The story of a “family firm” often takes the reader/ listener through the cycle of initial set-up with all its frustrations and risk, through many powerful and successful years, to the point at which it collapses and is today no more than a piece of industrial archaeology. In many respects the tale told by Wilf Austen followed that pattern
Wilf was apprenticed to Smith’s Dock in 1964 and worked there to the time of its closure in 1986. He spoke with with pride of the firm’s achievements and of being part of its shared success. The Dock was created by the Smith Family from Tyneside who began business on the south bank of the Tees. They opened up a patch of land on the mudflats to form a small dock that enabled them to build the wooden ships that plied the river. In time the dock was extended out across the mud to become a firm anchorage base for an extensive dry dock facility. Then the firm grew from ship building to ship repairing and to providing engineering services for the many small firms in the Middlesbrough area.
Wilf’’s interest lay in the ships that they built. His talk was a catalogue of the the evolution of shipbuilding technology, the clients and their markets… His photographs illustrated the diversity of work in the yards, , notable in their time for supplying whaling ships, general cargo boats , ships that served as corvettes in both world wars, to the modern ocean going liners, oil tankers and container giants. The Dock also provided the first of the giant platforms that were built to service the north sea oil fields.
This talk was greatly appreciated by those Members whose lives and careers were such that they knew of the record of this North East industrial giant. They understood that with time, technologies changed, clients required bigger ships and the end was nigh for Smith’s Dock. Along with many such shipbuilding firms the economic climate was unfavourable.. Smiths was one of a number of units that became part of the ill-fated British Shipbuilders in 1986. However, a substantial relic is now operated by A & P. Ltd, repairing ships in the old dry docks..,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,.