To those with any interest in British shipping the demise of Stephenson Clarke of Newcastle, though predictable, still comes as a major shock.
It has always been around, its fleet once prolific, and its plain funnel, the black and silver, reeking of the ‘Red Duster’ of hard working ships and seamen in unglamorous trades. Some of my earliest memories are of their colliers awaiting the staithes on the Tyne and they were always smart, even in the coal trade, that was once so much their own near monopoly. More recently, of my many travels in Scandinavia, theirs are the only ships flying the Red Duster I have met in obscure inner Norwegian fjords, engaged in both stone and alumina traffic.
The company seemed to support British ship builders for as long as they could too. I watched their Wilmington being completed at Hall Russells at Aberdeen in ‘69, one of that yard’s last buildings, and similarly their last class of smaller new-builds, Steyning, Harting etc were some of Clelands last hulls in the early ‘80s. Of course, besides their own ships, for much of the 20th century they were managers for the collier fleets of gas and electric companies and ultimately the CEGB (the Central Electric Generating Board).
Their naming system for much of the 20th C had been of villages in Sussex in the SE corner of England, but they absorbed Robertsons ‘Gem’ line in 1978 and used their names too, and then later I could discern no apparent pattern. Looking at the fleet in recent years, they must have received great value for their last Verolme-Dutch newbuilds, the class of 12,000dwt bulkers Durrington/Dallington/Storrington/Donnington in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Then there was an attempt to revitalise their smaller tonnage, selling their older hulls and acquiring the three River class. But they were sold on after a few years. Their fleet has been dwindling, down to ten in 2008, five a few years later, and in 2011 only Durrington and Newcastle, the latter being the last to be purchased in 2008 and the last to be sold in early 2012.
‘Stevie Clarke’ traces its origins back to 1730, so their passing is news worldwide. Economic reportage, even in the US, has noted their end. So what caused their demise? They blame the recession holding down freight rates for the foreseeable future but other companies even in the UK are staying afloat in the economic storm.
It seems to me that they had struggled to find and hold core contracts that would enable them to compete against cheaper hulls and crews. They lost their once regular Blyth-Shannon smelter traffic to Arklow. Earlier, they were possibly a casualty, one of the many in UK industry, of ‘privatisation’ when they had seemed to lose their fleet management contracts, once coal mining and electricity generation was sold off by the UK government. Then they lost out on coal shifting to Jebsens and to coal imports to Panamax hulls. In short they ended up competing in the very bottom end of the market for crumbs of cargoes against cheaper Russian and continental tonnage and to larger operators able to carry some freights at a loss or break-even between their more lucrative core movements.
It is telling that when wound up Stevie Clarkes had no ships and only 9 jobs were said to be lost. In other words the jobs like in so much UK maritime business had gone much earlier, with foreign built and maintained ships which were largely foreign manned even when flying the Red Duster.