Greatest Voices in Scotland's Shipbuilding Past

The cargo ship 'Kaitoa', weighing 2583 gross tonnes, is launched from Henry Robb Shipyard in Leith in  1956The cargo ship 'Kaitoa', weighing 2583 gross tonnes, is launched from Henry Robb Shipyard in Leith in  1956
The cargo ship 'Kaitoa', weighing 2583 gross tonnes, is launched from Henry Robb Shipyard in Leith in 1956

Shipbuilding has been a huge part of Scottish industrial history for over a century. At the height of its powers, the industry on the Clyde employed 100,000 staff at more than 40 yards. But none of this would have been possible without the remarkable men who built up their businesses and brought about great innovations in ship design. Across the country, thousands of shipbuilders helped to shape Scotland, and, in some places, their legacy can still be seen today.

Sir William Pearce was a giant of Scottish shipbuilding during the Victorian era. He was born in England in 1833, but moved to Scotland in 1863, as he had been offered the job of surveyor to the Lloyd's Register on the Clyde. From this moment on, his career progressed quickly. A year after arriving in Glasgow, he became the general manager of R. Napier & Sons, and designed fast, transatlantic liners for the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique.

A statue to Sir William Pearce in Govan

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Pearce became a partner in John Elder & Co. in 1869, but when the rest of the partners retired nine years later, he became the sole owner of the company. In 1886, he renamed the business the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, while remaining as chairman. His company became world-renowned for its ship design and marine engineering. One of Fairfield's most famous inventions was the triple expansion engine, which would go on to have a large impact on shipbuilding.

At its peak, Pearce's shipyard and offices in Govan spanned over 70 acres, and employed up to 5000 workers. The shipyard saw the building of several ships for major shipping lines, including the Pacific Steam Navigation Company and the New Zealand Shipping Company.

In 1887, Pearce was rewarded for his hard work with a baronetcy. He was now the Baronet of Cardell in the County of Renfrew. A year previously, he had also become the MP for the newly created constituency of Govan, winning the election with a majority of 362 votes.

William Pearce died at the age of 55 at his home in London. He was survived by his widow, Dinah Elizabeth Socoter, who established the Pearce Institute in his honour. The institute contains a public hall and a library for the community of Govan. The shipyard is still in use to this day, but is now owned by BAE.

William Lithgow was an important figure in the history of Port Glasgow. He was a very successful ship designer, who became a partner in Russell & Co. in 1874. By 1881, the company owned three shipyards on the Clyde, and when the partnership disolved in 1891, Lithgow was given two of them.

One of Lithgow's best known ships was the “Falls of Clyde”, which was built in 1878 as part of a series named after Scottish waterfalls. It was a four-masted “British medium clipper” which was rated highly by the insurers, Lloyd's of London. The ship's first voyage was to Karachi in Pakistan, and made several other voyage to outposts of the British Empire. Lithgow's company was also responsible for one of the first five-masted ships, the “Maria Rickmers”, as well as the largest four-masted vessel of the time, an oil carrier called the “Brilliant”.

Lithgow's sons, James and Henry, took over the business in 1908, and renamed it Lithgows Limited in 1911. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, the company continued to expand, but was hit by hard times in the 1930s. The company survived nationalisation in the 1970s, and partial closure in the 1980s, and now operates the Marine Resources Centre at Barcaldine, Argyll.

The Falls of Clyde

However, Glasgow was not the only site of significant shipbuilders. Edinburgh’s dockyards at Leith were also an important part of the Scottish shipbuilding industry. Henry Robb founded his own company in 1918, Henry Robb Limited, which would become one of the most famous shipyards not on the Clyde. Robbs (as it was known colloquially) was best known for building small-to-medium sized vessels, such as tugs and dredgers.

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Before founding his own company, Henry Robb was the yard manager for Ramage and Ferguson. Under his leadership, Robbs grew in size due to buying berths from various companies throughout the early part of the 20th century. The site of the company became known as the Victoria Shipyard.

During the Second World War, Robbs built several warships for the Royal Navy, as well as preparing a prototype for the Basset-class anti-submarine trawler. Two of the three Corvettes that Robbs built for the Royal New Zealand Navy would find fame, after they sunk the Japanese submarine I-1 in January 1943. Robbs reputation as a top-class shipyard was cemented in 1940, when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth took a tour of the site.

In 1983, Robbs shipyard closed its doors, but one of its paint sheds still survives. It is an early 20th century pitched roof shed, and it has been classified as a Category B listed building. The music video for “Letter from America” by the Proclaimers also features the yard, as their father had worked there.

Any history of Scottish industry would be incomplete without Pearce, Lithgow and Robb. Their achievements assisted Scotland in its quest for technological innovation, and helped defend Britain's shores. Their businesses brought prosperity to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and their hand in Scotland's shipbuilding heritage will not be forgotten.

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