A history of Tyne shipbuilders and the ships that they built

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History of Armstrong's Elswick Yard

In 1847, engineer William George Armstrong founded the Elswick works at Newcastle, to produce hydraulic machinery, cranes and bridges. This was soon to be followed by artillery, notably the Armstrong breech-loading gun, which re-equipped the British Army after the Crimean War. Armstrong wanted to enter the warship market, as a way of promoting his large caliber guns, but was unable to build ships at Elswick because of a low multi arch bridge across the Tyne at Newcastle. So in 1867 he entered into an agreement with Charles Mitchell where his company would build hulls for the Armstrong warships. This agreement was so successful that in 1882 the two companies merged to form Sir WG Armstrong, Mitchell & Co Ltd. In 1876 the low multi arch bridge at Newcastle that had stood since Georgean times was replaced by a new Armstrong designed swing bridge thus removing a major problem for the Elswick works.

In 1883 the new Armstrong, Mitchell company decided to build a new shipyard, specialising in warship production, next to the armaments works at Elwick. The new shipyard was built at the same time as the first ship from the yard, the PANTHER, for the Austro-Hungarian Navy. Also in 1885 a new steel works covering 10 acres at the eastern end of the Elswick works was commissioned to produce steel by the Siemens-Martin process for forgings and ordnance components. With the completion of the yard and steel works, the Elswick works then extended for over a mile along the north bank of the River Tyne. The Low Walker yard was then able to concentrate on merchant shipbuilding, especially of tankers from 1885.

The above photo, taken in about 1884, showing the Armstrong Mitchell Elswick yard viewed from Kings Meadow Island is courtesy of "Down Elswick Slipways" by Dick Keys & Ken Smith.

The above yard plan shows the location of the Armstrong Mitchell Elswick yard. Water Street at the right of the map still exists today and the area of the shipyard and steel works is now occupied by the Newcastle Business Park.
The map is courtesy of Johnston & Buxton.

The above photo shows the Elswick yard in about 1904. St Stephen's church spire still exists today

Charles Mitchell died in August 1895 while still physically active and going to work at the yard every day and that left no Mitchell on the Board. In 1897, during a period of British naval and armaments expansion Armstrong, Mitchell & Co Ltd purchased and amalgamated with the Manchester based armaments firm of Sir Joseph Whitworth & Co to become Sir W G Armstrong, Whitworth & Co Ltd. In 1905 a new yard with two, later three, large berths was built at the east end of the works, leaving the original West Yard to concentrate on smaller vessels. This yard is often referred to as the Ironclad Yard. In 1907 they constructed a hydraulic crane on the quayside at Elswick, capable of lifting 150 tons and for such items as Scotch boilers, gun turrets and armour plating.

The Illustrated London News, 16/03/1907

Warship building at the Elswick yard continued apace but the increasing size of the capital ships meant that Elswick was again constrained by the Newcastle bridges. The High Level bridge provided a constraint on a vessel's height above water level and the new swing bridge was a constraint on the width or beam of a vessel. The Low Walker yard had its own constraints and the ever longer naval ships were too long for the yard to handle. Therefore in 1910 the company board looked at setting up a completely new yard well downstream from Newcastle. A site just upstream from the existing Low Walker yard was chosen and this yard was initially known as the Armstrong yard, then the High Walker yard, but became altogether better known as the Walker Naval Yard.

A lean spell of ship building during and around the depression years meant yards were closed down. The Elwick yard was closed in 1920 and production was transferred to the Naval Yard. A disastrous investment in a Newfoundland Power & Paper making facility in 1925 nearly brought the whole company down and it was only saved by a "shot gun" merger with Vickers of Barrow which was completed in 1928. The new company was called Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd.

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