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Ship Launch – On Saturday afternoon, there was launched from the shipbuilding yard of Messrs Gowans and Wilson, a handsomely modelled screw-steamer named Herrera, built to the order of Messrs Robert Macandrew and Co. of London for the Spanish trade. The vessel, which will carry upwards of 1000 tons, is 210 feet between perpendiculars and 30 feet beam, while the depth of the hold is 17 feet 3 inches.
The Newcastle Courant, Friday, September 6 1878.
The first boat-building activity on the site that was to become Berwick Shipyard appears to have begun in October 1751. This was when Arthur Byram, a qualified boat builder, moved to the town and set up home in Palace Green with the intention of starting up his own shipyard.
The Berwick Freeman’s Guild gave him permission to set up a yard on the Berwick side of the river, outside the Elizabethan walls below the eight-gun battery. The Guild allowed Byram to ‘import coastwise oak-planks, oak-timber, blocks, sails rigging and other materials the town cannot supply for carrying on said business at such easy rates as in other towns of England and free of town’s duties and water bailiffs fees.' The establishment of the yard also saw the creation of separate ropery business set up by a Newcastle ropemaker in February 1752 that would become the Berwick Ropery Company.
Berwick upon Tweed as seen from the South in the 18th Century.
Byram continued his shipbuilding and repair business until 1789 when, due to old age, he handed the business over to his son in law, Robert Gowans. Arthur Byram died later that year. The yard at this time employed over twenty workers, and a time-served man’s weekly pay was fifteen shillings. On Robert’s death in 1802, his wife, Elizabeth, took over the running of the yard until their son, Arthur Byram Gowan, was old enough to take charge in 1814.
In 1825, he asked for a forty-year lease on the yard, to make it worth his while to upgrade the yard. This was granted at an annual rent of twenty-seven pounds, and a slipway was built at the yard, which would allow vessels to be hauled up into the yard for repair.
Arthur also appears to have built several ships for himself, running several between 1850 to 1870, varying from small cutters to large brigs of almost two hundred tons. It was during this period that Gowan became one of the shipbuilders of choice for James Fisher of Barrow that would lgo on to become one of the biggest fleets in the United Kingdom (Click here to find out more).
In 1867 Arthur Byram Gowan died, and the business was taken over by his son also called Arthur Byram Gowan. In 1874, after gaining a further twenty one-year lease on the yard, Arthur made plans for further upgrading of the yard and the slipway.
Looking across the Tweed towards the site of Gowans yard. Circa 1842.
Until 1877, all vessels built at the yard had been made of wood. However, at this date, Arthur entered into partnership with John Wilson, a former shipyard manager from Tyneside, and they set about converting the yard to building in iron. Gowan was the senior partner, as he owned the lease of the yard, and also the equipment, with Wilson supplying only his experience, skills and knowledge of building in iron.
The firm was now called Gowan and Wilson. Four iron-hulled vessels were built in total, the final one being the Montanez, completed in 1878. Montanez like her sister vessel, Herrera also built at Berwick was 210 feet in length and 1,040 tons (see panel to left). These would be the biggest vessels ever to be built at Berwick. After Montanez left the Tweed there were no further orders, and the yard closed at the end of 1878. A number of factors may have contributed to its demise including the expansion of the railway network which caused a downturn in the coastal shipping. This explanation is supported by a story in the Edinburgh Evening News in November 1878 which reported that ...In consequence of the dulnes (sic) of the trade, a number of the 200 men employed In Messrs Gowan's and Wilson's shipbuilding yard were paid off on Saturday. The failure of the company was mentioned in the Shields Daily Gazette of 21st February 1879 which reported that the firm had liabilities of £8,814 5s and a receiver had been appointed.
Throughout the years, the yard was an important source of employment building around four sailing vessels per year of various types and sizes including schooners, clippers, brigs, smacks, sloops and small cutters. The shipyard remained closed until 1950, when it was re-opened by William Weatherhead and Sons of Cockenzie.
There are two ship builders in this place. Mr Gowans on the Berwick side employs from 20 to 25 journeymen and apprentices. The pay of a journeyman at present is 15s weekly; four vessels upon an average are built here yearly.
Fuller, J. (1799), The History of Berwick Upon Tweed: Including a Short Account of the Villages of Tweedmouth and Spittal, &c. pp. 378–379.
At a date after the opening of the Byram Gowan yard, a further yard was opened situated on the south side of the river. This was Bruce’s yard, which closed in the early 1800’s. Mention of this yard is made in of Bruce's yard in Fuller's History of Berwick upon Tweed (see right) the publication of which coincided with the opening of another yard opened on the Tweedmouth side, owned by Joseph Todd and Company.
Joseph Todd, eldest son of Richard John was a cooper to trade who was admitted as a burgess of Berwick in 1793. With the assistance of his then partners John Robertson and John Miller Dickson Todd established a yard at Tweedmouth in 1800. Robertson was a merchant while the Dickson was a well known sailmaker.
The location of Todd's yard was a cramped quarter of an acre site at the southern end of Berwick Bridge. On 1st October 1800 the Corporation of Berwick granted him and his partners a 21-year lease on the Tweedmouth site for an annual rent of £15. Today this area is the site of a monumental stonemason's yard. In 1800 the river banks sloped and were not built up as they are today. The area on which Todd's yard was located was also the part of the Tweed where vessels were brought to for careening.Few details are known of the vessels constructed at Todd's yard with the exception of two warships, HMS Forward and HMS Rover that were built for the Royal Navy and completed in 1805 and 1808. Both vessels were designed by John Henslow and Wiliam Rule, surveyors for the Navy. Forward was a 12-gun brig of 179 tons. Rover, at 382 tons and over 100' long was a vessel of the 'Cruiser' class originally built to carry 18 guns and carry a crew of 121 men. By the time that Rover was launched, Robertson and Dickson had withdrawn from the partnership leaving Todd to continue on his own. The end came in 1810 when faced with financial difficulties Todd was declared bankrupt. Shortly afterwards it is understood that he emigrated to America. On the Berwick side of the river, there was another yard, owned by Davis Cockerill from 1766 until 1774. This same period saw the opening of the Ralph Forster yard at Tweedmouth.
To see the locations of the Berwick and Tweedmouth yards click on boxes 10, 11 or 14. A new page will open in your browser. Place your mouse over the map sheet on the new page and use the 'expand' control to view the section of the map in more detail.
A later yard at Tweedmouth Docks was set up by the firm of Lee and Wight, who built three early steam-powered fishing vessels. This first of these Anglia (SN67), was built in 1889, which probably makes it the first English-built steam drifter, although several had been built in Scotland previously.
Barrow T. 2000. Corn carriers and coastal shipping: the shipping and trade of Berwick and the borders, 1730-1830. The Journal of Transport History Volume 21 Issue 1, pp 6-27
Evans J. 1908. Recollections by “Quaysider”
Fuller J. 1999. The History of Berwick upon Tweed, . Edinburgh*
Tarvit J. 2004. Steam Drifters – A Brief History, , St Ayles Press.