The Rise and Fall of British Shipbuilding

The Rise and Fall of British Shipbuilding

by Anthony Burton


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This is the story of how, from modest beginnings, Britain rose throughout the 19th century to become the greatest shipbuilding nation in the world. It begins with the age of sail, then moves on to the days of iron- hulled steamers. It shows how conflicts arose between the traditional shipwrights and the new men who came from the metal industries, leading to the infamous demarcation disputes. It is also the story of men like Brunel and Armstrong, geniuses who were always looking for change and development. It is also the story of decline in the 20th century, when yards were no longer as innovative as their foreign competitors and the British merchant fleet shrank from being the biggest in the world at the start of the century to ranking number 38 at the end of it. It is a story of great achievements and tragic collapse.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752489698
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 08/01/2013
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Anthony Burton is the author of more than 70 books, including The Anatomy of Canals Vols 1-3. He has worked extensively in television as a writer and presenter.

Read an Excerpt

The Rise & Fall of British Shipbuilding

By Anthony Burton

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Anthony Burton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9286-5


Rule Britannia

Visitors to Glasgow today who go down to Clydebank can visit a remarkable industrial monument: the Titan crane. It stands 150ft (45m) high with a cantilevered arm that is 240ft (70m) long. Work began on building the monster in 1905 at a cost of £24,600, which works out at roughly £1.5 million at today's prices. Some improvements were made over the years and in its final form it could lift weights of up to 200 tonnes. These are impressive statistics, but there is a story behind them. The crane was built for an important shipyard and it is a monument to commercial optimism: this was a yard prepared to invest a large sum of money in massive machinery, confident that it would be used to build great ships.

The public are now allowed to go to the top of the crane, whisked up in a lift, unlike the operators during its working days who had to climb ladders to the top. Step out on to the jib and you are greeted with a magnificent view of the river, a view much like that shown in plate 16, with one important difference. There is no longer a working shipyard anywhere in sight. The only reminder of those days is the dock, now empty, immediately below the crane. This is all that remains of the famous John Brown shipyard, and if you had come here in 1934 you could have been present on the day when Ship No 534 was finally given a name: she went down the slip on 29 September with royal blessing as the Queen Mary. She was one of the grandest, fastest and for many the most beautiful of the great liners, which week after week were to ply the Atlantic between Britain and America. So grand was the occasion of the launch that a special song was written to commemorate the event, words and music by Ina George:

    There were ships of oak in the days of old
    There are ships of steel today
    And the song is the same from the men who build
    'God speed her on her way.'
    A Toast to the Queen Mary
    Long may she sail the sea
    Here's to the name she bears
    Here's to the course she steers
    We want her to sail the world
    With the flag of goodwill unfurled
    So shout hip-hip hooray
    For she's on her way
    Smooth sailing to the Queen Mary.

These were stirring sentiments that expressed not just good will, but a spirit of optimism and pride. The shipyards of Britain were still rated as among the best, if not the best, in the world and none stood higher and prouder than John Brown's on the Clyde. This was not a feeling confined to second-rate jingle writers: it was something known throughout the shipbuilding community. An old shipyard worker, interviewed in the 1960s, gave his view of the yard: 'In my early days I was afraid to come to John Brown's because the requirements were too high, and I felt as a tradesman that I might not meet up with what they wanted. So that when I did come in here eventually I felt an immense pride.'

In 1930, four years before the launch of the Queen Mary, Mr G. McLellan began his working life as a Clydeside fitter. He too looked back with pride, but he also viewed the scene as he saw it half a century later:

Oh aye there was plenty of work. Big change now. It's sad when you look at the riverside now all the cranes are disappearing. Scotts, the foundry, there's nothing there now at all. It's sad when you think on it, no work. They're talking about building ships at Lithgows' old place. They say they're still after orders but if they get an order who's going tae build it. They've got no workmen, they've got no apprentices, there's nobody knows anything about it now. They'll never build another ship on the Clyde.

He was a little too pessimistic: shipbuilding continues at Govan, but at the time it must have seemed that there was nothing left. Scotts, Hamilton's, Lithgows and the rest: even mighty John Brown's had closed. Something, somehow, had gone terribly wrong. It might not have seemed that way when the greatest ship of its day entered the water, but, in truth, the seeds of destruction had already been sown.

