Clyde Shipbuilders

The river Clyde rises in the southern uplands of Scotland and flows north-west and then broadens out into a major river as it approaches the Atlantic in the West. It is flanked by the picturesque Highlands and Islands as it becomes tidal. One of the reasons for the Union with England in 1707, was that the country could benefit from the approaching trade with the colonies. Scotland had little navy and had mightily failed with its own Darien Project. Union with England would bring much benefit in trade to the country, according to the movers and shakers in Edinburgh.

They were right, and one of the first things that happened was Glasgow became a major port. Glasgow was much smaller at the beginning of the 18th Century and any seaborne trade was carried by cart to Irvine or other Ayrshire ports. This was not efficient enough. The Clyde was shallow and needed dredging and its banks controlled. Once this was completed the way was clear for a major import and export venue. This included Greenock down the water in the tidal part of the river. Sugar and tobacco were major imports, also Glasgow was unfortunately involved in the slave trade. There were exports of timber and rope, one route to the new world was from the Clyde.

There were many fine shipbuilders on the Clyde. There were yachts built and many small craft used to ply trade to the West coast. But as the industrial revolution developed in the rest of the country new techniques were being tried in the inexorable progress of the British Empire. Ships became steam driven, powered by coal, locally sourced in Lanarkshire. The wooden craft became less able to handle the stresses of a steam engine and iron clad and then iron ships began to be developed. Iron ore from Lanarkshire was smelted and transported to the Clyde where shipyards began to grow on the banks of the river.

Shipbuilding became a bigger and more complex business. There was the need for skilled labour, iron, coal, timber and many other supplies. These could be found in local area and anything else could be brought to the port from the UK or abroad. There were paddle-steamers, boats with steam engines and sails, puffers for the West Coast trade, Merchantmen to travel the world, naval ships and specialists.

Shipyards sprang up from the River Leven in Dumbarton and on the north-bank from Bowling to Glasgow Green, then the south-bank up to the White Cart river and on into Renfrew and Paisley. There was Port Glasgow, Greenock and Gourock up the coast. For many years the Clyde was the centre for shipbuilding in the world. The once small town grew around the shipyards to provide housing and amenities for the burgeoning workforce.

There were many Irish men and women who immigrated to Glasgow. There was the pull factor of work, and the push factors of over population and especially the potato famine of the late 1840’s. It is estimated that the population of Glasgow is 40% Irish genetically. There were many people coming down from the Highlands and Islands with a Gallic tongue and a Protestant faith. There were some from the North of Ireland which added to the potent sectarian mix.

There were many entrepreneurs who led the Industrial Revolution in the UK. They were encouraged by favourable trading conditions, access to raw materials, technological advantage and helpful financial services. There were patricians of the Clyde like Robert Napier whose attitude to quality, design and the pride of City were to bring about the phrase Clyde built which was a of a badge of superiority quality.

In Dumbarton, where the River Leven discharges the waters of Loch Lomond into the River Clyde, a busy shipyard industry was established. There were 8-16 yards on the river. The two most famous were Denny’s and MacMillan’s. Denny’s were to be a great influence on the industry. This family run firm were dedicated to scientific methods to improve design. There were many draughtsmen who would be expected to train in Naval Engineering. They had a code of conduct, as there was so much technical knowledge that they had acquired it was important that it not be leaked. There were courses established at Glasgow University and the technical college which became Strathclyde University. The designers would become educated and apply the knowledge and creativity to building some great ships. There were testing tanks at Denny’s and they established a set course for the trialling of new ships. These facilities were used by many other yards in cooperation. They were dedicated to Dumbarton and were intent on benefitting the community who worked for them.

Further up river on the north-bank was the area of Clydebank. John Brown’s yard was built there and the city started to move and grow around it. This area built the largest ships. There were 400 large merchantmen and warships that were built here. Liners were built there including the Lusitania, Queen Elizabeth’s and the Queen Mary. Such large ships proved a challenge to launch, and they solved this by launching across the river into the mouth of the White Cart.

The whole of the north-bank from Broomielaw to Bowling was a continuous 11 mile stretch of shipyards. There were the large yards like Browns, repair yards with dry-docks. On the south-bank there were the massive and famous yards of Govan and Linthouse. Robert Napier and his cousin David had been the main influence. There was Harland and Wolf, originally from Belfast and the massive Fairfield. There were yards where the owners came and went, but there were those that concentrated on standard designs and high quality and others that had ships that were designed bespoke for a specific task.

Further downstream the river White Cart entered the Clyde. This river flowed from Paisley and through Renfrew. The old towns had a fading textile industry and developed the river for shipbuilding. There were technical difficulties in that the river was small and very tidal, but there were a few yards that developed a niche market in specialist craft. There were dredgers, chain ferries, survey ships and pilot cutters.

There were other yards at Port Glasgow, Greenock and Gourock. There were examples of the whole range of ships built on the Clyde. Yachts and other sailing craft, small puffers, tugs, specialist, ferries, coastal merchantmen, large merchantmen, pleasure craft, liners and warships.

There was much technical expertise required both in the design of the ship and the methods by which it was constructed. With the educational backup in the City, Naval Engineers could use theory, testing and practice to produce the best ships in the world. Cunning and ingenuity of the whole of the staff would find a way to build these ships, some of them of a highly individual nature.

Shipbuilding was a highly dangerous venture and launch day produced a whole range of emotions. There was a disaster when the Daphne was launched with 200 hundred men on it. The ship began to list to port on launching and men caught below decks were drowned. 124 men and boys died. From then on the launching process became more precise. The ships would have its supports gradually removed. On launching the last supports were knocked down and it would slide rapidly into the river with piles of chains to slow it down. It would then be moored for the fitting out process.

