Aberdeen’s Links With
John Hanry Sangster Coutts (1810-1862)
was a gifted Aberdonian who went south to become a notable iron shipbuilder with
2 shipyards on Tyneside, between 1840-1862. He was born in Aberdeenshire,
son of a farmer, Patrick Coutts. This sparse information has been culled
from census returns and marriage certificates. John Coutts was the eldest
of ‘Three Wise Men’ from Aberdeen who were to be the bedrock of the iron
shipbuilding industry on Tyneside from c1840. The others were Charles
Mitchell (a benefactor to his hometown university) and the Shetland-born
Andrew Leslie. All 3 were previously known to each other in Aberdeen and had
their own independent shipyards on the Tyne. John Coutts was adamant he
was not related to the banking family of that name, and that he was a partner in
the Aberdeen Shipyard of John Ronalds, who in 1839 built the
well-known iron sailing ship John Garrow. This seems to have inspired him
to go solo and he went South to take up an old wooden shipyard at Low
Walker on Tyne, where in 1842 he launched the paddle steamer
Prince Albert, destined to ply the Thames Estuary. This he claimed to be the
first sizeable iron ship built on this river.
A Iron sailing ship called the "John Garrow" was built in 1840 at the
Aberdeen shipyard of
John Ronalds & John Coutts.
Port of registry: Liverpool
she sailed from Liverpool to New Orleans.
Rigged with standing bowsprit, square stemmed, no galleries and male figurehead.
Owned by John Anderson, William Garrow, Alexander Smith and Thomas Irvine, all
of Liverpool, trading as Anderson, Garrow & Co
The Times, Thursday, Apr 02, 1840
iron ship, Captain J. Wilson, an iron vessel of 895 tones, calculated to carry
40 keels of coals, arrived in the River Tyne on Friday last. When she entered
the narrows she was drawing 10 feet of water. Since her arrival she has
continued to excite much curiosity; part of her standing rigging is made of
wire, and except her top and decks she is exclusively made of iron. Captain
Wilson has ordered that parties visiting her shall pay 1s. each, which will be
given to the
Shipwreck Society. She
is named after the principal in the firm in Liverpool who are her owners. The
will load here immediately for Bombay. It is understood she sailed well during
her passage from
and every day comes up to the most sanguine expectation that was formed of her
Coutts went on to build in 1844 an
iron-hulled barque named Q.E.D., which had an auxiliary steam engine and
the (world first) innovative feature of water ballast, carried in
double bottoms. This would eventually become the norm in the collier trade
and elsewhere, replacing the sand-and-gravel ballast previously used. A volatile
and innovative man who built the largest sailing ships of the day in his time on
Tyneside, but he suffered 2 bankruptcies and died alone and seemingly
friendless in 1862, in lowly lodgings in North Shields.
In 1848 he
entered into a partnership with William Parkinson trading as Coutts &
with a Yard at Willington Quay. He employed Charles Mitchell as his
The O.P.R. of Keig in 1794
shows a marriage of one Patrick Coutts of Tough, to a local lassie, Isobel
Ronald of Keig.
Coutts recruited many of his workers
from Aberdeen, particularly at his second shipyard at Wellington Quay
on Tyne 1849 - 1855. He was followed from Aberdeen by Charles
Mitchell, who eventually had his own adjacent shipyard on the Tyne, at
Low Walker. Mitchell went on to fame and fortune, and in later years was to
be a generous benefactor to Aberdeen University.
In 1853, on the south bank of
the Tyne, at Hebburn, the third man from Aberdeen arrived, to set up an
iron shipyard, he was Andrew Leslie, a Shetlander, who had served as a
boilermaker in Aberdeen, before coming south to England.
Mitchell’s own yard was set up in the
He had later bought a 2nd 6.5 acre yard in
which failed financially and he handed this over to brother-in-law
who set up
Old maps of the River Tyne showed that there were many shipyards located in the
but this particular one had been
Mitchell’s Low Walker
and was next to the
The shipyard was founded by
He was born in Aberdeen on 20th May,
and served his apprenticeship with
Simpson & Company,
iron founders of Aberdeen, before moving to
to work for
John H. S. Coutts,
a yard owner, also originally from Aberdeen. Charles worked for Coutts until
before moving to work in London and then travelled extensively in France,
Germany and Italy. He then returned to Newcastle in
to set-up his own
next to the Coutts yard. His first vessel,
was a coaster for the Australian trade and was launched in February,
Several other vessels were constructed and his 7th ship was ordered by German
owners and named
but on completion in December,
was bought by the Admiralty
sent with a cargo of iron rails from
Walker to Balaclava
railway. More vessels, including paddle steamers were built for use on Indian
rivers, the Nile in Egypt and on Russian rivers in connection with the Russian
Black Sea grain trade. Charles
3rd child of William and Ann Swan of
West Farm, Walker
on 9th May,
and gained 2 practical brothers-in-law in
Charles Sheridan Swan
Henry Frederick Swan.
