Recent developments on the ‘We Mak’em’ Sunderland Shipbuilding archives project

It’s been an exciting past month on the Sunderland Shipbuilding archives project. For one thing I now have a ‘glamorous’ assistant, Colin Boyd, who will be working part-time with me for the next year. Colin has worked in the shipbuilding industry and so he brings valuable technical and historical knowledge to the project. He is already making excellent progress sorting through the large quantity of unlisted ships plans we hold for the company of Bartram and Sons Ltd.

Most of my recent work has focussed on cataloguing the records of the firm of Sir James Laing & Sons Ltd. The firm dates back to 1793 and was established by two brothers, Philip and James Laing, who moved to Sunderland from Fife, in Scotland. Our collection of Laings records is one of the largest that I will work on during the project and includes many of the oldest Sunderland shipbuilding documents we hold.

The earliest shipbuilding record we hold for Sunderland is a ships particulars book for Laings dating from 1794 to 1895 (TWAM ref. DS.LG/4/2/1). This is a fascinating volume, which includes general information about the earliest vessels built by the firm. The collection is full of such gems and includes something to appeal to everyone. For instance there’s a wage book covering the years 1800-1801 (TWAM ref. DS.LG/2/12/1). This wage book is by far the oldest shipbuilding employee record we hold for Sunderland. The names in the book will be of interest to family historians, while the information about rates of pay to foremen, carpenters, hewers, sawyers, borers and smiths should prove just as valuable for social history research.

Wage book entries dating from 1800 (TWAM ref. DS.LG/2/12/1)

I also recently discovered an early ships cost book for Laings (TWAM ref. DS.LG/4/12/1). This cost book contains interesting details of the materials and labour used in building individual ships and includes the names of firms that supplied Laings. This cost book dates back to 1857 and includes a double-page entry for one of the best known vessels built on the River Wear, the ‘Torrens’.

Cost book entry for the Torrens, 1875 (TWAM ref. DS.LG/4/12/1)

Launched in 1875, she was a composite ship of iron frame and wooden planks. The ‘Torrens’ was renowned for her speed and set a new record journey time from London to Adelaide, making the voyage in 64 days. She is also well known through her association with the novelist, Joseph Conrad, who served as an officer on the ‘Torrens’ in the early 1890s, during which time he started writing his first novel.

The collection includes many excellent series of photographs. These relate mainly to the ships built by Laings and I hope to include some of these images in a future blog, once they have been catalogued. Other subjects are covered as well, including royal visits, employees and the shipyard premises. I’m particularly keen on aerial photographs and the collection includes several excellent shots of the Deptford Yard, taken in July 1959 by the firm Turners (Photography) Ltd.  As well as showing the shipyard itself they also reveal fascinating details of the surrounding area.

Aerial photograph of Deptford Yard, Sunderland, July 1959 (TWAM ref. DS.LG/5/3/2)

All in all, it’s been a busy but very rewarding month … and that’s without mentioning a fantastic new donation of Sunderland shipbuilding records that I collected just over a week ago. I’d love to reveal more but that will have to wait till next month’s blog.

6 Responses to Recent developments on the ‘We Mak’em’ Sunderland Shipbuilding archives project

  1. Richard Leighton says:

    I would like to find out about members of my family(mother side) who worked at Laings ship builders Sunderland around 1940s-70s Family name Shanks. My Grand father Richard(Dickie)Shanks Uncles Tommy, Billy Andrew Any help greatly received .Rich Leighton

  2. Alan Hayward says:

    Thanks for your comment. You might be in luck because the Laings personnel records we hold include four wage books covering the period 1946-1961 (TWAM ref. DS.LG/2/12/2-5). These wage books are unusual in that they appear to cover the whole of the shipyard staff from apprentices to directors.

    I’m afraid that restrictions on staff time prevent us from searching the records for you. You are very welcome, though, to visit our searchroom in person to look at them. You can find details of our location and opening times on our website If you’re unable to visit us then we do offer a paid research service, which you can use I hope this is helpful.

    Best wishes,


  3. Keith Stuart says:


    Could you please tell me if you have the personnel records for Doxford engines. I’m particularly looking for stuff on my Dad Percy Stuart who worked there from about 1942 till the 1980s I’m also trying to trace details of my apprenticeship there as I worked there from 1974 till 1980

    Its very satisfying to know records for the yards survived even if sadly the yards did not themselves. Good luck with your archiving

    Keith Stuart

  4. Alan Hayward says:

    Thanks for getting in touch. We do have some personnel records for Doxford’s Engine Works. These include wages books and time sheets for clerks, foremen and draughtsmen covering the period 1881-1960. There’s also an apprenticeship register January 1912 – August 1948 (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/2/61).

    You’re welcome to visit us to look at these and our location and opening times are shown on our website If you’re unable to visit us then we do have a paid research service that you can use

    The Doxford records also include a starters book for the Engine Works, January 1936 – September 1949 (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/2/63/3). Access to the starters book is restricted because it contains potentially sensitive information about some employees who could still be alive. However, we could always search through it for you via the paid research service I mentioned.

    I’m afraid that we don’t have any Doxford apprenticeship records covering your time there. With a bit of luck, some day they’ll find their way to the Archives.

    Best wishes,


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