Obituary: James Venus

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The Independent Online
James Venus, shipbuilder, born October 1920 Newcastle upon Tyne, OBE 1984, died London 21 August 1992.

JAMES VENUS had the distinction of designing and supervising the construction of two completely new shipyards - one in Appledore, in Devon, and the other in Sunderland, and then becoming chairman of the operating companies and associated shipyards and engineering works.

Born, educated and apprenticed in shipbuilding at Newcastle upon Tyne, Venus rose to be chairman of Appledore Shipbuilders, in north Devon, and a joint founder with Austin & Pickersgill Ltd, in Sunderland, of the A. & P. Appledore international shipyard consultancy, formed at a time when the two shipbuilding companies were showing reasonable profits. This offshore company has since designed or developed vast shipyard projects in South Korea, South America, Gibraltar, Poland and most other shipbuilding nations.

In an almost 'rags to riches' career, Venus served his apprenticeship at the Hebburn shipyard of Hawthorn Leslie, designers and builders of merchant and naval ships. While there he gained a City & Guilds silver medal for naval architecture from Rutherford College, in Newcastle. His lecturer at the college, Ronald Kendall, arranged for Venus to use a room at his own house for his studies as facilities at the Venus home were unsuitable. Some years previously Kendall, Venus and another young naval architect, EC Corlett, together with a London shipping company, formed a London marine consultancy, Burness, Kendall & Partners, now known as Burness, Corlett & Partners.

Earlier, Venus served as a surveyor with the Ministry of Transport, before joining the Aluminium Development Association as its naval architect, but he really began applying his shipbuilding policies when he eased his association with Burness, Corlett & Partners to operate his own shipbuilding activities, with the forming of Seawork Ltd, which secured orders and supervised the building of small vessels at the old north Devon yard of P. K. Harris & Sons and the even smaller Friars Goose yard at Gateshead, on the River Tyne.

A boost to Seawork Ltd came in 1964 when they and the Appledore Shipyards were acquired by Court Line, and Venus joined the Court Line board. His ambitious policies were accepted for a then revolutionary concept in merchant shipbuilding - a totally enclosed 'ship factory' with a vast hall enclosing a wide building dock for ships of up to about 10,000 deadweight tons. The new shipyard was built on a 'green field' site in Appledore at a cost of about pounds 4m, and was opened in 1970. Subsequently, Court Line, with James Venus heading its shipbuilding division, acquired the assets of the mighty Doxford & Sunderland Shipbuilding Group, which was then controlled by the long-established Thompson, Marr and Laing families.

With this move Venus became chairman and managing director of Appledore Shipbuilders and the much larger Sunderland Shipbuilding Group - the latter owning three larger shipyards on the River Wear, and the Doxford Engine Works, designers and builders of all-British opposed-piston diesel engines with licensees worldwide. The group also included associated companies so that most equipment and products for its ships could be supplied in-house - steering gear and small deck machinery for small and large ships from K & L Steering Gear; large deck machinery, switchboards and control panels from Sunderland Forge & Engineering; rudders, shafting and other heavy forging from Wolsingham Steel. Other companies acquired in the takeover of this massive Sunderland group also included ship-repair yards.

Venus went on to realise his ambition to rebuild the old-established Pallion shipyard in Sunderland. This pounds 23m project involved demolishing the six building berths in the yard, established in 1857 for the construction of sailing clippers. In this immense Pallion development project the whole of the old yard was replaced by what was then the world's largest enclosed shipbuilding factory - a development of the earlier Appledore shipyard. The new all-weather Pallion yard, which employed up to 1,000 people, could build two ships of up to 30,000 tons deadweight side-by-side. The steel came in at one end, and the completed ship left from the other with engines installed and sometimes with the machinery running.

The new Pallion yard opened with orders for 10 sophisticated cargo ships for Bank Line, of London, each of 16,300 tonsand all with Doxford engines. The new yard continued successfully although it never achieved the output proposed by Venus, mainly because of dissatisfied labour.

Venus was always restless under nationalised control but held senior positions in British Shipbuilders, and was for some time chairman of its Small Ships Divisions dealing with fishing vessels, coasters, dredgers and others, yet continuing to build all of Sunderland's larger ships of up to about 150,000 tons.

In fact his Appledore shipyard was the first to come under the control of British Shipbuilders, followed in 1974 by the Sunderland Group which became known as Sunderland Shipbuilders Ltd, from which Venus took early retirement on grounds of ill health. Venus, however, continued to be associated for some years with Appledore Shipbuilders and was involved in some consultancy work on bulk carriers and dredgers.

A Fellow of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects, a Member of the Institute of Marine Engineers and the North East Coast Institution of Engineers & Shipbuilders, James Venus was awarded the degree of Doctor of Science by Newcastle upon Tyne University in 1974 and appointed OBE in 1984.