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October 2018

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Berwick Rangers old club crest.

Berwick Rangers have the distinction of being the only English-based team to play in the Scottish League. A number of shipyard employees would make their mark playing for Berwick in the semi-professional ranks.

John Cassidy was a shipwright with William and Weatherhead and Sons who played centre-half with Berwick Rangers from 1950 - 1954. He had the distinction of being Berwick's first ever purchase having been signed from North Shields.

Cassidy made 115 appearances for Berwick and played in the Scottish Cup giant-killing team of 1953-54.

William "Wassel" Purvis was born in Berwick upon Tweed in 1938 and was employed as a welder at Berwick Shipyard. Before signing for the Berwick Rangers he played for a number of local teams including Spittal Rovers, Scremerston, Bowsden, Alnwick and Amble. A utility man who could play on the wing or in his favoured centre-forward position, Purvis went on to play for Grimsby Town and Doncaster Rovers.

Thanks to Alan Bell


Berwick Shipyard
Christmas Party - Mid 1950's
Shipyard Children's Party.
Click image for larger picture



Bill Burgess, Plater
Former Plater, Bill Burgess (circa 1960.)


The Yard

The revival of shipbuilding in 1950 saw the industry return to the original Berwick site where a yard had first been established almost 200 years before.

The Site

Historical records date shipbuilding on the Berwick Quay Walls site to the mid-eighteenth century.  Thereafter the industry would be an important contributor to the town’s economy and source of employment.  The significance of shipbuilding within the borough in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is confirmed by the list of Berwick-built sailing vessels that shows the frequency with which new ships were built and launched from Gowan’s yard and other boatyards established across the river at Tweedmouth.

Following the yard's closure in 1878 herring curing took place on part of the site, Further development took place in 1903 when an electrical generating plant was built by the Urban Electric Supply Company Ltd in the area adjacent to the slip. The plant became operational the following year.

1957 Yard
1957 and work underway on El Tigeel and El Kabir built for Sudan.
Photo: D. Redfearn Collection

When shipbuilding at Berwick was revived by William Weatherhead and Son in 1950 the Quay Walls site was a cobble-stoned grass-bordered car park with little to indicate its former use.  Considerable work had to be undertaken before shipbuilding could get underway. A new concrete slipway was laid over the old one that had been constructed more than one hundred years before.  Steel bogies drawn by a 50 h.p. winch were built to cradle vessels while they were being built.  Buildings were prepared and adapted to accommodate plant and workers.  A building previously used as a Customs shed for example, was converted into a mould loft.  New structures erected on the site included a plate fabrication shed within which were installed heavy machinery including a shearing machine and roller. 

The Yard - Quay Walls
Berwick Shipyard and Quayside viewed from the Old Bridge in 1959. The vessel in the Little Dock is the Fair Isle-class trawler Craigievar (A320). Within the yard itself two further two vessels can be seen under construction.
Photo: © Chris Timmins

During the lifetime of the yard much of the site remained uncovered. The absence of covered building sheds and exposure to the elements meant difficult working conditions for many staff. Former workers could recall how during the winter fires would be lit in oil drums on the exposed decks of vessels for warmth. Recalling conditions at the yard one ex-worker described it as "the coldest spot south of the Arctic Circle".

Entrance to Berwick Shipyard
The main entrance to Berwick Shipyard in 1970 viewed from the Elizabethan walls.. Photo: © Ian Havery

In 1964 the landscape of the yard changed with the erection of a giant shipyard crane. Manufactured by Butter Brothers of Glasgow the jib had a maximum working radius of 38 metres and a lifting capacity of 7 tons. Previously heavy loads were manoeuvred into place by way of derricks. The shipyard crane would come to dominate the view of the town from the south until the yard’s closure in 1979 when it was sold for scrap and dismantled.

The Workforce

A picture taken in 1956 of workers onboard the fishing vessel Coral Isle.
A picture taken in 1956 of yard workers on the foc'sle of the fishing vessel Coral Isle.
Photo: D. Redfearn Collection

To establish a yard capable of constructing modern steel vessels the firm of William Weatherhead and Sons in 1950 had to recruit skilled workers from Scotland and Tyneside, areas where there was an established shipbuilding tradition.  At it’s peak the yard would employ up to 130 staff including platers, welders, shipwrights, fitters, joiners, draughtsmen, electricians, engineers, labourers and office workers. The need for a skilled workforce also provided opportunities for school leavers to develop skills and learn trades as apprentices. The bulk of the design work was carried out by naval architects and designers off-site.  Fairmile, who closely collaborated with Weatherheads before taking over the running of the yard in 1953 ran their own design department based at the company’s headquarters in Cobham, Surrey. Workers at the yard were represented by a number of unions the most prominent of which was the Boilermakers Union that represented a range of skilled workers.

