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William Lithgows History of Shipbuilding

Shipbuilding – The Historical Background (from notes by Sir William Lithgow)

 

One hundred years ago my grandfather, then only 21, and his two partners launched their first ship. I may perhaps therefore, be forgiven for dwelling on the historical background from a personal standpoint. There are a few books on the history of shipbuilding and the history of the towns in this area, which many of you may have read, and which perhaps some of you may find the more interesting after this talk and discussion.

 

Today, Scott Lithgow, Kincaid’s and Hastie’s between them occupy an important position in world shipbuilding and its sister industrial marine engineering, and if we reflect on their past and their predecessors we see them as the culmination of generations of effort, a product of history itself. To understand shipbuilding you have to understand that it is in ships that the trade of the world goes round, you have to understand the nature of world trades, the inter-play of relationships between one country and another. The course of the shipping industry and its servant, the shipbuilder, is charted by the very events which are central to world history.

 

Now Greenock is the nearest significant port in Britain to North America. The power of American influence and events in America has been very great on the industrial development in the West of Scotland. So, in stretching out the canvas on which we can paint in the historical background of shipbuilding we might, metaphorically speaking, nail it to either side of the Atlantic.

 

In the 17th century Scotland was a poor country. I have a ryall, or 30/- piece minted in 1571. It has been over-stamped to revalue it – inflation was a Scottish problem with a vengeance before the union of the crowns in 1603. Scotland had been ravaged by war and civil war and the ceaseless quarrelling that characterises the Scots to this day. It was not one nation, but two, for the Highlands for the most part, had little in common with the Lowlands. It is interesting that John Prebble in his recent book ‘The Lion in the North’ describes that poor Scotland through the eyes of my forebear, William Lithgow, who was one of the best known explorers of his time and who saw Scotland for what it was; saw its poverty and saw the short-termed policies that were pursued in it. He saw the same short-sightedness as is so characteristic of Central Scotland today. So there was little overseas commerce, mostly what there was was with the Baltic. American ships were most numerous in the Western seas and the East India Company which had a monopoly in the east built its ships in India. The South coast of England supported the shipbuilding industry based on the naval programmes which Charles II forced through in spite of the inadequacy of the politicians of his day. Charles is seldom given the credit for laying the foundations of the industrial and scientific revolution in this country. Yet it was he who founded the Royal Society and developed British naval power, a man who had known what it was to be down and out and to be on the run. It was his foresight perhaps more than any man which gave us the edge for so long. But at this time the Clyde was a herring fishing area and when John Scott started shipbuilding in 1711 at the mouth of the Westburn, land leased from the Shaw family, the same family as the Shaw Stewarts of Ardgowan today, it was principally to build fishing boats, herring buses and small craft. It was not until 1686 that a Clyde built and Greenock built ship crossed the Atlantic, transporting to Carolina 22 people who had been attending a conventicle.

 

The turn of the 18th century saw Scotsmen determined to get trade and industry moving. The Bank of Scotland, with which I am connected, was founded by the same man who had founded the Bank of England. The Darien Expedition crashed, leaving the country flat on its face.

 

The Treaty of Union in 1707 basically bought out the creditors – it was the new deal. The history of Scotts traces the steady development of modern industrial Scotland. During the 18th century most sailing ships were small, between 80 and 100 tons, or about the carrying capacity of a small puffer, and were, of course, built of wood. The Brunswick, with a carrying capacity of 1,000 tons, built at the end of the century by Scotts, was the largest Scottish built ship of her day.

 

As trade with America grew so did the prosperity of Central Scotland in the 18th century – tobacco  and then cotton, then sugar. It was, in fact, the Trans-Atlantic trade which financed the industrial revolution, and in Lanarkshire we find brought together capital, coal and iron stone, sufficient labour and from a vastly overpopulated Ireland, plenty more to cope with expansion. The American War of Independence had wrecked the tobacco industry in the 1780s; the cotton industry finally came under siege in the American Civil War of the 1860s.

