“We are all familiar with the beautiful beams of light travelling over the sky in the search for Zeppelin and aircraft... Tyneside girls polished the mirrors and so added to the brilliancy of the searchlights.” Katharine Parsons

Tyneside – an industrial powerhouse

Mauretania leaves the Tyne on her maiden voyage
Mauretania leaves the Tyne on her maiden voyage.

Newcastle, Gateshead and the other great industrial cities of northeast England, such as Sunderland and Middlesbrough, reached the heights of prosperity in the late 19th century and the years leading up to the First World War – coinciding with the peak of the British Empire. Every yard of suitable land, especially along the banks of the Tyne, the Wear and the Tees, was devoted to manufacturing, shipbuilding and trading, and all around were the wealth-generating mines of the great northern coalfield.

It was at Heaton, just east of Newcastle, and nearby Wallsend-on-Tyne that Charles Parsons laid the foundations of his highly successful manufacturing enterprise. After graduating from Cambridge in 1877, Parsons had begun his engineering career as a premium apprentice at the Elswick Works of Sir William Armstrong, already the dominant industrial force on the river Tyne.

In 1884, after a spell in Leeds, Parsons returned to Tyneside, becoming a partner in Clarke Chapman of Gateshead, where he began work on the development of steam turbines and took out his first patents. In 1889 he founded C. A. Parsons & Co. at Heaton to produce turbo-generators. The first power station in the world to employ turbo-generating plant was the Forth Banks power station at Newcastle.

An impression of the Tyne during the First World War by Joseph Pennell
An impression of the Tyne during the First World War by Joseph Pennell.

In 1894 Parsons turned his attention to marine propulsion. He established a separate organisation with works at Wallsend and formed a separate company that became known as the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Co. A small experimental vessel, the Turbinia, was built and, after many modifications, reached a speed of 34 knots. The sensation caused by Turbinia at the naval review of 1897, when the little ship easily outpaced every other ship afloat, led eventually to the general adoption of turbine machinery in the Royal Navy. The first class of battleship to be affected by this decision was the Dreadnoughts.

From 1905 turbines produced at Wallsend were also installed in ocean-going liners, including Lusitania, Mauretania and Titanic. Mauretania held the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean for nearly a quarter of a century.

The original Turbinia, repaired and restored, now occupies centre stage in the entrance hall of Newcastle’s Discovery Museum.