This is the profusely illustrated, beautifully produced and very detailed story of John Brown & Company, Clydebank, once Britain’s flagship shipyard, that latterly produced such as SS Lusitania, HMS Hood, RMS Queen Mary, RMS Queen Elizabeth, and Britain’s last battleship HMS Vanguard and at the other end designed the LCG(M). It is, in passing, also a history of ships (merchant and naval), shipping lines and shipbuilding generally, from the inception of the iron steamship to the late 20th century. It is also a social history of Clydebank and to an extent Glasgow and the Clyde, as field and orchard gave way to yard, foundry and tenement housing along the river bank. Shipbuilding itself is covered in fine detail, both commercially and technically with, in the latter case, numerous photographs of the yard and its processes. All these things are seen through the prism of Brown’s, starting with its founding Thompson family and chronicling their rise and fall. The story is also an exemplar of Britain’s centuries-old social mobility available to those with a bit of push backed by professional ability.
The story takes us, in intimate technical, commercial and financial detail, from Brown’s small beginnings to world leadership and then its ultimate desuetude. In its day Brown’s, its vast ocean liners apart, had been the heavy warship builder to the world, facilitated by its unique siting which allowed large, long ships to be launched across the Clyde into the mouth of the Cart. In between Brown’s built smaller fry - ferries, destroyers, elegant steam and motor yachts; even dinghies in its boatshed. Brown’s embrace of successive technical advances is chronicled - steel, screw propulsion, water-tube boilers, turbines, diesel engines, welding, prefabrication, aluminium superstructures, bulbous bows and other such innovations; together with the successive demise of iron, coal and steam itself. We also see employment rise and fall and learn of the injuries and health hazards endemic in such an unsafe industry.
Financially it was always a bumpy ride, sandwiched between the fluctuating demand from the shipping lines unreliable supply of steel. Bankruptcy was frequently only staved off by layoffs and wage and hours cuts, and too often brought perilously close by opportunistic strikes, with trade lockouts as the unavoidable response, and by industrial turmoil in shipbuilding’s supporting industries of steel and coal. Brown’s finally went to the breakers in 1971 in the guise of the desperate Labour cobble up ‘Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’, its magnificent achievements fatally compromised by the myopic, bigoted luddism of the Trades Unions. Too often on commercial contracts what little profit might have survived escalating labour costs was lost to penalty payments for late delivery. The site was then thirty years a-dying in spite of a spell as an oil-rig builder.
I once knew this Yard - I spent some weeks in early 1959 standing by HMS Tiger when she was in the final weeks of her eighteen-year build. The Directors’ suite contained some amazingly detailed ship models featuring minute and elegant workmanship which I hope have found a home in the Glasgow Museum of Transport. I also temporarily graced some of its products like HMSs Maidstone (propelled by saturated rather than superheated steam) and Loch Fada, the first of the Lochs (our last warships with reciprocating engines), and as a schoolboy visited HMS Vanguard, all part of Brown’s hugely profitable time as a cost-plus builder for the Admiralty. If the Second World War had dragged on a 16” gun ‘Lion’ class battleship and the vast aircraft carrier HMS Malta would have been seen rising on Brown’s stocks.
This is a new, updated edition by Seaforth of a work first published in 2000 for West Dumbartonshire council. The author is an established writer already focused on heavy warships and their Clydeside origins, familiar to me via his ‘Battleship Ramillies’ which I reviewed last year. He has exhaustively mined all the relevant archives; his sources are meticulously annotated.
The Foreword is unusual in being mostly about the man who wrote it. There are asides in the notes which are a pain to follow against the text in such a large book (10” x 11½”), a size necessary for the effective display of a remarkable set of illustrations going right back to the 19th century. There are 35 pages of appendices which include a complete inventory of every ship ordered from or built by Brown’s from 1851 to 1973, with a selection of silhouettes and other detail.
This most informative book will appeal to many specialist, even niche interests, from all types of maritime enthusiast to those who care about the history of Britain’s second city. I would give it 4½ stars out of 5 for those with an interest in ships and the sea.