Recent discoveries and challenges on the Sunderland Shipbuilding Archives Project

For the past month I’ve been busy cataloguing the ships photographs of several Sunderland shipyards, including those for Sir James Laing & Sons Ltd and J.L. Thompson & Sons Ltd. There are thousands of fantastic images of ships launches and sea trials. These photographs will certainly be of most interest to maritime researchers but they should also be of interest to local historians and family historians.

The images may even be useful to those researching the history of fashion. That last statement might seem a little strange until you consider that our shipbuilding collections include hundreds of photographs of men and women attending ships launches dressed in all their finery. A typical example is this photograph taken in September 1957 at the launch of the ‘Harpagus’ by William Doxford & Sons Ltd.


Launch party of the vessel 'Harpagus', 1957 (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/4/PH/1/823/1/1)


It’s the ships, though, that are the real stars and the photographs that I’ve been cataloguing during the past month include some fantastic images. One that particularly caught my eye is this rather artistic view of the ‘Eastern Rover’, built by Joseph L. Thompson & Sons Ltd, taken through the shell plates of its sister ship ‘Eastern Ranger’ (TWAM ref. DS.JLT/4/PH/1/706/2).


'Eastern Rover' ready for launch, 1961 (TWAM ref. DS.JLT/4/PH/1/706/2)


There are also wonderful images of vessels after launch as they are being towed away to the fitting out quay. A great example is this shot of the ‘British Warrior’ launched by J.L. Thompson & Sons on 22 February 1951 showing workers in the foreground and the tug boats ‘Houghton’ and ‘Grangetown’ on the River (TWAM ref. DS.JLT/4/PH/1/669/3).


'British Warrior' under tow on the River Wear shortly after launch, 1951 (TWAM ref. DS.JLT/4/PH/1/669/3)


This photograph of the launch of the ‘Aghios Nicolaos’ by William Doxford & Sons Ltd (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/4/PH/1/805/3/2) is also interesting. It shows different stages of shipbuilding with two vessels under construction on the slipways, the ‘Aghios Nicolaos’ sliding down the ways and the vessel ‘Dona Evgenia’ at the fitting out quay.


Launch of the ‘Aghios Nicolaos’ (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/4/PH/1/805/3/2)


One of the great challenges in cataloguing ships photographs can be trying to put names to unidentified ships. A few weeks ago I came across several unidentified photographs of a Second World War cargo vessel during its sea trials. Apart from the images themselves, the only clue I had to work with was a date on the back of one of the images ‘22/10/43’.


Port side view of the mystery ship (TWAM ref. DS.JLT/4/PH/1/625)


The photographs had been listed with the records of Sir James Laing & Sons but looking through the excellent photograph albums kept by the firm I couldn’t find any vessels that matched the size and style of our mystery ship. Looking desperately for clues a name jumped out at me from the riverbanks – ‘Joseph L. Thompson & Sons’.


Enlarged view of riverbank detail (TWAM ref. DS.JLT/4/PH/1/625)


This made perfect sense since the shipyards of Laing and J.L. Thompson were very closely linked and so I decided to widen my search to the latter. Unfortunately, the Archives doesn’t have many wartime photographs of Thompsons ships so there was no easy way of identifying the vessel by direct comparison. The date on the back of the photograph now came to my rescue. Working on the assumption that the vessel was on its sea trials and therefore essentially finished, I checked the Miramar website for details of any Thompson vessels completed around October 1943. There was one very clear match – the ‘Chinese Prince’, which was launched in March 1943 and handed over in October to its owners, Prince Line.

The next step was to try to confirm my suspicions by consulting a book in our searchroom library Pride of the Princes by Norman Middlemiss. At this point there was an unexpected bit of luck. As I took the book off the library shelf I spotted the book’s author sitting right in front of me in our searchroom. After explaining the situation to him he very kindly offered to take a look at the photographs and by studying the style of the vessel immediately recognised it as a wartime cargo vessel of the Prince Line. Given the date of the images and how they’d come to us this left the ‘Chinese Prince’ as the only likely candidate.

