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save our shipyards history

Voices from region’s shipbuilding past sought for history project

Published on: 1 August 2018

Voices from a historic campaign to save the North East’s shipyards are being sought in a bid to remember the real life experiences of those involved.

Campaign to keep yards open

Historians at Newcastle University want to track down people who took part in the ‘Save our Shipyards’ campaign that took place from 1983-84 in a bid to stop the closure of yards on the Tyne and Wear.

Workers from Swan Hunter on the Tyne and Austin & Pickersgill on the Wear, their families, union leaders and local politicians, were interviewed for two short films known collectively as the ‘Shipyard Tapes’.

The first film ‘The Price of Ships’ explains the economics of the global shipping industry, highlights the strengths of the yards on the Tyne and the Wear and argues for further government support. The second film ‘Down the Road Again’ warns of the dangers of the yards returning to private ownership, cautioning that it risked returning to the type of unsecure, casual labour that shipbuilding was known for before nationalisation. 

Originally commissioned by the Tyne and Wear County Council, the two twenty minute films have been preserved and are part of the collections of North East Film Archive, who are working with Newcastle University on the project. 

Now, 35 years on, researchers would like to talk to anyone who took part in the two films, or former employees of the Council and Unions that were involved in commissioning them about their memories of the yards, the local communities and the wider industrial climate of the time.

They are also keen to hear from anyone who knows how the films were used, where they might have been screened and whether any posters, flyers or newspaper clippings about the films still exist.

Dr Alison Atkinson-Phillips, Research Associate, Newcastle University, explained: “The 80s were without doubt a tumultuous time for shipbuilding in the North East. Even today, many families on Tyneside and Wearside continue have a connection with shipbuilding, perhaps as former employees themselves, or by being related to someone who worked at one of the yards. In carrying out this project, we want to capture people’s memories of this particular campaign so that a full range of histories is recorded.”

B&W photo of the Dock pub in Wallsend, Tyne and Wear, taken in the late 1980s. A ship and several of the iconic Swan Hunter shipyard cranes tower above the pub.
Andrew Green
The Dock pub in Wallsend, with the Swan Hunter shipyard towering over it. Andrew Green

Decline of shipbuilding in Britain

The ‘Save our Shipyards’ campaign was launched six years after the industry had been nationalised and came as shipbuilding was slipping away from the government’s priorities.

Faced with a global slump in shipbuilding and further government cutbacks, the trade unions had agreed to a consolidation plan but by the early 1980s it was becoming clear that further measures were needed in order to protect jobs.

Although much of the 20th century was marked by the waning fortunes of shipbuilding in Britain, Save Our Shipyards is one campaign that remains in living memory. However, the campaign had little success: just four years later, in 1988, it was announced that NESL - the merged Austin & Pickersgill and Sunderland Shipbuilders Ltd – was to close. A new campaign was launched in 1993 after Swan Hunter had called in receivers, but that too was unsuccessful.

The research team plan to screen the two ‘Save our Shipyards’ films at events over the coming weeks where people will have the opportunity to share their memories of the campaign and personal recollections of what the shipbuilding industry was like at that time.

Oral history at Newcastle

The project is one of the first major studies being carried out by the new Oral History Collective at Newcastle University.

Working in partnership with museums, heritage groups and community historians, the new group has been set up to examine the role of oral history, particularly relating the social history of deindustrialisation and regeneration in Britain. The group also aims to look at the role of oral history in communicating the past to the wider public and address questions about how representative different histories are.

Professor Graham Smith, who heads up the Oral History Collective, said: “As eyewitnesses to the recent past, including enormous changes in the way we live, each of us has a place in making history. Even those events that are widely reported at the time and then made into popular histories can affect different people in different ways. People’s memories and perspectives will vary and we are interested in the differences and similarities in memories as a way of producing histories. Gathering a range of voices will also help us understand the influence of individual memory on how we collectively recall the past.”

Anyone wishing to take part in the Save our Shipyards research project should contact by 31 August.


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