Everything was dwarfed by the Esso Northumbria, which was so long you could see neither the top nor the other end.
From being a little girl I had been taken to Swan Hunter’s shipyard to see ships being launched because my dad helped to organise the launch receptions. Once I went to the High School I was only allowed to see launches if they occurred out of school time but in the late 1960s an exception to this was made for the launch of the Esso Northumbria.
Northumbria and her sister ship Hibernia were 250,000 ton oil super-tankers and the largest thing ever seen on the River Tyne. Whilst they were being built they dominated the skyline of Wallsend. Because the launch of Esso Northumbria was such a big event, tickets were issued for access to the shipyard and families of Swan Hunter’s employees had access to a special area.
To get the time off school I had to fill in a special pink leave of absence form which had to be signed by Miss Worswick the senior mistress. When I took my form and ticket she was very impressed that I was going to be able to see such a memorable event and pointed out that I could only have my form signed because it was such a special occasion.
The launch was mid-afternoon and my mam had arranged that she would take my brother and I to Wallsend station where my dad would meet us. We walked down to Percy Main station and the platform was far busier than I had ever seen it. Carville station which was at the top of Swan Hunter’s Bank was on the Riverside Line which, in the late 1960s, was in use only during morning and evening rush-hours. At that time, on the main line there were some express trains which didn’t stop at the smaller stations like Percy Main but that afternoon an announcement was made on the platform that the express train would be stopped at Percy Main to clear some of the crowd.
When we got off the express at Wallsend it was a seething mass of humanity and we just could not see how dad was going to find us in such a throng but suddenly there he was. He took us down the bank and through the main building to avoid the crowds. In the foyer there was always a large collection of scale models of ships that had been built at the yard that we loved to look at. Once we got through into the shipyard the place was full of people and everything was absolutely dwarfed by this ship which was so long you could see neither the top nor the other end.
The Esso Northumbria was so long that it was built across 2 slipways. What always fascinated me at launches was that right until the last minute there were men working away under the ship gradually removing the chocks on which the ship rested and that men were working on other ships and only stopped work for the actual launch ceremony.
We had a very good view from our area of the yard and saw Princess Anne perform the launch. At first it didn’t seem to move, then slowly it started to slip away and the enormous chains started to take the strain with an almighty rushing sound sending up a huge cloud of dust. There had been great debate as to whether or not the chains would hold it well enough to prevent it from hitting the other bank because there was very little room to spare. Even so, it sent up a huge wave onto the south bank of the river. Once the chains and dust had settled we always loved to walk down the side of the slipway to see the ship in the river. Only when we saw this one in the river did we appreciate how huge it was, you could see neither over it nor round it. By the time we reached the river the tugs were already hard at work pulling it round so that it could be moored and traffic could start to move up and down the river again.
The next time I saw the Esso Northumbria was the day it left the river and again it attracted huge crowds not least because it happened on a Sunday afternoon. My dad took my brother and I down to Tynemouth to see it. There were helicopters and small planes flying up and down the river and both banks of the river were packed with people. It was a wonderful sight to see the tiny tugs towing it downstream and guiding it round the twists and turns in the river. It took hours for it to make the journey but it was an unforgettable sight.
The crowds were so bad that I seem to remember that we walked all the way home because it was impossible to get on a bus. I also saw the launch of the Esso Hibernia and although there were a lot of people there, it wasn’t as hectic as Esso Northumbria’s launch had been. Unfortunately I missed seeing the Esso Hibernia leave the river, but so did many other people because it happened on a weekday morning having been postponed at least once because of unsuitable weather conditions. The weather had to be clear and still before they could consider such a delicate operation.
Soon after that I sat my ‘A’ levels and left North Shields to study in Essex for three years.
Esso Northumbria, Wallsend 1969
Photograph from Newcastle City Library Photographic Collection