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Gray's Shipyard

Details about Gray's Shipyard

William Gray & Co.                                      1874-1889
William Gray & Co. Ltd.                               1889-1918
William Gray & Co. (1918) Ltd.                    1919-1923
William Gray & Co. Ltd.                               1923-1963

The early partnership with John Punshon Denton

William Gray settled in Hartlepool in 1843. He owned a successful drapery business, and had investments in several ships. In 1863he formed a partnership with local shipbuilder John Punshon Denton. The new firm was named Denton, Gray and Company. They intended to build iron ships, which were just starting to replace wooden-built vessels.  They extended Denton’s yard at Middleton to include part of the former Richardson Brothers’ yard. Their first ship Dalhousie  (later renamed the Sepia) was launched on 23rd January 1864.

In 1865Denton, Gray & Co joined with shipbuilders Richardson, Duck and Company of Stockton, and marine engine builders T. Richardson and Sons. The new partnership was called Richardson, Denton, Duck and Company. A slump in the market meant that this new firm only lasted until September 1866. After this all the firms went back to their original ownership and names.

The success of Denton, Gray and Co.

In 1867 Denton, Gray & Co launched the Lizzie English, which is thought to have been the first well-deck steamer. In the same year, they expanded into a disused shipyard which had belonged to Blumers. As orders increased the firm needed still more workspace and, in June 1868, they leased the vacant Pile, Spence yard. By summer of 1869, all the workforce had been transferred to the new yard, while the Middleton yards, including Blumers, were taken over by Withy, Alexander and Co. The move meant that Denton, Gray and Co. now had two dry-docks. This allowed them to increase their business in repairing and over-hauling ships as well as shipbuilding.

The end of the partnership

When William Gray and J.P. Denton first went into business together they had each put up an equal share of the money needed. They had agreed to divide the profits, with Denton taking 55% and Gray 45%. This was because Denton intended to take care of most of the running of the business, leaving Gray free to do other things. When Denton became ill in 1869 Gray had to take over more of the work, so they agreed to share the profits equally. Some legal problems were beginning to develop in the partnership, however.

Both of Denton’s sons worked for the firm, and he wanted them to become partners. Gray did not agree. He was willing to take on Denton’s older son, Richard, but he wanted his own eldest son, Matthew, as the other partner, as soon as he was old enough. There had been no legal documents drawn up when Gray and Denton went into partnership, since they had trusted that “a man’s word is his bond”. The two men could not reach an agreement and the matter was put in the hands of the courts. No decision had been made by the time of Denton’s death in 1871.

William Gray and Company

By 1874 the courts had still not reached a conclusion over who should be allowed to become a partner, and finally Richard Denton left the firm. It was now renamed as William Gray and Company. The first ship launched by the new firm was the Sexta in August 1874. In 1877 Matthew Gray, William’s older son, became a junior partner.

The new company was even more successful than the old one had been. In 1878 William Gray and Company launched eighteen ships. This earned them the “Blue Riband”, which was a prize for the most ships built in a year by any British shipyard. They won the same award in 1882, 1888, 1895, 1898 and 1900.

The Central Marine Engineering Works

In 1883 Gray leased a ten-acre site for a new works, which would build engines for his ships. At the time the only other marine engine works in the port was that of Thomas Richardson. Gray recruited Thomas Mudd, who had formerly worked at Richardson’s, to design and run the new firm, which he called the Central Marine Engine Works (CMEW). The new company gave employment to 1000 men. Their first engine was produced in 1885, and was fitted in the Enfield.

CMEW soon gained a reputation for the quality of its work. This was in a large part due to Thomas Mudd, who used many of his own ideas and designs in the engines. By 1894, when he was made a director of the company, CMEW engines were being made not just for Gray’s ships, but for shipyards all over the world.

Safety at sea

Conditions on board ship at the end of the 19th century were not very safe. Vessels were often dangerously overloaded with cargo. A Member of Parliament called Samuel Plimsoll campaigned to have a line drawn on the side of a ship, which would disappear underwater if the ship were too heavily loaded. William Gray was a member of the Parliamentary Committee which made the Plimsoll line law in 1876.

