The announcement yesterday that the Tyneside shipbuilder had called in the receivers did not surprise most of them. They knew the company was in financial trouble and that it would not survive if it did not win the pounds 170m helicopter-carrier ship order, which on Tuesday went to the rival VSEL yard at Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria.
What did take their breath away, like the sharp north-east wind, was the speed with which the yard will probably close, ending shipbuilding on the river Tyne.
More than 24,000 people worked on the Tyne in 1974 but now the 2,200 jobs at Swan Hunter are the only ones left in shipbuilding. In north Tyneside about 11,000 people are out of work with an unemployment rate of 11.5 per cent. In some of the poorer parts of Wallsend the rate of joblessness among men climbs to about 50 per cent.
One man with 40 years unbroken service sat sobbing outside the yard yesterday unable to speak. He just sat there, shaking his head until workmates persuaded him to walk back into the yard where he had spent all his working life. Secretaries, too, were unable to talk about the prospect of closure without bursting into tears. Others walked quickly away, deep in thought, refusing to speak at all. They knew their life along 'the river' would never be the same again.
These workers' pedigree goes back as far as 1860 when John Wigham Richardson, then 23, the son of a Yorkshire Quaker family, bought a small shipyard at Walker-on-Tyne. The shipyard had really begun operating in 1842 and had built Britain's first steam collier, the QED, but the yard had been fraught with difficulties. Wigham Richardson's business at what became known as the Neptune Works had a river frontage of barely 100 yards and work for no more than 200 men.
The Swans and the Hunters were later to bring about a transformation of shipbuilding techniques in Wallsend. By 1903 their amalgamation led to a contract to build the Mauretania which held the Blue Riband for crossing the Atlantic for 22 years. Yesterday some of the men still working in the yard mentioned the Mauretania with a good deal of pride. Jimmy Irvine, 50, who has worked at Swan Hunter for 20 years, said: 'At least they can't say we built the Titanic here, can they?'
John Lough, 43, a plumber who started work at the yard as a lad of 15 in 1965, was examining figures he had scribbled on a piece of paper. It showed exactly how much the minimum redundancy payment would be if the closure takes place. His payment from the state would amount to no more than pounds 4,305. There is a severance pay scheme but this only amounts to little over pounds 2,000. If he receives the maximum then his final total will be pounds 9,255.
He said: 'That's what I will get for 28 years' service. I'll not get that now of course, because they have no money. At least not for redundancy. We've known it's been coming because they've not been ordering like they should have been and they have been on the blacklist for quite some time. But we didn't expect it to happen so soon.
'We are all together as a body of men, joking, trying to keep up our spirits. But we are all stunned. We say if you have any money for shares then put it into Blue Circle Cement because they'll be concreting the river soon.
'We're all Jarrow lads, but somehow I don't see us marching to London this time.'
Paul MacDonald, 36, said there were no prospects whatsoever of working locally should the yard close. Not only would the 2,200 employees lose their jobs, but between 5,000 and 6,000 people depended on the yard for their living as well. He said: 'I think the only thing we can do is leave the country. What else is there? Now we will all be going for the same jobs.'
A spokesman for the company said: 'We are proud of the yard's track record for the delivery of ships for the Royal Navy and other customers. This tragic outcome is a bitter blow to a dedicated and superb workforce and design team, to the local economy and to high technology manufacturing industry on Tyneside.'
Some men reflected on the good days but seemed reluctant to dwell on them as the reality of yesterday's announcement sunk in. Billy Dalglish, 51, who has worked at the yard since he was 15, said: 'I was here in the glory days when we were building supertankers. We have been sold down the river, although the company has done its best. We build ships without defects and they are the finest in the world. Now we are all on the scrapheap. We will never work again.'
Leading article, page 19
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