Weatherheads - A New Beginning

In 1950 shipbuilding returned to the Tweed after a gap of almost

70 years.

A single paragraph in the Berwick Advertiser of the 2nd February 1950 announced that “Messrs Wm. Weatherhead and Sons of Cockenzie and Eyemouth have obtained a lease of and at the Berwick Quayside as from February 1st”. Weatherheads was a well-established and respected family firm of boatbuilders. They were established in 1841 when a Tweedmouth man, James Weatherhead who had been apprenticed to the local boat-building firm of James Lee, went into partnership with his uncle, James Hall. Together they set up a boat-building business in Eyemouth. In 1880 James’s eldest son William left to set up his own business at Port Seton before moving to Cockenzie. Over the years Wm. Weatherhead and Sons of Cockenzie had achieved an enviable reputation for building small wooden-hulled vessels including pilot cutters, launches, fishing boats and yachts. In 1946 they expanded their operations by taking over the original family yard at Eyemouth which was purchased from their cousin James for a nominal fee. The war had provided Weatherhead’s with security and a full order book. Contracts had been won from the Admiralty to build motor launches, landing craft, motor fishing vessels and cabin cruisers at Cockenzie. The economic climate of the immediate post-war era however presented a different set of challenges. While there was a continuing demand for fishing boats, many fishermen encouraged by the British Government’s Grant and Loan Scheme, were seeking larger boats and were switching to steel- hulled vessels. During World War II close links had been developed with Fairmile Marine who themselves had achieved fame for the design of their legendary fast motor launches including the Fairmile 'B's and 'D's. Sections of Fairmile-designed vessels were prefabricated at small workshops across England that in peace-time had been used for activities such as piano and furniture manufacturing. The completed sections were then brought to small yards such as the one at Cockenzie for assembly. After the war Fairmile encouraged Weatherheads to build in steel. The problem was that there was neither the space, equipment or technical expertise for building in steel at Cockenzie. The Eyemouth yard was similarly only equipped to build wooden vessels. Jim Hickie, Weatherhead’s Company Secretary, in his 1992 autobiography ‘All the World’s a Stage’ recalled how he and Bill Weatherhead had travelled to Berwick in early 1950 to explore the possibility of expanding the business and building in steel. Bill Weatherhead had remembered that there had once been a shipyard in the town. After an unsuccessful attempt to locate its whereabouts they had contacted the Town Clerk and were put in contact with a local councillor (named only as a ‘Mr. E’ but understood to be Tom Evans), who they met later that day. This meeting was clearly an important event in influencing the firm to build a yard at Berwick so much so that in his memoirs Hickie described it as ‘momentous’. The economic benefits of re-establishing a shipyard at Berwick were not lost on the Town Council. who were keen to assist with the venture. This was acknowledged by Hickie who wrote that in the days and weeks that followed, Weatherhead’s received ‘one hundred percent support from the Council’ and also Fairmile Marine. Events moved quickly. At the beginning of February 1950 Weatherhead’s obtained the lease of land at the Quayside. By April, work was underway converting buildings and constructing a new slipway. In October 1950, the keel of the first vessel was laid. Shipbuilding was once again an established industry in the town of Berwick upon Tweed. On the 16th May 1951 the first ever welded steel ship to be built at Berwick took to the Tweed. The 90-foot Motor Barge Naughton had been built for the London and Rochester Trading Company to ply the waters of the Thames and Medway. The symbolic and economic importance of the event was not lost on the local dignitaries including the Mayor and Sheriff who attended the launch ceremony along with representatives of the owners and three generations of Weatherheads. Councillor G. M. Lamb who accompaied the Mayor and Sheriff was moved to remark, “As a representative of the Borough I must say that this launching and this shipyard will help very greatly to bring back the prosperity we want to see in Berwick again”. Councillor Lamb went on to say “I think we owe a debt to the firm of William Weatherhead for having re-instituted this business in Berwick”. James Weatherhead, the joint founder of the family business was born in Tweedmouth on 7th June 1814. The opening of the shipyard at Berwick in 1950 therefore represented in many respects a return to the family’s roots. In their 100 year history Naughton was the first all-steel vessel that Weatherheads had ever constructed. Their achievement should not be understated. The keel had been laid while the yard was still being constructed. Skilled workers and a yard manager had to be recruited from Tyneside and Scotland. Shortages of materials, particularly steel, hampered progress. More orders quickly followed. The yard built two further motor barges, Gold and Silver to join the London and Rochester Trading Company fleet as well as tugboats for the Aden Port Trust and Wilson and Sons of Brazil. At the launch of Gold in December 1951 the company announced that they had secured orders for eighteen more vessels. The growing importance of the yard to the town’s economy was highlighted by Councillor Tom Evans (who by then was a director of the firm), when he reported that the weekly wages bill was between £400 and £500. Just over a year later however the picture was less rosy. In January 1953 the Berwick Advertiser carried a story confirming that thirty of the estimated seventy workers employed at the yard had been laid off because of a steel shortage. The same story also mentioned that production of Fleming-design lifeboats at Spittal (which Weatherheads also manufactured), was to cease and that work would be transferred to Cockenzie. A few months later rumours that Weatherheads was in difficulty and that the yard would shortly close swept the town. These were initially denied. In August however, it was confirmed that the Berwick yard had been sold to the Fairmile Construction Company. Jim Hickie, former Company Secretary, attributed the end of Weatherheads involvement at the Berwick yard to cash flow problems brought on by a combination of factors. In 1947 the firm had sustained losses following a major flood that badly affected their Eyemouth premises. Problems associated with the building of a yacht at Cockenzie, the Scheherazade, combined with the low profitability of the lifeboat-building side of the business also had a negative financial impact. These difficulties were further compounded by the higher than expected costs of equipping and building the Berwick yard. Looking back, Weatherhead’s achievement in reviving shipbuilding on the River Tweed was considerable given the various challenges that were encountered when setting up the yard. Enterprise and endeavour had re-established an industry that had been dormant in the town for more than sixty years. As one chapter closed a new one was about to begin.
The river tug Felicidade rounding what was then referred to as 'Stoddart's corner' into Golden Square before continuing its journey over the Royal Tweed Bridge.. Although built by Weatherhead’s, the design work had been undertaken by Fairmile who would later take over the yard. Photo: © Berwick Advertiser

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The launch of the tug Maamal on 29th September 1950. There was limited cover at the yard meaning that much of the work was undertaken outside.  In this picture snow can be seen lying on the ground. Photo: Berwick Advertiser Naughton on trials. Photo:  Berwick Advertiser A proud moment for the town and the Weatherhead family at the launch of Naughton, the first ever steel vessel to be built at Berwick. Photo: © Berwick Advertiser