I’d like to give a big ‘thank you’ to Norman Middlemiss for his help in confirming the probable identity of these photographs. As an archivist with responsibility for the full variety of collections that Tyne & Wear Archives holds I have to some extent to be a jack of all trades. It’s really useful to be able to tap into the specialist knowledge of our researchers and we are very fortunate that they are almost invariably approachable and generous with their time.

38 Responses to Recent discoveries and challenges on the Sunderland Shipbuilding Archives Project

  1. Keith Wilkin says:

    I am trying to find a picture of the Daphne, a french steamer built in 1911 by the Sunderland shipbuilding She was sunk in 1928 by the 4-masted barque, Passat off Dungeness. I wonder if you can help or point me in the right direction.


    Keith Wilkin

  2. Alan Hayward says:

    Thank you for your e-mail. I’m afraid that the Archives doesn’t have any photographs or plans of ships built by the Sunderland Shipbuilding Company Ltd. That shipyard seems to have closed around 1925 and unfortunately it’s likely that the company’s records were destroyed at that time. If you haven’t already done so then it might be worth contacting the National Maritime Museum in case they have any images of the ‘Daphne’. Further information can be found on their website!csearch;collectionReference=subject-90518;authority=subject-90518.

    Best wishes,




  4. Andrew Hellens says:

    Did you by any chance come across anything to do with the launching of a ship on 14 January 1896 which went wrong? My ancestor, Murdoch MacDonald was awarded a Royal Humane Society certificate for rescuing 2 men from drowning in the Wear on that date. He was a “plater” working in the yards and family legend has it that he rescued Doxford family members. I have a copy of the certificate.

  5. Alan Hayward says:

    Thanks for getting in touch. The vessel in question must have been the ‘Algoa’ (yard no. 237), which was launched on 14 January 1896. The Board of Directors minute book for that period (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/1/5/1) just states that the ship “was safely launched”. However, something clearly happened since Robert Pile Doxford’s desk diary entry for 24 January 1896 (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/2/1/3) includes a brief note “Humane Society ask for particulars of McDonald’s conduct on the 14th…”.

    The best way to get to the bottom of the incident would be to check the local newspapers to see if anything was reported. The Archives doesn’t hold newspapers but Sunderland Local Studies Library should be able to help. Information about their holdings can be found on the following webpages

    I hope this helps.

  6. Ray Leadbitter says:

    Hi Alan, wonder if I can help, I served my apprenticeship at Doxfords and then sailed as an Engineer on the maiden voyage of the Chinese Prince. I have a copy of times and places where we sailed on her first voyage. We left Sunderland at 10.30am on 8/10/43 for Leith and I am happy to provide further details. The Chinese Prince was sold after the war and renamed the “Nordic” then returned to the Prince Line. (I have a picture you may find of interest). Interestingly the maiden voyage was delayed as she was bombed twice on the River Wear before she left! Foredeck and bridge were badly damaged and the ship next to her was sunk. She was in convoy KMF 26 (K signifying fast, MF signifying Military) which was attacked twice two days running off Bougie in the Med. We were attacked by Heinkels 177s which sank the Rhona with radio controlled bombs and the loss of over one thousand American Troops. This was covered by Offical Secrets and only publicised in the 90s. (Ive exchanged interesting correspondence with the US on this). The next ship to be built after the Chinese Prince, at JLThompsons was the Silver Birch for the Silver Line. Happy to pop in to help. Regards Ray

  7. Alan Hayward says:

    Dear Ray,

    Thanks for your fascinating e-mail. You’ve clearly lived through dangerous and exciting events that I can only imagine.

    If you’d like to come in to take a look at any of the J.L. Thompson, Doxford of other Sunderland shipyard records we hold then you’d be very welcome. My assumption from the information I have is that the unidentified vessel is the ‘Chinese Prince’ and I’d be very grateful if you can confirm this or suggest another potential candidate. We have four other views of the vessel besides the one used in my blog, if that would help.

