Legend of ‘Clydebuilt’ as a mark of quality was created

·5-min read

AS promised, I now return to the industry that more than any other made Glasgow a global name – shipbuilding.

Glasgow and its surrounding areas such as Clydebank, Dumbarton, Port Glasgow and Greenock combined to make the River Clyde the world’s most productive source of ships in the years leading up to the First World War.

With so few shipyards now left on the Clyde, it is often hard for us to imagine just what it was like when ship production grew so fast in the early years of the 20th century.

I have previously shown how invention and innovation, plus access to raw materials and above all iron and steel, had transformed Glasgow and the Clyde into a global leader in shipbuilding in the Victorian era, but in the first decade or so of the 1900s, shipbuilding on the Clyde expanded to become the dominant heavy industry in Scotland.

It was thanks to a happy coincidence in which a city driven by entrepreneurialism had access not only to excellent raw materials produced by the likes of Beard-more’s Forges, but also a talented and committed workforce led by the genius of naval architects and engineers, which all came together as never before in any city anywhere.

The legend of ‘Clydebuilt’ as a mark of quality was created at that time – a legend, that is,

and not a myth, for great deeds really were achieved here and

they sailed around the world.

One writer at the time recorded that the Clyde yards “have been associated with practically every scientific advance in naval architecture for the last century. Through all the transitions – wood to iron, iron to steel, paddle to single screw, single screw to twin screw, twin screw to multiple screw, turbine engines – Clyde shipbuilders have been to the front with exemplar ships.”

Perhaps the key to Glasgow’s supremacy even as yards were being developed on the Tyne and the Mersey and in Belfast was the sheer variety of its output.

As one chronicler put it: “Variety distinguishes the industry on the Clyde above all others. The operations of its builders are not restricted to the production of one or two or three types.

“The building of everything that may be called a ship has been undertaken at any cost, and when you speak of Clyde shipbuilding, you speak of the whole range of naval architecture.”

It has to be emphasised that it wasn’t all in Glasgow that Clydeside shipbuilding flourished.

The world-beating Denny Experimental Tank – now part of the Scottish Maritime Museum – saw Dumbarton become a major centre for new forms of shipping after it was built in 1882, while across the Lower Clyde at Port Glasgow, Russell and Co set world records for production of ships in the late 19th century.

As Lithgows, the yard would have a prodigious output into the middle of the 20th century.

There was also the John Brown and Co yard at Clydebank which started life as J & G Thomson at Anderston in 1847 before going downriver to famously build battleships and liners such as the RMS Lusitania, all prior to its construction of the Cunard Queens.

Yet it was in Glasgow that shipbuilding became a behemoth of an industry. Men like the brilliant engineer John Elder and Sir William Pearce made Govan a centre for excellence, with the latter man’s creation of Fairfields a hugely important development for the city – it was there that the triple expansion engine, which vastly improved steamships, was invented.

The sheer scale of shipbuilding in the city can be shown by the fact that at its peak, one single yard, Fairfields, employed 5000 workers on a site that occupied 70 acres of Govan’s green acres – the name came from the farm that used to be based there.

By 1911, the confidence in their own production was such that Fairfields invested in a huge crane able to lift 200 tons – the Fairfield Titan was for many years the world’s largest crane.

The Fairfield Heritage Centre in Govan tells the story of the firm and Govan’s role in shipbuilding generally and is well worth a visit, not least because Charles Rennie Mackintosh is thought to have worked on this magnificent building as a junior employee of architects Honeyman and Keppie.

Meticulous records of the Clyde’s shipbuilding prowess are preserved in various academic and scholarly records, and James Mackinnon had access to them for his 1921 book ‘The Social and Industrial history of Scotland, from the Union to the present time.

He takes the production of engines as measured by their horsepower output as an indicator of Clydeside progress: “In 1912 Messrs Brown reached a record in the total for the world and also by one firm in a single year with 178,500, and the figures for the whole Clyde, 878,000, also constituted a record.

In the following year, the latter record was broken with 1,111,400.”

Even by tonnage of ships produced, the Clyde was leading the world. It is estimated that in the years before the First World War, one fifth to one quarter of

all the world’s new ships were built on the Clyde with Glasgow’s

yards being the top producer in 1912 in which year alone they launched more than 300,000 tons of vessels.

With an estimated workforce of between 60,000 and 80,000 in the Clyde’s 50 yards and associated engineering and support works, the area was producing a tonnage in excess of the whole of the USA, German and France individually.

In 1911-12, Glasgow was also provided with a huge boost when a rival company from Belfast, Harland & Wolff Ltd, invested massively to buy three adjacent shipyards in Govan and make them into one of the city’s largest yards.

Sadly, as we all know, shipbuilding on the Clyde declined massively and in a future column, I will chart that frankly appalling shrinkage and its effects on Glaswegian society. And just as Glasgow was developing its lucrative business in shipbuilding, so did political change occur, much of it based around the trades unions who came to proliferate on Clydeside.

I will write about the arrival of Red Clydeside next week.

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