 

With their cheap timber the Americans in the first half of the last century came out on top in shipbuilding. The rivalry nevertheless was intense, both on the trade routes and in the building of ships. Scotts by now were turning to war ships. Nelson had once again shown the vital importance to this island nation of sea power. The East India Company had lost its monopoly, and the local yards had turned to the building of bigger and faster ships for the East India trade.

 

We are sailing now into the years of the clipper. Perhaps the most memorable of them were the composite ships, timber on iron frames. By 1859 Scotts were building their last all wooden ship. Greenock and Port Glasgow having boomed with the demand for wooden ships were hard hit by competition from iron.

 

What of my family? Well, long before William Lithgow, the traveller known as Lugless Wull because he had had his ears cut off on some exploit, the Lithgow’s had been around. They backed the right man in Robert Bruce, who died across the river at Cardross. One of them was responsible for his funeral, and his son went with the Black Douglas to take his heart to Jerusalem. The Black Douglas was killed in Andalucia and the Lithgow’s were first granted land as a gesture of thanks for carrying on with this old shrivelled heart, rather like a rugger ball, to Jerusalem and then bringing it back to where it now lies at Melrose. Part of the family settled in Lanarkshire, and so we find my great grandfather being born at the end of the 18th century in New Lanark where David Dale(?) had opened his progressive cotton mills. His father was the present day equivalent of an accountant then.

 

Great grandfather was in a merchanting business in Glasgow and sold the sail cloth from the New Lanark mills to the ships that sailed from the Clyde. His first wife died, and when the railway was built he moved to Greenock and later to Huntlybank in Port Glasgow to become one of the first commuters. His second wife was a Greenock woman and he was a man in his 50s when my grandfather was born. Port Glasgow, founded in 1668, was long since by-passed with the deepening of the river. It was a rather sleepy town, with several saw mills and the timber ponds which you can still see stretching up stream. The heyday of shipbuilding seemed to have passed with the development of industrial Glasgow.

 

It was a timber merchant, stuck with a bad debt, who persuaded Joe Russell, then in his early 40s, to take over the bankrupt Bay Yard with a half built ship on the stocks, and he introduced Mr Russell to the two men who became his partners – Anderson Rodger and WT Lithgow, who was still under indenture in another small yard and was, in fact, by then a draughtsman.

 

Of course, as Port Glasgow people never let you forget, it was there that John Wood and his two sons, John and Charles, had built the Comet in 1811; not the first steamship, but the first commercial steamship in Europe. She symbolises in a way what was happening in the lower and upper reaches, the wooden hull in Port Glasgow and the steam engine and boiler from Glasgow. The boiler was made with great difficulty by David Napier, the founder, with his cousin Robert, of one of the great 19th century industrial dynasties. If you don’t know why the Managing Director of Hasties is called Wood Scott – ask him. It was the sight of this Comet that really precipitated the Clyde’s incredible development in marine engineering.

 

The father of scientific engineering and the inventor of a scientifically conceived steam engine was of course born in this town – James Watt himself. But at the time when Boulton and Watt were producing their steam engines in Birmingham the demand had been essentially for stationary machinery to pump mines and then to power mills. Much of the subsequent development of the steam engine took place from Glasgow. The Comet used a light-weight version of the beam engine – the side lever. It is only in recent years that we have seen demolished the workshops of Randolph and Elder in Glasgow where were developed the compound vertical steam engine which ruled supreme for nearly a century.

 

By the time my grandfather arrived on the scene, the American Civil War had put American shipbuilders out of the race, effectively for ever. It terribly disrupted the trade of Clydeside, but it was the spur to look for new markets for new products. By 1875 the Clyde had well and truly got into its stride and my grandfather was logically bringing the centre of gravity of the shipbuilding industry back down stream where today it is finally rooted, a fact which Glasgow people still find hard to grasp. It was fitting that my grandfather married the daughter of Mr Birkmyre, the local mill owner, for he provided canvas and ropes for the sailing ships of the time. In his time WT Lithgow built more sailing ships than any man who ever lived, and that by far. For although engineering works had sprung up in Greenock, he saw that the many trades could still be well served by the economical carriers – big, roomy iron sailing barques which did not require the enormous crews of the clippers which were now being given a real run for their money by the steam ships.

