Exploding cranes

Requiescat in Pace Swan Hunter cranes

Photograph: Last day of the last cranes at the Swan Hunter Shipyard, photograph © Janet E Davis 2010

Last day of the last cranes at the Swan Hunter Shipyard, photograph © Janet E Davis 2010

On Friday 4th June 2010, I discovered that they had blown up two cranes I loved. Oddly, I had been drawn to photograph them the previous day, totally unaware that they were due for demolition. It would never have occurred to me that they might demolish them using explosions. It seemed a very violent end.

I really wish that they had kept them as monuments to the Swan Hunter shipyard, but recognise that that would have cost money. Of course, things have to change. New industries have to have space to work, and we cannot keep everything that no longer serves a practical use. I am sure, however, that nothing that is built on that spot will equal the cranes in graceful beauty. Yes, I know that each is simply a practical engineering structure, designed to lift heavy loads, but they also happened to be elegant machines.

The video below shows some of the dismantling of other Swan Hunter Shipyard cranes and gives you some idea of the scale of these great structures.

The people of the shipyards

Whilst I was looking for my own photos of the cranes, I came across Elbow’s The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver. You might like to listen to it whilst looking at the still photographs. I have wondered just how lonely it was up in those cabs. It does seem a strange and difficult work environment.

Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate, the man of the family that lived above us in Jesmond (it was quite different then to now) worked in the Swan Hunter shipyard and, if I recall correctly, was either made redundant or was in danger of being made redundant whilst we were neighbours.

Then we moved into a flat on the other side of the river, approximately opposite the Swan Hunter cranes. They were just far enough away to lose sense of their scale. Derelict, fire-blackened redundant factories were gradually being cleared from the banks of the Tyne at that time. Throughout the years, I have seen that riverscape in my head whenever I heard ‘Shipbuilding.’ I have added the Robert Wyatt and Elvis Costello versions because I could not decide between them.

I sometimes met men who had worked in the shipyard. As the contracts to build ships went elsewhere, they turned to mending and refitting old ships. Then those contracts went elsewhere in the world.

More recently, I discovered that the mother of one of my retired neighbours had worked in the shipyards during World War 2 (the same Swan Hunter yard, I think). She had been one of the women painting the ships. Today, some of the ships would be regarded as having been turned into works of art. Artists were commissioned to design dazzling abstract patterns to disguise the ships from view.

Historical views of the Wallsend shipyards

There are photographs of the shipyard in the early 20th century (these are from Newcastle Libraries’ Tyneside Life & Times collection available to view on Flickr):

Sadly, my own more recent photographs now count as historical images.

Photograph of view of cranes at Wallsend, 2007 by Janet E Davis

View of cranes at Wallsend, © Janet E Davis, 2007

Detail of a red crane, Wallsend, 2007.

Detail of a red crane, Wallsend. Photograph © Janet E Davis, 2007.

Photograph of Cranes at Wallsend in 2007 (JED1_1235)

Cranes at Wallsend, photograph © Janet E Davis 2007.

More 2007 photographs of the cranes at Wallsend photographed by Janet E Davis (on Flickr).

More 2010 photographs of the cranes at Wallsend photographed by Janet E Davis (on Flickr).

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