”.

I thought it would be interesting to explore this a bit. The event which brought The Queen Mother to Tyneside and fired his ambition seems very likely to have been the launch of the ‘Northern Star’. She was a passenger ship built by Vickers Armstrong and launched by The Queen Mother at the firm’s Walker Naval Yard in 1961.

The Archives holds a number of superb images of the vessel and the recent launch of Sting’s album gives me an excellent excuse to share a few of them with you. The images were taken by the Newcastle-based photography firm Turners Ltd. There’s a great colour shot of the vessel being prepared for launch.

'Northern Star' nearly ready for launch, 27 June 1961 (TWAM ref. DT.TUR/4/AG1755B)

Meanwhile The Queen Mother was arriving by car.

The Queen Mother arrives at the Walker Naval Yard, 27 June 1961 (TWAM ref. DT.TUR/2/26948R)

Leaving just enough time for the shipyard workers to get the slipway ready …

Workers preparing the slipway at Walker Naval Yard, 27 June 1961 (TWAM ref. DT.TUR/2/26948K)

… before the ‘Northern Star’ slides down into the River Tyne.

'Northern Star' is launched, 27 June 1961 (TWAM ref. DT.TUR/4/AG1754A)

If any readers remember the launch and would like to share their memories of the day then please do leave a comment at the bottom of his page.  The Turners collection includes many more images of the ‘Northern Star’ and the Archives also holds over twenty plans of the ship (TWAM ref. DS.VA/1/175/1-22). If you’d like to visit us to take a look you can find details of our location and opening times on our website.

For those of you who appreciate moving pictures you can also enjoy a film clip of the launch on the British Pathé website

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9 Responses to Launching the careers of two ‘Northern Stars’

  1. Carolyn says:

    Hi Alan
    Great blog and photos. Any idea why the Queen Mother is wearing different shoes? It looks as though she has some sort of protective shoe on her left foot.

  2. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Carolyn,

    Thanks for the kind words. Good spot on the shoes! The protective shoe must relate to an injury that the Queen Mother had suffered. If you look at the film of the launch you’ll notice that she spends part of the time in a wheelchair.

    Best wishes,


  3. Liz Rees says:

    According to Mail Online she’d cracked a small bone in her foot

  4. As part of the Turners Film Production collection originally held at Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums and now part of the North East Film Archive at Teesside Univeristy in Middlesbrough, there is a wonderful 22 minute promotional film of the construction, launch and fitting-out of the Northern Star. I think a worth additional to go alongside the plans and photographs.

  5. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for mentioning the promotional film for the ‘Northern Star’. It sounds like a fantastic complement to the documents we hold here at the Archives.

    Best wishes,


  6. Matt says:

    I find this fascinating. I am Sting fan and I have read/seen the recent interviews with him where he says that he wanted to be the 1 in the car with people watching him as he stood by watching the Queen’s mother passing by. Learning about the date, the ship that she launched, even down to a foot injury she had almost makes me imagine I was there. Fantastic article!

  7. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks for your comment – I’m really glad that you enjoyed the blog. I know what you mean about almost imagining you were there. Photographs can have a great way of drawing you in and making you feel a part of the scene.

    Best wishes,


  8. jeremy says:

    The Queen Mother’s visit is mentioned in the lyric of the new Sting song “The Last Ship”. The theatrical premiere of the musical of which this is a part takes place in Chicago in June before going to New York. Sting says there are no plans to bring it to the UK yet.. but who knows!

  9. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Jeremy,

    Thanks for your extra nugget about the mention of the visit in “The Last Ship”. I’m sure that if the musical does well on Broadway it’ll come to the UK. It would be great to have it performed in the North East.

    Best wishes,


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