The Whitby-based business carrying on Yorkshire's long history of shipbuilding

Yorkshire has been at the heart of maritime history for thousands of years.

Sailing – whether for short distances, or epic voyages – has always been at the core of the development of civilisation. Our ancestors quickly learned that they could travel far more quickly on the sea than they ever could through the dense woodland that covered much of the county, whether for fishing, trade, or even war.

And, if the trees hindered getting speedily around on land, they were handy when it came to making boats. The Romans built several beacon points along our coastline – Filey’s was discovered quite by chance in the 19th century – and then the Vikings came over the horizon and found that they could not only beach their longboats on our sand and shingle, but actually navigate them up our wide rivers, and strike right at the heart of communities.

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Over the centuries, Yorkshire has been at the heart of building boats in this country and the ingenuity and innovation that underpins it is still alive in Whitby today, where you can find one of the most successful shipyards in Britain.

Jim Morrison with his son James at Parkol Marine Engineering. (James Hardisty).Jim Morrison with his son James at Parkol Marine Engineering. (James Hardisty).
Jim Morrison with his son James at Parkol Marine Engineering. (James Hardisty).

In a competitive world, where nearly all the great UK shipbuilding institutions of the past have gone, Parkol Marine Engineering Ltd is thriving, and is, with around 80 permanent workers on its payroll, one of the biggest single employers in the area. Better yet, that workforce includes several apprentices, learning their trade in several fields that contribute to the production of some of the best boats around.

Parkol was formed in 1971 (starting out as a five-man repair business), so this year will see them celebrating – though they’re not quite sure how they’ll mark the anniversary, as yet – their 50th year in business.

Parkol designs, builds and maintains all sorts of vessels, and works with different materials from steel to traditional wood. Sally Atkinson, Parkol’s project manager and daughter of the firm’s managing director Jim Morrison, believes the business has thrived for a number of key reasons. “The way that you survive these days in a highly competitive market, is by blending three things. The first is tradition, the second is innovation, and the third is diversity,” she says.

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Parkol started small, doing welding jobs and repairs on traditional cobles. It was basically a boat repair company, set up by Ken Parker and the late John Oliver – hence the company. It was initially based at Spital Bridge, but home these days is at Whitby’s Eskdale Wharf.

Parkol has undergone rapid growth, with boat production doubling at its sites in Whitby and Middlesbrough.(Picture: James Hardisty).Parkol has undergone rapid growth, with boat production doubling at its sites in Whitby and Middlesbrough.(Picture: James Hardisty).
Parkol has undergone rapid growth, with boat production doubling at its sites in Whitby and Middlesbrough.(Picture: James Hardisty).

In 2017, they expanded to have a second yard, in Middlesbrough, due to demand for their services.

The first new boat built was the Jacqueline Anne, which slid gracefully into the waters in 1997. She has been followed by many others since. “We’re now capable of building steel or aluminium hulls that are up to 50 feet long, and that’s quite a sizeable boat,” says Atkinson.

There have been – to date – 45 ‘new builds’ in all. “We build just about everything you can think of, from trawlers to pilot vessels and pleasure craft. Our MD tells everyone ‘We never stand still’, and he’s absolutely spot on.”

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The latest boat down the slipway in Whitby was Reliance III, a 190-tonne trawler. “She left us this autumn and she was completed and launched on time – despite all the problems that Covid could throw at us. And a few days later, Havara (she’s 260 tonnes) was launched in Middlesbrough, and immediately set sail for the Shetland fishing grounds.”

Andrew Oliver, engineering MD at the dry dock at Whitby. (James Hardisty).Andrew Oliver, engineering MD at the dry dock at Whitby. (James Hardisty).
Andrew Oliver, engineering MD at the dry dock at Whitby. (James Hardisty).

“It’s been a time of rapid growth,” says Andrew Oliver, Parkol’s Engineering Manager. “Boat production has doubled, and the order books for this our anniversary year, and for some years to come, are both healthy and very encouraging. We’ve been building an enviable reputation for our quality and the attention to detail that we give to every project.

“I believe that our success is built on many strands – a strong relationship with customers from the very start is essential, and that’s why we get ‘repeat business’. We listen, we advise, we build, and then we deliver. Customers seem to warm to the fact that we have 50 years of expertise, but that we are always looking for innovation and new ideas. We have all our experience, in so many fields, behind us, but we are completely focused on the future.

“And we don’t just specialise in one type of boat. We are diversifying further, building craft for transportation, for the leisure industry and also pilot vessels. Enquiries and orders keep coming in. We never stand still.”

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Whitby, of course, has long been at the forefront of the sea-going world. During the height of the boat and ship-building times in the town – near the end of the 18th century – only London and Newcastle launched more vessels.

Historians reckon that, at one point, there were no less than 20 shipbuilders spread along the banks of the River Esk. Why so many, and why Whitby? The answer is part geography and part timing. Until the railway arrived in the town, the community was largely reliant on materials being brought in by sea, and for ships to take local produce out to the wider world.

Transporting goods across the North York Moors was unreliable. But Whitby was a popular port because it offered a safe haven from North Sea storms. It also had a sizeable fishing fleet, and longer-haul ships used for hunting whales.

Many shipyards specialised in building Whitby Cats, a boat that was “bluff in the bow and flat in the floors for maximum capacity.” These were specifically constructed to carry coal from Newcastle to London and the south-east.

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Parkol is a yard that respects the rich history of the Esk builders and is building on this into the 21st century. The yard itself dates back centuries and for many decades it was owned and run by the two Thomas’s – Fishburn and Broderick.

Their wharfs, slipways and dry docks were working pretty well flat out for 364 days a year. The men had Christmas Day off, and that was it. And three of their most famous ships have gone down in maritime history. They were named after a trio of famous noblemen of their day, and launched as the Earl of Pembroke, the Marquis of Granby and the Marquis of Rockingham.

All the Yorkshire coastal communities had industries associated with shipbuilding, such as rope and sail making, and there were plenty of timber-merchants before iron and steel took over in production and construction.

In the late 1770s, around 5,000 square yards of cloth was produced in and around Whitby alone, and nearly all of it was procured by the Royal Navy for their vast fleet.

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What united all these differing strands was the quality of the workmanship. It’s something that Sally Atkinson, as one of those who have helped carry Parkol forward to its pre-eminent position, believes the firm is continuing today. “The highest standards of workmanship, and our personal service to owners who trust us to do the best possible job” are, she says, key to its success.

So will she encourage her 16-year-old son Danny to continue the family involvement with Parkol? “It is entirely up to him, but at the moment he seems to be more interested in school subjects like maths, science, and economics.” Then she laughs: “But having said that he does come down willingly to the yard on a Saturday, so who knows?”