The Titan crane: a true giant of Clydebank shipbuilding

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It survived the bombs of the Second World War and enabled the construction of some of the world's most famous ships. Ahead of the opening of an education centre in its honour, our reporter traces the history of Clydebank shipbuilding and the structure that made it possible, the Titan crane

• The Titan Crane at Clydebank - once towering over the John Brown Shipyard the crane is now a tourist attraction. Picture: Stephen Mansfield

FAR below, thousands of men and women poured out of Clydebank's factories. Foremen at the nearby Singer sewing machine factory ordered workers not to leave, but in vain, as the crowds swarmed out of the doors regardless, along streets towards the river to a spot underneath the shipyard's giant crane. This was a moment no-one in this town wanted to miss: one still etched on the hearts and memories of those who were there – the launching of the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2.

These unforgettable scenes in 1968 had their roots in a decision more than 60 years earlier by shipyard owners and Sheffield steelmakers John Brown & Co, who took the forward-thinking step to order the latest in technology: the world's first electrically-driven cantilever crane, from the same firm which made the Forth Rail Bridge and London's Tower Bridge. It could be controlled by one man and lift tremendous weights of up to 150 tonnes, allowing the yard to create the biggest ships in the world, heaving the enormous steam boilers and engines the ocean-going giants needed.

However, today's residents will never line the banks of the Clyde to watch a ship launch from here again, as all that remains of the famous John Brown's shipyard is the Titan crane which made such giant vessels possible. Since a 3m refit of the crane in 2007, via government-owned regeneration company Clydebank Re-built, installed a lift, visitors have been able to visit the top in just seconds rather than the 30 minutes it took the original operators to climb the ladders to the top.

However, many lamented the fact there was nothing here but the view and the memories which would soon disappear with time. In a bid to preserve the history for a new generation, an education centre, built at the bottom of the crane, will open next Tuesday to ensure the tales of this giant icon of a dying trade that touched the lives of millions will live on.

Created by the firm Collective Architecture, the glass-fronted building contains an open-plan classroom area with benches and a whiteboard area, as well as models of some of the famous vessels built using the crane as well as a display of trinkets, photographs and documents, such as letters sent by passengers from the ships themselves.

It also has a rather cleverly designed sloping glass wall which allows a full view of the crane from inside – no mean feat when it is almost directly below this 150ft giant.

Peter Harford-Cross, of the architectural firm, says: "The idea was we would have this big bank of windows looking right up at the crane and in bad weather some of the children could sit here and draw it while others had a lesson in the interactive area. It wasn't easy!"

Two bulging packs of lessons have been created, one for primary and one for secondary children, with innovative ideas for teaching youngsters about the crane in every subject from using the geometry of the crane in maths, to drawing it in art and writing reports on it in English lessons.

Funding was secured to create the 120,000 centre from the Heritage Lottery fund and partner regeneration firm Clyde Waterfront.

Key to its success is passing on memories, and former workers at the yard have been recruited to relate their days under the shadow of the Titan crane.

Colin Scott, 75, from Clydebank, remembers working as a shipyard engineer with fondness, when we meet to chat at the Titan. "It wasn't glamorous as 'the strong men of the Clyde' as it is often portrayed. It was a hard, horrible cold job," he says, but with pride.

He fitted out the vessels after the welders and plate workers had created the hull. He vividly remembers the day when a worker was killed working at the yard: "Everyone dropped tools and walked out, out of empathy. If that had been at Singer's the foreman would have stopped them, but they didn't even try to stop us. I couldn't believe it.

"I know it wasn't the best job in the world," he says, "but it kept people employed and kept food in their bellies, which is why it was so important in an area like this."

However, he does have one abiding regret – that he left before he had a chance to work on the QE2. "That was the curse of my life. It went against the grain with me that I never worked on it. A lot of people in Clydebank have a love affair with that ship." At the time of the launch he was working in the Singer factory when the managers made an announcement: "They told us, 'Nobody is to leave your place to watch.' But they might as well have been talking to that crane out there. Everyone just walked out and they couldn't sack everyone."

On 19 November 1968, above the crowds watching the QE2 launch, 150 feet (46 metres) tall and motionless, stood the blue giant Titan crane that had made it possible to build the iconic ship. It had stood in the same spot for decades, rising above the flames and destruction as the town burned during the bombing raids of the Second World War.

Little else remained of the town after the Blitz – just eight houses in this town of 47,000 souls remained untouched – but the Titan crane was undamaged, a symbol of the industry and survival which had created this community.

Clydebank, as a town, was born out of the ship building industry, which noisily clanged and welded itself along the River Clyde. The first shipyard, Clyde Bank, was built in 1871, and the town grew to sustain the yard's workforce, taking the yard's name.

But just a year after the glorious zenith of the QE2 launch, the yard, like many of its neighbours, hit financial problems. The town mourned as its last ship, the Ailsa, was sent out into the silently reproachful river in 1971.

However, by that time the Titan's working life was already over, but she continued to stand proud as new firms came and went building oil rigs for the North-east's oil industry after the discovery of black gold in Scottish waters.

In 1988 its future was secured when it was given A-listed status, putting it on a par with Edinburgh and Stirling Castle. That was to be a lonely future, however, as in 1999 the yard and engineering works on the 100-acre site was sold, closed and eventually demolished. The Titan then stood alone in Clydebank, a survivor of the industry which had created it. It had built some of the most famous and largest sea-going vessels the world had ever seen: from the world's largest ship, the Lusitania, to the Clyde's biggest ship, the Queen Mary, warships during the Second World War with their heavy artillery and the Royal Yacht Britannia. But it wasn't a solitary survivor, 11 Titans still exist around the world from Australia to Japan, and three others, including the Finnieston crane up-river, still stand on the banks of the Clyde.

But Clydebank's will always be the first and remains the most powerful after its lifting capability was ramped up to 200 tonnes to fit out the navy during the Second World War.Towering over the Clyde, it had stoically seen this landscape change beyond recognition. Created above a bustling shipbuilding industry, it now gazed over a desolate empty wasteland of industrial remnants and weeds. But there is hope.

Amy Todd, 21, from Clydebank is training to be a primary teacher, but she also works here at the Titan at a guide. "My dad worked here at John Brown's," she tells me with visible pride: "He has given me the first-hand experience of what it was like to "serve your time in the yard" as they say.

"Everyday I hear tales from people who worked on it or whose fathers and grandfathers worked on it, and I can go home and tell him the stories and keep them alive. I feel our family has come in a full cycle with this yard. He worked on it, then it closed, and now I'm working on it ." Even though Colin Scott worked and lived in the shadow of the Titan for most of his life, last week was the first time he had been to the top of the Titan, using the lift. Did it bring back fond memories? He says: "I just looked at the wasteland round about it and it saddened me. It's a tragic landscape."

If you look in the opposite direction to the wasteland, though, a new modern glass and steel building houses the relocated Clydebank College, new glass-fronted flats resemble city waterfront penthouses and there is an area close to the water earmarked for the relocation of the town's leisure centre. The plan is try to bring more people here as part of a long-term regeneration project, Clydebank Re-built.

But if you stroll past all these new buildings, right at the water's edge the cobbled slipways can still be seen. Look over the edge and you can see the concrete slips where the QE2 and the Queen Mary plunged into the dark river. And if you concentrate hard, you can almost hear the roars from the factory workers as they fell in love with their town's most famous daughter.