William Pile (shipbuilder)

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William Pile
Designer, shipwright and engine builder
Born (1822-10-10)10 October 1822
Sunderland, England
Died 5 June 1873(1873-06-05) (aged 50)
Hotel, Bishipgate Street, London, England
Nationality English
Citizenship British

William Pile (10 October 1822 – 5 June 1873) was a renowned British shipbuilder. "His genius was displayed in the building of ships, wherein he was not excelled. As Watt was great as a builder of engines; and Stephenson was great as a builder of railways; so William Pile was great as a builder of ships."[1]


Pile was the first to introduce the Clipper class of ship to the river Wear, Sunderland. A testament to his art can be seen today, the Composite Clipper ship City of Adelaide. The ship was classed Experimental by Lloyd's of London in 1864. It would be a few years before Lloyds would formalise the rules for constructing composite ships, the rules used for the design and construction of the Composite Clipper ship Cuty Sark. This experiment has lasted over 150 years.

It is related that he used, when a young man, after his day's work was done, to go into the loft, lay of a ship's after body, draw the frames in ready for the moulds making, and have yet time to enjoy himself afterwards.

He was in his element in the midst of difficulties. It was at these times his stoutness of heart, cheerfulness and wonderful flow of good spirits acted like a charm to those around him.

What endeared Mr. Pile so much to those who knew him was his kindness, carefree bearing, and the total absence of pride or affectation. It was said to be a pleasure to deal with or work for him.

He was beloved by every workman under him, many who had served him for ten to twenty or more years, could never remember receiving an inconsiderate word or action from him. Even in the severest trial of all – the death bed – he showed to those around him that his workmen were then in his thoughts, and nearly the last wish he expressed connected with earthly things was, that all should be paid the wages due to them.

Among the most distinguishing traits of Mr. Pile was the simplicity and genuineness of his character, and the total absence of cant. He had the softest heart (which was also often imposed on). He could not bear to see distress without relieving it, or hear a request without granting it. But he shrunk from parading his charity; to what extent will never be known now.

During his business career he must have turned over some millions of pounds, and had self been the all-ruling passion, he, no doubt, would have left a very handsome fortune behind him.[2]

It is said that when he died he left only a good name. He was the greatest ship designer of his age, but no business man. Costs mattered little to Pile; his only thought was to produce a good ship regardless of profit to himself. He left no fortune and his stock was sold off to pay his creditors. The ships on his stocks were completed by others and his shipyard, once the greatest in Sunderland was absorbed by other firms.

He had contributed in a great measure towards the establishment of Sunderland as the largest shipbuilding town in the world, and one can only imagine the heights he would have reached had he been given another 20 years in ship designing.[3]

His bust, now on display in the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, was paid for by donations from his friends


William was born at the White House, Low Southwick, Sunderland, son of William Pile and brother to John. The house was surrounded by the shipyard of J. Mills, for whom his grandfather, another William Pile, was superintending the construction of wooden ships.[3] At a very early age he took great interest in everything connected with ships and could not be kept out of the shipyard. In 1823 he moved to Monkwearmouth. When he was only 5 years of age, he began to construct little ships with paper sails. From these he advanced to little yachts with cotton sails which he sailed in local ponds and streams.[2][4] When asked by a friend, as to the shape of his yachts, he replied "Cod's head and mackerel tail", a shape favoured by British boat designers from as far back as the 18th century.[5]

During the 1830s of his childhood, Sunderland became the most important shipbuilding centre in the country, and by 1840 there were 65 shipyards on the river.[6] It was at this time, as he grew older, that William walked the banks of the Wear from the first shipyard to the last, night after night, never growing tired of seeing ships in the various stages of construction.'.[3] As he grew older he could tell the name of every ship belonging to Sunderland, and who built them.[2]

It was said of him after his death, that being born in a shipyard he was hardly ever out of one.[2]


William disliked school; and thus received little education[7] and was put to work very young. His character was more practical than theoretical, trusting more to their eye than the plan. Ships, and how best to build them, where his constant study. He was constantly watching the progress of the ships he had built, corresponding with their captains. His custom was to seek information where he thought it was to be got, and to get it he used periodically to visit the largest ports of the United Kingdom; and he used to say even to the last that he never went anywhere without learning something.[2]

Shipwright training

His mother and or father apparently did not appreciate his shipbuilding disposition and preferred him to work in a ropery. This employment however did not last long, as he ended his engagement by running away from it after six weeks.[2] His family must have relented as it is recorded that he served his time as a shipwright with his father.[7]

In 1836, his family removed to Stockton. At the age of 18, William had a very serious accident by having his right hand nearly cut in two which crippled him to a great extent for the rest of his life. On his recovery he went to a shipbuilder in Monkwearmouth to complete his apprenticeship.[2] There his talent was recognised; he was promoted to foreman and was in charge of a yard with a large number of men.[1][7]

He continued with his relations until 1848 (26 years old) when he took part of the yard and commenced on his own account. When his brother removed to Hartlepool, in 1853, (31 years old) he took the whole of the establishment.[2]


John Thompson writes of what he saw on the river Wear in the year 1850. 'At this period a complete revolution in shipbuilding took place, when both Mr. John Pile and his brother William got in full swing. Their mode of construction eclipsed all that had ever previously taken place on the Wear, and even in any other part of the country .. their vessels were acknowledged, and held by many, to be the swiftest sailing vessels in the China trade, known as Opium Clippers and Tea Clippers.'

