Exhibition keeps river shipyard's fame afloat

They built some of the finest ships in the British fleet, creating vessels that braved the world's most dangerous seas and fed the nation. An exhibition that includes personal accounts, tools, models and hundreds of photographs revives the glory days of a Yorkshire shipyard. Dave Mark reports.

THEY were ordinary working men; humble grafters who dreamed of making the ships of the future while they toiled through gruelling apprentice-

ships in the cauldron of a 19th century London shipyard.

But William James Cook and Charles Keen Welton, a boilermaker and a plater with the most basic of educations, were to become two of the most famous shipbuilders in the world, creating the finest vessels in the fleet and revolutionising the industry.

A new exhibition at Beverley tells the story of Cook, Welton and Gemmell, which built vessels that journeyed to distant waters and fed the nation, and the fastest warships of the Royal Navy.

The display includes hundreds of photographs from the glory days of the shipyard, as well as personal accounts from the hundreds of men who toiled on the great iron vessels through two world wars.

Stefan Ramsden, museums officer with East Riding Council, said: "The names Cook, Welton and Gemmell are known all over the world and a lot of people have generations of family members who worked at the shipyard, creating these world-class vessels.

"They were right at the cutting edge of the industry, creating the finest ships around; fast, but hard-wearing.

"Their journey was a truly astonishing one, and this exhibition gives a wonderful insight into life at a typical shipyard. It will be a real voyage down memory lane for a lot of people."

Cook and Welton were both born in London, and served apprenticeships as boilermaker and plater respectively in London shipyards. After years of talking about their plans and their vision for how the industry could develop, they scraped together enough funds to form a partnership.

In 1872 they moved up to Hull together when they obtained the contract for the iron work on two warships being built by Earle's Shipbuilding and Engineering Co.

William Gemmell was born in Scotland, and served an apprenticeship as a shipwright at Earle's in Hull. Cook and Gemmell found a kindred spirit and the three went into business together in 1883, leasing property at Sammy's Point, Hull – where The Deep stands today.

Their first ship was an iron sailing smack called the Precursor, built for Robert Hellyer in 1885. The vessel was a success at a time when iron-hulled boats were still in their infancy. Cook, Welton and Gemmell (CWG) quickly showed they could handle any size of contract and more orders followed as their workforce grew.

In 1902, following the closure of Cochrane, Hamilton and Cooper's shipyard in Beverley, CWG leased a site at Grovehill, Beverley, from Beverley Corporation. CWG's lease at Sammy's Point expired shortly afterwards and production was concentrated solely on the Grovehill site.

As Hull's fleet concentrated increasingly on distant water fishing in the Arctic, trawlers built by CWG were at the cutting edge of design, meeting the demand for larger, faster ships capable of dealing with the worst winter seas.

CWG specialised in fishing vessels. During the early years these were sailing smacks, but the yard was at the forefront of the development of steam trawlers and came to specialise in long-range trawlers for the Hull distant water fleet.

The new exhibition is based around a collection of photo-graphs donated by Stan Byatt, a former naval architect at the shipyard. These photographs capture the yard and its products during the heyday from 1945-1960 when, under managing director Ambrose Hunter, it prospered and employed up to 700 staff.

In 1963 CWG ceased trading. The company's death knell was truly sounded by the demand for bigger trawlers, which could not be floated down the winding River Hull from their Beverley base.

The exhibition, Shipyard, is at Beverley Guildhall, which is open every Friday between 10am and 4pm, entry free. An open day will be held for the exhibition on Saturday, March 27, between 11am and 3pm.

dave.mark@ypn.co.uk