R. & W. Hawthorn, Leslie & Co. Ltd.

Andrew Leslie, an Iron Shipbuilder

As a newly born baby, Andrew Leslie’s family along with hundreds of others, were evicted from their home in the Shetlands during the Highland Clearances in 1818. Growing up in Aberdeen he witnessed the busy docks and shipyards. At the age of thirteen he was apprenticed as a boilermaker where he progressed. When his employer died six years later he was entrusted with the management of the business, where he remained for about ten years.

J.H.S. Coutts (b. 1810), a draughtsman with Vernon, Bourne & Co., Aberdeen, trained Charles Mitchell (b.1820), who in turn taught Andrew Leslie technical drawing at night time!

When Coutts acquired a shipyard on the Tyne in 1842, he appointed Charles Mitchell Chief Draughtsman, who in due course would create his own famous shipyard in 1852.

At the age of 32 in 1850, Andrew Leslie was building ships at Granton on the Firth of Forth, but as the waters there were too shallow, he went prospecting for a river with better navigation to allow him to build larger ships.

Leslie’s friendship with Coutts, Mitchell, encouraged him to look for land on Tyneside. In 1853, Leslie applied to the Tyne Commissioners to create a shipyard at Hebburn, which at the time was farmland.

The word spread back to Aberdeen that there was work to be had on Tyneside, leading to a large community from the city moving, to the extent that Hebburn, on the southern banks of the Tyne, three miles downstream from Newcastle, would become known locally as ‘Little Aberdeen’.

Whilst having limited capital for the venture Leslie encouraged J.H.S. Coutts and others into partnership.


The first ship to be built was the 1,000 ton, three masted brigantine Clarendon for W.S. Lindsay, the M.P. for Tynemouth, and other businessmen of Newcastle. She was completed in January 1856 and was chartered for use by the British Government during the Crimean War.

In 1857 Charles Palmer had conveniently started his own iron mills just downstream at Jarrow, which made access to materials easier.

Most of Leslie’s early ships were brig rigged sailing vessels of about 130 feet and 200 grt, while an order for several barges for unidentified Russian owners were built in kit form for export

Leslie was an honourable man. Following the launch of one of his early contracts, he went to London to collect the appropriate payment, only to find that during the launching, the ship had unfortunately gone ashore on one of the sandbanks in the river. Always a soul of integrity he refused to accept payment, and sold his gold watch in order to pay for his fare back to the Tyne.

The company survived the vagaries of the cyclical shipbuilding market, and carried a lot of ship repair and lengthening work to compensate.

In Liverpool, when 20 years old George Holt went into partnership with William James Lamport (10 years his senior), to start up a shipping company in 1845. In the early years they built up a fleet of thirteen sailing ships trading to the Americas, South Africa and India. The Holt family would come to have a profound impact on British Merchant shipping for over a century. George was the second of five sons, of an influential cotton broker in the city.

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