Pile brothers were among the first, at all events, in this river, to introduce long ships with beam in proportion. Their vessels were of large dimensions, and the items of their fittings enormously costly, and they won for the builders the high name they attained in every quarter of the globe.[4]

It was here the first improvements in modelling took place, the old-fashioned counter was abolished, and all the planking turned up to the arch-board; the old-fashioned stern-frame and transoms were done away with, and the vessel framed all round the stern. The first clipper stem was her put up that was seen on the Wear, and was, as it was then termed, turned inside out and upside down, and which is still continued by the builders on the Wear up to the present day.(1874).[2] Pile was the first to introduce the Clipper class of vessel to Sunderland and by his skill in building them he gained recognition in the nautical world.[7]


Pile built more than a hundred wooden ships, a similar number made of iron, and a number of composite ships. Although many of the iron ships were steamers, it was his sailing ships that brought renown to his name.[3][4]

The following are some of the ships built by Pile:

Vessel Name Original Rig Material Owners / Agents Date Built Period Owned Gross Tonnage Net Tonnage Length Overall (feet) Breadth (feet) Depth(feet)
Lizzie Webber 1852
Crest of the Wave 1853
Lammermuir 1856
Windsor Castle 1857
Kelso 1861
City of Adelaide[8] Ship Composite Devitt and Moore 1864 1864–1887 791 696 176.8 33.2 18.8
St Vincent[8] Ship Composite Devitt and Moore 1865 1865–1887 892 190 35 18.9
Maitland 1865
Jumna 1867
Poonah 1867
South Australian[8] Ship Composite Devitt and Moore 1868 1868–1887 1078 1049 201 36 20.1
Hawkesbury[8] Ship Composite Devitt and Moore 1868 1868–1888 1179 1120 203 36.2 21.5
Syria 1868
Outalpa[8] Ship Iron Devitt and Moore 1869 1871–1881 717 676 187.7 30.6 18
Maiko 1869
Osaka 1869
Rodney[8] Ship Iron Devitt and Moore 1874 1874–1896 1519 1447 235.6 38.4 22


William Pile died on 5 June 1873, aged 50. One day he was suddenly seized with contractions of the bowels, and after suffering severely for a few hours, he expired, leaving a family of wife and seven children.

Funeral was conducted at St Marys Church, Monkwearmouth. The church was crowded and many where unable to gain admission. The crowd stretched over the bridge – shops closed in respect – with the procession over two miles in length consisting of over 3000 people.[1]


The ancestors of the late William Pile came into Sunderland around 1770 from Rothbury Northumberland. They were farmers and came to occupy the West House Farm, and afterwards a farm running along each side of Fulwel Lane.[2]

The grandfather of William Pile was the first shipbuilder of the family. Preferring shipbuilding to farming he was duly apprenticed to that profession, and became so skilful by the time his apprenticeship expired that he was made a manager of a shipyard shortly after. He became thoroughly conversant with both the theory and practice of shipbuilding and was celebrated for his well-built and fast ships. He preferred rather to manage for others than to build on his own account. He was a celebrated draughtsman, and taught many of the shipbuilders who have built on the Wear for the last half century (1824–1874) including Mr. Pile, as it was from him and his brother that he received his lessons in shipbuilding.[2]

The father of Mr. Pile was also noted for his well-modelled ships and considered the first shipbuilder of his day.[2]

His brother John Pile was born at Sunderland in 1820, and served his apprenticeship in Yarm-on-Tees. In 1852 he moved to Hartlepool to develop a shipyard in the newly opened Jackson's Dock. In 1889 the people of West Hartlepool presented him with a marble bust of himself, now in the collection at the Gray Art Gallery, Hartlepool,in recognition of the role he played in the industrial development of the town.[9]

Pile was married, in 1849, to Miss I. Rickaby, of Coniscliffe, near Darlington'[2]

See also

  • 1852 – Lizzie Webber ship image and more information on William Pile


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 The Sunderland Times, 10 June 1873
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 The Sunderland Times, 26 June 1874
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Where ships are born: J.W. Smith and T. S. Holden:1946, Reed (Sunderland) p.32
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 "The past and present history of the north sands shipyards and their surroundings from 1823 to 1891": by John Thompson: William Duncan, printer, York Street, Sunderland
  5. Understanding Boat Design By Edward S. Brewer, Ted Brewer (1993),P32
  6. Shipbuilding 1790 to 1899
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Sunderland & Durham County Herald Friday 6 June 1873
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Course, Capt. A.G (1961). Painted Ports: The Story of the Ships of Devitt and Moore. London: Hollis & Carter.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. John Pile, shipbuilding firm 1853–1859, Portcities Hartlepool