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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
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

SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition