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The Social and Industrial history of Scotland, from the Union to the present time
Nineteenth Century: 4. Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering


The Clyde Valley is richly endowed with the mineral requisites of the great development in shipbuilding and marine engineering, which forms one of the most striking features of Scottish industrial history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It possesses or is within easy reach of vast stores of coal. Iron ore, too, is at hand, and what nature has withheld—an adequate waterway—has been provided by the deepening of the river which affords easy access from the sea for the import of this ore and also of copper ore from Sweden, Spain, and other countries. The smelting and rolling works on or near its banks are there to manufacture these raw products. This concentration of coal, iron, and steel, backed by engineering skill and native energy, has given the Clyde its pre-eminence in the shipbuilding industry. These advantages do not, of course, apply to that part of the nineteenth century when wood was used in ship construction, but even during this period the Clyde shipbuilders were among the leaders of this industry, and the advantage of having a waterway, which had been made accessible to deep sea vessels, told in their favour when the use of wood ere long gave way to that of iron and steel in shipbuilding and the internal resources of the Clyde valley came into play with remarkable results. The enterprising spirit of the Clyde builders and engineers, which has been quick to apply every advance in naval architecture and engineering, has also played an important part in maintaining their supremacy. "They have been associated," says Mr Pollock, "with practically every scientific advance in naval architecture for the last century. Through all the transitions— wood to iron, iron to 6teel, paddle to single screw, single screw to twin screw, twin screw to multiple screw, turbine engines— Clyde shipbuilders have been to the front with exemplar ships." It was not without good reason that the late Sir W. White described the Clyde as "the premier shipbuilding river."

The Clyde is, of course, no longer exclusively the great shipbuilding centre in Britain. The development of the industry has been equally remarkable in the North of Ireland and the North-East of England. But in variety of work it is supreme. "Variety," 6ays Mr Macintyre, "distinguishes the industry on the Clyde above all others. The operations of its builders are not restricted to the production of one or two or three types. The building of everything that may be called a ship has been undertaken at any cost, and when you speak of Clyde shipbuilding, you speak of the whole range of naval architecture."

"It is impossible," says another writer in the Scottish Bankers' Magazine of October 1912, "to estimate the capital value of the Clyde shipbuilding yards with any degree of accuracy, but the amount has been roughly stated at 30,000,000. In point of equipment they are the finest in the world, and their chiefs are the Gamaliels at whose feet all other shipbuilders and engineers of the world sit and learn. All the Cunarders were built at Glasgow; and with perhaps one exception the other great steamship companies patronise the Clyde, while the Admiralty is a constant and most lucrative stand-by."

The development of the steamship in Scotland is traceable, as we have noted, to the engineer Symington, who first applied steam to ship propulsion in the Charlotte Dundas, and whose experiments were made use of in the construction of the first Clyde steamer in 1812. Bell began life as a stone mason, and in 1783 took up the trade of a millwright along with his uncle. Some years later he worked as a ship modeller at Bo'ness and thereafter migrated to London, where he served under Rennie, the engineer. In 1790 he started business as a carpenter at Glasgow, and in 1807 removed to Helensburgh, where his wife carried on a hotel and where he devoted his leisure to the problem of applying steam to navigation, which had engaged his attention since 1786. The lack of financial support long delayed the exemplification of his ideas, and it was not till 1812 that they at last took practical shape in the Comet. He was anticipated by Robert Fulton, whose father had emigrated from Ayrshire to America, and whose paddle boat, the Clermont, began to run on the Hudson in 1807. Fulton as well as Bell was, however, indebted to Symington, for both of them had inspected the Charlotte Dundas. The Comet was built by John Wood, Port-Glasgow, and engined by David Napier. It was 42 feet long, 11 feet broad, with a draught of 5 feet, and was driven by a three-horse power engine. It plied between Glasgow, Helensburgh, and Greenock, and even made the voyage up the west coast as far as Oban. Her inventor did not derive much financial benefit from his venture, and died in 1830, a poor man in receipt of an annuity of 100 from the Clyde Trustees.

