William Pile

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William Pile's Shipyard at North Sands, Sunderland on the Wear ca1830.
William Pile's Shipyard at North Sands, Sunderland on the Wear ca1830. The view shows the river's appearance before Sunderland North Dock was built in 1837 near Pile's shipyard. Image courtesy of Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.

Sunderland Shipbuilding

Sunderland has been building ships since at least 1346, when Thomas Menvill had a yard at Hendon. The industry did not become prominent until the 18th century when improvements were made to the port so that larger ships could use the Wear River. This enhanced the export trade for coal, salt and glass which then played a central role in the development of shipbuilding.

In March 1814, there were 23 yards at Sunderland, with 31 ships under construction. By 1815, it was the leading shipbuilding port for wooden trading vessels. That year, 31 yards built around 600 ships.

In 1825, the entire length of the North Sands area of the Wear River was occupied by shipbuilders.

Beginning from the Sand Point to the Strand end, the first and perhaps largest shipyard was that of Mr. John Storey. Adjoining his yard was the yard occupied by Mr. James Crone (Crown), one of the heads of a long line of eminent shipbuilders on the North side. Later this yard was transferred to Mr. Frank Oliver and his partner, Mr. John Harrison. This yard was considered the best yard on the Sands at this time.

The adjoining yard was occupied by Mr. James Allison. In about 1830, Mr. James Allison retired from shipbuilding and the yard was taken over by Mr. Samuel Peter Austin, and his son, Samuel. The latter Samuel was in turn the father to the iron shipbuilder, Mr. S.P. Austin. This firm continued some years on the North Sands, building some fine ships, where they employed a large number of men and apprentices, and were celebrated not only for the smart style of their ships, but for the quality of their vessels. In 1846, Messrs. S.P. Austin & Son removed from the North Sands to the Panns Slipway.

The adjoining yard at this early period was occupied by the Adamson family. They remained in possession of this yard for many years. They also had another yard, just below the Bridge, on the opposite side of the Wear.

On the west side, was the yard known now as the Strand Shipbuilding yard which was occupied by Messrs. John Crown & Co. On the extreme Strand end of the Sands, a Mr. Oswald had a small yard.

By 1840, there were 76 yards in Sunderland.

A Family of Shipbuilders

William Pile (1823-1873), who would later build the City of Adelaide, worked in many yards before starting his own company in 1846.

In 1846, the builders at North Sands were Messrs. Byers & Co., William Pile, Jun., John Pile (William's brother), and R. Thompson & Sons.

William Pile took over the family yard in 1848. In 1850, Messrs. W. & T. Harkess, Mr. Gardner, Mr. J Blumer, and Mr. George Booth came to the North Sands.

At this period a revolution in shipbuilding took place, when both brothers John and William got in full swing. Their mode of construction eclipsed all that had ever previously taken place on the Wear, and even in any other part of the country. Their name was soon spread all over the world.

This was little wonder when considering the stock they sprung from: their grandfather, also William Pile, was a household word throughout the port. His fame came through the building of the Ganges, an East Indiaman, in 1825. The Ganges was built on the rock at Ravenswheel, the last yard of the late Mr. Dennis A. Douglass.

John and William’s father too, another William Pile, followed the excellent example of his father and made his mark among the builders of the port as a splendid constructor too.

John and William Pile gained their reputation through the finish of a splendid yacht-like clipper Lizzie Webber. Their reputation came not only due to her smartness and form, but also for the high speed which she and their other clippers attained while under canvas. In fact, their vessels were acknowledged, and held by many, to be the swiftest sailing vessels in the China trade, and were known as "tea clippers".

Departure of the Lizzie Webber the first Emigrant Ship from Sunderland to Australia, 14 Aug 1852.
© National Maritime Museum, London.
Departure of the Lizzie Webber the first Emigrant Ship from Sunderland to Australia, 14 Aug 1852.
Image courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, London.
Image contrast and brightness have been adjusted for on-line viewing.

The Pile brothers were among the first to introduce ships that were long in proportion to their beam. Their vessels were of large dimensions, and the items of their fittings enormously costly. They won for the builders the high name they attained in every quarter of the globe.

John and William Pile were also among the first to take up iron shipbuilding. The style of their iron ships was as good as the wood ships they built. The Pile brothers foresaw that a great revolution was approaching, with inquiries and demand for iron in place of wood coming from all directions. They at once set about obtaining the plant necessary for the great change required to construct iron ships. The result proved to be most favourable, orders kept coming in, and it was seen that the class of ships they designed were admired for beauty and form, fully equal to the wooden ships for which they already had obtained such a high name.

One of these new class of ships, a composite clipper with iron frames and timber planking, was launched at the yard of William Pile Jr. on the 7th May 1864 and named the City of Adelaide. She had been built for Messrs. Devitt & Moore, London, and was assigned the official British Reg. No. 50036 and signal WGLQ.

On the 5th June 1873, a terrible blow to the firm was caused by the death of William Pile. He was esteemed by every one for his acts of kindness and general benevolence. As an employer he was apparently not surpassed in his kindly disposition. There were few, if any, of the North Sand builders who could reach the standard to which Mr. William Pile had attained, not only as a model builder but as a model man.

Willliam Pile's yard closed after his death in 1873 and was sold to pay his creditors. In his 50 years lifetime, he had built more than 100 ships in wood and almost as many in iron, and was renowned for his clippers. A talented draughtsman, he was described as the greatest ship designer of his age.

In the Sunderland Museum is a marble bust by William Borrowdale of William Pile (1823-1873). The bust, which is on a pedestal that shows one of Pile's first steam vessels, was subscribed for by his friends, and placed in the entrance hall of the Museum and Library building when it opened in 1879.


  1. Adapted from a transcription by Michael Thompson of the book: John Thompson, The Past and Present History of the North Sands Shipyards and Their Surroundings from 1823 To 1891, November 1891, Printer William Duncan, York Street, Sunderland.
  2. Shipbuilding on the Wear, Local Studies Centre Fact Sheet Number 10, Sunderland City Council.
Bust of William Pile, Shipbuilding Genius of the 19th Century
Bust of William Pile, Shipbuilding Genius of the 19th Century, which today can be seen in the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.

The 'City of Adelaide' is a unique ship; classed ‘prototype’ by Lloyds of London she is the only one of her kind ever built.

A class of ship called composite was patented three years after she first sailed. These composite ships copied her prototype construction techniques.

Her builder William Pile received little formal education. As a child he carved wooden boats and sailed them in the puddles of the Wear; when asked of their form he would say "Cod head and mackeral tail, that's the ship for a canny good sail".

He received a formal shipbuilding apprenticeship and was taught the 500 year old art of building wooden ships. He also learnt the draftsmanship skills that Van Gogh would credit for his early work after studying ‘Cassagne's Guide de l'ABC du dessin’.

Pile created a draft of the ship and from it carved a half model in wood. This carving was sectioned and scaled to create the patterns for the ships sections.

The ship was shaped from a sculpture, created from a work of art, by an artist who is said to have distrusted the newly emerging theories of shipbuilding.

This ship is art.

She is a unique piece of maritime heritage, and not just for spending 126 years afloat.

David Crosby, 2009, Masters of the Arts Student, University of Sunderland

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