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The Doric Columns

Aberdeen’s Links With
Tyneside Shipbuilding

John Hanry Sangster Coutts (1810-1862) was a gifted Aberdonian who went south to become a notable iron shipbuilder with 2 shipyards on Tyneside, between 1840-1862. He was born in Aberdeenshire, son of a farmer, Patrick Coutts. This sparse information has been culled from census returns and marriage certificates.  John Coutts was the eldest of ‘Three Wise Men’ from Aberdeen who were to be the bedrock of the iron shipbuilding industry on Tyneside from c1840. The others were Charles Mitchell (a benefactor to his hometown university) and the Shetland-born Andrew Leslie. All 3 were previously known to each other in Aberdeen and had their own independent shipyards on the Tyne. John Coutts was adamant he was not related to the banking family of that name, and that he was a partner in the Aberdeen Shipyard of John Ronalds, who in 1839 built the well-known iron sailing ship John Garrow. This seems to have inspired him to go solo and he went South to take up an old wooden shipyard at Low Walker on Tyne, where in 1842 he launched the paddle steamer Prince Albert, destined to ply the Thames Estuary. This he claimed to be the first sizeable iron ship built on this river.

A Iron sailing ship called the "John Garrow" was built in 1840 at the
Aberdeen shipyard of John Ronalds & John Coutts.
Port of registry: Liverpool
in 1849/50 she sailed from Liverpool to New Orleans.
Rigged with standing bowsprit, square stemmed, no galleries and male figurehead. Owned by John Anderson, William Garrow, Alexander Smith and Thomas Irvine, all of Liverpool, trading as Anderson, Garrow & Co

The Times, Thursday, Apr 02, 1840
"The John Garrow iron ship, Captain J. Wilson, an iron vessel of 895 tones, calculated to carry 40 keels of coals, arrived in the River Tyne on Friday last. When she entered the narrows she was drawing 10 feet of water. Since her arrival she has continued to excite much curiosity; part of her standing rigging is made of wire, and except her top and decks she is exclusively made of iron. Captain Wilson has ordered that parties visiting her shall pay 1s. each, which will be given to the Shipwreck Society. She is named after the principal in the firm in Liverpool who are her owners. The John Garrow will load here immediately for Bombay. It is understood she sailed well during her passage from Aberdeen, and every day comes up to the most sanguine expectation that was formed of her capabilities -Newcastle Chronicle."

Coutts went on to build in 1844 an iron-hulled barque named Q.E.D., which had an auxiliary steam engine and the (world first) innovative feature of water ballast, carried in double bottoms. This would eventually become the norm in the collier trade and elsewhere, replacing the sand-and-gravel ballast previously used. A volatile and innovative man who built the largest sailing ships of the day in his time on Tyneside, but he suffered 2 bankruptcies and died alone and seemingly friendless in 1862, in lowly lodgings in North Shields.

In 1848 he entered into a partnership with William Parkinson trading as Coutts & Parkinson with a Yard at Willington Quay. He employed Charles Mitchell as his designer.

The O.P.R. of Keig in 1794 shows a marriage of one Patrick Coutts of Tough, to a local lassie, Isobel Ronald of Keig.

Coutts recruited many of his workers from Aberdeen, particularly at his second shipyard at Wellington Quay on Tyne 1849 - 1855.  He was followed from Aberdeen by Charles Mitchell, who eventually had his own adjacent shipyard on the Tyne, at Low Walker. Mitchell went on to fame and fortune, and in later years was to be a generous benefactor to Aberdeen University.

In 1853, on the south bank of the Tyne, at Hebburn, the third man from Aberdeen arrived, to set up an iron shipyard, he was Andrew Leslie, a Shetlander, who had served as a boilermaker in Aberdeen, before coming south to England.

Dr Charles Mitchell 1820~1895

Mitchell’s own  yard was set up in the 1852, in Low Walker.  He had later bought a 2nd 6.5 acre yard in Wallsend in 1873, which failed financially and he handed this over to brother-in-law Charles Swan, who set up Swan Hunter. 

Old maps of the River Tyne showed that there were many shipyards located in the Walker Area but this particular one had been Mitchell’s Low Walker Yard and was next to the Coutts Yard. The shipyard was founded by Charles Mitchell. He was born in Aberdeen on 20th May, 1820 and served his apprenticeship with Simpson & Company, iron founders of Aberdeen, before moving to Newcastle in September, 1842 to work for John H. S. Coutts, a yard owner, also originally from Aberdeen. Charles worked for Coutts until 1844 before moving to work in London and then travelled extensively in France, Germany and Italy. He then returned to Newcastle in 1852 to set-up his own Low Walker Yard next to the Coutts yard. His first vessel, Havilah, was a coaster for the Australian trade and was launched in February, 1853. Several other vessels were constructed and his 7th ship was ordered by German owners and named Hesperus, but on completion in December, 1854 was bought by the Admiralty and sent with a cargo of iron rails from Walker to Balaclava for the Crimean War railway. More vessels, including paddle steamers were built for use on Indian rivers, the Nile in Egypt and on Russian rivers in connection with the Russian Black Sea grain trade.  Charles married Ann Swan, 3rd child of William and Ann Swan of West Farm, Walker on 9th May, 1854 and gained 2 practical brothers-in-law in Charles Sheridan  Swan  and Henry Frederick Swan.  Many ships were completed under the Mitchell name up to 1882, with 3 of them being launched in a unique triple launch at the yard in 1856. Yard nos. 15, 17 and 18 were launched simultaneously – an event that was never repeated on the Tyne and which must have been quite a spectacular event. 

