Remembering Sir William Gray

Cultural outreach officer Rachael Garlick puts to the finishing touches to one of the exhibits
Cultural outreach officer Rachael Garlick puts to the finishing touches to one of the exhibits

HARTLEPOOL will be reminded of the influence of one of its most prominent citizens during a new exhibition.

Sir William Gray, who founded Hartlepool’s world famous shipbuilding company, left a lasting legacy to the town.

From tomorrow, works of art donated by the Gray family to Hartlepool will be the subject of a major mew exhibition at Hartlepool Art Gallery.

It is part of a wider series of events planned to mark the 50th anniversary of the closure of Gray’s shipyards.

Born in Blyth in 1823, William Gray moved to old Hartlepool when he was 20 and set himself up as a draper.

Within a decade he had expanded to seven shops across Teesside.

William shrewdly invested his profits in a number of sailing ships and in 1863 he entered shipbuilding going into partnership with Pushon Denton to form Denton and Gray.

It later became William Gray and Company.

The company became West Hartlepool’s largest producer of clipper barques, sailing ships and steamers.

Orders flooded in from home and abroad and the company’s vessels sailed the oceans all over the world.

The company won the famed Blue Riband Prize for the highest output of a shipyard in Britain a record six times between 1878 and 1900.

William’s services to Hartlepool included being the first Mayor of West Hartlepool and an Alderman of the first Town Council.

He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1890 and appointed High Sheriff of County Durham two years later.

In 1891 William became the president of the Chamber of Shipping for the United Kingdom.

Up to 2,000 men worked for his shipyard and engineering works.

William died in 1898 aged 75, having poured much of his personal fortune into charitable and educational projects.

In 1918 Gray’s became a public company, but suffered money problems in the early 1920s due to the post-war slump in the freight market.

The Second World War saw a revival in its fortunes, but they dived again after the war.

The last ship built by Gray’s was launched in 1961. Repair work continued into 1962 until the company finally went into voluntary liquidation.

Gray’s Exhibition is at the gallery from tomorrow to Saturday, June 1.

It features some of the works of art donated to Hartlepool by the family as part of the founding of the town’s museum service, as well as artefacts relating to the company’s shipbuilding.

Clare Irvine, Hartlepool Borough Council’s arts manager, said: “The role played by Sir William Gray and his family in Hartlepool’s industrial, social and cultural development was impressive and 

“Among their remarkable legacy was the wonderful collection of paintings which they gave to the town and we’re delighted to feature many of them together in this major exhibition which tells the story of this remarkable family and their generosity to the town and its people.”

A display by artist Kath O’Connor will complement the exhibition, featuring items from Hartlepool’s Victorian and Edwardian natural history collection.

Hartlepool Art Gallery is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10am to 5pm and entry is free.