Tyne's last shipyard clings to hope of a future: The only company interested in buying the Swan Hunter shipbuilder, which made some of the world's best naval vessels, is expected to decide whether to proceed with a takeover today. Frank Goodwin reports

TYNESIDE has been synonymous with shipbuilding for generations. Daniel Defoe wrote in 1727: 'They build ships here to perfection. I mean as to strength and firmness to bear the sea.'

When the industry reached its peak immediately after the First World War, more than a dozen shipbuilders dominated the north and south banks of the river Tyne. But one was pre-eminent - Swan Hunter, known locally simply as Swan's.

During the 1960s, when supertankers such as the 253,000-ton Esso Northumbria were under construction, Swan's paid the daytime lighting bills of homes overshadowed by its giant hold. At nationalisation in 1977, 11,000 people worked for the company.

Swan's has built more than 2,700 vessels since 1860, including the Atlantic greyhound Mauretania, then the biggest ship in the world, which captured the Blue Riband in 1907 and held it for a record 22 years. The company's reputation with the Royal Navy is second to none. The Type-22 frigate HMS Chatham left Tyneside defect-free in 1989 - an event unique in post-war naval history.

But when Swan's failed to secure an order to build a helicopter carrier from the Ministry of Defence in May last year, the company, which had been privatised in 1986, went into receivership. More than 1,600 redundancies have taken place in the past 15 months, leaving just 630 workers at the yard. Swan's sole prospective buyer, the French Soffia- CMN group, has until tomorrow to complete a takeover deal, otherwise Price Waterhouse, the receivers, are expected to make Swan's prestigious design team redundant, effectively ending any hope of a going-concern sale.

Swan's closure would be a bitter blow for an area which has seen its coal and manufacturing industries devastated - the last pit closed in 1992, and all the other shipbuilders have long since disappeared.

The community united behind a campaign to save Swan's and preserve Tyneside's proud heritage. The singer-songwriter Mark Knopfler, of the rock group Dire Straits, who grew up in Newcastle, said in May last year: 'Lose your shipyard, you lose the skills, you lose the community. Keep the shipyard open.'

The workforce knew the only way it could assist the receivers in the search for a buyer meant continuing as before, building some of the world's best warships. Three frigates were under construction when the yard became insolvent - two have since been completed to time and budget as men, proud of their craft to the last, worked themselves out of jobs.

The last frigate, HMS Richmond, due to leave in November, has set a number of new quality records during sea trials. In an MoD report earlier this year, Commander Colin English wrote: 'This is considered to be a remarkable achievement considering the shipbuilders' receivership position and the problems facing the workforce.'

David Swan, 54, a project quality inspection manager, was among 140 redundancies at the yard in May. He was the last working link with the company's co-founder, Charles Sheridan Swan. Mr Swan said: 'My great- grandfather will be turning in his grave. The thought that all the effort he put into building up the yard was going to waste would anger him. After the way the yard has worked successfully and employed skilled labour over the decades, to see it thrown in the rubbish bin by the present government is disgusting.

'The problem is, the North- east of England is not a Conservative stronghold. They're not going to lose any seats if Swan's closes. People on Tyneside have done everything possible to keep the yard open, but I think this government is hell-bent on a policy of industrial genocide. It wants to get rid of all the so-called dirty industries - iron and steel, coal, heavy engineering and shipbuilding. Swan's is just the latest sacrificial lamb.'

Mr Swan, a widower, is restoring musical boxes and looking after his two sons. 'Some of the lads made redundant over one year ago are still coming into Swan's job shop on a regular basis and looking for work without success. The chances of finding something in this area are remote.'

Around Swan's Wallsend yard, one in three men is on the dole, in a region which has the worst unemployment rate in mainland Britain. A survey by the shipbuilders' union conducted last May revealed three out of four redundant workers had been unable to find a new job. Many feel betrayed by their former bosses, who bought Swan's from the Government for a cut-price pounds 5m, but failed to end its unhealthy reliance on dwindling MoD contracts.

Andy McClelland, a shipwright, was a member of Swan's so-called dinosaur squad. He said: 'We used to do all the heavy lifting. We were involved in the whole construction of the vessel, from laying the keel to the day it got launched. Then we would move onto the next one.'

Mr McClelland, 53, was among 510 workers made redundant last December. With the receivers unable to finance the company's severance pay scheme, he ended up with just pounds 5,000 redundancy from the Department of Employment, despite 30 years' service.

The day he was told of his redundancy Mr McClelland cried. 'I loved Swan's,' he said. Now he is getting used to his wife, a nurse, being the breadwinner. 'I feel very guilty that my wife is going out supporting me. I have been a bit down in myself, I don't know whether you would call it depression. I would like to think I was a carefree lad but that is not the point - we all want a job. I'm 54 next month, I would hate to think I am on the scrapheap.'

Like Mr Swan, Mr McClelland hopes to get his old job back should Soffia-CMN create an Anglo-French shipbuilding alliance. Iskandar Safa, the French group's chief shareholder, has offered to recruit from among those made redundant if he needs extra labour. In return, the depleted workforce has bent over backwards to accommodate Soffia- CMN's takeover demands. Last month it voted to accept abolition of Swan's lucrative severance scheme.

Now the whole deal hinges on Soffia-CMN and the MoD agreeing terms for the completion of HMS Richmond - on 9 August the MoD dropped the price by pounds 700,000, which has prompted the French group to review its whole acquisition plan. Yesterday Soffia-CMN rejected revised terms from the MoD, which incorporated a pounds 350,000 increase, and accused the Government of being indifferent to the plight of shipbuilding on Tyneside. Roger Freeman, the Minister for Defence Procurement, has called for new talks.

Mr McClelland said: 'If you buy anything you bargain, bargain, bargain. It's a cat and mouse game and unfortunately we are the mouse. The Government has been no help whatsoever but I feel it in my bones that CMN will buy Swan's' The 650 workers left at Swan's, together with the whole of Tyneside, are hoping Mr McClelland is not wrong.

(Photographs omitted)

Suggested Topics
Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice