Blair & Co. Ltd., Marine Engine Builders
The story of Blair & Co., Marine Engine builders, really begins in the late 1830s at the County Durham works of Stockton and Darlington Railways, based at Shildon, where the Hackworth Brothers (Timothy & Thomas) were building and maintaining steam driven locomotives.
Around 1840, Tom Hackworth, thirty-three years old, decided to move to Stockton-on-Tees1 which began to expand after the railway arrived linking the docks and staiths, export coal to the South Durham Mines. It was the West Hartlepool Railway with connections to the north of Stockton that attracted industrialists and among them was Tom Hackworth who had sited his new business in the now abandoned location of Jacob Waller’s mill and also close to his new home. Here he befriended George Fossick who knew nothing about engineering but was supposed to able to provide financial support to aid production of Steam Locomotives. The partnership of Fossick & Hackworth2 was formed and locomotives were produced.
In the meantime, George Young Blair, born 1824 in Fife, Scotland3; was developing a keen interest in engineering and in 1851 he was residing in Glasgow4, Lanarkshire, and probably working in one of the engineering companies supporting shipbuilding as his occupation is given as an Engineer Patern Maker. He married his first wife, Marion Thom, in Govan in August 18535 and following the birth of their first child the family moved to Jarrow in County Durham, where George Y. Blair had secured a post as a manager (foreman) in the works of Charles Mark Palmer & Co. He only resided in Jarrow for a couple of years, during which time the birth of their second child is recorded before the family move to Norton Road, Stockton6, to join Fossick & Hackworth as a Manager7. Fossick & Hackworth had little marine engineering knowledge and needed to acquire some expertise. Since George Blair had no railway experience he was able to devote himself exclusively to the development of the marine engine.
The engines Fossick & Hackworth supplied at this time were modest affairs8, but they were the forerunner of those that followed.
In 1860, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Confederate Army relied on munitions supplied through seaports, on the Atlantic coast, and the Union Army knew if the supply line could be severed the length of the war would be shortened. They therefore established blockades around the major harbour and river mouths to restrict the movement of Confederate ships. In turn, the South responded by introducing fast ships to act as blockade runners. The blockades were also there to prevent any attempt at building replacement ships by isolating the shipyards the South used.
Desperate for shipping, representatives from the Confederate Navy crossed the Atlantic looking for shipbuilders not involved in the war. Fossick & Hackworth engines now had another potential market, as at least three ships were to be purchased by the Confederate Navy9.
The partnership between Fossick & Hackworth was probably contractual and had a limited life-span which matured in 1864. At this time the factory was producing both locomotives and marine engines, the latter being instigated by George Y. Blair. The transition from locomotive to ships’ engines was accelerated during the American Civil War. Thomas Hackworth was still very interested in the production of locomotives and he moved away leaving George Fossick to form a new partnership with George Blair and became Fossick & Blair, producing one or two further locomotives but switching the main production to Marine Engines10.
George Fossick left Stockton in 1866-7, opening the way for George Blair to take sole control of a new Company in the name of ‘Blair & Co., Ltd.’11 employing about 700 men and boys. Without George Fossick, locomotive construction effectively ceased and more ships were fitted year-on-year with Blair and Co. engines, which became more complex and elaborate. The engines used for the Confederate ships were of single cylinder, 120-130 hp and used only to power the ship if it became becalmed. The more complex engines were double, triple and quadruple cylinder increasing the efficiency and power.
The first triple cylinder engine designed by Blair and was fitted to the Burgos which had been built by Richardson, Duck and Company12 in 1884. The transition brought immediate rewards, the growth of the company was onward and upward, from 1886 the Blair family became wealthy in a way that the Hackworth brothers could only have dreamed of. Naval conflict throughout the world now provided a constant market for high-quality marine engines and rapid expansion of the British Empire. In consequence, from 1888, the company developed rapidly under the watchful eye of George Blair and his son-in-law, who changed his surname to Blair to ensure both name continuity and guarantee on his future inheritance of the works.
Part of the production line of marine engines was aided by the proximity of the Clarence Railway, now renamed the North Shore Branch line with connections to the North Eastern Railway and beyond. The railway ran from the main line to the river Tees and other works, transporting iron to the Malleable works and coal to the staiths, the railway could also be used to transport the engines to Blair’s’ fitting out wharf (between Ropers’ shipyard and the Malleable Iron Works). A shear leg crane13, constructed of 3 supporting legs forming a tripod, dominated the skyline on Stockton’s river front, could lift up to 100 tons and were constructed in 1887 at a cost of £2,695. Blairs built a construction yard for access to the newly launched ships, using the crane to lift the engines into place.
The staff at Blair’s factory were loyal and numerous have been acknowledge for their long service in many departments14; examples are: the foremen average 33 years service and the drawing office 22 years, however, the works were not without its’ disruptions and minor disputes.
He kept clear of employers’ associations for many years, only joining the
North of England Master Shipbuilders’ and Marine Engineers’ Association in about 1893, consequently became caught up in a moulders’ strike in 1894.
George Young Blair died in September 189415, leaving his Son-in-Law, Mr. Percy Alexander Field Sadler to manage the business. By the turn of the century, Blair and Co. employed more than 2,000 skilled men. Percy died in 190616 and Mr. Walter Borrie, a maternal cousin was appointed Managing Director, retiring in 192017.
At the end of the First World War, Norton Road marine engines were internationally famous and the driving force behind some of the finest battleships the world has ever seen.
The Decline in Ship Building
The factory was taken over by Goulds, in March 192018 and by the beginning of May that year, an announcement19 of extensive investment into Richardson, Duck & Co, and the associated concern of Blair’s. New plant was to be laid down and better welfare facilities for both the shipyard and the engine factory, with free training being held at night schools. First Aid classes20 were also organised by ‘St John’s Ambulance Service’. In pursuance of the policy of encouraging welfare effort amongst their employees, the directors have decided to adopt a scheme for the conversion of 12 acres of land which ran down from Trent St. to Lustring Beck, part of the Hill House Estate (Derwent St & Trent St, west of Norton Road, opposite the Brown Jug Public House) in close proximity of the works into workman’s allotments21.
In October 1921, the effect of the coal dispute had forced the closure on account of the shortage of fuel, and about 1,000 men have been added to the unemployed22. As a gesture of good will a Children’s Party was held at the Jubilee Hall for 300 children belonging to the unemployed workmen of the firm, whom they invited for tea and entertainment23.
In the spring of 1925 stagnation had set in throughout the shipyards within the north-east and the question was raised as to why orders were being given to Germany24. There were many suggestion to stimulate a revival including working a 53 hour week, thus getting the most out of the new machinery. “Blair’s, being one of the largest and oldest established engine fitting firms in the district, had only two sets of engines to complete, and unless some totally unexpected change comes, they expect to practically close down within the next two months”. In the summer of that year the final announcement came25; “It was a matter of deep regret that the Company had been unable to weather the storm. The longer work was carried on the more the assets were diminishing”. Liquidation was ordered at once and it was calculated that £210,000 was owed in respect of Excess Profits Duty, Corporation Profits Tax and Income Tax, against the principal assets of the works, plant etc., which realised £200,000.
After more than fifteen months it was a relieve to many, to hear the news of “Blair’s works to be re-started26”. Negotiations had taken place which resulted in a new chairman taking over. The new chairman was Mr Dalgleish, a well known Tyneside Shipowner. ‘However in the present state of trade there was not much hope of there being immediate employment, but every effort will naturally be made to secure business’. Two months later Mr Dalgliesh stated that he had secured orders for four large ships and all four would be engined by Messrs Blair & Co., along with other minor works27.
Passing of a Famous Firm
It was announced on the 2nd of July 1932 that Blair’s Engine works was to be scrapped and it would be a big blow for Stockton. The article in the Stockton and Thornaby Herald for that day said; ‘Another heavy blow to the industrial future of Stockton has fallen, negotiations taking place for the selling of the important marine engineering works of Messrs Blair and Co., Ltd., who went into voluntary liquidation on August 10 last’28.
