In 1817 Robert Hawthorn at the age of 21 began business as a general engineer and repairer of colliery machinery. With the assistance of his brother William and four workmen, his enterprise prospered and in 1820 under the trading name of R and W Hawthorn their first marine engine was built.
In 1831 they produced their first steam locomotive for the Stockton and Darlington Railway and as the country’s railway system rapidly expanded their locomotive construction soon became second only to that of their near neighbour, Robert Stephenson. By 1870 over 1,000 locomotives had been built. When R and W Hawthorn received their first order for Naval machinery for HMS Shearwater the firm had already built about 100 sets of marine engines.
Robert Hawthorn died in 1866 and in 1870 his brother William retired. The firm was then sold for £60,000 to a group of four men. These were Benjamin Chapman Browne, Francis Carr Marshall, William Hawthorn Junior and Joseph Scott. As senior partner Benjamin Browne had wanted the business to manufacture only marine engines. However, orders were buoyant for locomotives and so in 1870, the shipyard of Messrs T and W Smith at St Peter’s was acquired for the marine engine site. All marine engineering was then moved from the original works at Forth Banks to the new St Peter’s site. The marine engine side of the business prospered under the direction of Francis Carr Marshall.
In 1884 it was decided to separate the business activities of the Forth Banks and St Peter’s sites and thereafter they were run virtually as two separate businesses.
Hawthorn Leslie and Company was formed by the merger of the shipbuilder A. Leslie and Company in Hebburn with the locomotive works of R & W Hawthorn at St.Peter’s in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1886.
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