James Laing (shipbuilder)

James Laing (shipbuilder)

Sir James Laing, JP, DL (11 January 1823 – 15 December 1901), was a British shipbuilder.

Early life

Laing was born at Deptford House in Deptford, Bishopwearmouth, the only son of Philip Laing (1771–1852) and his second wife, Anne, née Jobling (1785–1852) and was baptised at Bridge Street Presbyterian Church in Monkwearmouth. His father, originally from Pittenweem in Fife, had established a shipbuilding partnership with his brother, John, at Monkwearmouth in 1793. The partnership was dissolved in 1818, the year Philip moved to Deptford. James inherited his father's business in 1843.


One of Laing's first innovations was to use teak for the exterior planking of vessels he constructed, including his first ship, "Agincourt". Laing was later convinced, by personal observation of the durability of the iron steamship, SS "Great Britain", that iron was the building material of the future. "Amity" (1853) was his first iron ship, and the first built on the River Wear, though Laing continued to build in wood until 1866 and launched composite vessels up to 1875, the last of which was the celebrated "Torrens".

Laing's shipyard first concentrated on passenger-carrying clippers and later built cargo-passenger steamers. The mail steamer "Mexican", launched in 1882, was the largest passenger-vessel ever built on the North East coast, and when the potential of the oil-tanker market was appreciated the "Tuscarora", launched in 1898, became the largest tanker then afloat. The firm also undertook a great deal of repair and ship-conversion work in its two graving docks, and it also maintained an extensive copper and brass works. The Laings proved unusual in their longevity as a shipbuilding family, second only to the Scotts of Greenock, and much of this was due to James Laing's vision and flexibility in embracing the changes which affected the industry in the nineteenth century.

Laing was, however, involved in more than just his own thriving shipyard. He served on the River Wear Commission from 1859 and was Chairman from 1868 to 1900. In 1883 he became president of the Chamber of Shipping of the United Kingdom and concluded an agreement with the Suez Canal Company, which met the grievances of British shipowners. He later became a director of the company. He was also a director of the North Eastern Railway, the Sunderland and South Shields Water Company, and the Sunderland Gas Company, as well as being the principal proprietor of the Ayres Quay Bottle Works. In addition the Laing family had always maintained extensive financial interests in shipping. For many years Laing was a member of the board of Lloyd's Register of Shipping, as well as being on the council of the Institution of Naval Architects and of other technical societies. He served as Vice-President of the Board of Trade's load-line committee. Surprisingly for a man with so many professional affiliations, he never became a member of the North East Coast Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders.

Later life

Laing stood as the Liberal candidate for North Durham in 1881, but was defeated by Sir George Elliot, Bt.. He was a Justice of the Peace for Northumberland and County Durham and was High Sheriff of Durham from 1879 to 1880. He received recognition for his many services in 1897, when he was made a Knight Bachelor, though it was suggested that a peerage had been offered and declined. Though raised as a Presbyterian, he was latterly associated with the Church of England. Laing was associated with many of the borough's philanthropic institutions, and he took a special interest in the affairs of the infirmary. His business became a limited liability company in 1898 under the name Sir James Laing & Sons Ltd.

In failing health, Laing spent his last years at Etal Manor in Etal, Northumberland, where he died on 15 December 1901 after a short illness. His body was returned to Sunderland for burial in Bishopwearmouth Cemetery on 18 December.


Laing married Mary Tanner (1816–1850) in 1847. They had two children:

*Mary (1848–1941); married Edward Featherstonhaugh (1830–1912), a glass bottle manufacturer.
*Philip Henry (1849–1907), a shipbuilder; married Sarah Pattinson (1865–?)

After his wife's death, Laing married Theresa Talbot Peacock (1831–1913; a descendant of John Talbot, 10th Earl of Shrewsbury), in 1855, and they had nine daughters and five sons:

*Arthur (1856–1901), an engineer; married Jane Arabella Moncrieff (1860–?)
*James (1857–1895), a shipbuilder; married Emily Cecilia Harrison (1860–?)
*Anne (1858–1858), died in infancy.
*Florence Talbot (1859–1943); married Alwyn de Blaquiere Valentine Paget (1855–1931), a British Army officer (a descendant of Henry Paget, 1st Earl of Uxbridge).
*Theresa Talbot (1859–?), died unmarried.
*Mabel Talbot (1860–1928); married Henry Vivian Cowan (1854–1918), a British Army officer.
*Maud Talbot (1862–?); married Cyril Robert Carter (c.1863–?), an Anglican minister.
*Sophia Talbot (1864–1953); married Percival Charles Du Sautoy Leather (1867–?), a tea planter.
*George (1866–1942), a farmer; married Annie Mulholland Stobart (1863–1950)
*Margaret Dunbar (1868–1957); married Alfred Stokes (1860–1931), a British Army officer.
*Eleanor Stepney (1870–1923), died unmarried.
*Hugh (1871–?), a shipbuilder and British Army officer.
*Louisa Harcourt (1872–1933), died unmarried.
*Bryan (1875–1941), a shipbuilder and British Army officer.


*Lionel Alexander Ritchie, "Laing, Sir James (1823–1901)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/48742, accessed 6 August 2008]

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