Industrial history of Hebburn
Ballast Hill and Celebration
The Ballast Hill on the banks of the River Tyne in Hebburn was a landmark on the river for the people of Hebburn up until the 1970s when it was removed.
The hill was formed by ships emptying their ballast that they had taken on board and placed in the bottom of the hold to keep the vessel steady. Ships took on ballast at their port of departure when they did not have a cargo to transport.
The hill became a famous viewing point for many events and celebrations on the river including the launching of the ships usually from the Swan Hunter yards on the opposite side of the river. When the Esso Northumbria was launched in May 1969 a big wave soaked many people standing on the hill.
Celebration and the launch of the ships was an important part of the life of the ship building town with a mixture of emotions. On the one hand a sense of pride as a ship is finished and on the other concern for some people it would mean the end of their employment until the yard got a new order.
R & W Hawthorn Leslie & Co. Ltd
1953 to 1993
The shipyards were a large source of flashes and sparks whether it was the use of hot rivets in the early days, or the use of welding later on.
At night I have been told that it was "like firework night every night with the welding of the arc lamps lighting up the banks of the Tyne". Many people have told me you didn't need a watch if you lived in Hebburn because you could hear the sound of the shipyard sirens announcing the start and finish times for the shipyard workers, night and day.
I first visited the Hawthorn and Leslie site in 1989 when I was taking part in a coach tour of the sites for the TWSA Four Cities Art Project. We walked through the yard to get to the HMS Cavalier moored on the Tyne that was to be one of the temporary sites for artwork. Little did I know at that time that I would be looking through those famous gates again.
Hawthorn and Leslie were involved in many initiative designs. One of the first being the world?s first turbine driven warship. The HMS Viper was built and launched from Hebburn in 1899 with a top speed of 37knots, still fast by today?s standards. The shipyard went on to build many ships for the Navy.
One of the most famous was the K-class destroyer that was the first to have its hull constructed longitudinally and with just two boilers. The most famous of these was the HMS Kelly that was captained by Lord Mountbatten and launched in 1938. The ship had a very famous and heroic war history which included hitting a mine, later being torpedoed and managing to return to Hebburn to be repaired. The Navy Controller at the time wrote that she survived ?not only by the good seamanship of the officers and men but also on account of the excellent workmanship which ensured the water tightness of the other compartments. A single defective rivet might have finished her.?
Eventually the ship was sunk in the Mediterranean by a German bomber. The film 'In Which We Serve' starring Noel Coward, and telling the story of HMS Torrin, is based on the story of HMS Kelly. In the 1950s and 60s this part of the Tyne became famous for the building and launching of tankers with Hawthorn Leslie developing many new designs including the first deep sea gas tanker.
Palmer's originally started a yard in Jarrow and in 1911 took over yards in Hebburn that Robert Stephenson and Co. Ltd had started in the 1800s. They had constructed and fitted the engines of the 'John Bowes' for Palmers, the first iron screw collier in 1852. The Palmers yard at Hebburn developed as a yard for repairing ships and over the years prided itself on having one of the biggest dry docks around. Palmers in Jarrow closed in the 1930s but the yard was taken over by Vickers Armstrong Ltd and formed the company Palmers (Hebburn) Ltd. The repair yard has had a long history and has had many different owners since then.
Monkton Coke Works
The coke works was built and brought into service in the 1930s fed by many coalfields in the area. When I first saw colour photographs of it I thought the works was on fire, but later learned that it always looked like that every night. One person?s granddaughter described it as looking like a "dragon's mouth". Many people in the area have commented that their relatives coming to visit them always knew when they were getting near to Hebburn as they could see the sky lit up at night.
It is said that the German Luthwaithe used it as a landmark during the war for bombing raids. Production didn?t stop as the coke was needed for the local industry and the war effort.
During the 1980s local residents took part in a long running campaign to complain about the emissions, and eventually after a public enquiry and a health study British Coal shut the plant in 1990 and demolished it in 1992. The area is now a park and new industrial estate.
The Banks of the Tyne
It is hard to imagine that where the Riverside Park and Hebburn Marina is now, was once a thriving industrial area. There was once a chemical works the Tenants, United Alkali Co. Ltd that began in 1864 and later joined by the Tharsis Sulphur and copper company that began in 1869. Their chimneys dominated the skyline on that part of the river. At the southern end of the area there was the coal loading staiths where the coal from Pelaw Main was loaded into the colliers.
By the 1960s these industries had gone and some of the area was used as a rubbish tip that continued up until the early 1970s when work began on the 75 acre site to develop it into the park we see today.
1792 - 1931
I was interested in Hebburn Colliery when I heard about its connection to Humphrey Davey?s Safety Lamp. Mines have always been places of light and shadows and to begin with they used candles that could cause explosions when mixed with the various gases found in the mines.
In 1815 the inventor Humphrey Davey took gas from Hebburn 'B' pit to test his new lamp. Wine bottles of methane ('firedamp') were drawn from the pit and taken to London where the gas was used in tests in his laboratory. The new lamp was then tested in Collier at Hebburn.
Miners all around the world soon benefited from this new 'Davey' safety lamp that not only worked but it actually burned the 'firedamp' entering the gauze slightly increasing its efficiency to produce light. Hebburn would have become known in all countries that mined coal.
The colliery had 3 pits A, B and C. The B pit closed in 1832 after a strike but the other two lasted until 1932.
Reyrolle & Co Ltd
Reyrolle was the first industry that I visited in Hebburn. In 2001 I had a tour of the manufacture and development faculties as well as a tour of the British Short Circuit Test Station and the Clothier Laboratory.
I was left with the impression of an industry that produced products that were focused on controlling these massive arcs of electricity that had the potential to melt the very switch gear that was controlling it, in particular with the high voltage circuit breakers of 400,000 volts. For an artist interested in electrical energy it was a great opportunity to gain a lot of information first hand. I think they must have been impressed with my enthusiasm and interest as a little bit later I was invited to watch a series of electrical experiments organised by the IEE at the Clothier Laboratory. Here I witnessed man-made lightning inside the building. It was a formative experience as 10 metre strikes of lightning were produced and I was left with the feel of the bang in my chest and the smell of ozone in my nostrils.
Alphonse Reyrolle established his first factory in Hebburn in 1901 and a few years later Henry Clothier joined up with him to begin a company that became world famous for its initiative switch gear for the power generation industry. It stayed on the same site for over 100 years during which time like all big businesses it went into partnerships with many other companies eventually being bought out. At its height the company had a workforce of 10,000 people. It was also seen as a world leader with its continuing move towards innovation in the design of its products, and in 1929 it opened its high power testing facilities that later became the British Short Circuit Test Station where in 1970 the Clothier Laboratory was opened. Research and development and testing became a very important part of the company's activities. The Clothier Laboratory is one of only three such facilities in the world.
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