In 1858 two ‘kits’ for screw steamers were supplied for erection on the Volga under the supervision of Charles Sheridan Swan, while in 1864 Henry Frederick Swan, who had joined the yard as an apprentice in 1858, was despatched to St. Petersburg to build 5 small warships. Russian owners were important to the yard with orders from 1868 continuing to flow to the Low Walker Yard for many different types of vessels. The yard built over 90 vessels of various types for Russia and Charles Mitchell, together with his business partner Henry Frederick Swan, set up a shipbuilding yard for the Tsarist government at St. Petersburg. Several warships were built there under the company’s direction. In recognition of his services, Tsar Alexander II made Charles a Cavalier of the Order of St. Stanislaus, a rare honour for a British shipbuilder. 

Charles and his brother Henry were directors of the Wallsend Slipway Company, a repair yard established by Mitchell in 1871. In 1878 Charles arranged a partnership with Sunderland shipbuilder George Hunter but in 1879 Charles Swan died after falling overboard on a channel steamer returning from the continent with his wife. Hunter went into temporary partnership with Swan's wife before becoming Managing Director in 1880. Swan Hunters built their first steel ship at Wallsend in 1884 and their first Oil Tanker in 1889.

A merger between William Armstrong and Charles Mitchell in the new company Armstrong, Mitchell & Co. Ltd. in 1882. William Armstrong had established a company at Elswick in 1847 and had become one of the world’s leading armament manufacturers. Plans for a new shipyard to build warships only, next to the Elswick Works, were laid in 1883.  The cable ship Restorer built in 1903 for Cable & Wireless Ltd further demonstrated the yard’s willingness and ability to tackle all types of ships. Even though the Elswick Yard was supposed to build all the warships, for over the 14 years to 1899 Low Walker built 11 small warships.

Warship-building at the Elswick Yard had increased. A new yard was set-up near Low Walker Yard which became the famous Vickers Armstrong’s Naval Yard.

The ‘ghostly slipway ends’ of the Low Walker Yard still reach out into the river Tyne and are visible at low tide.

Charles Mitchell had died in August, 1895 while still active and going daily to work at the yard.  There were now no Mitchell’s on the Board.  John Barge

ANDREW LESLIE & CO. (1853-1884)

At Hebburn Quay, on the South bank of the Tyne. The site would evolve into 'Hebburn Shipyards' and the later shipbuilding operation of R. & W. Hawthorn, Leslie & Co. Ltd

18 June,1853 'Newcastle Journal entry' 'Enterprising Mr. Leslie of Aberdeen has taken an eligible site of around 8 acres at Hebburn Quay for iron Shipbuilding and is laying down a large iron ship at present. This is evidence of Tyne Shipbuilders and others, being aware of the proximity of Iron Works and Coal supplies for Iron Shipbuilding purposes.'

Andrew Leslie (1818-1894) was Shetland-born dispossessed crofters son, with work experience at Aberdeen in shipbuilding, and credited with a brief partnership with John Coutts on his arrival. He reclaimed much river frontage, by use of contents of Hebburn Ballast Hill to set up ground for his (later) dry dock and building slips, at invitation of the River Committee.  As sole proprietor of Hebburn Shipyard, he laid the foundations of a shrewdly-run firm that became highly respected name in shipbuilding and marine engineering.  Leslie recruited many workers from N.E. Scotland, many to found long-serving families and earn Hebburn Quay the nickname of 'Little Aberdeen.' This largely self-contained community had 400 Leslie-built houses near the Yard, and they in turn made a large contribution to the erection of Institute / Schools next to St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, whose 200 ft. steeple is still a riverside landmark today. Leslie had become more than an industrialist, he built homes for his workers, schools for their children and largely funded St. Andrew's Church which opened in 1873.

The original firm launched 255 ships at Hebburn until 1885, also constructing a useful dry dock 1866 (still extant) which brought additional income from ship repair work.  Andrew Leslie retired in 1884, and his much younger partner Arthur Coote (married to Leslie's adopted daughter) quickly made a partnership with locomotive and marine engine builder, R.& W. Hawthorn of Newcastle. The new firm, R.& W. Hawthorn, Leslie & Co. now controlled the Loco Works at Forth Banks, Newcastle; Marine Engine Works at St. Peters and the Hebburn Shipyard.

During his retirement, 'Auld Andra' visited his many relatives in Shetland and the crofting folk there, still talk of his many purchases of land for them and general good and generous deeds, for the people he had never forgotten.  Andrew Leslie died peacefully at his home Coxlodge Hall, Gosforth in 1894, and his funeral procession to Newcastle Central Station was a huge affair with hundreds of his old foremen and workers walking the 4 miles en route, to see him 'awa hame' on a special train to Edinburgh, for burial at Leith Cemetery. Mrs. Leslie had predeceased him and was already in her family (Jordan) plot there.

Remaining area of shipyard and dock was sold to Cammell Laird; they folded in 2001, with 800 men and work available, when their Mersey base went into liquidation and A. & P. (Tyne) Ltd. took over at Hebburn. Bellway Homes had built 'Hebburn Village' around the Yard perimeter c.1992 on some of the land occupied by 'Andrew Leslie's Houses' in former years.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013