 

The Bay Yard was in the shadow of the Gourock mill. In 1879 Russell & Company took over a yard from JE Scott – what is today part of the Cartsdyke, better known as Klondyke. In 1882 they opened the Kingston Yard and by then their business was really taking off.

 

In 1892 the partnership of the three men had been dissolved - Joe Russell retiring, my grandfather continuing the Kingston yard and Anderson Rodger the first little Bay Yard.

 

Mr Russell had been engaged in other shipbuilding businesses before he and his partners founded the company we call Lithgow’s Limited. They had been building composite ships and it had always been a struggle. He appreciated the importance of costing, but it was the young man, my grandfather, who really assembled the new company’s successful policy – standardisation which in turn led to accurate estimating of costs and delivery times, hire purchase and investment in new ventures. In these days many ships were owned by one ship company with 64th part shares, so the concept of the standard ship, credit terms, talent spotting and product simplification are basic principles to our firm. My grandfather was also very quick to spot the advantage of steel when it became available, for though it was more expensive than wrought iron it was possible to reduce the scantlings. It is no accident that our ship No 17, the Falls of Clyde, is still afloat in Hawaii. Had she been built of steel she would have wasted away long ago. But I don’t expect my grandfather was particularly concerned about steel’s remarkable capacity for corroding. The secret of shipbuilding, of production, is not just living from day to day, but also of continuity in spite of the cyclical ups and downs of trade. Come hell or high water our firm has always sought to keep going regardless of the state of world trade, and regardless of the experts, because there is no such thing as an expert who is right when it comes to ships and shipbuilding. After all, what is an expert? Ex – a has been, spurt – a drip under pressure. The ship investment book tells the real story of how Lithgow’s made their money. How ships were built in slumps and sold for profit in booms.

 

In those days the shipyard did not require much fixed equipment, and many shipbuilders tended to come and go rather like small house builders do today. But in time the Kingston yard became a more elaborate place. In the early days the hawthorn hedge, round what was once a field, was the boundary wall. Men after all were on piece work and the cops and robbers concept of organising a labour force had not emerged. At any rate, the reason why the company grew was because production went on through the slumps. These ships were built on spec., or they were built in partnership with young men who were starting out on a ship owning business. Sheds were put up to provide covered accommodation for the squads to work under. And so, by the 1880s the firm was the most productive on the river and became the nucleus of what has effectively been the largest family shipbuilding business in the world over very many years.

 

The sailing ship era passed at the turn of the century. We find many of these ships were owned by local companies – people like Lang & Fulton. The steam tramp ship was now in its stride and our customers were people like the Lyle Steam Shipping Company, financed but not managed by a branch of the Lyle family of Lyle Hill and of course, sugar fame. About now we also find Denholm’s founded by the great Provost Denholm of Greenock, with their fleet of ships engaged in the export of coal. We were never really mixed up with the fancier people of the liner trades.

 

On my mother’s side of the family, my grandfather was a farmer’s son, a Cumbrian really, though his parents had been married over the anvil at Gretna Green and settled further south. Grandfather Harrison was trained in a shipping office in Newcastle and went into partnership with a Dixon of the famous Dixon Blazes of Glasgow, the iron works, and like my paternal grandfather, with little more capital than his own brains. Later Harrison Dixon merged with Alan C Gow and grandfather Harrison built with grandfather Lithgow. Many of these were designed to carry oil in cases. At the turn of the century our company had built one of the first tankers for Rickmers of Hamburg and then the famous Brilliant, a sailing ship for the Anglo-American oil company which today is known as Esso. But the first steam tankers were for Gow Harrison. The violent instability of world trades, the over-reaction. Of which we are all so fearful could happen again, are the general background but not the object of this talk.

 

The real bottom came in 1931, but the blunt truth that we in Britain are faced with, and it is a truth that perhaps the Japanese are going to have to face now, was that our shipbuilding capacity built up so fast in the half century leading up to the First War, so far beyond the share of the world market we could reasonably expect to maintain. It was not just a question of other nations wishing to run their own ships, they wished to build them too. The war had cut other people off from the British builders who had built for them before and, don’t forget that during the Victorian era Britain was essentially at peace, much of Europe was being disrupted by war. So by the 20s and 30s the grim process of rationalisation was forced upon us.

