The Shipbuilding Thompson Family
Robert Thompson, the founder of the shipyard that built 'Atossa', was born on the 21st September 1797, the first child of Robert and Elizabeth (nee Beaney) Thompson. He was christened on the 20th January 1799 at Holy Trinity Church, Sunderland.
Robert married Sarah Lowes on the 30th August 1818 at Bishopwearmouth, County Durham. They had eleven children, between 1819 and 1843; four sons and eight daughters. The sons were Robert, Joseph Lowes, John and Benjamin Lowes. The daughters; Sarah, Elizabeth, Margaret, Ann, Jane, Mary Ann and Martha Ann.
He became a shipwright’s apprentice under James Allison on the North Sands and built several small craft on his own account in 1819, in the dock below Lambton Drops. Over the next twenty-six years Robert alternated between employment as a shipwright, working in small partnerships, and acting as shipyard foreman or manager on both the Tyne and Wear rivers. His sons; Robert, Joseph Lowes and John frequently moved with him as they learned the shipwright’s trade. Robert (senior) built his first ship; the barque 'Wolsingham', in 1834 at Jarrow, where he was the manager at the Patent Slip and Sawmill.
In 1837 Robert (senior) was yard foreman for John Storey on the North Sands, when Thomas Speeding, a sailmaker and shipowner of Monkwearmouth, in partnership with two men, both named Melvin, who were ropers from Chayters Haugh, engaged Robert to build a small brig. Along with his three sons, Robert (senior) opened a yard at Washington Staiths (Coxgreen). The brig was launched as 'Iona' and was the first ship to enter the North Dock, then known as Wearmouth Dock. Robert’s eldest son, also Robert became manager of the Thompson business in 1839.
The 'May', launched in May 1840, was the last ship to be built at Thompson’s Coxgreen yard before industrial depression forced its closure. Robert (senior) went to sea as a carpenter between 1841 and 1844, on a Whitby ship trading to America. Robert (junior) went into a Southwick shipyard. Joseph Lowes and John were both employed by John Watson at Pallion. When trade revived in 1844, Robert (senior) became foreman at the John Candlish yard, Southwick, and was joined by his three sons.
On the 13th February 1846, Robert (senior) in partnership with his three sons, took over the Harrison & Oliver shipyard on the North Sands. The yard was known as Robert Thompson and Sons. Their lease stipulated that they had to employ horses belonging to the landlord, Sir Hedworth Williamson (Bart.), for the haulage of timber. Robert (senior) and his three sons became equal partners in the company. Robert (senior) was to receive £1 10s 0d a week, Robert (junior) £1 7s 0d a week, and Joseph and John £1 4s 0d a week each.
Their first ship was a 240-ton brig named ‘Pearl’, which they completed, working with their four employees, in eleven weeks. They showed a £300 profit on the contract. Soon sixty men and boys were employed and ships followed in quick succession. Seven were built in both 1847 and 1848.
Tonnages increased and in 1850 they launched their first large ship; the 668-ton ‘Graham’, built for Edmund Graham of Newcastle. Robert Thompson (senior) accepted the brig ‘Wolsingham’, the first ship that he had constructed as part payment.
In 1853 the Thompson yard was the first on the Wear to build a wooden ship with iron diagonal straps. This was the 936-ton ‘City of Carlisle’, the fourth order from Edmund Graham, which proved to be one of the fastest ships in the Eastern trade at that time.
In 1854 Thompson built Graham the 1000-ton ‘Edendale’, which ran under Government charter with troops and stores for the Crimea. Graham paid Thompson £16 10s 0d per ton for his next ship, the ‘Eskdale’. This was the highest price that Thompson ever received.
In 1854 Robert (junior) left the firm to start his own shipbuilding yard and Joseph Lowes Thompson took over the vacant management position.
Wooden ships continued to be built at North Sands. ‘Helvellyn’ at 1017 tons, launched in April 1856 proved to be the largest that they ever built. Other ships included ‘Atossa’, ‘Aurea’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Golondrina’, ‘Iduna’, ‘Morning Glory’, ‘Rondinella’, ‘Star’, ‘Trevanion’, ‘Vencedora’ and ‘Veronica’. Between 1846 and 1860 the Thompson yard launched seventy-seven wooden ships with a total tonnage of 29,728.
