A Fascinating Early 19th Century Shipwright’s Box, Comprising a Collection of Ship’s Curves and Templates, Belonging to Wilson Chilton c.1820

7th November 2022



Some idea of the precise uses of some of these ship’s curves can be gleaned from a later illustration, c.1900, from the catalogue of W. F. Stanley and Co. which illustrates a similar set of curves made for purchase at the time.

The Life and Career of Wilson Chilton

Chilton was born on the 24th of December 1797 in Bishop Wearmouth near Durham. He spent his whole life in the North East of England, and eventually died in the sale town in 1881. Apprenticed in to the shipbuilding industry as a young man, by 1828 Chilton was mentioned in the Durham Chronicle as one of several partners choosing to dissolve the firm of Leithead and Co. This document makes it clear that Chilton had been a partner in the firm-quite an impressive rise for such a young man.

Chilton married Isabella Kirton in 1829 and the couple had 5 children. Shortly after the marriage, Chilton’s name appeared in the papers once again in connection with a brig named the Houghton-le-Spring, launched under his own name that year. At this stage, his works were located at Pallion. The vessel, described by the Newcastle Journal as “a large and handsome brig” was apparently destined for the “foreign trade”.

Further information about Chilton’s trading at this period is revealed by a winding up notice dated the 4th of July 1833. The firm, Wilson Chilton and Co, to be wound up on that date comprised of almost all of the same group of partners who had been co-partners with Chilton at Leithead and Co.

Quite how the nature of Chilton’s operation changed at this point is difficult to determine as he seems to have continued building under his own name. Perhaps it was simply a case of some of the other partners wishing to trade in their shares in the firm and leave. The launch of a vessel named the Ann Proud was recorded in the Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury in 1847. The vessel was described as “a fine brig, about 220 tons” and the firm was described as “Mr Wilson Chilton’s ship-building yard, High Southwick”.

Unfortunately the next mentions of Chilton and his firm in the press are not so complimentary. He was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1858 and the court judgements relating to these proceedings are somewhat scathing. This does shed light on the true roles of ship builders in the Sunderland area and the way that the role of principal in a firm was not quite what might be imagined by a modern reader.

Despite what must have been a crushing blow to his reputation, Chilton did return to ship building. He was once again trading under his own name when involved in a court case for unpaid commission to an agent in March of 1870.

It seems that from 1867 to that point he had traded as a partner in Spowers and Company, based at North Hylton.

After Chilton’s death, a short obituary in the Shields Daily News made clear Chilton’s importance to the trade in the area. At the time of his death, aged 85, he was “the oldest shipbuilder at the port of Sunderland and had carried on business since he was 20 years of age”. The article also mentions that Chilton was “a shipbuilder of some eminence in the days of wooden shipbuilding”. 

The searlecanada.org website, which hosts an exceptional database relating to the ship building

trade at Sunderland, describes Chilton as “a ship builder that surely merits better coverage” and lists three vessels constructed by Chilton’s various works over the years in some detail.



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