John Readhead & Sons

Anyone who has attended a ship launch will forever remember the thrill of the occasion as the vessel begins its descent down the slipway towards the river, gathering pace as it hits the water for the first time, dragging piles of chains behind it to act as a brake.

Waiting tugs would hurry towards it before possible collision with the opposite riverbank, safely towing it to the fitting out berth.

The responsibility for planning and safely carrying out this challenging manoeuvre is given to the Shipyard Pilot, or Yard Pilot as he is usually called. The ship itself is still owned by the shipyard at this stage and no crew will be engaged to navigate it until fitting out is complete and it is accepted by the shipping company.

The River Tyne was typical of many other shipbuilding locations in the UK up to the 1980s. For the first 21 years of my life, up to the late 1960s, I lived in South Shields at the mouth of the River Tyne. Many residents of our street were seagoing, including three River Tyne pilots, all with the same surname of Purvis; Bert, Jimmy and Tommy. Since 1865, Tyne Pilots had operated independent of Trinity House and it was established that recruitment be kept within the family where possible, passing from father to son over the years until 1968 when the pilot apprenticeship scheme was abolished. Up to then, a four year apprenticeship applied to new recruits, followed by about nine years deep sea with a Merchant Navy shipping company to gain Masters Ticket, then three years as a junior pilot before being licensed as First Class (unlimited).

Within the large number of pilots (about 90 in 1963) was a smaller group who were selected by recommendation and known as Yard or Choice Pilots. They were assigned to one particular shipyard and represented that yard during builder’s trials and sea trials, in addition to their other pilot duties. Yard Pilots would command a ship as an empty shell, without any engine power, as she was launched down the slipway, and co-ordinate the movements of waiting tugs by whistle signals, or radio contact in later years. At various times during her fitting out, the ship would need to be moved within the river, and the Yard Pilot took charge of the operation. When nearing completion, the Yard Pilot would take her out into the North Sea and put her through her paces so that the workforce and owners could witness her performance. Similar trials were also undertaken for later fine tuning requirements and compass adjustment.

Bert Purvis lived next door to me and was one such Yard Pilot. He was attached to the shipyard of Readheads in South Shields from 1950 until 1972, when he retired due to ill health. In those 22 years, he looked after some 60 ships. Keeping within the family, Bert’s father Robert Watt Purvis (another Bert) was also Yard Pilot with Readheads from 1915 to 1950, with 113 ships to his name. Not to be outdone, his grandfather Thomas Chambers Purvis was Readheads Yard Pilot from 1880 until 1915, clocking up 294 ships in 35 years.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - November 2017 Issue
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