When I started work at Low Walker, a Newcastle on Tyne engineering company which was located right next to the river, I recognised the remains of the launch ways of a former shipyard which were protruding out into the river, but were only visible at low water.
From my former years as a shipyard worker, I knew that there must have been many a ship launched down those ways amidst all the noise, the clamour and excitement that accompanied such a wonderful event. But now, sadly, they stood silent and forlorn, a remnant of a great industrial past.
However, my curiosity was aroused and I decided to do some research and find out more about the old shipyard. The research revealed a fascinating success story. Old maps of the river Tyne showed that there were many shipyards located in the Walker area, but this particular one had been Charles Mitchell’s Low Walker shipyard.
The shipyard was founded by Charles Mitchell. He was born in Aberdeen, Scotland on 20th May, 1820 and served his apprenticeship with Simpson & Company, iron founders of Aberdeen, before moving to Newcastle on Tyne in September, 1842 to work for John H S Coutts, a shipyard owner, also originally from Aberdeen. Charles worked for Coutts until 1844 before moving to work in London and then travelled extensively in France, Germany and Italy. He then returned to Newcastle in 1852 to set up his own Low Walker shipbuilding yard next to the Coutts yard.
His first vessel, Havilah, was a coaster for the Australian trade and was launched on the 18th February, 1853. She was 336 grt, 256 nrt, 149.0 x 21.3 x 13.0 ft. The engine was 2 cyl, 60 hp supplied by Hawks, Crawshay & Sons, Gateshead. He got more orders and his seventh ship was ordered by German owners and named Hesperus, but on completion in December, 1854 was bought by the British Admiralty and sent with a cargo of iron rails from Walker to Balaclava for the Crimean War railway.
More vessels, including paddle steamers were built for use on Indian rivers, the Nile in Egypt and on Russian rivers in connection with the Russian Black Sea grain trade.
Charles married Ann Swan, third child of William and Ann Swan of West Farm, Walker on 9th May, 1854 and gained two practical brothers-in-law in Charles S Swan (whose widow went into partnership with George B Hunter in 1880 to create the famous Tyneside Swan Hunter shipyard) and Henry F Swan.
Many ships were completed under the Mitchell name up to 1882, with three of them being launched in a unique triple launch at the yard in 1856. Yard no’s 15, 17 and 18 were launched simultaneously – an event that was never repeated on the Tyne and which must have been quite a spectacular and exciting event.
The yard built over 90 vessels of various types for Russia and Charles Mitchell, together with his business partner Henry F Swan, set up a shipbuilding yard for the Tsarist government at St Petersburg. Several warships were built there under the company’s direction. In recognition of his services, Tsar Alexander II made Charles a Cavalier of the Order of St Stanislaus, a rare honour for a British shipbuilder.
In 1858, two ‘kits’ for screw steamers were supplied for erection on the Volga under the supervision of Charles S Swan. Russian owners were important to the shipyard with orders from 1868 continuing to flow to the Low Walker yard for many different types of vessels.
The first undersea telegraph cables were being laid at this time and the Hooper Telegraph Company ordered a ship, in 1873, to lay 5,000 miles of cable off the South American coast. Mitchell was asked to build her at Low Walker in a very short time and the ship named Hooper was ready in 100 days.
The first British gunboat built at the yard was Staunch of 1867, and was fitted with a 9” Armstrong muzzle-loading gun, and then some 27 similar gunboats were built by the yard up to 1881. A Japanese cruiser was built in 1880, and two cruisers and several gunboats were completed for China in 1881, and the Chilean cruiser Esmeralda left the river in 1884, having been designed by George Rendel, Managing Director of Armstrong’s Elswick ordnance works at Newcastle. She was the result of a merger between William Armstrong and Charles Mitchell in the new company Armstrong, Mitchell & Co Ltd in 1882. William Armstrong had established a company at Elswick in 1847 and had become one of the worlds leading armament manufacturers. Plans for a new shipyard to build warships only, next to the Elswick works, were laid in 1883.
The Low Walker yard was now to concentrate on merchant shipbuilding, especially of tankers from 1885. A first for the Low Walker shipyard was the Gluckauf for the Deutsch-America Petroleum Company which was launched on 16th June, 1886. She was completed in July of that year as the world’s first purpose-built ocean-going tanker, having been designed by Henry F Swan to carry 3,500 tons of oil from America or the Black Sea to Europe.
The Deutsch-America Petroleum Company placed orders for many sister tankers at Low Walker and the yard went on to complete 100 tankers up to the outbreak of war in 1914. Some twenty tankers were for the German register. Sixty tankers came under the British flag. Tankers were also completed by the yard for the Belgian, Italian, Dutch, French, Russian, American and Japanese registers.
One of the most interesting projects was a ship built at the Low Walker shipyard in 1898/99 for the Russians. It was the train ferry Baikal.
The ship was intended for service on Lake Baikal in the middle of Siberia. The Baikal was assembled on the slipway, but was then dismantled. The 6,900 pieces were afterwards shipped to St Petersburg and then transported thousands of miles to the shores of the lake where the vessel was reconstructed and launched in 1899. A team of engineers from the Tyne led the work of rebuilding the vessel.
German and British owners continued to order many dry cargo liners. The Louisiana built in 1896 was the first North American trader for Danish ferry company DFDS. The suction dredger Archer was completed in 1900; the Isle of Man Steam Packet ferry Viking in 1905 was turbine-propelled. Three floating cranes were built; two for the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board, and one in 1906 for Rangoon Docks.
The cable ship Restorer, built in 1903 for Cable & Wireless Ltd, further demonstrated the yard’s willingness and ability to tackle all types of ships. Even though the new Elswick yard was supposed to build all the warships, for over the 14 years to 1899, Low Walker built 11 small warships.
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 & Company to become Sir W G Armstrong, Whitworth & Co Ltd. Charles Mitchell had died in August, 1895 while still active and going daily to work at the yard, but there were now no Mitchell’s on the Board.
Warship-building at the Elswick yard had increased. A new yard was set-up near Low Walker Yard which eventually became the famous Vickers-Armstrong’s Naval Yard. The Low Walker yard continued to build tankers and other merchant ships during the war, particularly for the new British Tanker Co Ltd and a number of Standard Type ships were also ordered by the Shipping Controller.
The Low Walker Yard completed some interesting ships in the 1920s including three more heavy-lift ships for Norway. A dozen tankers were completed with seven of them for Eagle Oil including three of 18,000 dwt, the largest ships ever built by the yard. In 1925, the newsprint carriers Humber Arm and Corner Brook were completed for the newsprint trade from Newfoundland to New York.