    Best wishes,


  8. Chris ALLUM says:

    Hello my ancestors were chain and anchor smiths in the 1840s and 1850s. I was just wondering if they would have worked for shipping companies or would they have made them and took them to the docks to sell..they lived on union lane which has gone now I think. My Great Great Grandad was born on Coronation Street. I’m visiting Sunderland in April so could you advise if there is any information as to where to go or see?? Regards

  9. Alan Hayward says:

    Thanks for getting in touch. I suspect that your ancestors would have worked for an anchor or chain manufacturer, rather than a shipyard. You can see the names of individual anchor and chain manufacturers in Sunderland by searching local trade directories for the period you’re interested in. We have a small number of these directories but more comprehensive sets are usually available at local studies libraries.

    If you want to carry out some family history research when you visit in April then you’re very welcome to visit the Archives. We’re based in Newcastle upon Tyne and details of our location and opening times are given on our webpages

    I’m sure that you would also find it interesting to visit Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens You might also find a visit to Sunderland Local Studies Library helpful and further information can be found on their webpages

    I hope this is helpful.

  10. Terry Kent says:

    looking for info on Earl of Elgin involved in fatal collision with Jesmond in May 1870 off Whitby. Have several newpaper reports but looking for photo or drawing etc . My ancestor Charles Kent lost his life in this incident

  11. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Terry,

    I assume that the ship you’re interested in is the ‘Earl of Elgin’ built by the Deptford Yard of Laings in 1861. Unfortunately we don’t have any photographs or plans of that ship. It’s a long shot but you could try contacting the National Maritime Museum to see whether they can help you. Contact details can be found on their website!cbrowse.

    Best wishes,


  12. Adriano says:

    Hello everybody!
    i need to find the construction plans from the Doxford sister ships 1951, Wayfarer 3, Wanderer..or eny other informations, pictures, life on board
    some one can help me?
    thank you

    • Alan Hayward says:

      Thanks for your e-mail. The Archives holds an excellent collection of records for William Doxford and Sons Ltd. These include a few items relating to the vessels ‘Astronomer’ (yard number 785), ‘Wayfarer’ (yard no. 786), ‘Wanderer’ (yard no. 790) and ‘Arbitrator’ (yard no. 791). This collection has not yet been added to our online catalogue but should become searchable there in the near future.

      In the meantime, you’re very welcome to visit our searchroom to look through our paper catalogue for the collection. Details of our location and opening times can be found on our website

      The records include a hull specification for the four vessels (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/4/14/785) and a general arrangement plan of ‘Astronomer’ and ‘Wayfarer’ (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/4/PL/1/785/1). If you have any enquiries about the records we hold for these vessels please e-mail our searchroom team (

      Best wishes,


      • Adriano says:

        Thank you very much for informations, is possible to have/buy a copy of this records?

        • Alan Hayward says:


          Thanks for getting back in touch. We should be able to supply you with a copy of the documents I mentioned. It would be helpful if you could send an e-mail to explaining which documents you’re interested in (whether it’s the plan, hull specification or both). We’ll then contact you and let you know the price.

          Best wishes,


          • Adriano says:

            Thank you very much!
            for real i need everything about..and not only plans, also pictures , eny kind of information about..

  13. Jim MacIntyre says:

    Are there any ships plans from Sir James Laing & Sons ?? Specifically the SS ‘Pacific Unity’ built for Furness Withy in 1948

    • Alan Hayward says:

      Hi Jim,

      Thanks for your e-mail. We do hold ships plans for Sir James Laing & Sons Ltd. Sadly, though, these don’t include any for ‘Pacific Unity’ (yard no. 778).

      We do have a machinery specification for the vessel (TWAM ref. DS.LG/4/8/778), a cost book (TWAM ref. DS.LG/4/12/57), builders and engine agreements (TWAM ref. DS.LG/4/25/79) and photographs of the vessel (TWAM ref. DS.LG/4/PH/2/11 and DS.LG/4/PH/3/3).

