Richard Williamson (1855-1939)

Richard Williamson

Written by Lena Stanley-Clamp

Occupations: Engineer, Philanthropist and Shipbuilder

Richard Williamson came from a family of shipbuilders whose shipbuilding works were the longest in existence on the West coast of Cumberland. His grandfather, Richard Williamson of Whitehaven (1800-1859), owned a shipbuilding yard in Harrington in partnership with his brother William until the latter’s death in 1847. In 1854, Richard took his son Thomas Williamson (1830-1909) into partnership and the firm became known as Richard Williamson & Son. After his father’s death, Thomas took over the running of the firm, which built vessels for many shipping lines including Brocklebank, Leyland & Co, Robertson Cruikshanks, W.S. Kennaugh & Co, the West Coast Shipping Line and Lancaster Ship Owners Company.

Thomas Williamson and his sons, Richard and Robert Hardy Williamson (1857-1938), realised early on that the future of shipping lay in ships propelled by steam engines, initially made of iron and later of steel. In 1880 they moved their shipyard to Workington, where several ironworks were in operation. Their main supplier was the West Cumberland Hematite Iron and Steel Company, which produced steel of suitable quality. Thomas retired shortly after the shipyard’s move to Workington, giving the business to his two sons, Richard and Robert Hardy. The brothers worked in partnership with Richard as the senior partner.

The Williamsons were important employers in Workington and the town took pride in their ships. Grassendale, an 1800-ton full-rigged three-master, was the Williamsons’ first ship built there, with its launch in 1881 attracting thousands of spectators to the harbour. Many of their vessels were named after Cumbrian locations such as Embleton, Aira Force, Lowther Castle, Greystoke Castle and Cumberland. By 1930, over 240 ships had been built in the Williamson shipyard. Their last ship was the Sodality, launched in 1938, which took part in the evacuation of Allied soldiers from Dunkirk in 1940.

Richard Williamson was born in Harrington in 1855, to Thomas Williamson and his wife Sarah Hardy (1826-1882).  Sarah’s father Robert Hardy (1797-1857) was also a shipbuilder, operating in Whitehaven. Richard most likely attended the Croft House School in Brampton, like his younger brother. Next, he served a four-year apprenticeship at Fletcher, Jennings and Co., a well-known engineering company in Lowca, Whitehaven and also spent a short time at sea. In 1876, aged 21, Richard became manager of the family’s shipbuilding works and the senior partner in 1880. He achieved distinction in his professional career, being elected to the membership of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1883, and serving on its Council from 1917 to 1930.  He was also a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Institution of Naval Architects and the Institute of Marine Engineers. 

Newspaper reports give a glowing impression of the relations between the employers and the workforce in the Williamson Shipyard. On festive occasions, the workmen and their wives were entertained for suppers and dancing, often late into the night. However, in 1889 the carpenters and riveters at the shipyard went on strike over pay. The dispute was eventually settled on the workers’ terms and the men returned to work. As a consequence of the strike, the workers joined the Shipwrights Association and Richard Williamson acknowledged the union.

On his marriage in 1893 in Newcastle to Marion Jackson (1866-1937), a daughter of a marine engineer Donald Jackson, Richard moved to South Lodge, Cockermouth. The Williamsons had three children, born in Cockermouth: Margaret Eudora (1897), Marian Vida (1899), and Richard Dudley (1901). 

Philanthropy, interests and civic engagement

Richard Williamson’s involvement in the civic life of Cockermouth and Workington was wide-ranging. He contributed generously to the construction of the Jubilee Bridge in Cockermouth in 1887, which was built by public subscription. In 1903-4, he served on the Committee for a Free Library and Lecture Hall in Workington. A gift from Andrew Carnegie, a US steel magnate who funded thousands of free libraries, had made the project possible but further funds were required. A generous contribution was made by the brothers Williamson and others followed their example. As a keen advocate of reading and study, Richard Williamson was also involved in the Wordsworth Institute in Cockermouth, being elected its President in 1909. 

Williamson’s passion for photography started in the 1890s as a recreation. He became expert in producing lantern slides of outstanding quality and developed a particular interest in night-time industrial photography, to which he devoted all the time he could spare from his business. He served as President of the Derwent Valley Photographic Society in Cockermouth where he funded prizes and equipment. Richard Williamson was elected a member of the Royal Photographic Society in 1912, and was admitted as Fellow in 1914. He took a keen interest in research, in helping younger generations of photographers and in 1922, together with his brother Robert Hardy, he endowed the annual Williamson Photographic Research Award for research published by candidates under 35 years of age. Their award continued to be made until 1970.  

The Williamson family were also benefactors in the provision of medical care. In 1902, Thomas Williamson donated a house and a cottage in Crown Street for the purpose of providing a nursing home for Cockermouth. Richard followed in his father’s footsteps when he became a Trustee of the Cockermouth Nursing Home in 1912.  At the outbreak of WW1, War Relief funds in Workington and Cockermouth were opened with very large donations by R. Williamson. The Williamson Shipyard also made its contribution to the war effort; it is listed among much larger concerns in the Tribute to British Shipbuilding and Repair Industries, 1914-18. 

Richard Williamson and his family left Cockermouth around 1920 and went their separate ways, suggesting a degree of estrangement. Richard lived at Smedley’s Hydro in Matlock for the last sixteen years of his life. He remained at the helm of the Williamson shipyard until 1938, when it closed. He was also a shipowner, Lloyd’s underwriter, manager of the North-West Shipping Co. and a director of the Lancashire Shipping Co. The newspapers mention that he regularly travelled on business from Matlock by train and the archives of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers record his regular attendance in London at the meetings of their Council on which he served until 1930. He was a familiar figure at the Institution where he contributed financially to research projects in which he was interested. 

The news of Richard Williamson’s death on 9 April 1939 made the headlines in London and elsewhere, revealing that the man who lived a spartan life in Derbyshire was actually a millionaire shipyard owner. The Royal Photographic Society and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers published lengthy obituaries that paid tribute to him. He was buried in Cockermouth alongside his parents and sisters. 


  • L. Stanley-Clamp, The Williamsons of South Lodge, Lorton & Derwent Fells Local History Society, Wanderer, November 2021,
  • Herbert and Mary Jackson, Seagoing West Cumbrians, Hirst-Jackson, Maryport, 1995
  • Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History
  • Institution of Mechanical Engineers
  • Obituary in The Photographic Journal, July 1939, vol. 79, published by the Royal Photographic Society