1960's yard workers.

Shipyard workers in the 1950's when the yard was under the ownership of Fairmile Construction.
Photo: D. Redfearn Collection

A picture taken in 1956 of workers posing in front ot he trawler Coral Isle.
A picture taken in 1956 of workers posing in front of the trawler Coral Isle.
From left to right, Joe Maltman, John Crawford, Bill Burgess,, Bill Smiles, Tommy Scott, Bob Lee, Joe Ford.
Photo: © Michael Lee
Members of the workforce gather for a presentation.
A photo from the 1950's. Members of the workforce gather for a presentation.
Photo: © Bob Lee

a 1960's group photo taken before the side launch of a yacht (possibly Tavit).
A 1960's group photo taken before the side launch of a yacht (possibly Tavit). Photo:© Bill Todd

Ex-employees interviewed in connection with this project who had experience of working in bigger yards in Scotland and Tyneside remembered the yard as a close-knit community where there was a real sense of pride and camaraderie. This perhaps helps explain why over the years Berwick Shipyard would achieve a reputation for quality and workmanship.

1969 workers photo 1/3. 1969 workers photo 2/3. 1969 workers photo 3/3.
A sequence of pictures showing workers at the launch of the trawler Fairweather IV in 1969.
Click on any of the pictures above and a larger version will appear in a separate window.
Photos: James McLeod

The skills and ingenuity of the workforce is well remembered by former workers. One former employee employed at the yard in the 1950's recalled how as a 20-year old .."it was a real education to see the hand hammering riveters working in pairs, these long hammers being swung with precision".

Equipment and facilities at the yard were fairly basic. This meant that workers drawing on years of experience and skill sometimes had to come up with improvised solutions. Recalling his time at the yard one ex-worker described how he watched in awe as platers ..." with about six labourers holding propane torches to keep the steel hot as long as they could, took plates out of the furnace and bent them to fit, over a 3D former which had been made up from black bar by the loftsman. They had one go at doing something they'd never done before and it was like poetry".    

Group photo of yard workers in the 1970's.
Yard workers group photo from the 1970's.

Social and Economic Benefits

In May 1973 shipbuilding resumed at Berwick when the yard was taken over by Intrepid Marine International.
The economic importance of the yard was underlined in May 1973 when the yard re-opened with the promise of 100 jobs. Here workers James McLeod, Stuart Lough and William Matthews can be seen laying the keel of the first vessel to be ordered after the takeover of the yard by Intrepid Marine International.
Photo: © Berwick Advertiser

The re-establishment of a shipyard would bring with it a number of economic benefits a fact not lost on the Borough Council who helped William Weatherhead and Sons restart shipbuilding at Berwick in 1950.  The shipyard would provide much needed employment in the town eventually becoming one of the biggest employers in the borough. In addition, the yard would pay some of the highest wages.  As the industry became established there were also opportunities for school leavers to undertake apprenticeships in a variety of trades.

At the launching of the motor barge Gold in 1951, Councillor Tom Evans, who at the time was also a director of William Weatherhead and Sons, revealed that the weekly wage bill for the yard was between £400 and £500.* The level of wages paid to the workforce at that time was a clear indication of the importance of the yard to the local economy. The period 1945 - 1951 are today referred to as the 'years of austerity'. The employment that the yard provided needs to be understood within this context.

The benefits for the workforce and the local economy were tempered by the uncertainties that arose from a fluctuating order book.  Throughout the yard's lifetime there would be large-scale pay-offs and lay-offs.

Local businesses would benefit not just from the spending power of the shipyard workers and their families.  The yard also sourced goods and materials from local firms. The Berwick Advertiser of the 11th February 1954 for example reported on how half a dozen local firms contributed to the fitting out of the motor barge Taffy. These included Allan Brothers who provided the timber, the Berwick Building Company who made the wheelhouse, William Leith the well-known local tentmakers who erected the vessel’s masts and tarpaulins and George Fairbairn who provided and fitted linoleum    Former worker Brian Douglas recalled how during the 1960's local joinery firms assisted with the fitting-out of the luxury yachts. The firm of J.H. Lillie, and Sons, for example, were awarded contracts to manufacturer furniture and fittings.