During the next 10 years 48 steamers, showing a steady increase in size and horse power, had been constructed in Clyde yards. One of these, the Marjory, built by W. Denny, Dumbarton, in 1814, was the first steam vessel to ply on the Thames. In the same year three were built at Dundee and engined by John Robertson of Glasgow, and two of them were employed on the Humber. In 1815 the Britannic, of 109 tons and 32 horse power, ventured on the voyage to Campbelltown, and from 1818 plied between Glasgow and Londonderry. From the Clyde yards came, too, the steamers which ere long traded between Glasgow and Belfast, Glasgow and Liverpool, Holyhead and Dublin, Leith and London. For the last mentioned service, the United Kingdom was built by Steel & Co., of Greenock, in 1826, and with her length of 160 feet, beam of 26 feet, and 200 horse power Napier engines, was the marvel of the time. Fully ten years later the Sirius, built by Menzies & Son, Leith, and engined by Wingate & Co., Glasgow, though not much larger (170 feet in length, 450 tons, and 270 horse power) was the first Scottish built vessel to cross the Atlantic, starting from Cork in 1838 and doing the voyage in eighteen days.

The substitution of iron for wood in steamship construction brought into play the natural resources of the Clyde. The first boat to be constructed of this material in Scotland was the Vulcan, built by Thomas Wilson at Faskine on the Monkland Canal in 1817-18 and used for passenger traffic by the Forth and Clyde Canal Company from 1819 onwards. Its construction exposed the builder to the jeers of the bargemen, on the assumption that iron could not float, but the Vulcan ere long disarmed their scepticism. It was not, however, till 1831 that Neilson produced, in the Fairy Queen, the first iron steamer at the Oak-bank Foundry, Glasgow, whence it was carted to the Clyde and launched at the Broomielaw. It was followed by the Royal Sovereign, built by Tod & MacGregor and launched in 1839 for service between Glasgow and Liverpool. The Royal George and the Princess Royal by the same builders followed soon after. The iron steamer did not for long, however, displace the sailing ship, and for a time the composite ship with inner iron frame and wood sheathing was in favour, especially in the East India and China trade, for which the famous tea clippers were constructed. The first to build this type of vessel on the Clyde (1802) was Alexander Stephen, one of the founders of the famous Linthouse firm. One of the most remarkable of these clippers was the Thermopylae, which was built by Hood & Co., Aberdeen, in 1808, and in 1870 made the voyage from London to Melbourne in sixty-one days.

The founding of the Cunard Company in 1840, for the purpose of maintaining a regular steam service to America, gave a great impulse to Clyde steamship building. The first of its fleet, the Britannia, built by Robert Duncan, Port-Glasgow, and engined by R. Napier, measured 207 feet by 34, with a tonnage of 1,154, and a speed of 8^ knots. It was followed by the Acadia, Caledonia, Columbia, of the same dimensions. These vessels were still wood built, and were surpassed by the iron steamer Great Britain, completed at Bristol in 1844 for the Great Western Steamship Company, with a length of 325 feet and a tonnage of 3,433. The Great Britain was a screw steamer, and the sub-

Institution of the screw propeller for the paddle wheel marks another great advance in steamship construction. The Inman Company, established in 1850, as a rival of the Cunard for the Atlantic trade, started with two screw-propelled iron steamers, the City of Glasgow and the City of Manchester, each of 1,680 tons burden and 350 horse power. This competition led the Cunard Company not only to adopt iron in the construction of their new mail vessels from 1855 onwards, but in 1862 to discard the paddle for the screw propeller in the China and four other vessels built during the next two years. These vessels conclusively proved the superiority of screw over paddle propulsion in speed and economy. "Situated as it is at the stern of the vessel and fully immersed, the screw acts upon relatively a much larger volume of water in a given time than paddle wheels, and its efficiency is not impaired by the rolling and pitching motions of the vessel or completely nullified by variations in the ship's draught of water as with paddles." Twin screw propellers and duplicate engines followed in due course in deference to the need for greater size and speed and also greater safety. Among the earlier vessels to be fitted with these improvements were the City of New York and the City of Paris, built at Clydebank for the Inman Line and put on the Trans-Atlantic service in 1889. The effect was speedily seen in the marked reduction of the passage across the Atlantic. During the previous fifteen years the duration of the passage had gradually been reduced from between seven or eight days by the new and ever larger vessels of the various Atlantic lines, many of them, like the Cunarder Umbria, Clyde-built. The latter had by the year 1888 reduced the time to 6 days 1 hour and 55 minutes for the outward and 6 days 4 hours 36 minutes for the homeward voyage, with an average speed of 19^ knots. In the following year the City of Paris attained the record of 5 days 19 hours 18 minutes for the outward voyage, or an average of over 20 knots. The Cunard Company took up the challenge, and in 1893 the record was further reduced by the Fairfield-built Campania and Lucania, each with a tonnage of 12,950 and an indicated horse power of about 28,000; and these vessels ultimately (1894-95) did the voyage between Queenstown and New York in 5 days 9 hours and G minutes and 5 days 7 hours and 23 minutes respectively.