 

Perhaps the least understood of all organisations of these days was National Shipbuilders Securities, which was formed by shipbuilders to buy up surplus capacity. With the funds so provided some owners were able to finance diversification into other activities. Sometimes a swap was arranged. Caird’s yard in Greenock was swapped by Harland & Wolff for Workman Clarke of Belfast. But it might interest you to know that the Erskine Bridge was built at Chepstow in a former N.S.S. yard. Ayrshire Metal Products at Irvine, a very successful light engineering company, is the old Ayrshire Dockyard. It’s most copied product is demountable steel partitioning for offices, designed originally at my uncle’s request as a bulk heading material. At that time, with no prospect of getting ships to build, Port Glasgow yards had turned to breaking them up. One of them was the L’Atlantique, a liner which burnt out in the English Channel. My uncle had been appalled at what fire could do with timber bulk heading.

 

On the engineering front we see Scott’s engineering skills rising with their prowess to naval work on warships and then submarines. The first oil engine was built at Rankin & Blackmore at the turn of the century. The Scotts Still Engine is still remembered for the way in which it utilised waste heat in the subsequent steam cycle. Kincaids built their own design of engine before concentrating on the Burmeister & Wain. Today there are only really two designs of engine that are popular with ship owners throughout the world, and with which engineers are familiar – the Burmeister and the Sulzer. A great deal of British attention had been concentrating on Parson’s invention of the turbine, and during the hard years of the 20s and 30s we tended to concentrate still on coal fired ships, not least because of the British coal industry, whose plight particularly with the collapse of export markets for the Welsh coal fields, led in fact to the General Strike. These hard tragic and wasteful inter war years were the time when so many of the best people left the industry. Left this country or simply never got a chance. My father was understandably criticised for still taking on apprentices, but without the apprentices of those days there could have been no shipbuilding industry today.

 

When the Second War broke out Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty and sent immediately for my father, not this time as Director of Shipbuilding, but as a member of the Board of Admiralty. The Port Glasgow yards were pace-horses for the rest of the industry, they were the yardstick by which he measured others. It was he who had to send out the  emission which started the Liberty ship programme under lease-lend based on the standard ship built by Redheads on the North East coast and William Hamilton in Port Glasgow. When John Hamilton gave up at the end of the first war Hamiltons was taken over jointly by the Lithgows and the Brocklebanks of Liverpool and subsequently became part of Cunard. The war years saw welding come into commercial shipbuilding practice, and as soon as the war was over attention was turned to exploiting the techniques of pre-fabrication. Many of the early prefabricated ships built in Kingston used hydraulic riveting, a technique which had been largely developed there at the turn of the century by Mr Lambie, the Yard Manager.

 

So, there’s a little bit of history for you. But I have said very little about people. Originally, ships were built by Shipwrights but when iron came the Shipwrights did not want to handle it, and so it was the semi-skilled who took on the handling of iron, just as it was the semi-skilled who tended to pick up the new craft of welding. It is interesting to reflect how, for so many years, the iron trades were divided amongst specialists – Platers, who I suppose you could liken to the tailor’s cutter, Hole-borers, riveters, caulkers, later to be joined by welders and burners. The Blacksmiths only made the bits and pieces and they too never got in on the act. Joiners by contrast were always more Jacks of all trades, more versatile or, as Mr belch would say, more flexible. I think we have to understand too that until the war, ships were largely built under sub-contract by squads who you could liken to the lump workers and grip workers in the building industry today. Many grip worker squads are not fly by night at all but are specialists. Some iron working squads in the old days would tour the country from yard to yard because of their specialist expertise in some particular job.

 

Modern times most of you have seen. You have seen how we have grown to take advantage of our proximity to the deep water and how increasingly to beat swords into ploughshares and turn the skills that are required to build warships into the skills that are required for the immensely complicated tools of tomorrow, like the dynamically positioned drill ships that will search the floor of the oceans that cover most of the worlds surface. Less and less perhaps will we be engaged in building great empty boxes to be filled with low value cargoes. Almost certainly such capacity will be taken up in any case for the structures for the North Sea Oil fields.

