George Albert Hunter and Late 19th Century shipbuilding

By | 16 March 2015

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Britain was the biggest ship building country in the world. Britain had gained the lead from the Americas around 1850 as the industry moved from wooden shipbuilding (in which the Americans excelled) to iron and steel.  The civil war in the US preoccupied them to the extent of allowing Britain build up a level of expertise, such that it is estimated that output per man was double in the UK compared to the US[i].  In 1900 the UK annual output was in the region of 1.5 million tons rising to nearly 2 million tons by 1913.

George Albert Hunter was in the thick of this supremacy. Leaving School aged 17 in 1889 he went to work as a Ship Draughtsman’s Apprentice at Sir James Laing & Sons Ltd, Deptford Shipyard on the River Wear in Sunderland.  In 1894 and following this apprenticeship he moved to Harland and Wolff in Belfast Ireland.  This company was a successful ship designer and builder that had introduced a number of innovations including the iron upper deck (and which would later, in 1912, become famous for building the Titanic).  This gave him some valuable experience but was not apparently a very happy time for him, he missed his close knit family back on the Wear.  Though I remember the shillelagh he brought back with him still hanging in the hall when I was young.ShillelaghClub

On his return to England in 1898, he lived near his family in Sunderland but went to work for C. S. Swan & Hunter on the Tyne as a draughtsman. He was sufficiently settled there that on 6 August 1900 he married Dorothy Ann the eldest daughter of John Small a butcher inj Sunderland.  They lived for a while in Greta Terrace in Bishopwearmouth , Sunderland, long enough in fact for their son William Wilson (Billy) to be born there in June 1901.  Shortly after that they moved to be closer to his work and lived in Heaton on Tyne.

[i] ‘British and World Shipbuilding’, Journal of Economic History, No 3, 1957, p.438

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