Pride of the Clyde

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AFTER Her Majesty broke the traditional bottle of champagne on the towering bow of that other monarch she was naming Queen Elizabeth 2, 40 years ago next Thursday, there was what this paper's report described as "50 breathtaking seconds" while nothing appeared to happen. TV news footage of the launch shows big John Rannie, the managing director of John Brown's Clydebank yard, flapping his bowler at it, as if to shoo the 10,000 tonnes of Clyde-wrought steel down the slipway.

The Scotsman of 21 September 1967 noted that some wag hanging over the bow shouted "Gie's a push", much to the amusement of the Queen (the human one). Then the ship began to move, imperceptibly at first, but gradually accelerating until its 963ft of hull slid into the Clyde at 22mph, amid a mighty cloud of spray, sending 2ft high waves rolling up and down the river.

She was magnificent, but the last of her kind: the last Clyde-built Cunarder and the last of the great vessels that were icons of Scotland's industrial prowess. For amid the jubilant cheers and the roar of Phantom jets flying overhead in salute, even as the majestic leviathan was eased to a halt by her drag chains, the future of John Brown's yard - indeed of Britain's shipbuilding industry as a whole - was looking far from shipshape.

At that time, John Brown's Clydebank operation was being absorbed into Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. This in turn would go into liquidation four years later, despite the famous UCS union's work-in, led by shop stewards Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie. The last conventional ship to be built at the yard was a bulk grain carrier, Ailsa, completed in 1972, after which it continued to fabricate oil-platform modules until 2001.

Back in 1967, amid the triumphalism of The Scotsman's report, was a brief interview with one of the shipyard's caulkers, Tommy Rennie, who remarked, with some prescience: "She's got to be finished yet, but goodness knows that will happen after that. I don't think we'll see another one like it."

His feelings are echoed 40 years on by Alan Adams, who was a welder at John Brown's during the QE2 contract and now works as a part-time guide at the Titan crane, the 150ft-high landmark which, apart from some remnants of the slipway that can still be seen at low tide, is the only remaining trace of the historic shipyard which produced such ocean-going giants as the Lusitania, Aquitania, Empress of Britain, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and, of course, the QE2. "There was always that uncertainty," says Adams. "You were always trying to find out whether there was another job on the books."

We're standing 150ft above the cleared site, now home to the new Clydebank College, due to be formally opened next Thursday by the First Minister. Parallel lines of paving from the college to the Clyde's edge trace where the yard's slipway ran. Overhead, the rumble of jet airliners dropping towards Glasgow airport signals just one of the reasons the slipway became obsolete.

Adams, now 58, joined John Brown's as a 16-year-old where he trained as a welder. It was he and his pal Joe MacGonagle who "put the bow on the QE2", he smiles. "It must have been one of the proudest things we did. It was massive."

On the other hand, he recalls, there was the infuriatingly finicky and endless work of welding tiny brackets into the cabins. "That was a nightmare," he says, with less enthusiasm. He eventually left the yard, worked for a while at the Singer sewing machine factory, then when Singer closed down moved on to scrap burning.

Taking up his job at the crane when it opened this summer, he was "a bit overwhelmed" to stand at the top and survey the site which, when he worked there more than 40 years ago, had still been a byword for shipbuilding excellence: "But I'm really glad they've kept the 'cran'. It's amazing how many Brown's workers have come back to visit it."

As to the news that the QE2 is to be installed as a floating hotel in Dubai, Adams regrets that it won't be making one last sailing back up the Clyde (but it will dock at Greenock later next week); "although I don't know what the cost of the dredging would have been. It would have been nice to see it back in Clydebank. But at least she's not being scrapped."

"We could still build ships but we just couldn't compete, building them the way we did then," he says, referring to the yard's decline. "Our standards were really high. I remember tacking bulkheads: if a weld was just a fraction out [the gaffer] would snap it so it had to be done again. There was no cutting corners."

Five minutes' drive from the yard site, in the offices of the Dalmuir Park Housing Association, artist and former shipyard worker Tom McKendrick finds himself shipbuilding once again, in a manner of speaking. He's working on a six-metre steel model of the dreadnought Ramillies, built at the nearby - and similarly long-vanished - Beardmore yard. It will be the crowning piece of a massive sculpture he is creating as a monument to the town's shipbuilding heritage.

McKendrick worked on the QE2 as an apprentice loftsman, making the timber templates from which the steel components of the vessel were shaped. "I wouldn't say we were blas," he says, "but when the QE2 order came along there was a feeling that, well, all the big Cunarders had been built by John Brown, and we deserved this one, almost as a divine right."

He remembers the scale of the vessel as being "quite extraordinary; everything about it was unique". The revolutionary design of the vessel's streamlined funnel came as a shock to many: "We were used to a funnel being a big tube with smoke coming out of it. This was like the Starship Enterprise."

But even as they were working on it, there was an awareness of the declining industry and a lack of investment. "I worked on the bulbous bow, with two guys called Fat Rab and Skinny Rab, and the rollers for the plates had been made by Beardmore in 1895 or something. There we were in the 1960s, building a state-of-the-art ship with rollers built 70 or 80 years before. There was a feeling that an era was passing and we were being left behind."

It was Glasgow School of Art's Digital Design studio which produced digital animation for the restored Titan crane - recently re-opened as a visitor centre - showing the launch of the Queen Mary in 1936 and the QE2 in 1967. The studio's deputy director, Ian Johnston, unrolls some of the original 1/16th scale design drawings for the QE2. Some are detailed cross-sections; another bears elegantly swooping lines delineating the hull shape.

