Press Release following the Cowes Heritage “History of White’s” Exhibition

Posted by Admin on 21 November 2006, 12:00 am

Memories Reawakened by ‘Superb’ White’s Shipyard Exhibition

Former workers and relatives flocked to the White’s of Cowes exhibition, about the once famous Cowes and East Cowes shipbuilding and engineering company, which became known as J Samuel White.

Staged by Cowes Heritage at Cowes Combined Clubs’ Regatta House, the exhibition ended on Sunday (12th November). Over the three weeks it was opened the event attracted nearly 3,000 visitors.

Such adjectives as ‘wonderful’, ‘excellent’, ‘superb’ and ‘great’ littered the Visitors’ Comments book. Another declared: "The best small exhibition I have experienced in my life." Many former employees also gratefully recorded how their memories had been revived.

Some visitors had made special journeys from Cheshire, Buckinghamshire and Essex. There were emotional reunions between former workmates who had not seen each other for decades – the air full of excited recollections as they pointed to photographs of staff line-ups, workshops and ships.  Many visitors made repeat visits – one returning four times, on each occasion spending several hours at the event.

As the exhibition continued more and more photographs were brought in by people, to add to the already extensive collection.

As well as the well laid out displays, another attraction was the constant showing of a specially made 46 minute DVD film about the history of White’s, featuring local children, former workers and many pictures. The narrator was Bembridge actor Bernard Meatyard.

J. Samuel White, as the business eventually became known, had its roots in a family business which began building wooden ships and boats on the Island in the early 1800s. As new generations of Whites continued the family tradition, enthusiastically embracing innovative ideas along the way, operations mushroomed at extensive sites on both sides of the River Medina. The company built ships until the mid-1960s and complete closure came in 1981 when the business was American-owned and trading as Elliott Turbomachinery.

Cowes Heritage chairman, John Groves, said, “Although we advertised the exhibition widely a number of visitors came through word of mouth from those who had already attended.

“We tried to convey the fact that not only could White’s build just about anything that floated but they were also renowned for speed of construction and quality – which earned them the plaudit: ‘White’s Built – Well Built’.

For many decades White’s was the most important industrial concern on the Island, employing over 3,000 people during both World Wars when called upon to build a range of warships as well as, in the 1st World War, 201 aircraft.

The exhibition also proved fascinating for many people with no direct or indirect links with White’s, many of them unaware of the importance and innovative ship designs of the company.

The sobering side of shipyard working was also not overlooked, with reference to mesothelioma caused by asbestos dust and deafness caused by loud shipyard noises including those from riveting.

John Groves said distant relatives of the White family, whose links with the company ended after the 1st World War, had made contact during the exhibition – one from Essex and another from Spain. Local author Brian Greening is now interested in compiling a book with personal accounts and group photographs.

Cowes Heritage was grateful for grants received for the event from Cowes Town Council, Cowes Business Association, Cowes Community Partnership and the Department of Education and Skills’ Community Champions Fund. DVDs of White’s of Cowes, together with those for their previous films – Cowes at War and School Days – enjoyed healthy sales during the exhibition, all the profits going to Cowes Heritage.

“Our next big exhibition, in a year’s time, will be Cowes At Play. This will be about leisure activities in the town over the years, including carnivals, sports and youth events, dances, film-showing and theatrical productions. Besides memorabilia, we are also very keen to recruit more helpers to get involved in Cowes Heritage,” said John Groves.

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