Launch day was a special occasion. The shipbuilders would stop and attend the ceremony which would attended by local dignitaries, the owners, clients and potential clients, school children and sometimes royalty. It was a happy occasion when the whole city could see the birth of the product of their labours.

The one hundred years before the First World War had seen the height of Clyde shipbuilding and the British Empire. The War, with a new emphasis on large steel ships, required a change to the type of ship being built. But as many skilled shipbuilders from apprentices to owners, were sent to the War, there was a serious skill shortage. Many never came back. When the war was over the lack of skills and the lack of people to pass on those skills led to a decline. The area had converted to Warships production, but post War treaties limited that. The economic downturn brought decline and unemployment and the future began to look bleak as competitive countries began to catch up.

The onset of the Second World War improved the order book, and the skilled trades were protected. The Atlantic War meant there was plenty of work. 2000 new ships were built and there was plenty of repair work. After the war, there was a boom, but the problems of the need for modernisation and industrial relations were not dealt with and the Clyde fell behind. The lack of competitiveness meant layoffs and some owners ran for the hills with their fortunes. The yards began to dwindle to almost nothing.

But the history of the Clyde is incomplete without talking about those characters that worked there. The work and effort that was put into each ship, produced a pride and passion that the whole city could share in. Whenever a Clyde ships was seen or mentioned then a Glaswegian thought of it as one of their children. It was a community that bred tough men who worked hard in punishing conditions in the outdoors. It was not for the faint-hearted. Within the yards there was dirt everywhere, the noise was literally deafening, the darkness brightened by fire and flame gave an impression of hell.

Like a building site there were many different trades. Platers, riveters then welders, joiners, finishing trades, shipwrights and all sorts of ancillary trades that were all proud of their knowledge and position. There were draughtsmen in the office, sitting in silence creating their works of art on paper. There the foremen who ran the gangs, who were augmented later by many different management roles. There were timekeepers and other bowler hatted managers who were hated for their pedantic adherence to petty rules. And of course there were the owners.

There was a whole range of possibilities for injury and death. There were high up scaffolding points with the threat of falls. There was fire and gas risk. Injury from hot rivets and other falling material. There was the threat of the river. There was little in the way of health and safety at the beginning. But this made the men aware of the dangers and they took care to look after themselves.

There was strict timekeeping, but little sanitation. The toilets were a thing to behold, made famous by Billy Connolly, but they could be a long from where you were working and men had to make the use of the area they were in. There was cold water but no hot. There was a lot of rubbish and general filth that collected in the bilges and under the ship and the rats were prolific.

Beyond the gates there were various levels of housing, with the poorest nearest the yard. The basic was a room and a kitchen, then there was a two or three room tenement. There were terraced houses and eventually there were nice houses for the owners and managers on the outskirts. The tough work bred tough men and fierce drinkers. Not all the men drank, but a favourite drop would be a half an a half. A downed whisky followed by a half of strong Scottish bitter warmed you inside. The proud households would breed strong women to run the home and bring up the kids and there was a constant battle between the man and women over their drinking habits. There were the dancehalls that were a popular weekend entertainment, especially as this was where the courting was done. In the twenties the pictures gave a people a release from the hard work and transported them to another world. But the main entertainment was at the fitbah.

Close to Govan the mighty Glasgow Rangers were the toast of the City. Their bitter rivals Glasgow Celtic in the East End would meet them on the pitch in sectarian conflict. There were many other Glasgow clubs. Partick Thistle, Clydebank, Queens Park and in Lanarkshire Motherwell, Airdrie and Albion Rovers. The city was fitbah daft and the passion, pride were released in full throated aggression on a Saturday afternoon. The results would lead to plenty of banter between the various supporters that could spill over into violence.

There was always a sectarian issue. The racial mix when the City grew led inevitably to that. In general the banter was good natured, there was plenty of offensive graffiti chalked around the yard, but there were times it affected people’s jobs and some were not taken into gangs or positions because of religion. This was worst when there was a Belfast influence.

But the characters, banter and the humour were legendary. Unfortunately there is much that can’t be repeated. In an all-male environment the lack of restraint can lead to some unsavoury things, but the humour can be an inspiration to keep motivated. There were many nicknames and endless stories, whether true or not was less important as the entertainment value.

But one of the biggest problems that would hasten the demise of the yards was industrial relations. Some of the management was petty. In an effort to cut costs, people were fired for minor infringements of silly rules. There was constant checking on work rates leading to cutting of pay by the quarter of an hour for minor management infringements. A “them and us” culture grew from the beginning and was difficult to shift. A reaction was a militant socialism and unionism that led to the name of Red Clydeside. As workers and management scored points off each other, the business suffered. Management tried to protect profits at the expense of the workers and unions had restrictive practices to protect their members which made work inefficient.

The tragedy was that the inability of the two sides to sit down together and resolve their differences, was partly to blame for the Clyde’s demise. The owners won eventually and some were able to protect their wealth. But did they win? There was a reduction in living standards, living conditions, the loss of pride and a generation untaught in the Glaswegian school of men.

It must have been a place of wonder to see all that mass of humanity crawling all over these ships, some giant monuments that would visible for the whole population. Gradually taking shape and being birthed into the Clyde.

But what of the future. Can the character of the Clyde survive? Even now the friendly, generous, funny and fearless nature of the area is prevalent. But is it just in the genes or does it need nurturing. This special, unique place that gave the World ships, cannot be allowed to merge into the faceless grey globalised world that we see through the mass media. The Clyde will always flow and this area is built on its people and its character. They will never be shut out.

Conway-Laird (2017)

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