Gray was also involved in the development of a new design of ship, called the well-deck. Up until now, ships had been designed the same way regardless of whether they were powered by sail or steam. Cargo ships had holds (spaces to store the cargo), at the front and back. The engine needed for a steamship took up a lot of space at the back of the ship. This reduced the size of the rear cargo hold, and put the ship off balance. This was very dangerous in bad weather, as the ship could capsize. The well-deck design lowered the front cargo hold and raised the rear hold to be partly above deck level. This increased the amount of  rear cargo storage space, and gave the ship better balance.

In 1884, Gray gave evidence before the Royal Commission on Loss of Life at Sea. He showed that the new well-deck design was far safer and less likely to capsize than other cargo ships. His arguments convinced the Commission, and a few years later an Act of Parliament was introduced, supporting the well-deck design.

Oil Tankers

On 16th June 1886, a Tyneside shipbuilding firm, Armstrong, Mitchell and Co. launched the world’s first oil tanker, the Gluckauf.  Gray’s launched their own tanker, the Bakuin, on 17th June, and so missed the record by just one day.

At this time most of the world’s supply of oil came from the Standard Oil Company. The cheapest way to ship oil around the world was through the Suez Canal. This had been opened in 1869, and provided a short-cut between the Mediterranean and Red Seas. In 1892 the Suez Canal Company introduced new regulations which all ships had to meet before they could go through the canal. In May of the same year Gray’s launched the Murex, the first of six ships ordered by a London man named Marcus Samuel. These ships met the new regulations exactly. The ships belonging to Standard Oil did not. This allowed Samuel to win a share of the oil market away from Standard Oil, and was the beginning of the now-famous Shell Oil Company.

Keeping the work coming in

Gray’s yards were always kept busy with ship building, repairing and overhauling. William Gray encouraged business by offering credit to would-be ship owners. One of these was Marcus Samuel, founder of Shell Oil. The first of his ships, the Murex cost £47,000 to build in 1892, but at first Samuel only paid out £6,350. This kind of arrangement meant that William Gray held shares in about half of the ships his yard built. This was profitable for him, but also meant that people like Samuel were able to build ships they otherwise couldn’t afford.

Changes in the Company

Towards the end of the 19th century, demand was for bigger ships. This led to the opening, in 1887, of another Gray shipyard at the end of the Central Dock. On 1st January 1889 the firm became a private limited company. William Gray remained as chairman, with his sons Matthew and William, and his son-in-law George Henry Baines, as directors.

Matthew Gray died in 1896, followed two years later by both Sir William Gray, and Thomas Mudd. This left Sir William’s younger son, William Cresswell Gray, as Chairman of the company.

Extending the business

The new chairman, William Cresswell Gray, began a series of additions to the company. In 1898 he purchased Milton Forge and Engineering Company. This increased the number of marine engines, boilers, pumps and other steam driven machinery which C.M.E.W. could produce.

Also in1898, the company purchased the Malleable Iron Co Ltd and the Moor Steel Works, both in Stockton. These were combined with the West Hartlepool Steel and Iron Company, to form the South Durham Steel and Iron Co Ltd., providing materials to build Gray’s ships.

By 1900 two more berths for building ships had been added to the Central shipyard. Gray’s now had eleven berths, and employed 3000 men.

In 1913 Gray’s extended the lease on their shipyards. It had been due to expire in 1925, but would now last until 1950. At the same time, they leased some land on the banks of the River Tees near Greatham Creek. This was intended for a new shipyard, to be called Graythorpe. The plans had to be put on hold, however, when the First World War started in 1914. It was to be 1924 before the Graythorpe yard finally opened for business.

The effects of the First World War

The outbreak of the First World War brought a boom time to the shipyards. As well as their usual orders from commercial ship owners, Gray’s also built war ships and other vessels for the Admiralty. One of these was to have a very short career. The cargo ship War Crocus left the shipyard for the first time on the evening of 7th July 1918. By early the next morning she had reached Flamborough Head, where she was struck by a torpedo and sunk. Fortunately all her crew were saved.

In 1916 part of CMEW was set up as a production line to make shell cases for explosives. Almost all the workers at the “shell factory” were women. In 1917 the important part the yards played in the war effort was marked by a visit from King George V and Queen Mary.

William Gray & Co (1918) Ltd.

In 1918, Sir William Cresswell Gray joined with Lord Inchcape, Sir John Ellerman and F.C. Strick to form the EGIS Shipbuilding Co. This was based on the River Wear. The new firm was short-lived, however. Their first ship had not been completed before the EGIS Co. went out of business, and was merged with Gray’s to form William Gray and Company (1918) Ltd. Gray’s existed in this form until 1923, when it changed its name for the final time, back to William Gray & Co. Ltd.