By this time mild steel had largely displaced iron in steamship building. Here again the Clyde took the lead, Messrs W. Denny & Brothers, Dumbarton, producing in 1879 the first ocean-going steel steamer for the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand, and a second for the Allan Line in the following year. These were followed by the Parisian, built by R. Napier & Sons, Govan, for the same Line, and a number of other companies, including the Cunard, with the Servia in 1880, turned to the Clyde yards with orders for steamers of this material. Progress was at first retarded by the greater cost of steel compared with iron, but this drawback disappeared with the increase in production and the progress in its manufacture, until it became cheaper as well as much more conveniently obtained than iron. Its use has now become almost universal in ship construction, " nickel steel " (steel alloyed with a percentage of nickel) being the favourite variety.

This growth in size and speed was only rendered possible by a corresponding advance in marine engineering. In this connection the work of John Elder, the great marine engineer, and the founder of what ultimately became the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company at Govan, is highly important. Elder successfully applied in marine engineering the idea derived from James Watt of using steam in two cylinders successively so as to increase its motive power. He designed and constructed in 1854 the first compound in place of the single acting engine, which was effectively used in steam navigation in the case of the screw steamer Brandon. He thereby reduced the consumption of coal by from 30 to 40 per cent. By steam jacketting the cylinders (an idea also derived from Watt) he further reduced the coal consumption more than half. This reduction was a convincing argument with shipowners in favour of the adoption of this type of engine for long distance steamers, for some of which it had hitherto proved impossible to provide sufficient coal for the distance to be travelled. The reduction of the coal bill was an equally forcible argument in its favour. The addition of the surface condenser (which had also been suggested by Watt), fitted into the Ruyal Bride in 1858, was another distinct advantage, inasmuch as it did away with the use of sea water, which had proved detrimental to the boilers. Mr Elder also took out a patent for triple and quadruple expansion engines, but it was only after his death in 1869 that this development took place as the result of the combined efforts of Mr Taylor of Newcastle, Dr Kirk of Napier & Sons, Govan, and Mr Brock of Denny & Co., Dumbarton. The introduction of the triple expansion engine in 1886 and the quadruple in 1896 tended to reduce further the coal consumption and made possible the adoption of the triple and even the quadruple screw propeller. The water tube boiler, whose successful use the substitution of mild steel for iron made possible, came in due course, the Babcock & Wilcox and the Yarrow types receiving the recommendation of the Boiler Committee of the Admiralty in 1904. The turbine or rotary engine, as a substitute for the reciprocating engine, invented by the Hon. C. A. Parsons and successfully applied in the Turbinia in 1894, was described by Lord Kelvin as the greatest advance in steam engine practice since the days of Watt.

As the result of the advantages in speed and economy exemplified by this vessel and two destroyers fitted with turbines, W. Denny & Brothers, Dumbarton, built two turbine steamers, the King Edward in 1901 and the Queen Alexandra in the following year, for service on the Clyde estuary. The former developed a mean speed of 20| knots on the measured mile and of 19 knots on a coal consumption of only 18 tons per day on the voyage to Campbelltown and back—a distance of 160 miles. The Queen Alexandra improved on this with a mean speed of 21.63 knots. The same firm constructed a number of turbine steamers for the cross-Channel service, and in 1904 completed several others for the New Zealand Union Steamship Company and the British India Steam Navigation Company. In the following year Messrs. Stephen & Sons launched the Virginian for the Allan Line. After exhaustive investigation the Cunard Co. decided to adopt the turbine for their new liner the Carmania, of 21,000 tons, built by J. Brown & Co. at Clydebank in 1905. This vessel was surpassed in size and speed by the Lusitania and the Mauretania,—the former built at Clydebank— which in 1910 wrested from the North German Lloyd, Kaisar Wilhelm II, the lost record for the Atlantic passage with the astounding performance of 4 days 10 hours 41 minutes from Queenstown to New York. The Clyde record for size, if not for speed, was produced by the same firm in the Aquitania, launched in 1913 with a tonnage of over 50,000. In 1911 out of the Clydebank total of 104,550 horse power, 71,000 consisted entirely of turbines and 11,250 of combined turbines and reciprocating engines. The figures for Fairfield were about 44,000, Dumbarton about 80,000, Dalmuir 40,500, Govan 22,000, Scotstoun 28,000.