Johnston, who has written histories of the John Brown and Fairfield shipyards, says: "The whole object was to go as fast and as cheaply as possible. The QE2 was built to go very fast, 33 knots, but she was also a cruise liner, and that needs economy. Subsequently nobody needed to cross the Atlantic at that speed because they were all flying, so she became a cruiser."

But what was really poignant about the QE2, he says, was what was happening around it, even as it was emerging from the stocks: "It's fair to say there was absolute chaos in British shipbuilding at that time. After 100 years of Britain being the leading shipbuilding nation, we very quickly lost all that in the most remarkable and rapid decline of any of our traditional industries.

"In the mid-1950s, Britain was producing 50 per cent of the world's ships; ten years later she was producing only 8 per cent. And this continued... with astonishing speed. It wasn't that we couldn't do it, but we couldn't make money at it any more.

"In the case of John Brown's, there was this expectation that the yard could build a prestigious liner like the QE2 because they'd built all the flagships for Britain's merchant marine, but since the early 1960s, profitability had escaped them."

As Johnston tells it, "there was one ship in particular that broke Clydebank, and it wasn't the QE2. It was the ship before it, a beautiful liner called the Kungsholm they built for the Swedish-Amerika line. Because John Brown's whole approach was to build classy vessels, it was crucial that they kept their skilled workforce in place. They knew the order for the new Cunarder would be coming up, and they were concerned that if they didn't have any work for their fitting out crew, they'd lose them, so they bid for the Kungsholm at a very keen price indeed.

"During its construction, prices just went through the roof, labour costs spiralled and there were severe penalty payments for late delivery. The Kungsholm tender price had been 6 million and they got that. But it had cost them 9 million to build, so they lost 3 million and that was a colossal sum in these days. Lord Aberconway, chairman of John Brown and Company, said that if losses of this order continued, it would be the end of shipbuilding at Clydebank."

Amid these unsettling times, the yard bid for "Q4", as the QE2 was originally known, from its quotation number. "To ensure they got it," says Johnston, "they put in a tender price which was to cover all the costs, but there wasn't a penny of profit in it."

The ship's sea trials brought further anguish to an already fraught yard, as worrying vibrations from the turbines caused the vessel to limp home, to Cunard's fury and "Ship of shame" headlines. Turbine faults were the fault of the designer, not the yard, but it also emerged that there were still 200 John Brown workmen onboard finishing the cabins.

It was the last thing Upper Clyde Shipbuilders needed. Struggling with massive restructuring to become a profit-making concern again, in 1971 it hit a liquidity crisis which ultimately closed it, despite the UCS work-in.

"So the QE2 was the last of these iconic structures that sailed the oceans of the world," says Johnston. "People would look at them with this enormous sense of pride and say, 'That came from the Clyde.' And we've not been able to replace that with anything as readily identifiable as these fabulous ocean liners."

McKendrick, too, remembers the pride, but also the downside of life in the yards. "There was great camaraderie, but there was also hostility. You had sectarianism, confrontational management, inter-union conflicts, the doubt about orders...

"But at that very second when the champagne bottle cracks on the bow, all that aggravation is gone. All the thousands of men who worked on that ship are unified, because they all made their contribution. That's the magic of a launch."


• REGARDED by many as the last of the great transatlantic ocean liners, RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 was the flagship of the Cunard line from 1969 until 2004, when it was succeeded by the (French-built) RMS Queen Mary 2.

• Following widely reported teething troubles, and the enforced cancellation of her scheduled maiden voyage, the QE2 officially joined the Cunard fleet in April 1969 and finally sailed from Southampton to New York on 2 May. Her first captain was Commodore Ronald Warwick.

• The QE2 is 963ft (294m) long, with a beam of 105 feet (32m) and has a gross tonnage of 70,327. With a cruising speed of 28.5 knots, her top speed is 33 knots.

• She is powered by nine nine-cylinder turbocharged diesel engines, having been converted from steam to diesel power in Germany in 1986. Before the conversion, which made her one of the fastest passenger ships in the world, she was the last oil-fired transatlantic passenger steamship in scheduled service.

• Her distinctive funnel incorporates a wind scoop that forces air up its sides, to catch exhaust fumes and disperse them clear of the aft passenger decks

• As a cruise liner carrying some 1,750 passengers, plus more than 1,000 officers and crew, the ship boasts five restaurants, two cafs, three swimming pools and numerous bars plus a nightclub and a 48-seat cinema (as well as its own daily TV channel). For the seaborne consumer there is a branch of Harrods, as well as a health club and beauty salon.

• Among the many artworks and artefacts on board the QE2 are a frieze depicting the words of TS Eliot, John Masefield and Sir Francis Drake. The Royal Family, and their visits to the QE2, are commemorated in oil paintings, pastels, photographs and silver plaques.

• In keeping with the Space Age in which she was launched, the QE2's original interior used modern materials such as plastic laminates and aluminium. Modular furniture and abstract art underlined the forward-looking theme.

• An episode of Coronation Street was filmed on board the QE2 in 1995, as was a special episode of the sitcom Keeping Up Appearances in 1993. Her aft decks were the setting for a scene aboard an unnamed liner in the 1981 TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited.

• In May 1982, during the Falklands conflict, the QE2 was requisitioned as a troopship, carrying 3,000 troops to the south Atlantic.

QE2 - The Last Great Liner is on BBC2 on Monday, 9pm

Clydebuilt Luxury: The Story of the QE2 is on BBC Radio Scotland on Wednesday, 11:30am

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