Shipwrights or shipbuilders followed a craft with roots before recorded history. The Egyptians knew how to construct a ship's hull with wooden planks as long ago as 3000 B.C. However it was 1622 before all shipbuilding along the banks of the River Tyne became regulated by the Shipwrights Company of Freemen of Newcastle upon Tyne. The Company connected the existing yards on both sides of the river and was incorporated in 1636.
Having a monopoly of shipbuilding and repairing throughout the full length of the river, the Company had those from Shields and nearby settlements arrested and imprisoned if they attempted to set up yards. The Mayor, who in those days was elected by the Freemen, would order the arrest of any offender down river.
When there was no work on the Tyne, the London Freemen allowed Newcastle shipwrights to seek work on the Thames, however there was no such reciprocal arrangement and this did on occasions create consternation.
The coat of arms was derived from that of the shipwrights of Redriff (Rochester,Kent) who were superseded by the London Shipwrights. The main difference is that London have the ark at sea whereas Newcastle have a ladder up the side of the ark.
In 1716 when the Company was at its most prosperous and influential an upper storey was built upon their meeting place at the Sallyport gateway in the Town Walls. Much of the Company's revenues came from fines on members for absence from quarterly meetings, working on church holidays and poor workmanship. However others were for misconduct in the meeting house and in 1696 it was decreed that no brother may take on an apprentice who was a Scotchman born.
In 1718/20 Robert Wallis built a ship in South Shields and defended two law suits successfully against the Company breaking their monopoly and by 1780 there were ten shipyards operating at South Shields.
Arising out of the Reform Bill of 1835 the Freemen no longer elected the Mayor and had little influence left in local government and politics. Members began to reject the discipline and code of conduct of the Company's rules and orders, did not attend meetings and did not pay their fines. In consequence active membership declined until by 1900 it was down to twelve.
Like other Companies they continually refused membership to hereditary Shipwright Freemen if their father had not been a Company Keeper or had fines outstanding. In 1954 only two members resided on Tyneside while the other five resided in Essex, Bucks., Wiltshire, Australia and South Africa. To avoid the Company dying, the rules were refreshed to enable membership for the sons of the non-Company Keepers. The Senior Steward of the day Eric Boutland then set about trying to locate those sworn in as Shipwrights since the Second World War and the membership had increased to about sixty by the 1960's.
The Sallyport Tower, a listed building, had by this time become rather dilapidated and in 1955 because of the liability to maintain the structure the City Council purchased the property and spent about £10,000 on renovation. Over the years the Company had held its meetings in the Guildhall due to the state of the Sallyport through lack of maintenance but in 1970 the meetings were held in the refurbished Tower and continued there until 1979, from which time the Guildhall has again been used for Head Meetings on the first Monday in June each year.
An edited edition of the Company records from 1622 to 1967 was published by the Surtees Society in 1970 and copies of the two volumes are available for reference at Newcastle Central Library and at Tyne & Wear Archives, Blandford Square, Newcastle upon Tyne. The records have been indexed making family history research much easier to undertake.
Today the Company with a membership of 54 is pro-active in the affairs of good governance and making a contribution to the ongoing achievements of the Freemen of Newcastle upon Tyne.
I. F. Miller
20 Farringdon Road
Tyne & Wear