A still later development is the oil (internal combustion) engine and the motor ship, not to speak of the airship, in which Messrs Beardmore have specialised during the war with remarkable results, such as the air leviathan which recently (summer of 1919) performed the voyage from Drem to America and back to Norfolk without mishap. The substitution of oil for coal in ship propulsion was applied in the Selandia, built at Copenhagen in 1912 and supplied with Diesel engines. It was strenuously advocated by the late Lord Fisher and promises to become general, the cost of oil compared with coal being considerably less. The latest motor ship, the Narragansett, has a displacement of 14,000 tons, is fitted with two Diesel engines on the standard four-stroke system, carries 700 tons of oil fuel, and burns 11 tons per day.

These engineering improvements have revolutionised the art of ship construction, which has attained a development and a variety of type far beyond the dreams of our forefathers. "The single screw cargo steamer, driven by reciprocating engines," says a writer in the Glasgow Herald Supplement for December 31, 1912, "still predominates in numbers and in tonnage; but with the adaptation of the turbine, by means of gearing, to low-speed propellers, and with the coming of the oil engine as a serious competitor in the propulsion of ships, it is difficult to say how long it will be able to retain its present position. But the variations in types of vessels built now extend much further than the distinctions between types of propelling machinery. Specialisation in the designs of hulls for different trades is being carried to great lengths. There are far more kinds of 'screwsteamers ' than there used to be; signal service vessels have become floating workshops and laboratories, colliers have become independent of quay equipment, oil tankers are coming to be commonplace; the ' clear hold ' boat is rapidly superseding the vessel of pillars and stanchions, and—to come back to motive power—there are now motor passenger ships, motor cargo ships, motor coasters, barges, lighters, tugs, yachts, and launches, as well as motor gunboats and at least one motor destroyer. There have never been so many types of vessels as at present, the types have never been so well adapted for their particular purposes, and—paradoxical though it may seem—there has never been a time when shipbuilders and engineers were more capable of turning out vessels that could be used profitably on any of quite a number of different services or routes."

Size and speed, combined with safety, economy, and increasing luxury have been the' distinctive features of the remarkable evolution of the passenger steamship during the last sixty years. The paramount consideration of safety has led to the adoption of the double bottom and the water-tight bulkhead and the installation of the Marconi wireless on all ocean liners. The evolution has not even yet reached its limit in view of the possibilities of liquid fuel, gas, and electricity in propulsion. In the case of combined passenger and cargo steamers size rather than great speed has been one of the dominating factors, and has given rise to the "intermediate" steamer, of which the Clyde has produced many magnificent examples in recent years for the various steamship companies, and which combine large carrying capacity with moderate pace.

The Clyde was long famous for its sailing ships; but the proportion of steam to sailing ship tonnage has gradually declined, though there have been occasional revivals. Between 1890 and 1893, for instance, there was a burst of activity in this kind of construction and in the four years ending in 1894 five of the Clyde firms built 185 sailing ships aggregating 842,528 tons. Since then, however, there has been a marked falling off and such revivals are not likely to occur in the future.

Clyde shipbuilders have contributed many war vessels to the British Navy, and to describe what they have accomplished in this department would be to write a very long chapter in the history of British naval construction. John Brown & Co. contributed a number of the larger battleships and cruisers in the closing years of the nineteenth century, such as the Ramilies, the Jupiter, the Terrible. In the opening years of the twentieth they added to their list of battleships and cruisers the Hindustan, Inflexible, Australia, Tiger, Repulse, and the Dreadnought Barham. In 1919-20 they produced the largest and most powerfully armed battleship in the world in the Hood, of 41,200 tons and 31 knots, which cost 5,610,568—perhaps the last of the naval leviathans—in view of the probable change in naval policy and construction as the result of the war. The Fairfield Company has also attained prominence in warship building in recent years with such battle cruisers as the Indomitable, which made the warship record in crossing the Atlantic in 1908, the New Zealand, and the battleships Valiant and the Renoion of 28,200 tons in 1916—a vast advance upon the Nelson of 6,000 tons, contributed by the same yard in 1878. The record of Beardmore & Co. during the same period, who took over the business of Napier & Sons, Govan, in 1900 and added a new yard at Dalmuir, is also a formidable one, with the Berwick and Carnarvon in 1902-03, the Agamemnon in 1906, the Gloucester, Falmouth, Conqueror, Benbow from 1909-13. During the years of the war these and other firms completed large additions to the Navy, war work largely taking the place of mercantile construction, which space forbids to give in detail. The Clyde, it may be fairly said, rendered yeoman service in winning the war as far as the extension and maintenance of the British fleet was concerned and the provision of numerous Clyde-built vessels as transports or armed cruisers for government service.

