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During the 19th century 26 vessels were built at Berwick for the Barrow firm of James Fisher.

Mary Watkinson
Mary Watkinson built at Berwick in 1872 is pictured here off Poole harbour in 1921 while under the ownership of George Grounds of Runcorn. Photo: © National Maritime Museum, London (Image No. 30.41) Reproduced with permission,

During the twenty years between 1857 and 1877 the Barrow-in-Furness company of James Fisher was to be the biggest customer of the Berwick yard of AB Gowan.  Founded by James Fisher in 1847 the company’s initial growth and success was derived from transporting rich haematite ore. Abundant deposits were found on the Barrow peninsular. Demand for ore, iron and later steel products was fuelled by the expansion of the railways. The Barrow Haematite Iron and Steel Company became a major exporter of steel rails to railways around the world.

James Fisher became a shipping agent for the firm of Schneider and Company, one of the main players in the booming iron industry. He realised that success depended on a reliable source of ships and invested in new vessels.  The development of shipping business was such that by the 1870’s Fisher’s fleet had grown to become one of the largest  in the United Kingdom.

AB Gowan was one of a small number of favoured shipbuilders chosen by James Fisher for the construction of new vessels. In the 1850’s he adopted the practice of purchasing new vessels and thereafter selling off shares to investors in the Barrow area while often retaining a small shareholding for himself.  In this way he was able to reduce the degree of financial risk to which the company would otherwise have been exposed. 

The majority of vessels built at Berwick for Fishers by AB Gowan were schooners and for good reason.  They were cheaper and more efficient to run than square rigged vessels and were easier to maintain.  Added to these advantages were their sea-keeping qualities, speed and ease of handling.  A total of twenty six vessels were built at Gowan's yard for Fishers.  These ranged from the 91 ton schooner Economist to the 208 ton brig Buccleuch.   

Most of the vessels owned by Fishers were employed on British and European coastal and short sea routes transporting ore, pig iron, steel rails and also machinery manufactured at Barrow.  Bulk goods such as grain and timber were typical of the cargoes carried on return journeys.  While coastal and short-sea trading represented the bulk of the company’s core business a number of vessels, including several built at Berwick, were to venture further afield and traded on deep-sea routes over longer distances.

From Soulby's Ulverston Advertiser, 5th July, 1860.1

SHIP LAUNCH.—On Saturday afternoon last, a beautiful schooner, named the Bridget Smith, was launched from the building-yard of Messrs. A. B. Gowan & Son, shipbuilders, Berwick. About four o'clock a large crowd, including a number of ladies and gentlemen of the town and neighbourhood, assembled in the yard, on the Quay Walls, and on the adjoining quay, to witness the launch; and a little before five all preliminaries having been satisfactorily arranged, the vessel gracefully glided into the water—the ceremony of "christening" being performed in gallant style by Miss Ramsey, Lilburn Grange. Loud cheers hailed the first movement of the vessel on the ways, and they were vociferously repeated when she dropped anchor in the middle of the stream. She is to sail, we believe, from Barrow, and is the property of the same owners who have purchased the last three or four vessels built by Messrs. Gowan. She is a handsome and substantial craft; well adapted for carrying, and reflects much credit on the builders. (The above schooner has been built for Messrs. Jas. Fisher and Co., and is intended for the Bristol Channel trade.)

Seafaring in the 19th century was a hazardous business and a number of the Berwick-built vessels in Fisher’s fleet had eventful histories.  Individual ship histories of some of these vessels based on research undertaken by the late Derek Blackhurst can be found at the Through Mighty Seas website (see link below).

The final vessel to be built at Berwick for Fisher’s fleet was the schooner Old Hunter in 1877. The pace of change in the shipbuilding industry at that time meant that bigger vessels constructed of iron and using newer technologies would rapidly replace wooden sailing vessels.  It was against this background that Gowan’s yard would close it’s doors in 1878 ending what had been a close and productive relationship.  Shipbuilding would not return to the Tweed again until 1950.

Today James Fisher and Sons PLC has a global profile and remains a leading provider of marine services. In 2006 the company acquired the 11-tanker fleet of former rival FT Everard and Sons Ltd. making it the biggest ship-owning firm in the UK. More information on the history and development of James Fisher and Company can be found in Nigel Watson’s book Round the Coast and Across the Sea which was published in 2000 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the business.

Sources:
Watson N. 2000. Round the Coast and Across the Sea.  The Story of James Fisher and Sons.  St Matthews Press, Leyburn

1Through Mighty Seas. Sailing Ships of the North West of England. http://mightyseas.perso.sfr.fr/

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