      You can see a more detailed description of these by searching our online catalogue putting the ship’s name in the AnyText field. You’re very welcome to visit us to examine these items in our searchroom and details of our location and opening times can be found on our website If you have any questions or would like to order copies of any items please e-mail our searchroom team (

      Best wishes,


  14. tom scott says:

    re .TWAM ref. DS.JLT/4/PH/1/625). I have no picture of Chinese Prince so I have nothing to compare. I was asked several years ago to identify the same ship by a friend. After a few weeks we came to the conclusion that the ship was Port Stephens, yard number 629 completed as Silveroak. Other than a small difference at the foclse head and a pair of derricks in front of the poop, your photo is almost exactly as the drawing in Duncan Hawes “Merchant Fleets – Port Line” page 80. If you certain the ship is the Chinese Prince, I do apologise for interfering.
    tTm (Ex J.L.Thompsons)

  15. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for getting in touch – it’s always a good idea to challenge ideas and consider different options so your input is really appreciated.

    Since my blog I have uncovered one piece of evidence, which seems to confirm that the vessel is the ‘Chinese Prince’. I chanced upon a ‘Motor Ship’ article from June 1944 about an unnamed Doxford-engined ship, built by J.L. Thompson & Sons for the Prince Line. Internal evidence makes it fairly clear that the ship featured in the article is the ‘Chinese Prince’ and the article includes a port side view of the vessel. That view matches the unidentified one that I used in the blog. It was just sheer luck that I spotted it.

    Thanks again for taking the trouble to get in touch. We do have a very good collection of J.L. Thompsons records so if you ever fancy taking a look, please do pay us a visit. Details of our opening times can be found on our website

    Best wishes,


    • tom scott says:

      Thanks for your reply Alan. I am a member of DEFA and have used the archives for many years. I sent Patrick Thompson some material before he died in the hope that he would re-consider his decision not to write a history of the Thompsons, all to no avail, as you know. I have my own archive of Thompsons and Doxfords. Doxfords due in part to te large amount of material salvaged from Kincaids when they ceased production of Doxford spares. Don’t be stuck for Doxford engine info if you are ever in need of it.

  16. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for getting back to me. I don’t know whether you’ve read it, but I wrote a blog about 18 months ago about a donation of Patrick Thompson’s papers that we received There’s some great material in there.

    I’m very interested to hear about your own archive of Thompsons and Doxfords papers – I hope to find out more about it in due course. Thanks also for your kind offer of help with Doxford engine information – all assistance is very gratefully received.

    Best wishes,


  17. Allen Murray says:


    I was wondering if you had records for SP Austin? I am interested in a ship called the Minster built for Stephenson Clarke and launched 27/6/11?

    Many thanks


  18. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Allen,

    Thanks for your enquiry. We have a relatively small quantity of records for S P Austin and Son Ltd and sadly very little seems to have survived for the period that you’re interested in. There’s a book of newspaper cuttings and press releases kept by the firm for the years 1880-1936 (TWAM ref. DS.AP/5/5/1). You’re very welcome to visit us to take a look at it and details of our location and opening times can be found at

    It might be worth contacting Sunderland Local Studies Library since I understand that they have an album of photographs of vessels built by the firm from 1911 to the 1950s. Contact details can be found at

    Best wishes,


  19. Len says:

    I have been trying to find the name of a vessel that ran aground in Australia or New Zealand in or about 1958 through 60 . She had a Sunderland Crew who were seriously injured and was carrying Doxford’s engines. Any leads appreciated .Thanks.

  20. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Len,

    Thanks for your message. I’m afraid that we can’t help. Our records relate largely to the production of the ships and engines built by Tyne & Wear firms and not their later careers. It’s hard to advise you of where else to contact because the information you have isn’t very precise. You could try the Australian National Maritime Museum to see if they can help. Contact details can be found on their website Good luck with your search.

    Best wishes,


  21. Barbara Rae-Venter says:

    Do you have a picture in your archives of the barque Fatima?

