Fifty years ago, the Tyne in its old industrial heartland was a very different place to the quiet river of today.
Certainly at Wallsend, that traditional staple of North East working life, shipbuilding, was still in full swing – even if the industry faced mounting challenges.
If the Esso Northumbria and its launch by Princess Anne at the town's Swan Hunter yard in May 1969 is still well-remembered, the sister ship is perhaps less-so.
The 250,000-ton Esso Hibernia was launched at the same yard on April 6, 1970.
Our photographs show the vessel being fitted out and nearing completion in November of that year. The ship would be ready for its sea trials just a month later.
The Hibernia was one of the so-called ‘supertankers’ - the improbably large oil-carrying vessels that dominated the Tyne riverscape during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The ship also became one of the inadvertent stars of the Michael Caine film, Get Carter, released in 1971. The tanker appears, while it is being fitted out, in the background during the ferry crossing scene.
The Chronicle reported at the time: “The overall impression of the vessel is one of sheer scale.
“She is just a long, gigantic steel box – a quarter of a mile long, 60 yards wide and 30 yards deep – with an eight-storey block of flats at the end.”
(Elsewhere we reported how crew members were supplied with walkie-talkies in order to communicate aboard the 1,150ft tanker).
“Her decks are encrusted with valves, pipes, winches and fire-fighting equipment. The gear to lift her anchors stands 10-feet tall.
“Her nine cargo tanks are so large that when they were checked internally, the job had to be done by men in a rubber dinghy.”
But for Captain John Phillips and the 31-man crew, living conditions weren’t too shabby at all.
We reported: “Away from the functional, the Hibernia is a world of tiled floors and polished wooden surfaces. A world of bedside lamps and pictures on the walls; officers’ suites with two settees and plenty of armchairs; and lounges with cocktail bars and televisions.”
Reporting on the ship’s launch back in April 1970, we told how “watched by 6,000 people, the Hibernia slid majestically into the Tyne at Wallsend. Seven drag anchors and 1,150 drag chains stopped her backward progress some ten yards from the Hebburn bank of the river".
The vessel was so bulky, a section of the South bank of the Tyne at Hebburn needed to be excavated to allow for the ship speeding down the slipway into the river.
Reportedly, the director responsible for the calculation of the launch got a drenching when the resulting wash produced a wave which swept up the far shore.
In the event, the Hibernia’s sea-going life extended a year-long than sister ship Northumbria, and she was scrapped in the Taiwanese port city of Kaohsiung in April 1983.
By then, the era of the River Tyne-built supertankers was coming to an end.
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