It was said that Blairs was the measure of the levels of employment in Stockton. In good years when the shipyards were in full production and the iron and steel mills were working full blast to keep up with demand, then people would see the thousands of workmen streaming in and out of Blairs making engines for the ships. Blairs did not only make boilers and engines for locally built ships but also received orders from abroad especially Norway and Holland. They were on the Admiralty Lists for engineers and received many government orders and had offices in London, Liverpool and Cardiff29.
The factory eventually closed in 1933.
- Hills & Sons of Yarm took over the premises in 1933-3430 and remained in business till the 1970s.
Thanks are expressed to the following for background information: George Turner Smith; ‘Thomas Hackworth – Locomotive Engineer’, Alice Barrigan; George Young Blair & Drumrauch Hall Library; 1857 Map of Norton Road and Clarence Railway, Francis Gerard Owens; ‘Winds of Change’.
- Poll Book for the County of Durham July 1841 – Stockton District; page 31
- 1861 Trade Directory – Engineers – Fossick & Hackworth
- 18240904 Blairs’ Baptism – Scotland; FindMyPast – r_690652908
- 1851 Scotland Census – Scotland
- 18530819 Marriage to Marion Thom – Scotland; FindMyPast – r_695170885
- 1861 England Census, Stockton; RG9/3691
- 1861 Wards Directory – Blair G.Y. Manager to Fossick & Hackworth
- co.uk – Fossick & Hackworth – Home Market; Adria, Charente, Alice
- co.uk – Fossick & Hackworth – Confederate Ships; Modern Greese, Bahama, Bermuda
- co.uk – Fossick & Blair – Engines; Denmark, Germany, Glencain
- 1867 Whites Directory – Blair & Co. Ltd.,
- 1884 Teesbuiltships.co.uk – First Triple Powered Engine – Burgos
- 1887 Sheer Legs – PictureStockton
- 19210212 ‘Long Service Awards’ –P1C2- Stockton & Thornaby Herald
- 18940922 ‘Death of George Young Blair’ – Stokesley, Yorkshire; 9d,352
- 19061210 ‘Death of Percy Alexander Field Blair (Sadler)’ – Stokesley, Yorkshire; 9d,352
- 19200522 ‘Stockton Works Changes’ – Walter Borries Retires – P4C6– Stockton & Thornaby Herald
- 19200320 ‘Tees-side’s Record Deal’ –P2C1&2- Stockton & Thornaby Herald
- 19200508 ‘Richardson, Ducks and Blairs’ -P1C7- Stockton & Thornaby Herald
- 19210521 ‘Ambulance Class’ –P4C2- Stockton & Thornaby Herald
- 19220819 ‘Industrial Welfare’ –P4C2- Stockton & Thornaby Herald
- 19210521 ‘Stockton Works Close’ –P1C1- Stockton & Thornaby Herald
- 19211231 ‘Children’s Treat’ –P3C3- Stockton & Thornaby Herald
- 19250318 ‘Stagnation in Shipyards’ –P?C1- North Eastern Daily Gazette
- 19250613 ‘Big Stockton Firm in Liquidation’ – Stockton & Thornaby Herald
- 19261030 ‘Stockton Works to Re-start’ –P5C1- Stockton & Thornaby Herald
- 19261211 ‘Blair’s Works to Reopen’ –P5C1- Stockton & Thornaby Herald
- 19320702 ‘Big Blow for Stockton’ –P10C4- Stockton & Thornaby Herald
- Blairs’ Advert; //en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Young_Blair
- 1934 Trade Directory – F. Hills & Sons
Image source: Picture Stockton and Stockton Reference Library
Stories from the High Street participant: Martin Stabler.
The ‘Stories…’ project is part of the Council’s wider “Grants for Heritage Buildings’ programme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Council, to help promote awareness and understanding of the town’s heritage.
Visit www.stockton.gov.uk/grantsforheritagebuildings for further information on the project.