Around 30,000 people gathered dockside at John Brown’s shipyard at Clydebank to watch HMY Britannia take to the water for the first time 65 years ago today.
The rain poured hard on the west coast on 16 April, 1953 as the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh took their positions at the official launch of the vessel which then cost an estimated £1.8 million – the equivalent of some £35m today.
Despite the grim weather, it was a day of celebration not least because workers were given the day off to witness the climax of their hard graft with their families. Children too had been given a day out of school to join their parents dockside.
The yacht, which had a load displacement of 4,000 tonnes, took to the Clyde as the Queen – dressed in a black coat with matching straw hat – pressed a little electric button on the dais.
When she declared “I name this ship Britannia” the remainder of her words were lost in the din before a band struck up Rule Britannia with the densely packed audience belting out the chorus.
Among the crowd was George Leishman, 81, an apprentice in the engine room of John Brown’s during the building of HMY Britannia.
He said: “It was a good day. We were further down from the ship from the Queen, down by the drag chains. When the drag chains went up in the air, the young ladies who were with us got a heck of a shock.
“It wasn’t easy work at the shipyard. It was very heavy work and very noisy. In the engine room there were usually a dozen riveters working round about you. I now wear hearing aids in both ears just to hear my wife speak.”
Despite the passage of time, memories of Britannia are firm. He added: “I went to see the Britannia in Edinburgh just last year. I still know my way round the engine room.”
Also among the crowd was VIP for the day Patrick Harper, 51, of Finnieston, who was collected from home by car and taken to Clydebank for the ceremony before lunching with the Queen,
Mr Harper, who was unemployed at the time, was the first British prisoner of war to make the escape back home and was invited in light of his courage escaping the enemy. Twice he was recaptured but on his third attempt he walked 2,000 miles from France to Lisbon and was flown home.
HMY Britannia sailed a million nautical miles during her 44-year stint at sea and called at over 600 ports in the furthest reaches of the Commonwealth.
After entering full service, HMY Britannia soon became one of the Queen’s most beloved retreats – a place where she might ‘truly relax’ – as well as the perfect location to host receptions and state dinners.
The vessel was a regular sight around Scotland’s shores with the Royal Family enjoying long summer breaks on the Western Isles before stopping at Aberdeen in order to dispatch the party to Balmoral.
In 1976, HMY Britannia embarked on its longest-ever journey when it covered 44,000 nautical miles.
It left Portsmouth on Boxing Day 1976 before sailing across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and into the Pacific. Before a quick paint job, the crew set of for Rarotonga, Cook Islands, to pick up the Queen ahead of the southern hemisphere Silver Jubilee tour.
A tour of the UK followed before the West Indies beckoned, before the family were taken to the Hebrides.
The boat was kept going by at least 250 Royal Yachtsman – known as Yotties – with a cook later recalling the mammoth task of feeding them three times a day.
“We had to prepare chips for two meals a day – if chips weren’t on the menu there’d be a mutiny,” one galley cook later said.
Favourite dinners for crew included ‘train smash’, a mix of tinned tomatoes and left over breakfast and smoked haddock, which was known on board as ‘yellow peril’.
Later this year, the vessel will celebrate 20 years of retirement at Ocean Terminal at Leith, where it in now a visitor attraction.