REMINISCENCES | Shipbuilding on the Clyde

Photo: Glasgow University Archive
Photo: Glasgow University Archive – An aerial view of Harland & Wolff’s Govan Shipyard on the south bank of the River Clyde, 1930s

The river Clyde – though a very muddy little stream – is known to most people throughout the world as a place that has a great deal to do in the building of ships. Doubtless, most young engineers have at some time or another observed that familiar brass plate which adorns the engine-room bulkhead, “Built on the Clyde.”

For the construction of big ships, one would most certainly expect that there would be a great expanse of water in the vicinity of shipyards for the baptism of craft when ultimately launched. Strange it is that some of the world’s largest liners and battleships have “taken the water” in a stream of ridiculously small proportions.

Speaking approximately, I should make little error in stating that the River Clyde, at the Clydeside, hardly exceeds 200 yards in breadth, with 35 feet as an average depth of water. How ships of almost 1,000 feet have been launched on the Clyde I will allude to later.


Perhaps the best way to gain a just idea of shipbuilding activities is to take a trip by pleasure steamer from Glasgow City downstream. It is a real show sight to Glasgow citizens, and an awe-inspiring one to strangers, especially those whose associations with the industry have been only superficial.

Progress down the river is obviously very slow, and much gymnastic navigating is essential, in order to avoid crashes with the seeming jumble of shipping traffic. Almost countless docks and basins are passed from which protrude – literally – forests of masts and funnels; funnels of every shape and colour, denoting ships of practically every nationality.

Tramps, liners, and frigates

The uproar on the riverside is almost deafening – perfect bedlam; winches are to be heard rattling everywhere. Small river craft shrilly shriek at one another impatiently to get out of the way and big ships slouch across the course, contemptuously adding their thundering blasts to the din. Above it all, at first only faintly perceptible, there can be heard the rap-p-p-p! rap, rap, rap-p-p! of the pneumatic riveters in the shipyards further down.

Soon the noise from the riveters wholly dominates the general clamour, and one is struck by the remarkable precision of the hammers as they smack home the rivets into the steel plates of the embryo ships. As the sightseer moves slowly downstream a splendid view is obtained of the framework of the hulls on the stocks, a network of thin steel ribs poking upwards like the skeleton of some huge fish. Patches of rusty-looking plate here and there; portions of bulkheads and the keel-plates hanging loosely to the stern frames.

At this stage of ship construction, one is reminded of a Meccano toy, for there are so many tiny rivet-holes placed at the short distance of about 18 inches apart. On another job, one may glimpse the hull of a ship beginning to take definite form, a squad of riveters, holders-up, and forge boys doing most of the work.

The forge boy is perhaps the most interesting of this famous trio, for, generally a tiny, ruddy-complexioned chap in his early ‘teens, he manages to balance himself and forge very precariously on a narrow plank lashed up to the ship’s side – at a dizzy height.

One may hear the shrill whine of his “buffalo forge” as he heats his rivets to an orange glow, and then, with a flash of his long tongs, the little chap has flicked the rivet through the air to the riveter further along, who snatches it with his own tongs, and has the fiery thing squashing home in the twinkling of an eye.

The riveting squad are a tough crew, and it is brute work, in quick time at so many hundreds of rivets a day, through all weathers from the delicate touch of a Scottish summer to the snowy blasts of winter. It is a hard life for these folk – a ceaseless battle from the cradle to the grave.

The superstructures

With big ships, huge electric steel cages are used to convey the workers up and down between ground and the upper decks of the vessel. When the superstructure begins to loom into being, the men are suggestive of swarms of insects crawling about everywhere.

Shipyards can always be located from a distance by their towering gantry cranes, jib cranes, and traversers, which present a formidable sight in their make-up of grey steel latticework construction, and huge control houses perched high up in the air. These monsters have the Herculean tasks of lifting the heavy propelling machinery into the ships soon after launching.

All this meets the eye during the course downstream on the muddy little Clyde; but nowhere else in the wide world will one find such a collection of famous shipbuilders so bunched together as on the Clydeside.

Famous firms and companies

Among the more eminent ship builders are the following: John Brown and Co.; Fairfields; Stephens of Linthouse, Yarrows; Wm. Beardmore and Company; Napier and Miller; Scott’s Shipbuilding Company; Lithgows; Harland and Wolff; and Wm. Denny and Son.

Some 200 or more vessels are turned out, on the average each year by these establishments, while at periods the average is even higher. It would seem remarkable to the layman how the shipbuilder knows that when his boat is launched it will conform to all requirements when at sea.

