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The History of Clyde Shipbuilding: 20th Century Warfare and the Great Queens of the Oceans.

Updated on June 10, 2022
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Graduate in Economic and Social History from the University of Strathclyde and studied the history of the Clyde for my honours dissertation.

(photo by Marxchivist at Flickr Creative Commons)
(photo by Marxchivist at Flickr Creative Commons)

The first half of the 20th Century saw the steady, sometimes steep, decline of shipbuilding on the Clyde.

It was marked by two World wars on either side of a Great Depression and throughout these years new challenges from other shipbuilding nations as the Clyde eventually lost its prominence.

The glamour and prestige of the great ocean liners could not mask the troubles and uncertainties that plagued the Clydeside shipyards.

On the eve of the war

At the outbreak of World War One the Clyde was at its pinnacle of success. The Clyde and the yards on the Tyne and Wear in the North-East of England dominated the UK shipbuilding industry. Credit is also due to the achievements in marine engineering and construction by the yards of the North-East such as Vickers and Swan Hunter.

But in 1913 the Clydeside shipyards were supreme and then were kept occupied by war work during 1914-18 including the famous battle-cruiser HMS Hood launched in 1916 and which became the pride of the Royal Navy but eventually sunk by the Bismarck in 1942 during the Second World War.

Labour unrest was a feature during and after World War One. In what became known as 'Red Clydeside' it was an era of political radicalism that characterised Glasgow and other areas around the banks of the river. Its roots lay in working class opposition to the participation and conduct of the United Kingdom in the war. To mobilise the workers of Clydeside the Clyde Workers' Committee (CWC) was formed and anti-war activity also took place outside the workplace and on the streets in general.

Tanks in the Gallowgate in Glasgow, 1919.
Tanks in the Gallowgate in Glasgow, 1919.

When peace came there was a campaign for a 40-hour week with improved conditions and in January 1919, a massive rally on George Square attracted an estimated 90,000 people. When the red flag was unfurled the police intervened and a riot ensued. The next day army tanks and soldiers were deployed in the city as the government feared a Bolshevik inspired revolution.

There was a surge in shipbuilding after the First World War to replace lost ships and this encouraged heavy capitalisation by the biggest yards in expectation of a boom. In 1919 Fairfields in Govan spent £70,000 on developing their West Yard and Beardmore built 4 new berths at Dalmuir. However, all these yards eventually closed in the 1930s during the depression years.

The intervening period was marked by economic nationalism and protectionism by other shipbuilding nations. Although world tonnage increased from 49 million tons in 1914 to 66 million in 1937 the British did not share in that prosperity. The figures for the UK in the same period fell from 19 million tons to 17.5 million tons. There were fluctuations in demand according to the economic cycle but overall there was a drop-off in orders for new ships.

The Beardmore Works in Dalmuir.
The Beardmore Works in Dalmuir.

The rise of the USA

The USA had become a major competitor due to its war legislation and built 2,300 new vessels. Its share of merchant shipping of 6.8% of world tonnage in 1914 accelerated to an astonishing 22.2% by 1920.

Unsurprisingly, the 1920s saw a time of overcapacity and with a worldwide glut there was little demand for new ships. Shipyards laid off workers and unemployment spread in all industries leading to the 1926 General Strike across the nation.

Some yards diversified such as Alexander Stephen who entered steel house building, but with little success. Companies with high liquidity survived as with financial reserves they were able to undercut competitors and even attracted new capital. Consequently this allowed them to buy more advanced equipment that reduced their costs and also raised productivity

There were many factors militating against the UK shipbuilding industry. It was too reliant on exports but foreign yards enjoyed subsidies to encourage local ship owners to place orders in their own country. Conversely there was a lack of government intervention to support the British yards.

Therefore domestic orders in the UK became more important but even more of this business was going abroad. Furthermore, shipping company amalgamations reduced potential markets and large-scale emigration was dramatically reduced across the North Atlantic.