Many ships were completed under the
name up to
with 3 of them being launched in a unique triple launch at the yard in
Yard nos. 15, 17 and 18 were launched simultaneously – an event that was never
repeated on the Tyne and which must have been quite a spectacular event.
two ‘kits’ for
were supplied for erection on the
under the supervision of
Charles Sheridan Swan,
1864 Henry Frederick Swan,
who had joined the yard as an apprentice in
was despatched to
to build 5 small warships. Russian owners were important to the yard with orders
continuing to flow to the
Low Walker Yard
for many different types of vessels. The yard built over 90 vessels of various
types for Russia and
together with his business partner
Henry Frederick Swan,
set up a shipbuilding yard for the Tsarist government at
Several warships were built there under the company’s direction. In recognition
of his services,
Tsar Alexander II
made Charles a Cavalier of the Order of St. Stanislaus, a rare honour for a
Charles and his brother Henry were directors of the
Wallsend Slipway Company,
a repair yard established by Mitchell in
Charles arranged a partnership with
died after falling overboard on a channel steamer returning from the continent
with his wife. Hunter went into temporary partnership with Swan's wife before
becoming Managing Director in
Swan Hunters built their first steel ship at
and their first
A merger between
William Armstrong and Charles Mitchell in the new company
Armstrong, Mitchell & Co. Ltd. in 1882. William Armstrong had
established a company at Elswick in 1847 and had become one of the
world’s leading armament manufacturers. Plans for a new shipyard to build
warships only, next to the Elswick Works, were laid in 1883.
The cable ship Restorer built in 1903 for Cable & Wireless Ltd
further demonstrated the yard’s willingness and ability to tackle all types of
ships. Even though the Elswick Yard was supposed to build all the
warships, for over the 14 years to 1899 Low Walker built 11 small
Warship-building at the
Elswick Yard had increased. A new yard was set-up near Low Walker Yard
which became the famous Vickers Armstrong’s Naval Yard.
The ‘ghostly slipway ends’
of the Low Walker Yard still reach out into the river Tyne and are
visible at low tide.
Charles Mitchell had died in August, 1895 while still active and
going daily to work at the yard. There were now no Mitchell’s on the
ANDREW LESLIE & CO. (1853-1884)
Hebburn Quay, on the South bank of the Tyne. The site would evolve into 'Hebburn
Shipyards' and the later shipbuilding operation of R. & W. Hawthorn,
Leslie & Co. Ltd.
18 June,1853 'Newcastle Journal entry'
'Enterprising Mr. Leslie of Aberdeen has taken an eligible site of around 8
acres at Hebburn Quay for iron Shipbuilding and is laying down a large
iron ship at present. This is evidence of Tyne Shipbuilders and others, being
aware of the proximity of Iron Works and Coal supplies for Iron Shipbuilding
Andrew Leslie (1818-1894) was Shetland-born dispossessed crofters son, with work experience at
Aberdeen in shipbuilding, and credited with a brief partnership with John
Coutts on his arrival. He reclaimed much river frontage, by use of contents
of Hebburn Ballast Hill to set up ground for his (later) dry dock and
building slips, at invitation of the River Committee. As sole
proprietor of Hebburn Shipyard, he laid the foundations of a shrewdly-run
firm that became highly respected name in shipbuilding and marine engineering.
Leslie recruited many workers from N.E. Scotland, many to found long-serving
families and earn Hebburn Quay the nickname of 'Little Aberdeen.'
This largely self-contained community had 400 Leslie-built houses near
the Yard, and they in turn made a large contribution to the erection of
Institute / Schools next to St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, whose 200 ft.
steeple is still a riverside landmark today.
Leslie had become
more than an industrialist, he built homes for his workers, schools for their
children and largely funded St. Andrew's Church which opened in 1873.
original firm launched 255 ships at Hebburn until 1885, also
constructing a useful dry dock 1866 (still extant) which brought
additional income from ship repair work. Andrew Leslie retired in 1884,
and his much younger partner Arthur Coote (married to Leslie's adopted
daughter) quickly made a partnership with locomotive and marine engine builder,
R.& W. Hawthorn of Newcastle. The new firm, R.& W. Hawthorn, Leslie &
Co. now controlled the Loco Works at Forth Banks, Newcastle; Marine Engine
Works at St. Peters and the Hebburn Shipyard.
his retirement, 'Auld Andra' visited his many relatives in Shetland
and the crofting folk there, still talk of his many purchases of land for them
and general good and generous deeds, for the people he had never forgotten.
Andrew Leslie died peacefully at his home Coxlodge Hall, Gosforth
in 1894, and his funeral procession to Newcastle Central Station
was a huge affair with hundreds of his old foremen and workers walking the 4
miles en route, to see him 'awa hame' on a special train to Edinburgh,
for burial at Leith Cemetery. Mrs. Leslie had predeceased him and was
already in her family (Jordan) plot there.
Remaining area of shipyard and dock was sold to Cammell Laird; they
folded in 2001, with 800 men and work available, when their Mersey base went
into liquidation and A. & P. (Tyne) Ltd. took over at Hebburn. Bellway Homes
had built 'Hebburn Village' around the Yard perimeter c.1992 on
some of the land occupied by 'Andrew Leslie's Houses' in former years.