The shipyard also established itself in the social life of the town.  A football team, Fairmile United, played in the North Northumberland League. A number of workers also played semi-professionally with Berwick Rangers the most well-known of whom were John Cassidy, a shipwright with William Weatherhead and Sons, and William "Wassel" Purvis who worked as welder at the yard (see side panel).

* Berwick Advertiser - 20.12.51

Launches, Fitting Out and Sea Trials

Bon Accord laumch.
The launch of the Aberdeen-based trawler Bon Accord at Berwick in 1960. Photo: © Berwick Advertiser

Launch days were proud occasions for the yard and were usually marked by ceremonies attended by owners, their representatives, senior figures from the yard and local dignitaries.

The layout of the Quay Walls site meant that space could be at a premium particularly when the yard had several vessels under construction at the same time. As a consequence two launch techniques were used. The traditional method of launching involved vessels being lowered into the water from the slip on bogies.  Where this method was deployed (such as in the case of the tug Triton), some of the fitting out was carried out while the vessel was still on the stocks. The sideways launch technique whereby vessels slid into the water on greased timber runners was altogether more spectacular.  Ships launched in this manner including Rosehaugh, Sea Otter and many yachts and fishing vessels that would have their superstructures added later. 

While ships were being built owners and their representatives would visit the yard to see how work was progressing and to specify modifications.

The launch of the tug Maamal at Berwick in September 1951
Maamal Mrs Lesley Fiddes breaks a bottle of champagne over the bows of the tug Maamal.
The naming of the tug Maamal was carried out by Mrs Lesley Fiddes who was employed as the Chief Clerk at the yard in the early 50's. In the picture on the left Mrs, Fiddes can be seen receiving instructions from the then yard manager Mr. T.W. Braid. Looking on are Mrs. Braid and Councillor Tom Evans.
Photos © Graham Fiddes

Yard apprentice Richard Ormston presents a bouquet to Mrs Dudley Robinson at the 1967 launch of the motor yacht Lanesra. looking on is Bob Younger, Foreman Engineer who would later become the yard's general manager.
Yard apprentice Richard Ormston presents a bouquet to Mrs Dudley Robinson at the 1967 launch of the motor yacht Lanesra. Looking on is Bob Younger, Foreman Engineer who would later become the yard's general manager.
Photo: © Berwick Advertiser

On launch day there would usually be a naming ceremony. An apprentice from the yard would on occasion present a bouquet to the wife or female representative of the owner who named the vessel as was the case in 1967 at the launch of the motor yacht Lanesra (see picture left).In recognition of their efforts the owners of vessels would sometimes provide a kitty from which beer was purchased for the yard workers. The launch or completion of a new vessel would also occasionally be used by the yard's owners as a marketing opportunity.

Invited guest aboard El Tigeel i the Tweed Dock.
Invited guest aboard El Tigeel seen here in the Tweed Dock in 1957. Photo:© Berwick Advertiser

In 1957 for example, yard owners Fairmile held a lunch at the Castle Hotel attended by senior figures from the company, local dignitaries (including the mayor) as well as representatives from various companies and organisations from in the shipping world including the Tees Towing Company, Ridley Tugs, Grangemouth and Forth Towing and Motor Boat and Yachting magazine. After lunch the invited guests were taken to sea onboard the newly completed tug El Tigeel under the command of the then harbormaster Captain Richardson where the vessel was put through it's paces behind Berwick Pier.


Side launches - How did they do it?


Launch timbers. These old launch timbers pictured at the Tweed Dock are believed to have been used for the launch of Sea Otter (see above). Click on the thumbnail to see a larger picture.
Launch day at Berwick Shipyard
26th August 1965
Top Hats are in order at the launch of the Tonga-registered fishing vessel Pakeina in August 1965.

Berwick Shipyard like all workplaces had its share of characters. This lovely old picture was taken onboard the yard's workboat Ladrum Bay on the River Tweed at the launch of the Tonga-registered fishing vessel Pakeina in August 1965. The yard boat was used to collect blocks of wood from the cradle and shoring that were used in the launch.

