• Introduction
  • 1842-1848
  • 1849-1855
  • 1852 -
  • 1853-1894
  • 1886-1967

In 1841, there appeared on Tyneside, the first of 'Three Wise Men' from Aberdeen, who were to be very influential in the shaping of the iron shipbuilding industry in North East England. He was John Henry Sangster Coutts, who could claim to be the builder of the first sizable iron ship on the River Tyne... this was the P.S.'Prince Albert' of 1842.

He was followed from Aberdeen by Charles Mitchell, who eventually had his own shipyard on the Tyne, at Walker. Mitchell went on to fame and fortune, and in later years was to be a generous benefactor to Aberdeen University.

In 1853, on the south bank of the Tyne, at Hebburn, the third man from Aberdeen arrived, to set up an iron shipyard, he was Andrew Leslie, a Shetlander, who had served as a boilermaker in Aberdeen, before coming south to England.

A special thanks to local maritime historians Ron French and Dick Keys for help in compiling this page.

JOHN H.S. COUTTS. (1842-1848)
In a short but notable career, coutts built the S.S.'Q.E.D.' in 1844, credited as the first ship in the world to have the innovative feature of 'double bottoms'... this enabled her to carry the water ballast in tanks, instead of loose sand in the holds; when returning empty to the Tyne from delivering coal to London, the Continent and elsewhere. Coutts recruited many of his workers from Aberdeen, particularly at his second shipyard at Wellington Quay on Tyne 1849 - 1855.

COUTTS & PARKINSON. (1849-1855)

Scotsman Charles Mitchell started building ships at Walker on Tyne in 1852 and purchased a 6.5 acre site at Wallsend in 1873 to soak up excess orders from his Walker shipyard. The new yard failed financially and was handed to his brother-in-law Charles Swan. Charles and his brother Henry were directors of the Wallsend Slipway Company, a repair yard established by Mitchell in 1871. In 1878 Charles arranged a partnership with Sunderland shipbuilder George Hunter but in 1879 Charles died after falling overboard on a channel steamer returning from the continent with his wife. Hunter went into temporary partnership with Swan's wife before becoming Managing Director in 1880. Swan Hunters built their first steel ship at Wallsend in 1884 and their first Oil Tanker in 1889.

ANDREW LESLIE & CO. (1853-1894)
At Hebburn Quay, on the South bank of the Tyne. The site would evolve into 'Hebburn Shipyards' and later shipbuilding operation of R & W. Hawthorn, Leslie & Co. Ltd

18 June,1853 'Newcastle Journal entry' 'Enterprising Mr. Leslie of Aberdeen has taken an eligible site of around 8 acres at Hebburn Quay for iron Shipbuilding and is laying down a large iron ship at present. This is evidence of Tyne shipbuilders and others, being aware of the proximity of iron works and coal supplies for iron shipbuilding purposes.'

Andrew Leslie (1818-1894) was Shetland-born, with work experience at Aberdeen in shipbuilding, and credited with a brief partnership with John Coutts on his arrival. He reclaimed much river frontage, by use of contents of Hebburn Ballast Hill to set up ground for his (later) dry dock and building slips, at invitation of the River Committee.

As sole proprietor of Hebburn Shipyard, he laid the foundations of a shrewdly-run firm that became highly respected name in shipbuilding and marine engineering.

Leslie recruited many workers from N.E. Scotland, many to found long-serving families and earn Hebburn Quay the nickname of 'Little Aberdeen.' This largely self-contained community had 400 Leslie-built houses near the Yard, and they in turn made a large contribution to the erection of Institute / Schools next to St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, whose 200 ft. steeple is still a riverside landmark today.

The original firm launched 255 ships at Hebburn until 1885, also constructing a useful dry dock 1866 (still extant) which brought additional income from ship repair work.

Andrew Leslie retired in 1884, and his much younger partner Arthur Coote (married to Leslie's adopted daughter) quickly made a partnership with locomotive and marine engine builder, R.& W. Hawthorn of Newcastle. The new firm, R.& W. Hawthorn, Leslie & Co. now controlled the Loco Works at Forth Banks, Newcastle; Marine Engine Works at St. Peters and Hebburn Shipyard.