The story of the building of the Queen Mary is an instructive one, for it shows just how thin was the dividing line between success and failure, and just how complex a business ship construction could be. The early negotiations in 1930 were largely concerned with the all-important specifications, defining the size, style and guaranteed performance of the ship. The ship was to have engines with a shaft horsepower of 158,000. Regulations demanded that they should be capable of working at 5–6 per cent above that level for safety reasons: Brown's, however, preferred going well above that limit to a huge 15 per cent margin, though they were at pains to point out that power at this level should only be used in genuine emergencies. No doubt they had visions of enthusiastic, record-breaking captains going at full blast all the way across the Atlantic. There was, in any case, no need to worry about speed records. Brown's also guaranteed that when the ship came to its speed trials off the coast of Arran, it would be able to sustain 30¼ knots, putting it well beyond any obvious competitor. There was one other important clause in the contract: 'that the whole of the vessel's hull, machinery and equipment is to be of British manufacture'. Although the basic ship was John Brown's, there were some seventy subcontracts, bid for by over 100 companies. From the first a good deal of British pride and prestige rested on the ship. In the course of construction, Brown's themselves had to make improvements to the yard, including acquiring new machinery and paying £10,000 as their contribution to widening the river at Clydebank. Negotiations were temporarily held up, as Cunard bargained for a berth at Southampton, but in May 1930, Brown's at last got their tender accepted. The price was set at £3,992,000.

It was an immense project, in every sense of the word. To describe a ship as being 80,774 tons or 82,066 tonnes does not always convey her size very obviously, but when one thinks of the passengers she carried one realises that the Queen Mary was regularly transporting the population of a good-sized village across the Atlantic. In all there were 776 first-class passengers, 784 tourist- and 579 third-class passengers. She was also to display her modernity in every department. There were geared turbine engines driving four screw-propellers that gave the vessel her immense power, but they were hidden out of sight as far as most visitors and passengers were concerned. But what the passengers did see was kept resolutely up to date. It had long been the custom for luxury liners to disguise their state rooms. The Mauretania, for example, was designed as a floating palace. The grand entrances were in French walnut, and the designers bought veneers from all over France and Britain. The dining rooms were panelled in oak, the upper roofed by a huge dome in cream and gold. State rooms offered a choice of style – Sheraton or Adam – and carvings were never duplicated. Even the children got their own specially painted nursery rhyme pictures – though the play equipment appears to have been limited to one rocking horse. One sympathises with the nursery staff, trying to arbitrate in quarrels over whose turn it was for a ride. For those who complained that it all looked more like a country mansion than a ship, the designers would point out that for the most part the last thing their customers wanted to be reminded of was the fact that they were at sea.

The patrons of the Grand Saloon were bejewelled ladies and white-haired gentlemen trying not to feel or look queasy – not hardened old sea dogs. The Queen Mary, however, offered something very different. No Sheraton elegance here, no glowering Tudor panelling, but crisp, clean Art Deco; light, bright and up to the minute. Not that the Queen Mary was to be anything other than wholly luxurious. Among the many jobs that went to outside contractors was the first-class swimming bath for £10,498 and the first-class Turkish bath for £4,050, both to Trollope and Sons, while the slightly inferior tourist swimming bath went to Wylie and Lockhead for £7,174. And thanks to a late decision in 1934 all the first-class accommodation and the tourist dining room had what was then still something of a novelty – air conditioning.

The ship was a prestige project in every possible way. But the times were not propitious. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 still reverberated throughout the financial world, sending out waves of panic that lapped around the walls of the money markets. Confidence sank and the world slipped ever deeper into recession. Perhaps the last thing anyone needed was a new, very expensive luxury liner to link two increasingly impoverished countries. In December 1931, all work on the ship came to a halt. It was, in a way, remarkable that a vessel on which so much prestige rested should simply be allowed to rust and decay, unfinished. The government were at last persuaded to act and advanced a £1 million loan to enable the ship to be completed. Brown's were anxious to get restarted and wrote to Cunard in March 1934:

On going over matters carefully, we see plainly that after this 21/4 years delay, our men will neither be able nor capable at first of resuming work at anything like the pace with which the ship was being carried on in December 1931 when work was stopped, and hence if we delay any longer making a start on the vessel, the launch will not come off until November, which you would agree would be most regrettable from every point of view.

