Making waves again

A year ago, the most famous name in British shipbuilding, Swan Hunter, was rescued from oblivion by the riches of Kroese. Peter Popham visited the revived yard on Tyneside and talked to workers happy to be picking up their tools once more. Photographs by Sam Faulkner

Peter Popham
Friday 21 June 1996 23:02

Derek Drake swipes his card at Swan Hunter shipyard at 7am, puts on a dirty white boiler suit and collects his tools, and spends the next 11 hours - except for three short breaks - crouched under a large platform of red steel with a dozen other men, inches away from the flame of his welding torch, inhaling the foul fumes.

It may not sound like much of a life, but Derek Drake is a happy man. When he was made redundant from the same yard three years ago, aged 55, the chances that he would work again at the trade he has followed since he was 16 - mostly at this yard - were not strong. He dug his allotment. He drank with his friends in the local clubs. He applied and applied and applied for work. "The worst thing," he says, "was not getting any answers."

Then, a year ago, when Swan Hunter was one week away from being auctioned off and closed down permanently, a Dutch millionaire in the oil rig business, Jaap Kroese, bought it for about pounds 4m. In the teeth of widespread local scepticism, he dragged the yard back from the brink. Last month the final doubter was silenced when a 1,000-foot-long bulk carrier, Solitaire, 25 years old, as graceful as a floating block of flats, came throbbing up the Tyne and moored at Swans, where it is now in the early stages of being converted, at a cost of pounds 50m, into the world's biggest pipe-laying vessel.

Crowds lined the river to welcome her: the Solitaire was the biggest ship the river had seen for many years. Tyneside has lost all its traditional industries over the past 20 years: the steel mills have closed, the coal mines have been flooded, the shipyards have fallen silent. Forty-five thousand men worked for Swan Hunter in the company's prime, when it dominated shipbuilding up and down the river; 18 months ago the last man there, office manager Bill Cockroft, filled in his own P45, turned off the lights, locked the gates and went home.

Now the sight of this monstrous ugly duck, the Solitaire, grinding its way upstream, told the city's incurable optimists that they had been right all along, that the decline was reversible, that things could get better as well as worse. It told the pessimists that perhaps the city and the river had a future after all, and that at least a fraction of the thousands and thousands of skilled men who are Tyneside's biggest intangible asset could be saved from the scrap heap. The tubby, middle-aged form of Derek Drake, toiling up the hill towards the Wallsend Metro station at 6pm as the day shift ends, is proof that the dream has come true.

When Drake presented himself at the yard a week ago last Monday, it was three years since his last shift. That morning 147 men were inducted, including platers, pipe-fitters, welders, electricians. They lined up outside the office, signed their contracts, had Polaroids taken. The mood was sober and subdued. There were men of all ages, though Drake was one of the oldest. None of his mates presented themselves, from the days when he was a member of the elite welding crew, welding the plates of ships' hulls; but then most of them have already died prematurely, some from industrial diseases.

The new boys (no girls) shuffled pensively down to the canteen, where the chief health and safety officer harangued them for 45 minutes on the necessity of obeying safety rules. The hall's attention quickened when he mentioned the eight men who had died in a flash fire in the hull of a ship in the yard during the Seventies. When he had finished, they filed off and fanned out to their workplaces.

A shipyard is a romantic place, in the way that national newspapers used to be when they were located in Fleet Street and the presses thundered in the basements. The whole mighty endeavour is spread out before you: that incredible achievement of human civilisation, the division of labour, is there visibly in action, to its most impressive effect. In offices over here sit the designers, the men who conceive the vessels both in their broadest outlines and their tiniest particulars, and everything in between. Fifty yards away, in iron sheds as high as cathedrals, the designs are realised in sheets of steel. And over there on the slipway, in the shadow of the giant cranes, the whole thing is put together, the vast engines, the plates that form the hull, the miles of electrical wiring and steel decks. Finally it's all done, the head of security stands guard to keep out anyone in heavy boots, and the French-polishers, the lady cleaners and the signwriters have the ship to themselves, bringing it to a state of perfection. It was Swan Hunter's boast that while ships produced in other yards came back from maiden voyages in need of dozens of repairs and modifications, Swan's ships were perfect when they were handed over.

Swan Hunter today is different in many ways from the firm it was before the receivers took it over in May 1993. Most obviously, it is not building ships, and may never do so again, though the minimum capability to do so - a slipway down into the water - remains. But although the objective is different, and more modest, the same wide spectrum of skills is called on.

When the yard closed down, its skilled men fled to the ends of the earth, wherever their abilities were in demand: welders and platers to Germany or the Middle East, electricians the length and breadth of this country, riggers to wherever old rigs were being built or maintained, the celebrated design team, the "golden nuggets" as they were nicknamed, to San Diego, Australia, Holland. But as soon as word of the yard's rebirth got around, they came flocking back. "They had all been snapped up," says David Hewitt, head of the design department pre-'93, "but they were all keen to get back to Tyneside." Once again the yard functions as a single, massively complicated machine. And, as if to emphasise his intimate concern for Swan Hunter's fortunes, its new owner, Jaap Kroese (who refuses interview requests, and has thereby managed to maintain the lowest of profiles) lives in the yard itself, overlooking the cranes and the Solitaire, in a stack of prefabs.