During his retirement, 'Auld Andra' visited his many relatives in Shetland and the crofting folk there, still talk of his many purchases of land for them and general good and generous deeds, for the people he had never forgotten.

Andrew Leslie died peacefully at his home Coxlodge Hall, Gosforth in 1894, and his funeral procession to Newcastle Central Station was a huge affair with hundreds of his old foremen and workers walking the four miles en route, to see him 'awa hame' on a special train to Edinburgh, for burial at Leith Cemetery. Mrs. Leslie had predeceased him and was already in her family (Jordan) plot there.

R.& W. HAWTHORN LESLIE & CO. (1886-1967)
At Hebburn Quay, the site of Andrew Leslie's original 1853 Hebburn Shipyard. Many ships built at Hebburn were engined by the firms own St. Peters Works,. The production of this famous yard ran from Yard No. 258 "PORT PIRIE" 1886, to their final ship, Yard No.766 "WILTSHIRE" of 1968.

The accessible Yard List of the firm shows a great variety of vessels, passenger ships, early oil tankers, British and Foreign naval vessels. Lake Steamers. Even links with Port Line produced orders for at least 21 vessels over the years.

Yard No. 615 H.M.S. "KELLY" an R.N. destroyer flotilla leader, commanded in her brief but glorious career by the 'dashing' Lord Louis Mountbatten, had her first brush with the enemy in May 1940, limping back to Hebburn for major repairs and burial of her dead. Lost in 1941 off Crete, her survivors Association meet annually in Hebburn.

During World War Two, the Yard produced some 58 vessels, from an Aircraft Carrier, 2 Fast Minelayers, 16 Destroyers, 15 Tankers, 3 Cruisers, and 2 Refrigerated Cargo Ships, to Steam Gunboats and D-Day landing craft .... all to do their bit.

Post-war, order books were full and berths busy, as the job of replacing lost tonnage for mainly British companies was undertaken. Among these were some 9 British Tankers and two notable tankers for the Anglo-Saxon Company, the "AURIS" and the "AURICULA" both with revolutionary engineering features, devised by the energetic John Lamb and his back room team from the R.& D. Dept. of Sell Oil. The postwar 'boom' started to tail-off about 1955 and orders became tight, so that by 1967, the firm was receptive to a proposal for a 'consortium' of Tyneside shipbuilders (recommended by the Geddes Report on Shipbuilding) : this to consist of themselves, Swan Hunter, Vickers Walker Naval Yard, Readheads and Clelands.

This came into being on 1 January 1968, as 'Swan Hunter & Tyne Shipbuilders Ltd.' It rapidly became obvious to the Hebburn workforce, that Swans held all the cards, and many unsettling changes took place, leading to the rundown of the Hebburn Shipyard and relegation to a minor role in the overall strategy of the new operation. Very little use was made of the collective expertise of an excellent settled workforce and a shipyard with a high reputation for varied kinds of specialist ships.

Nationalisation and 'British Shipbuilders' succeeded the Consortium, as owners of Hebburn Shipyard, but the decline continued, whether intended or not. By 1985 the Offices and Sheds were being used as a 'Training, Education and Safety Centre' for the apprentices and trainees of British Shipbuilders.

The rest of the site was deserted, slips and dry dock alike, then South Tyneside Council late 1985, went into negotiation with British Shipbuilders for acquisition of the deserted 3.5 acres, including the dry dock. EEC grants were applied for, to develop the site as a Shipbuilding Exhibition Centre and feasibility studies were done. Exhibits gathered at Hebburn included the last Hawthorn-Leslie marine engine, rescued from an old test-bed at Sunderland and the last World War 2 destroyer H.M.S. "CAVALIER" bought as a floating display item. She moved to Chatham naval museum in February 1999 when the S.E.D. did not materialise.

Remaining area of shipyard and dock was sold to Cammell Laird; they folded in 2001, with 800 men and work available, when their Mersey base went into liquidation and A. & P. (Tyne) Ltd. took over at Hebburn. Bellway Homes had built 'Hebburn Village' around the Yard perimeter c.1992 on some of the land occupied by 'Andrew Leslies Houses' in former years.