I quite understand that the adjustment of documents in connection with the government loan of One Million may extend over two or more weeks after Easter, so, as our Board now see their way to finance all expenditure that would be incurred on work on the ship for, at any rate, the month of April, we propose (unless you see strong objection against it) to start collecting men the day after the Royal Assent has been given, which both you and we trust will be on Wednesday evening.

Cunard's were equally keen to restart – and very anxious that the world should know all about it. There is a great contrast between the light-hearted enthusiasm of Cunard, when they sent off a booklet to a Sir Thomas Bell and the response:

Needless to say I do not expect that the even tenor of your life will be ruffled or that you will go into paroxysms of enthusiasm over the booklet, and would remind you that it is merely issued with the object of drawing the attention of the ordinary mortal. I rather hear you saying 'If we cannot build ships better than Cunard can produce booklets – Gawd help us!'

Brown's however were cool about any publicity at all during the construction period. Bell declared that the public would soon tire of 'technical pictures of a ship's skeleton' and that the only ones who would gain from their publication would be the French builders of the new 'Transatlantique'. And a BBC suggestion that they might broadcast a discussion between two riveters was greeted with horror. 'I have discussed the matter with the Management and they are very strongly averse to such a procedure which, they think, would undoubtedly be prejudicial to the discipline in the yard.' They seemed much happier discussing such vital matters as to whether the invitation cards for the launch should specify 'Undress Uniform' or 'Morning Dress' – they opted for the latter. This correspondence speaks volumes about attitudes at Brown's. It shows a certain stiffness and rigidity but, much more importantly, it shows a deep distrust, not untouched with contempt, for the work force. One suspects they were not so much afraid of what two riveters might say as alarmed at the notion that they should be permitted to express any opinion at all. This was a view which would have seemed entirely reasonable to most other shipbuilders in Britain at that time. The Queen Mary was a masterpiece incorporating the latest features of engineering and design, while back at the yard industrial relations were still those of the nineteenth century.

This is not perhaps too surprising. The idea that once the wonders of steam power were demonstrated the old age of sail power simply came to an end is completely wrong. If the Queen Mary is the most famous steamer to be built on the Clyde, then the Cutty Sark must be the most famous sailing ship. She was built at the Scott and Linton yard at Dumbarton in 1869. She continued to trade under sail right through to 1922, within a decade of work starting on the Queen Mary. In some ways, the two ships could not be more dissimilar: one a giant hull of steel powered by steam, the other a seemingly almost delicate hull of timber powered by sail. Yet, in other ways, there are points of similarity: both were designed to do a specific job of work for a specific trade, and both were designed for speed. The Cutty Sark, however, was never to achieve the role for which she had been intended. China tea was a luxury commodity, and there was a high premium paid for the first ship to arrive in London with the new harvest. Cutty Sark was built very specifically to claim that premium, but she had scarcely reached the water before the Suez Canal was opened, and the trade was taken from the old, elegant tea clippers and handed to the steamships. There was one trade left to the clippers – the wool run from Australia. Old rivalries were cheerfully renewed and the Cutty Sark showed her worth, creating a new record in 1895 when she completed the journey from Sydney to London in sixty-seven days. For a long time, the lack of coaling stations en route kept the clippers in business – but they had to work for every penny they earned. Wool bales were loaded into the hold and crushed down by screw jacks until the entire space was all but filled with a solid mass of compacted wool. In her last voyages, the slender vessel was packed with 5,000 bales. No room on such a vessel for passengers – not very much for the crew. By the end of her working life, this complex vessel, able to carry up to thirty-four sails – representing three-quarters of an acre of canvas – was managed by just nineteen men.