Until Kroese's sudden arrival on the scene last year, Swan Hunter's history over the past 30 years had been a long series of setbacks. The firm had emerged in the 1860s, and by continually keeping abreast with technological advances became one of the leading shipbuilders in the world. The most celebrated of its many high spots was probably the building, in 1903, of the Mauretania, which for 22 years held the Blue Riband for fast Atlantic crossings.

After the World War II, desperate steps were taken to keep Tyneside in the vanguard of shipbuilding: the many different yards were merged with Swan and Hunter, yards were redesigned, and in 1977 Swan Hunter was nationalised. But the cheaper steel, clever working methods and hidden government subsidies enjoyed by rivals in Japan and South Korea left the Tyne ill-equipped to compete in the Eighties, when another of the industry's many disastrous recessions struck. And in Mrs Thatcher it found a prime minister unwilling to prop the industry up with public money.

In 1985, therefore, in a greatly reduced state, the firm was reprivatised through a management buy-out, and it was decided that henceforth it should specialise in warships and auxiliaries for the Royal Navy. It was an ill-fated decision: it meant that, even though now private again, the firm's fate remained in the Government's hands. And this was a government which had practically no political stake in the north east (there are only two Tory MPs in the region) and which had presided with apparent equanimity over the death of the other local industries. Now (or so it is firmly believed in the yard) it decided cold-bloodedly to close Swan Hunter down.

After all, according to the cant of the Eighties, shipbuilding, like coal or steel, was an industry of the past, one which could not hope to survive in competition with the developing economies. Far better to put it out of its misery and concentrate on creating Mcjobs in shopping centres. In 1993, the Royal Navy decided to have its latest ship built not at Swan Hunter but at Barrow-in-Furness - and the last slim lifeline was cut.

What makes people on the Tyne angry is that this Eighties view, which came so close to destroying the industry, appears now to have had little basis in fact. Tom Fenton, director of business development at the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation, says, "It's widely accepted that manufacturing ships from new is better done in East Asia or South America, where cheaper steel is available. But outfitting and converting ships is a different matter: there is a belief that it is more economical to do this in the UK than anywhere else."

As methods of exploiting oil fields change, with the development of floating structures to tackle smaller or deeper wells in place of rigs, demand for yards which can convert vessels such as to these new uses - far more economical than building from scratch - is likely to multiply. "We're going to see a lot of old ships coming up the Tyne in the next 10 years," Fenton predicts. In view of the damage that Asian competition has done to British shipbuilding since the war, the arrival of Solitaire augurs well for the future: before she came to Swans, a Singapore firm had devoted two years and two million man-hours to the conversion task before conceding defeat. Swans' long experience of warship work helped to persuade the owner that no such problems would be experienced there.

With Swan Hunter's rising from the dead, the Tyne is in a fascinating state of flux. Like so many other dilapidated dock areas in the Eighties, deindustrialisation here was followed by a rash of yuppy-ish housing developments, business parks, pretty little marinas. But throughout the bad times, ship repair yards retained a presence on the river, and the development corporation has played a major part in encouraging their expansion and rationalisation. Jaap Kroese, for example, was encouraged to buy Swans by a timely grant of pounds 500,000 from the Corporation.

Now both tendencies can be seen in full spate: at Royal Quay, a mile or two down river from Swans, earth movers are shifting soil in preparation for more bijou housing estates, while the Wet 'n' Wild Water Park and adjacent landscaping are already complete. Cheek by jowl, however, is the old, unreformed Tyne: gasometers, scrap processing plants, dirty quays where dirtier ships come in to be fixed up. Bustling maritime life is part of the attraction of a major river, part of the charm. The Thames today has far too little, its emptiness contrasting starkly with the noise and activity of 25 years ago; rivers in the developing world, such as Shanghai's Huang Po, arguably have rather too much: living close to that would be like having a home looking out over the M25.

The state of the Tyne today suggests that a mean may be achievable between these extremes of congestion and abandonment. In trying to get the best of both these worlds - the busy-ness of a real industrial river, the prettiness of a post-industrial one - the Tyne is entering uncharted territory. But the revival of a dirty, ancient, traditional business such as Swan Hunters is uncharted territory, too. And that shows every sign of going very well Off duty: workers (left) in their half-hour lunch break in Swan Hunter's canteen. Derek Drake (centre, below left) in Cullercoats working men's club in Tyne Mouth, a few miles down river from the shipyard

In the fabrication shop (right) workers weld the structure that will be used to convert the 'Solitaire' into a pipe-layer. In the shipyard (centre) cable salvaged from an oil rig is cut up and stored. Welders (bottom) clock out at 6pm

In the fabrication shop (right) workers weld the structure that will be used to convert the 'Solitaire' into a pipe-layer. In the shipyard (centre) cable salvaged from an oil rig is cut up and stored. Welders (bottom) clock out at 6pm

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