Besides the building of ships a number of Clyde firms have large engineering works for the production of the boilers, engines, etc., fitted into them. Brown & Co., Beardmore, Fairfield, Denny, for instance. Details are impossible. Suffice to say that in the last three years of the nineteenth century the engines produced on the Clyde reached a total indicated horse power of nearly millions. In 1912 Messrs Brown reached a record in the total for the world and also by one firm in a single year with 178,500, and the figures for the whole Clyde, 878,000, also constituted a record. In the following year the latter record was broken with 1,111,400. During the four and a half war years the same firm's total alone was well over 1 millions.

At present there are about 50 firms engaged in this industry on the Clyde and its estuary, including Harland & Wolff of Belfast, who have established works at Glasgow and Greenock, and in total annual tonnage they lead not only the United Kingdom, but the world. The total fluctuates with the years, according as the demand for new shipping rises or falls. Taking the last five decades from 1862 to 1912 it shows, with one exception, a steady rise, though there are ebbs and flows in the individual years of each decade. From 1862 to 1872 the total rose from 69,967 tons to 230,347, in 1882 to 391,934, in 1892 it fell back to 336,514; rose again in 1902 to 516,977, and in 1912 to 640,529. In the following year, 1913, this total was surpassed with 692,600, and including warships, 756,800. In 1920 it was 671,915. Of the individual firms Russel & Co., Port-Glasgow, headed the list with 71,224 tons in 1912, Scott following with 58,314, Connell with 45,314, Barclay, Curie with 41,750, Hamilton with 40,029, Fairfield with 80,626, Caird & Co. with 35,936, Denny with 33,925, whilst Stephen, Henderson, McMillan, Brown, and Beardmore ranged between 29,000 and 20,000. It is noteworthy that as long ago as 1890 Russel & Co. exceeded the 70,000 somewhat—the largest output for the world in that year. The firm again held the world record in 1904 with nearly 74,000 and in 1914 it improved on this with over 78,000. The firm has recently been reconstituted under the name of Lithgows and in 1920 appears third on the list of output, Harland & Wolff being first with 69,905 tons, Barclay, Curie second with 60,132, Fairfield fourth with 40,234, Brown fifth with a few tons less, whilst Connell, Denny, Scott follow with 33,570, 30,499, and 30,000 respectively, and Henderson, Ayrshire Dockyard, Stephen, Hamilton, Duncan, McMillan range between 30,000 and 20,000.

In the face of these figures the output in the east coast yards is very modest. On the Forth, Tay, Dee and Moray Firth only relatively small vessels are built, and the figures for 1912 were respectively 19,054, 17,388, and 11,217 tons.

"In busy times" remarks Mr Pollok, "the largest of them combined ship and engine establishments of the Clyde employ each from 5,000 to G,000 workmen, a large proportion of whom are skilled artisans. Altogether the shipbuilding and engineering works of the Clyde—including various subsidiary, but closely connected branches—afford employment to between 60,000 and 80,000 workpeople, the number varying of course between these limits with the general condition of trade. The average annual output of the Clyde shipyards (as measured by tonnage and including warships) excels that of the whole of the United States, and almost equals the total production of both Germany and France ... Of the 60,000 or 80,000 workers, considerably over three-fourths in the shipyards are journeymen and apprentices; the remainder being artisan helpers and unskilled labourers. In the engineering works, due to the growth of automatic devices, the proportion of apprentices and youthful attendants of machine tools to the skilled workers is very much higher. A score or more of distinct trades, however, are involved in the building and equipment of ships. Prominent among them are frame-setters, platers, hole-borers, rivetters, caulkers, drillers (familiarly referred to as " the black squad "), shipwrights, joiners, cabinetmakers, plumbers, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, brass and copper workers, painters and riggers ("the white squad"), patternmakers, and steam, electrical, and hydraulic engineers—the latter further sub-divided into "machinists," "fitters," etc., according to the particular line of occupation in the engine-shops."


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