Lithgows East Yard in Port Glasgow, 1950s.
Lithgows East Yard in Port Glasgow, 1950s.

Stemming the tide of decline

Attempts were made to halt the decline, in particular the National Shipbuilders Security Ltd (NSS) 1930, headed by Sir James Lithgow. It levied 1% on sales to raise funds and buy up or close down obsolete yards. But not enough orders were captured to raise the necessary finance to make it an effective safeguard.

Lithgows of Port Glasgow took over Fairfields and Beardmore in 1934 and from 1931 to 1937 the NSS acquired all or part of the building rights of 9 Clydeside yards. The 1930s were times of severe economic crises and only around 10,000 were employed in the industry during the Great Depression. In a 25 year period between 1913 and 1937 ship launches on the Clyde fell by half.

By 1937 production on the Clyde dropped by 20% during difficult years for the industry. On the other hand the US government had introduced the 1936 Merchant Marine Act which provided subsidies to American ship owners and also in construction.

Furthermore it authorised the government to build and charter vessels for trade routes that private companies were unwilling to undertake. A building programme of 50 ships a year over the next 10 years was planned and proved invaluable at the outbreak of war. During World War 2 these new ships helped expand the industry as the U.S.A. built 5,700 vessels in 57 major commercial shipyards.

The Queen Mary, built at John Brown's in Clydebank in 1936.
The Queen Mary, built at John Brown's in Clydebank in 1936.

The great Queens of the oceans

Eventually in the UK the situation was considered so serious that the government sometimes intervened to help the industry. They underwrote £3 million of funds for Cunard to guarantee the building of the Queen Mary which was launched in 1936 from John Browns yard in Clydebank.

It had sustained 2,000 workers on its construction and was built to carry 2,136 passengers of all classes.

However from August 1942 it was transporting anywhere between 10,000 to 15,000 American troops across the Atlantic during the Allied build up in Europe in World War 2. It also carried British and Australian troops to the eastern theatre of war and more US troops to fight the Japanese after the German surrender in Europe.

In the post-war years it became a cruise ship but became unprofitable and in 1967 Cunard sold it to Long Beach in California where it now stands as museum, hotel and conference centre.

The Queen Elizabeth at John Brown's in Clydebank.
The Queen Elizabeth at John Brown's in Clydebank.

The government also advanced £5 million pounds to Cunard for the next big liner the Queen Elizabeth which was launched in 1938, also at John Browns and with a carrying capacity of 2,283 passengers.

Its maiden voyage was cancelled because of the outbreak of war and its first coat of paint was military grey, as it too was requisitioned as a troopship. It sailed to the USA and joined the Queen Mary, the Mauretania, which had been built in Birkenhead in England, and the French liner Normandie all berthed in New York.

It then travelled to Australia to service the war effort in the east before joining the North Atlantic convoys ferrying US troops into the Clyde for the European war. It eventually made its first passenger voyage in 1946, the first of many throughout the 1950s before it was converted to a cruise liner in 1962.

It also became loss-making and was sold at auction to a shipping company in Hong Kong who intended to use it as a floating university. Incredibly in January 1972 the ship was the victim of arson and destroyed by fire as it sat in the water near Kowloon harbour. No one was ever brought to justice for destruction of the ship.

The Queen Elizabeth burning in Kowloon Harbour, Hong Kong.
The Queen Elizabeth burning in Kowloon Harbour, Hong Kong.

Back in the 1930s there were profound structural weaknesses in the Clydeside industry, the implications of which were not realised and obscured by regular orders from the Admiralty.

Orders for naval warships from both home and abroad were a significant portion of the business for the Clyde yards especially in the years leading up to the Second World War.

With onset of full-scale war the Clydeside yards were kept busy from 1939 until 1945 although unsurprisingly they were attacked by German aircraft. On the Upper reaches of the river, Clydebank especially suffered devastating damage from bombers and Greenock on the Lower Clyde was also targeted by the Luftwaffe.

But with peacetime in 1945 came more economic challenges that threatened the existence of the Clydeside industry.


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