Tyneside Shipyards, 1943: Photographs by Cecil Beaton at the Imperial War Museum North

30 years after the death of photographer Cecil Beaton, Imperial War Museum North is displaying some of his most iconic Second World War shipyard images in huge 5m high frames outside the Museum – on The Quays in Manchester.

Beaton was best known for society portraits and fashion photography, working in Hollywood and for Vogue and Vanity Fair. His celebrity images include the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Mick Jagger. Yet he also worked as an official photographer for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War. Commissioned to record the work of northern shipyards, the resulting photographs are a striking combination of intimate portraits and dizzying views of the shipyard architecture.

The series of six photographs gives a powerful insight into British shipbuilding industry during the Second World War. Highlights of the display include a female welder in Tyneside, standing proudly in front of an enormous, half built vessel. Alongside two imposing images of ships under construction is the evocative photograph of a young boy, hard at work with ripped clothes and a face blackened by dirt.

In 1939, British shipbuilding was a dying industry. Many yards had shut during the Depression and skilled workers were lost to other jobs or the Armed Forces. To fight the war and to bring in vital imports by sea, Britain needed more ships and the workers to build them. At its peak in September 1943, over 270,000 people were working in British shipbuilding, almost double the 1939 figure.

Beaton’s images will be displayed in unique, large scale frames in front of Imperial War Museum North, at The Quays on the Manchester Ship Canal. Although no longer a working port, in the Second World War, the Quays, then the Port of Manchester, was a busy hub for merchant ships bringing in their vital cargoes from overseas.

Visitors inspired by Beaton’s photography can find out more about war at sea inside the Museum. In All Aboard: Stories of War at Sea, which opens with a family launch day on 17 July, visitors of all ages can embark on a voyage of discovery through some of the most momentous events in British history – from the First World War to the present day.

Immerse yourself in the vast scale of the oceans and ships, while discovering moving real life stories of bravery, adventure, suffering and survival. See and hear what life was like at sea through the words and voices of people who were there. Get hands on with activities for all the family in the Imperial War Museum’s first ever large-scale exhibition to look at life at sea in wartime.

Jim Forrester, Imperial War Museum North Director said: ‘Imperial War Museum North has been named by Visit England as one of the top four large visitor attractions in the country for 2010 and offers something for all the family. Cecil Beaton’s photographs give a moving insight into the extraordinary nature of total war, showing how war can shape the lives of civilians; while All Aboard: Stories of War at Sea is a great, family friendly exhibition with incredible tales and activities for all the family.’


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