The slump in shipbuilding after the war

When the First World War ended in 1918, the demand for new ships began to fall. Irvine’s Shipbuilders were unable to survive the slump, and launched their last ship in 1924. This left Gray’s as the only shipbuilders in the Hartlepools.

William Cresswell Gray died on 1st November 1924, and the firm was taken over by his son, also called William. Although the company was badly hit by the recession, they managed to keep going. In 1929 they launched their 1000th ship, the City of Dieppe.

By this time William Gray & Co. had two berths at Jackson Docks and two at Swainson Docks, five at the Central yard, four berths at the Wear yard and four at the Tees yard (although these were actually never used). The C.M.E.W. had made 774 engines, and other engineering jobs. The company employed 3500 workers.

In the early 1930s the economic depression got much worse. Gray’s shipyard on the River Wear was closed down in 1930, and the company built no ships at all during 1931 and 1933. Many local people were dependant on Gray’s for their living, and used to gather at the shipyard hoping for work. In order to stay in business, Gray's took on any jobs they could get. In 1934 they took an order from the London and North Eastern Railway Company to build a pair of paddle steamers; the Wingfield Castle and the Tattershall Castle. Although these were not the type of ships Gray’s normally built, it was the only order they had that year, and helped to keep the yard open. For many years afterwards the two paddle steamers provided a passenger ferry service across the River Humber. The Wingfield Castle finally retired from service in 1974, after carrying more than ten million passengers, and travelling over half a million miles backwards and forwards over the river. In 1986 she was bought by Hartlepool Borough Council, and returned to the town to be restored. She is now part of the Museum of Hartlepool, and is moored in almost exactly the place where she was first launched.

Shipbuilding during the Second World War

The Second World War began in September 1939. As before, the outbreak of war brought a huge boost to the shipping industry. Gray’s repaired and overhauled old ships, as well as building new ones. From the launch of the first of these ships the Empire Bay on the 18th of January 1940, to the final one, Empire Gower on the 18th of January 1946, ‘Gray’s’ built 73 ships. There were four types of ships built,  ‘Collier’ class 9 ships, ‘Empire Malta’ class 10 ships, ‘Scandinavian‘ class 24 ships, & ‘Tramp’ class 30 ships. The ship with the shortest life was Empire Knoll which  was completed in early February 1941 and. after loading coal for Lisbon at Hartlepool went ashore at Tynemouth on the 17th of February and. became a total wreck. The ship with the longest life was Empire Buttress, which by then being named Daring, was scrapped in 1976 at Split in Yugoslavia. The yards also built a number of ships under private contracts during these war years.

The aftermath of the war

The yard continued to be kept busy for some years after 1945, with orders from shipping firms who had lost their fleets in the war. In 1955, William Gray appointed his elder son, William Talbot Gray as joint managing director. He gave the other post to Stephen Furness, whose family had also been important local shipbuilders. Furness retired in 1958. By this time, British shipbuilding was once more struggling to survive.

During the 1950s Japan and Germany began to take over the market for shipbuilding and repairing. Their industries had been badly damaged during the war, but were now being rebuilt with the most up-to-date equipment. At the same time, British shipyards were suffering from industrial disputes and problems with their suppliers, which made them unreliable. In addition, ships were becoming much bigger, and the old yards did not have the space to build them.

The end of the Hartlepool shipyard

By the beginning of the 1960s, William Gray & Co. was unable to stay in business any longer. They launched their last ship, the Blanchland in 1961. They continued with some ship repair work for a while longer, but finally went into voluntary liquidation in December 1962, with the yards closing down completely in 1963. William Gray died in 1978, aged 82. His son, William Talbot Gray, was killed in a car accident in 1972.

The impact Gray’s shipyards had on the town

Gray’s shipyards were one of the largest employers in the Hartlepools for almost a century. C.M.E.W. was in existence for 80 years. With their closure, followed by the town’s other main industry, the steel works, Hartlepool fell into a period of poverty and high unemployment. This began to change in the early 1990s, when large areas of the town were redeveloped. The docks where Gray’s once built their ships have now become a marina, attracting small sailing vessels from all over the world.


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