    R. Hutchinson, Sunderland, England
    Wrecked upon Great Detached Reef on 26 June 1854.

    I would greatly appreciate a copy.

  22. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Barbara,

    Thank you very much for getting in touch. I’m afraid that we don’t have any images of the ‘Fatima’. It’s unlilkely that an image survives but you could always contact the National Maritime Museum just in case they can help. Contact details can be found on their website!cbrowse.

    Best wishes,


  23. Douglas Jupp says:

    To Whom it may concern,
    we are currently embarking on riveting an old steel ship and wondered if anyone could point us in the right direction to be able to contact old ship builders/riveters mainly to share there Knowledge and experience about riveting ships.
    we have lots of equipment and have carried out repairs before but would really benefit from someone experienced in riveting ships
    Dougie Jupp

  24. Alan Hayward says:


    Thanks for getting in touch. I’m afraid that I can’t offer any personal advice but I’ll certainly forward your e-mail to colleagues. If anyone can help I’m sure that they’ll contact you.

    Best wishes,


  25. Diane Oldman says:

    I am researching the ships that brought the convicts and their pensioner guards to Western Australia in the years 1857-1868 in my quest for background about veterans of the Crimean War in Western Australia.
    The Norwood made two voyages to WA – 1862 and 1867. Lloyds Register indicates she was built in Sunderland in 1854 and was owned by Luscombes at the time of her WA voyages. Unfortunately Lloyds does not identify the builder.
    Any ideas?

    Diane Oldman

  26. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Diane,

    Thanks for your message about the ‘Norwood’. We have lists of ships built in Sunderland covering the period that you’re interested in. These were extracted from the Customs House registers for that port. I’m afraid, though, that I couldn’t find an entry for the ‘Norwood’ in the entries for 1853-1855. Do you know whether she might have been built under a different name?

    Best wishes,


  27. Stan Taylor says:

    Hi Alan!
    Certain things may not be in your records for instance I submitted two (J.L.Thompson’s) stories from the Northsands Yard Sunderland Shipbuilders to
    These concerned the “Kosmaj” 1977 page 135 and the “Borgsten” 1964 page 134. You may find them of interest?
    Cheers Stan.

  28. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Stan,

    Thanks for getting in touch. There’s a lot of useful information on Peter Seale’s website and I was really interested to read your reminiscences. It’s pretty clear that repairing the ‘Kosmaj’ was a major achievement.

    In the near future I’m hoping to put together a new set of 12-15 Sunderland shipyard images on Flickr. These will focus on ship launches. We don’t have images of all vessels built on the Wear but if there are one or two vessels that you’d particularly like to see included just let me know. I’ll try to oblige if I can.

    Late last year we created a flickr set dedicated to Sunderland’s shipyard workers If you’ve got any additional information relating to those images it would be great if you could add your comments to them.

    Best wishes,


  29. David mills says:

    I stood by the Baron Minto in 1959 as 3rd mate as she was finishing fitting out. At Austin and Pickersgills. The skipper was Capt. William Warden from Tyree. We did a long trip, around a year as I remember mostly in the Pacific. She was a fine . The 2nd mate took I’ll in Melbourne and was flown home so I was promoted and the senior apprentice made acting 3rd mate, he was a Manxman.

  30. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi David,

    Thanks for your comment.

    The Archives holds some images of the launch of ‘Baron Minto’ from the Deptford Yard of Sir James Laing & Sons and also some shots of her on sea trials. You’re very welcome to take a look at these by visiting our public searchroom

    I’ll also try to add an image of ‘Baron Minto’ to our Sunderland launches Flickr set when time allows

    Best wishes,


  31. Nichol Morton says:

    Have just come across your posts on the Internet while doing some family history research. My wife’s ancestor married into the Hutchinson family (Edwin). His father John also known as Jackie and his brothers William and Ralph were all shipbuilders on the Wear, mainly at Panns during the 19th century. Just wondering if you have anything on them on your records. I have a readers ticket so could pop along to Blandford St if there is anything to view. 🙂

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