 

Shipbuilding has become increasingly capital intense. Virtually every penny that has been earned in Greenock & Port Glasgow has been ploughed back into investment, and there is still much to be done. For all the new machine tools, we seek to employ men’s brains as well as their backs. The task of building and designing a modern ship is a fantastic organisational feat – to bring together components of immense complexity and ensure that the whole thing works on the day of the trial. Few people outside the industry have any comprehension of the staggering organisational skill that is contained in shipbuilding and marine engineering. For all the changes, shipyards still require people who can work without supervision, who can get on with the job without being told what to do next, and who have got that extra bit of fushion(?) that comes from a hard life, and the satisfaction of creating a living thing that will be another man’s home and upon which another man will rely for his safety.

 

My grandfather saw nothing romantic, and nor do I, in looking through the pages of this old book and reading the epitaph of so many tall ships – lost, wrecked. It is not an industry for which the desk bound can ever have any feeling or understanding. Lloyd George found that out the hard way before he brought my father back from the Somme: and he won’t be the last Prime Minister to make the same discovery.

 

Shipbuilding calls for the shortest possible lines of communication – for technical reasons and for the eternal human reasons. Scott Lithgow must be unique in being such a large organisation – engaged in building ships for countries all over the world, in training and in giving technical assistance to people on the other sides of the world; and yet, having no office outside these boroughs and no man more than a few minutes bicycle ride away from the Chief Executive. Success may only have been relative, but I can assure you it has been hard work. The world never sleeps – somewhere, day or night, there are hundreds of our ships at sea; somewhere there is a competitor wide awake and working hard.

 

The whole historical background of shipbuilding in these boroughs is interwoven with the history of the families who live here – generation after generation – laced and inter-laced. Some of these threads are drawn from up stream, like my family in the head waters of the Clyde, some from the Highlands, some from Ireland. Some of these threads lead on to the most important industrial centres of the world to which we have sent our sons and our skills. And when the whistle blows, I take a special pride in seeing fewer men running for a bus and more driving away in their car. I think of the history of shipbuilding that is embodied in nearly every home to which they are returning.

 

Going up market, going into more sophisticated ships and using more sophisticated methods, has meant that we have been able to give more opportunities to young men. Port Glasgow in particular has not suffered from the necrosis that overtook yards that had built passenger liners and battle ships. You have seen the tragic spectacle of present day shipbuilders living in that past. It is for books rather than talks to recall names of yards that are no more. Scotts and Lithgow’s, of course, came together finally within the plan of rationalisation, conceived for the industry by the Geddes Committee. It was perhaps logical, though I know that bigness is not best; and one must work hard to keep alive that sense of identity which has characterised the separate yards in their history, and has not allowed them to go soft in the centre like so many elsewhere. History is still too young to talk of the desperate manoeuvring to draw the lower reaches up stream against the current of their own success. I suppose secretly inside pride is no bad thing. I am proud to be associated with the Scotts, Mr Michael the seventh generation, and I the third. In our three generations the family yards have built over 1400 ships – a little better than twice the Scott’s total. It is very proper that we should have slowed things up now by building ships a half at a time!

 

Whatever else may be true of shipbuilding, the shipbuilder must be acutely aware of everything that is happening in the world around him. That means the whole world. One of the tragedies in this country is that we have never faced up to the reality of not being the top industrial nation as were at the turn of the century. It is unthinkable that this island should not have its own shipbuilding industry. It is simply not practicable for Greenock and Port Glasgow and the lower reaches not to have its shipbuilding industry. Against all the odds of over valued pounds, run away inflation and the subsidisation used by other countries to stimulate shipbuilding, we are where we are today, one of the greatest shipbuilding centres of the world. That is the inheritance of centuries of hard work by a whole community who know the meaning of reality. It is right that we should reflect on the historical background, but we cannot lean against it or we will fall off the back of the stage.

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