BEFORE he retired from teaching, Wilf Austin was shocked to realise most of his pupils had no idea that Teesside was once responsible for building thousands of ships for customers worldwide.
It saddened him because the first six years of his working life were spent at Smith’s Dock, South Bank, and he looked back on them with pride and affection.
Reluctant to let the success of the comparatively small yard and its workforce – which always punched above its weight – slip into obscurity, he has researched, written and produced a book that records its history and achievements.
But the limited edition book, “Smith’s Dock Co. Ltd – A Shipyard Centennial” isn’t just a nostaligic look at the past, it brings its readers up to the present day and celebrates the skills that continue to thrive on the river under the yard’s new owners, A&P Group, part of the UK’s largest ship repair and conversion company.
A&P lent its support to the publication and Wilf, who now lives near Northallerton, returned to the yard to relive some old memories and present A&P Tees Site Commercial Director Ian Douglas with copies of the book, which the company plan to gift to clients.
Smith’s Dock launched over 900 vessels from South Bank, ranging from tugs and trawlers to warships, tankers and bulk carriers, between 1908 and its closure in 1987 and Wilf has captured the history of the industry and community in a bright and lively style.
As he describes in his lavishly-illustrated book, while it was not a large yard compared to the likes of Harland & Wolff of Belfast or Cammell Lairds of Liverpool, it was a feisty competitor in the world markets of the 20th century and “one of the last men standing” in a once remarkable national industry.
Aged 15, Wilf started at the yard in 1960 and spent six months as a messenger boy, which was traditional, then a further six months at the Smith’s Dock training school before beginning a five year apprenticeship.
He said: “My father and four brothers all worked on the river, we were a shipyard family so there was no question of me going anywhere else.
“I sampled all the different trades in the training school and at the end I was assigned to be a fitter. My apprenticeship was a joy for me, I enjoyed every day because you were constantly learning. I worked in the dry dock, with different vessels coming in from all over the world. It formed my character really, gave me self-discipline and taught me to get on with a job and not give up until it was finished.”
After qualifying as a marine engineer, Wilf joined the merchant navy and travelled the globe for four years before taking an English and psychology degree in Canada and eventually returning home to Teesside to be a teacher.
As he neared retirement he started researching Smith’s Dock and was amazed at the accomplishments of his old workplace, which included producing the design for one of the best-remembered vessels of World War II, the Flower Class Corvette, featured in the classic wartime film The Cruel Sea
Wilf said: “I’ve written the book to be enjoyed by everyone, not just those with an academic interest. I wanted it to be read for everything that little company was worth, which to me was an awful lot.
“Happily, it’s not the end of the story because A&P are here now and doing a great service to the region and the community.
“There was a period in recent years when the prevailing attitude was we should get rid of all the old industries Teesside was famous for, including shipbuilding and repair.
“Fortunately the skills haven’t been lost because they’re being kept alive at A&P and I’m thrilled to bits that they’re still wanted and needed. With opportunities arising coming from the offshore oil and gas sectors and the proposed Dogger Bank wind farm, they’re exciting times.”
Ian Douglas said A&P Group was delighted with the book and happy to lend its support.
He added: “It’s a great read and it’s striking how some things have remained true to the yard, despite the time gap and different ownership.
“Wilf writes about the loyalty that Smith’s engendered from its customers and we like to think that still exists as we’ve built up highly valued relationships with established clients such as Cemex Marine, Hanson Aggregate Marine, Global Marine, Gulf Offshore and Svitzer.
“He also describes the yard’s “family atmosphere” and that still applies. There is a great sense of camaraderie here, we’re in a fiercely competitive business and we all know we all have to go the extra mile to keep our clients happy.
“Our greatest asset is our workforce, some of whom worked on the River Tees when ships were still built here, so I suppose it’s no surprise that while much has changed, happily some things remain the same.”