Lily Langtry’s yacht helped save yard

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THE rise, fall, second rise and final fall of a huge Hartlepool shipyard was in the spotlight 36 years ago this week after the death of its last chairman. ANDREW LEVETT looks back at the long life and interesting times of Sir William Gray.

SIR William Gray’s inheritance was both glittering prize and poisoned chalice.

During the First World War the Hartlepool shipyard that bore his family name had been the second largest in Britain and employed 4,000 men.

But by the time he took over from his father, also called Sir William, in 1924, hard times had hit the shipbuilding industry and his inheritance amounted to a glorious past, a collossal overdraft and an uncertain future.

He could have thrown in the towel but the burly, athletic 29-year-old – born with a silver spoon in his mouth but who served an apprenticeship as a riveter and labourer to learn the business – had other ideas.

Sir William had heard that Lily Langtry, the famous actress who in younger life had been the mistress of the future Edward VII, wished to sell her luxury yacht.

He bought the vessel and used it for lavish entertaining of potential clients, securing the orders that kept the yard open.

The long climb back to solvency had begun, the jobs returned to Hartlepool, and the yard enjoyed a second boom when war returned in 1939.

Sir William had saved Gray’s but ironically it was more competitive German and Japanese yards that led to a second and final decline in the years after 1945.

The Mail’s obituary of Sir William, on January 31, 1978, wrote: “By 1961 the Gray yards, which included the Central Marine Engine Works, employed only 2,000 men and the end was in sight.”

The end came in 1963, when the company went into voluntary liquidation, but Sir William continued to live at Eggleston Hall, near Barnard Castle, which remains in the family, until his death aged 82.

The Mail’s obituary said Sir William held several directorships and was president and chairman of the Hartlepools Hospital Trust for many years and actively connected with the Boys’ Welfare Club.

A total of 328 ships, displacing almost a million tons, were built at the Gray shipyard, which was founded in 1863 by William Gray, Sir William’s grandfather, in partnership with John Denton, whose own ship repair yard dated back to 1839.

Do you have any memories of Gray’s shipyard you would like to share with other readers?

Contact Andrew Levett by emailing or write to him at Hartlepool Mail, New Clarence House, Wesley Square, Hartlepool, TS24 8BX.