The Northumberland Shipbuilding Co. was founded by Rowland Frederick William Hodge, who was born in Sunderland in 1859. At the age of 15 he studied Naval Architecture for five years at a shipyard on the Tyne. He then moved on to ship building companies on the Clyde, before returning to the Tyne. He became a yard manager at C. S. Swan Hunter Co. at Wallsend, representing the company on official trials, and hand over.
In 1898 he acquired a former shipyard at Willington Quay to start his own operations and was its managing director for 20 years. Sir Christopher Furness and John Cory of Cardiff were also major shareholders. The yard had been owned by H. S. Edwards since 1883. He died and the repair side of the business was amalgamated with Smith’s Dock, the shipyard being sold.
The yard had not been very successful before its sale. The machinery was antiquated and needed updating. Hodge implemented a radical update from the start, renewing equipment powered by electricity with a duplicate system as back up. Additional land was bought to give him 11 acres. This allowed him to build a new berth for ships up to 600 feet in length, with a river frontage of 750 feet. 170 houses were also built nearby for the yard’s employees.
At the time there was shortage of skilled labour as many men had been called up to fight in the second Boer War. However, Mr. Hodge did manage to recruit some skilled labour.
Rowland Hodge’s wife launched the first ship, Ravenshoe, 6,000dwt, for John Cory & Son on 11th February 1899.
As had been the case with the Edwards operation, the new firm proposed to build standard hulls only, with the machinery being supplied from other local engine builders. From the beginning the Hodges plan was to cut down on the overheads by building to a standard design for a three island, single deck, 360 feet long ship, with a 7,300 dwt. capacity. The design concept caught the imagination of ship owners and their accountants, reducing the building costs. It proved to be successful with forty five ships being built, several finding their way into various fleets run by Sir Christopher Furness. The only difference between the ships of the class was the arrangement of the superstructures. These were altered to suit the requirements of various owners. The company built the basic hulls only, while the engines initially came from local engineering concerns.
In March 1901 the Queen Christina was launched for Thomas Dunlop Co. Ltd. of Glasgow, a well-known operator of tramp shipping. It was wrecked on a reef off California, when bound from San Francisco to Portland in 1907. Dunlops built a further six ships at the yard.
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