The Cutty Sark also has its history to tell. The British were by no means the only innovators in ship design in the nineteenth century. The idea of a long, narrow hull with steeply raked hollow bows was developed in America. No doubt the Americans could have continued competing for the fastest clipper runs if all development had not been stopped by the outbreak of Civil War in 1861. So the British had every opportunity to dominate the world of fast, sleek sailing ships. What is most remarkable is that this was going on well into the steam age – not just a conservative tradition, but still innovative. So that in the second half of the nineteenth century one finds shipyards producing all types and varieties of vessels. At Liverpool, for example, James Quiggins and Co. were building ships of all kinds. They provided whatever was needed for the ship to take to the seas ready for trade: the specification for their largest vessel, the 1,898-ton Andromeda, included everything from a carefully detailed suit of sails down to '1 clothes brush with handle'. While across the Mersey at Birkenhead, Lairds were building a variety of vessels from an iron paddle steamer for South America, which came complete with a portable smith's hearth with bellows, anvil and tools for repairs at sea, to a barque for the emigrant trade, fitted out in Spartan style, but with auxiliary steam engine and a lifting screw for when she was travelling under sail alone. All these vessels presented their builders and designers with different challenges, different materials and different techniques – yet all were being built at the same time on the same river. And, most importantly, they were often being built by the same people. There was no sudden break as the world moved on from wooden ships driven by sail to iron ships powered by steam. There was a continuity of a kind, yet there were also conflicts between men brought up in the use of age-old skills and implements and those of the new age. These conflicts were never completely resolved. No history of modern shipbuilding makes sense unless one starts back not just in the nineteenth century but even earlier.


The Wooden Ship

If one was setting out in the 1790s instead of the 1990s, to write the story of shipbuilding, the tale that one had to tell would have been of steady, slow development in its technology, accompanied by an equally slow and steady development in the organisation of the shipbuilders. Into this calm stepped a wheezing, huffing, puffing and – at first – not very efficient machine, the steam engine. The point about the steam engine was not that it provided a better means of moving a boat through the water – improvements to hull design, sail arrangements and many other aspects of ship design had done that. But they had all developed with the shipbuilding community: the steam engine was an outsider. The men who understood its workings and its manufacture were engineers and iron founders not shipwrights and carpenters. It was an alien force that brought new practices to disrupt the old ways – though not to destroy them. Men had been building wooden ships in Britain for over 3,000 years, and traditions built up over such a period of time do not vanish overnight. Much that was to happen in the years following the arrival of steam on the water makes no sense unless one has a notion of what went before.

There is a technical definition of a ship and an everyday definition, and here we are using the simplest of them all – 'a large seagoing vessel'. The record of the ancient past is hopelessly fragmented, offering no more than a glimpse here and there, with time lags in between that stretch for centuries. But one can at least say that the first known vessels that fit the definition are the three boats discovered in the mud of the Humber estuary at North Ferriby. The third, excavated in 1974, has been more fully investigated. It qualifies as large with a 421/2ft (13m) keel, formed of two planks carved out of oak and sweeping upwards at either end. Around this solid base, the sides were built up of thinner planks. One can only guess at its shape, but everything about it suggests a seaworthy craft, and the site of the find would certainly indicate that the vessel was used on the adjoining Humber, which can be as rough as any coastal waters. Its construction methods, in which the planks were sewn together with yew, was not one that would be found in later vessels – but here, undeniably, was a ship. And carbon dating suggests it was built around 1,500 BC in the Bronze Age. How many stages of development were there between this and the next vessel, the Saxon burial ship found at Sutton Hoo? No one can say, but by this time, a whole range of features was found that were to be a commonplace in shipbuilding for centuries to come.


Excerpted from The Rise & Fall of British Shipbuilding by Anthony Burton. Copyright © 2013 Anthony Burton. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface 6

Preface to Second Edition 8

1 Rule Britannia 9

2 The Wooden Ship 15

3 Trade, Industry and Science 31

4 The Steam Age 48

5 New Men, New Ways 64

6 The Works and the Workers 80

7 The Steam Navy 101

8 A Golden Age 119

9 Depression 138

10 The Long Decline 151

11 The Last Chance 167

12 Into the Twenty-First Century 186

Sources and References 192

Bibliography 201

Index 204

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