The man in the top hat was "Fernie" Turnbull who was a maintenance fitter at the yard. A number of former workers were able to remember that shortly after this picture was taken Fernie was caught on a rope on the boat and fell overboard into the River Tweed. It was variously reported that when he surfaced he was either still wearing his top hat or smoking his cigarette!

Photo: © Bill Todd

Unlike those vessels that took to the water from the slip, those that were side-launched were not moved prior to launch.   Their keels were laid in the usual way on keel blocks.    As sections were built on, blocks were built up and wedged under the hull at convenient points.    These blocks, (quite possibly some of those seen in the pictures above and below), were fixed together by rough iron bars. These were about 18 inches long, with 6 inch sharp spikes at right angles. The bars were hammered into the blocks to keep them stable.

As launch day approached, the side launch timbers were placed under the vessel, lined up through and then timber blocks were built between the sliders and the hull.   By a day or two before launch date, the vessel would effectively be supported twice, once as she'd been all through building and again on the slides.    

In the final hours and minutes, the build blocks were taken out until only those on the sliders remained.   The first time the vessel's keels moved, was at the moment of launch.   Obviously it was more important to entirely remove the build blocks on the river side, as they'd foul the hull as the vessel slid. Those on the landward side. were mainly left in place as an 'insurance policy' against the ship 'falling' the wrong way. In the final few moments before launch, the whole ship was held on wooden pegs, one per rail. These sat at an angle between two brackets and prevented the top rail from sliding.    Above that peg was a square wooden box which stood up above. This had a big heavy weight in it held on a thin rope.     The ropes were run through pullies to a box with a blade in it. When the blade cut the ropes the weights dropped and simultaneously took the pegs. At this point gravity took over and the vessel would head off into the water.
(Thanks to former yard employee Michael Ross).

The side launch of the fishing vessel Fairweather IV on 17th February 1969.
A fine sequence of photos taken by former yard worker James McLeod showing the launch of the trawler Fairweather IV on 17th February 1969. Note the ice on the river. Photos © James McLeod

Fitting out of vessels took place either on the Berwick side of the river in one of the fitting out berths or across at the Tweed Dock (below).

Thelma M. III and Boston Sea Sprite at the Tweed Dock.
The stern trawler Boston Sea Sprite and the motor yacht Thelma M. III pictured at the Tweed Dock. Photo: © Bill Todd

Triton launch.
Workers pose on the slip before the launch of the Isthmia-registered tug Triton in October 1964.
Photo: D.Redfearn Collection

Sea trials were usually carried out to the north of Berwick Pier to allow systems and equipment to be tested. A vessels speed would be tested over a 'measured mile'. Two marker posts stood a mile apart on the cliff path to the north of Berwick Pier. These have since been dismantled and removed. A number of vessels ventured further afield on trials. Further up the coast there was another measured mile off St. Abbs. Some ships including the two RAF Seal Class vessels undertook sea trials in the Firth of Forth. Smaller vessels, such as motor launches built in the 1950's completed their trials on the River Tweed.

Prior to handover a number of vessels sailed to Leith where they were placed in dry dock at the Henry Robb shipyard to allow final hull inspections to take place. On satisfactory completion of trials vessels were either handed over at Berwick or delivered to owners in their home ports. Former employees interviewed in connection with this project could recall sailing one of the luxury yachts on a delivery trip from Berwick to it's owner in Barcelona.

Not all vessels built at the yard were delivered to their owners by sea. During the 1950's small vessels like Dastour pictured below were taken by road to deep-water ports and shipped to destinations overseas.

Completion and delivery schedules were often tight. Former employees could recall occasions when workers were still at work applying a final coat of paint while vessels were being transported through the town on trailers! The yard lorry driven by 'father' Hall would follow behind the trailer to collect the workers and return them to the yard.

Dastour on a trailer negotiating the corner from the Quayside into Bridge Street.
Dastrou at the top of Hide Hill turning into Marygate.

Not all vessels built at the yard were delivered by sea. In the top photo can be seen the launch Dastour on the first leg of its journey to Port Sudan negotiating the corner from the Quayside into Bridge Street. The bottom picture shows Dastour at the top of Hide Hill turning into Marygate which was still cobbled when these pictures were taken in 1955.
Both Photos: © Photo Centre, Berwick

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