Like ‘Atossa’, the earlier copper ore trader ‘Vencedora’, launched in 1860, was built for William Nicholson and Sons of Sunderland.
Vencedora Launch 1860
Launch of Vencedora 1860
Joseph L. Thompson & Sons
'One Hundred Years of Shipbuilding 1846-1946'
Robert Thompson (senior) died on the 10th December 1860 at West House, Fulwell and was buried at Monkwearmouth Mere Knolls cemetery.
John and Joseph Lowes continued together in the family business until John retired, leaving Joseph Lowes Thompson as sole manager and chief designer at Robert Thompson and Sons. It was under Joseph Lowes management that ‘Atossa’ was built and launched.
Joseph Lowes Thompson was born on the 16th October 1824 and christened on the 26th December 1824 at St. Peter’s Church, Monkwearmouth.
Joseph Lowes Thompson
Joseph Lowes Thompson
Joseph L. Thompson & Sons
'One Hundred Years of Shipbuilding 1846-1946'

He started in the shipwright trade at the age of twelve, working with his father and two brothers. In 1844, he went to work for John Watson at Pallion, then to Neddie Brown at Hylton, then Carr Brown at Hylton, Richard Wilkensen at Pallion and then again with his father at the John Candlish yard at Southwick. In 1846 he was at the family firm.
Joseph Lowes married Thomasin Elliott on the 21st February 1847. They had three sons; Robert (born: - 22nd May 1850), Joseph Lowes (born: - 27th January 1853) and Charles Elliott (born: - 1855?)
The 1851 Census showed the couple and their eldest son living in Whickham Street, Monkwearmouth. In 1861 the Census showed that the family; now having had two more sons, had moved to Mulgrave Street, Monkwearmouth and had employed Hannah Swan as their servant.
After Thomasin’s death at the age of forty-four, on the 20th October 1861, Joseph Lowes married his housekeeper, Hannah Swan on the 8th June 1864. They had three daughters; Thomasin Elliott (born: - 21st January 1865), Margaret Jane (born: - 14th July 1866) and Sarah Hannah (born: - 6th April 1868).
The 1871 Census showed that the family: Joseph Lowes and Hannah, the three sons; Robert, Joseph Lowes (junior) and Charles Elliott, two daughters; Margaret Jane (known as Mary) and Sarah Hannah, and Hannah’s twin sister, Jane (shown in the census as Isabella Swan) lived at 69 Dock Street East, Monkwearmouth. Joseph Lowes (senior) and Hannah’s daughter, Thomasin Elliott had died on the 7th March 1865.
At the time of the 1871 Census, the Thompson shipyard employed 62 men and 20 boys.
Hannah Thompson died aged forty-five on the 28th August 1875 and was buried at Monkwearmouth Mere Knolls cemetery.
The 1881 Census showed Joseph Lowes living at Ashville House, Monkwearmouth with his housekeeper Jane Swan.
Joseph Lowes Thompson died at Ashville House, Monkwearmouth on the 24th January 1893. He was buried at Monkwearmouth Mere Knolls cemetery.
The Mercantile Navy List 1864 > >
The Story Begins Absent Crew and Flying Jib 1872-1873 Rio De Janeiro, Barbados & Wilmington
The Construction of Atossa Swansea to Valparaiso and return 1873 James Grevett
The Shipbuilding Thompson Family The 1874 and 1875 Voyages The Caribbean 1889
The Mercantile Navy List 1864 A Change of Master 1876 Grevett as Master
The First Master and Crew New Owner and New Ports 1877 The 1890/1891 Survey
Dover to Valparaiso 1863-1864 Sugar and Onboard Offences The Final Voyage
Peru and Wales Demerara and London 1878-1879 Places Index
Chile and back 1864-1865 The Far Side of the World 1879-1881 Place Connections
Clements becomes Master South Africa and India 1881-1882 Surnames Index
Official Log Entries 1866-1867 The Robinson Family Ships Index
Return to Chile 1867 Ceylon and New York 1882-1883 Map of Chile
Chile Again 1868-1869 Brazil and India 1883-1884 Sources
Swansea to Coquimbo return 1869-1870 Cape Verde and the West Indies 1885  
Chile and New York 1870-1871 October 1885 to October 1886  
South America and Europe 1871 Twenty-One Months Away © 2020
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