Those of us who have pottered about with small wooden boat contraptions, some with sail, others with motor, have usually relied upon a little experience and much guesswork for our assurance that the craft would at least float in the water.

Not so with modern steel ships, for countless fundamental formulae constants have been compiled, as the result of long years of building experience and progressive science; almost every new demand made on the part of the owners of ships, to meet new conditions, imposes a new set of circumstances in the designing.

When a shipping company places an order for a ship, the contract providing for certain sizes, capacity, and particular duties, the builder has to find out just what data he will have to submit to his designers, so that the ship will comply accurately in every respect.

The necessary determinations are reached by roughly moulding a scale model of the hull and superstructure in pliable wax. This model is submitted to the water – in test tanks – for flotation purposes. Streamline is tested for water-resistance and cleavage, minimum and maximum driving power consequently required, seaworthiness, stability, balance, displacements, moulded-depth, beam, and soon, until by addition, or deduction, or skillful working of the wax, the ideal hull eventuates.

From this, the rough quantities can be put to the hull designer to develop the details, and the machinery section calculate their requirements for propulsion units. Finally, when the real ship emerges, and is launched, it should perform in an almost exactly similar manner at sea as the wax-model did in the testing tanks.


When the ship is about to be built, the keel is laid down on wooden blocks, at a height sufficient to allow of the average man’s walking underneath. Soon the brackets to take the ribs are riveted to the keel. To the keel brackets are attached the ribs, each of which latter have been previously set on the “marking-off table, “to conform with the various breadth sections and mould of the ship. Tank brackets, staying brackets, longitudinal ribs, and bulkheads eventually add strength to the frame – stay the vertical ribs, and set them finally in place to receive the plates.

The steel plates (for average tonnage vessels, 3/8 inches to 3/4 inches thick) are first attached from the keel upwards, and amidships, to give body and strength to the frame in its then flimsy length. As the plating proceeds the stern-frame template is put in position on high blocks, and the frame castings, beams, ribs etc. are developed. The hull soon gains weight, so that hundreds of props have to be jammed under the keel plates to distribute the weight evenly, maintain her balance, and hold loose plates in position.

As construction progresses, the vessel requires further propping, and heavy poles sunk into the ground with cross members lashed some height up, give support to the sides of the hull, and accommodate the scaffolding for the riveting squads. When the outer skin of the hull is properly complete, the ‘tween decks built, compartments constructed, upper superstructure taking form, rudder and propellers in place, not forgetting a coat of paint outside, the ship is ready for launching – before her weight becomes excessive.

This could cause the blocks under the hull to sink, with dire results. The launching of big ships is generally a splendid ceremony, and as yet an event both romantic and inspiring.

Source: The Brisbane Courier. Saturday, June 20, 1931.


Jill Power, the author’s daughter commented that her father studied engineering in the late 1920s, and worked in John Brown’s design office – his letters are in the NSW State library and she and her brother have 3 diaries, beautifully written and filled with drawings.

Jill also comments about her dad:

“I know some parts were fuzzy. It’s a very long article and probably needs editing, but it’s beautifully written and conveys the sights and sounds very well of those times. Dad even in those far off days mentions that the decline of the industry would happen eventually if Britain did not put measures in place to protect it.

“I have copies of the letters in the library which he wrote to his mother. Most describe his travels or weekends pottering about the countryside, but he also writes about ships. As he was artistic and loved architecture and furnishings, (he was an engineer mainly because of pressure from his Scottish relations) one letter tells of a ship built for service on the Canadian west coast, which was beautifully appointed, and he writes of colours and curtains etc. There are many diagrams of engines, drawings of bridges buses and even street signs amongst all his writings.

“Once back in Brisbane at the beginning of the depression, armed with his hard-won diplomas and experience, he found there was no work. Apart from a few one-off jobs he was out of work for 7 years. It nearly destroyed him and he had to go cap on hand to his family to keep him afloat.

“He lost a lot of confidence. He got a job eventually with the Queensland Government as a machinery inspector and when we were young was in Barcaldine for six years, travelling to outback properties looking at boilers and shearing shed equipment. Back in Brisbane he went all over the place, factories, mines (Ipswich) even fairgrounds to make sure machinery was safe. He really didn’t like his job much as the environment was too rough for my sensitive Dad but he stuck it out till retirement. He did love trains and he did his apprenticeship at the Ipswich railway workshops. He had piles of wonderful magazines about trains from all over the world.”

Julien FN Nixon

MIE (Australia), AMIES (Scotland).