'It dominated the industry': World-leading Glasgow shipyard's roots were on Govan farm

·2-min read
Fairfield Shipbuilding’s Pattern Shop, undated. Picture courtesy of Glasgow City Archives
Fairfield Shipbuilding’s Pattern Shop, undated. Picture courtesy of Glasgow City Archives

IN 1864, on the site of a former Govan farm called Fairfield, a shipyard was established that would eventually dominate the industry in Glasgow, employing thousands in the city.

Often simply referred to as Fairfields after the farmland, the firm manufactured some of the biggest naval and passenger ships in the world.

Glasgow Times: Picture courtesy of Glasgow City Archives
Glasgow Times: Picture courtesy of Glasgow City Archives

At Glasgow City Archives we are fortunate to hold a large collection of the shipyard’s records including many photographs and ship plans (some of them many metres in length) from the local paddle steamer Jeanie Deans to the HMS Norfolk (which had eight guns and carried a seaplane launched by catapult).

Fairfields built ships for famous shipping lines such as the Anchor Line, Donaldson Line, Canadian Pacific Line and Orient Line, as well as for travel agent Thomas Cook and even a Russian Tsar.

READ MORE: I Grew Up in Glasgow: Dennistoun woman remembers 'amazing houses' torn down for new motorway

Originally the Govan yard was operated by Randolph, Elder and Co, a partnership between Charles Randolph and John Elder. Elder developed a revolutionary compound engine which allowed for greater fuel efficiency and therefore longer voyages at sea, contributing to the partnership’s success. In1868 Randolph retired and the firm became John Elder and Co. However, Elder died not long after. His wife Isabella took over the firm temporarily until other partners, including Sir William Pearce, bought the firm in 1869. They kept the John Elder name until 1886 when on becoming a limited company a new name was chosen: Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company.

Glasgow Times: Picture courtesy of Glasgow City Archives
Glasgow Times: Picture courtesy of Glasgow City Archives

Under Sir William’s direction the firm’s success grew . Pearce was determined to build the fastest transatlantic vessels and Fairfield ships, including the Cunard Line vessels RMS Campania and RMS Lucania, won the Blue Riband repeatedly, . The firm also built luxurious turbine engine yachts like the Narcissus in 1904 (which cost around £100,000) as well as more experimental designs like the steam yacht Livadia for Tsar Alexander II (an unfortunate failure as it was unstable at sea).

READ MORE: Incredible photos reveal history of Glasgow Central and 'forgotten village' underneath

After World War One, Fairfields built warships and its workforce was recognised as providing an essential service to the war effort throughout both wars. After WWII, production slowed, but Fairfields reorganised in an ambitious £4 million programme.

However, faced with a declining demand for ships and competition from abroad, the heyday of shipbuilding on the Clyde was soon over.

Fairfields underwent several transformations, including a merger with other yards to form Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1968,which ended with a well-publicised strike and work-in in 1971. Eventually the yard and remains of the company were sold and are now part of BAE Systems Surface Ships.