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History of Shipbuilding in Greenock

The shipbuilding industry of Greenock had its rise concurrently with the formation of the first harbour in 1710.


One of the most remarkable facts in the history of the town is that the firm then established has had an unbroken career to the present day, and that it has long been pre-eminent among the great shipbuilding companies of the world. It is certain that other ship and boat yards existed in the first half of the eighteenth century but records of the names and locations have not been preserved. Early in the latter half we find the established firms of Halliday or Holiday, to the west of the West Burn; of Love, at the foot of Virginia Street; and at the Bay of Quick of McPherson & McLachlan and of Alexander McArthur. It was from the yard of Peter Love that the brig-rigged Greenock launched in 1760. Simon Halliday was an Aberdonian. His yard, like that of others in the vicinity, was on the high or south side of the street, and vessels on being launched had to cross the highway to reach the river, which at that time washed the north side of the road. Halliday was succeeded by Alexander McKechnie, nearer the Auld Kirk: later were David Porter and Morgan Munn (taking up part of the Old West Manse garden), and Duncan Smith at the Rue-end. Steel & Carsewell began in 1786, and the firm was dissolved in 1816, when John Carsewell went to Port-Glasgow and Robert Steele carried on at the Bay of Quick with his two sons as partners. About 1810 William Simons, a native of Greenock, started on a site now absorbed by Victoria Harbour, and farther west were the yards of Porter, Macmillan, and Hunter. The first vessel launched by Simons was a coppered brig named the Jane Dunlop, 180 tons, which sailed from the Clyde for Quebec in August, 1811. This firm set up a shipyard on the St Lawrence, near Montreal, and there built several vessels for the British Navy. They resumed at Greenock in 1818, still building only sailing vessels. Amongst these in later years were four famous yachts - the Tiara, regarding which it was said that if she had been racing against the America in 1851 the Cup would not then have been lost; the Aurora and the Chance in 1853; and the Anita in 1861; and all to the firm's own designs. The company removed to Whiteinch and Renfrew, and became celebrated for the building of dredgers.


At the time of the Simons' return from Montreal there were three considerable shipyards at Greenock -those of John Scott, Steele & Co., and William Simons & Co. The Edinburgh Gazette of the day stated that shipbuilding was being carried on to a great extent at Greenock, in which industry it had long excelled. Caird & Co. had started their foundry in Cartsdyke in 1809, and began the manufacture of machinery in 1826, but it was 1844 before the firm embraced the business of shipbuilding. Within the second and third decades of the last century the number of yards greatly increased - Gray, at the west corner of Campbell Street; Thomson & Spiers; Johnstone, at the foot of Robertson Street; Moiress & Clark, east of Ropework Lane; Scott & Co. and Robert Duncan & Co., east of the East India Harbour; Simons & Co., McMillan & Co., Steele & Co., a second Yard of Duncan & Co. The yard of Thomson & Spiers was immediately to the east of Seafield House. From it in 1840 was launched a Scottish river fleet of six vessels, engined by Caird & Co., for the West India Royal Mail Steam Navigation Company-Clyde, Tay, Solway, Teviot, Dee, and Tweed.


The shipbuilders of Greenock and Port-Glasgow of that period greatly enhanced their reputation by turning out the first Cunard fleet of four side wheel steamers, 207 ft. long, 342 ft. beam, and 22ft. deep. The wooden hulls were constructed as follows:-The Arcadia by John Wood, Port Glasgow, builder of the Comet; the Britannia by Robert Duncan & Co., at their (Cartsdyke Yard; the Caledonia by Charles Wood, Port-Glasgow, brother of John; and the Columbia, by Robert Steele & Co., in the yard at the foot of Stanners Street, now occupied by Scott & Co. It was in the Britannia that Charles Dickens went to America in 1842.


Changes in the shipbuilding business were frequent in those days. Firms came and went within a few years. Before the middle of the century there were new names in Caird & Co., at Cartsdyke Hill, Lawrence & Co., and Robert Taylorson & Co., Port-Glasgow Road; the Scott family was doubly represented by Scott & Co., Cartsdyke, and John Scott & Sons, Dalrymple Street; Duncan & Co. had removed to Port-Glasgow; and the remaining firms were Steele & Co. and James McMillan, Bay of Quick. Within a few more years there were McNab &, Co., the Clyde Shipbuilding Company, Hope Crawford, Bay of Quick; Robertson & Co., Main Street; and later Russell & Co., who afterwards concentrated in Port-Glasgow; the Greenock and Grangemouth Dockyard Company; and one or two minor establishments.


For the greater part of the eighteenth century (we are informed in Scotts' " Two Centuries of Shipbuilding ") shipbuilders on the Clyde were concerned in the building of fishing and coasting boats. In 1752, with the coming of the Greenland whale fisheries, there was a development in the size of vessels. The first square-rigged ship built at the port was the brig named Greenock, in 1760, for the West India Trade. The Jacobite risings considerably affected the industry, but later the American War of Independence had far reaching results of a beneficial character. Previous to this the British Colonial possessions and the English markets had been opened up to the commerce of Scotland, and Glasgow merchants had established extensive connections with West India and British North America.


Still, with all this traffic, most of the large vessels trading with the Clyde were being built in America. In 1769 no fewer than 389 vessels, of 20,000 tons were constructed in the North American Colonies, which was far in excess of the annual British output. This was largely owing to the limitless supply of timber and to the import duties in favour of English growers of Oak. About 1790 there began a period of greater activity especially in regard to large ocean ships, although craft was still insignificant in size. It is on record that the largest ship built in Scotland up to this date was launched at Greenock, and that she belonged to a company that had a contract with the Government for supplying the Royal Navy with masts from Nova Scotia. The increase of the mercantile fleet of Britain throughout the eighteenth century was only five-fold in numbers and six-fold in tonnage, while the average size showed an increase from 89 to only 100 tons. There was also no improvement in labour-economising appliances for the working of a ship. Of the total output of tonnage on the Clyde at the beginning of the nineteenth century no very definite information is available. Such shipbuilding as the river then could show was carried on in the lower reaches, there being no sufficient depth of water farther inland up to 1835 or 1840.


A war of retaliation in shipping with the United States of America greatly stimulated a rivalry which ultimately proved beneficial to this country and the ending of the East India Company's monopoly of the Eastern trade had a similar effect in diverting shipbuilding from India and the South of England to the Clyde, so that by the beginning of the nineteenth century much of the overseas work on the Clyde was for the West India Trade.


The period of iron ships began at the close of the second decade of this century, the first vessel in Scotland in which iron was used being the Monkland Canal barge Vulcan, which continued in service for over sixty years. The first vessel entirely of iron was built in England in 1821, and the first sea-going vessel in 1832. Progress of iron building was slow, largely because timber had proved so serviceable and with lessened restrictions upon importation it became much cheaper.


A report of 1852 stated that foreign Governments continued to send to the Clyde for steamers, and that this was owing to the superiority of the machinery, the fact that iron was then succeeding timber vastly increasing our power to excel. Formerly the Baltic, Quebec, Demerara, etc., had been ransacked for timber to combine with home oak, but by the change the material was at our door. Cunarders were then being built principally at Greenock, and numerous ships for the P. & 0. Company. The number of vessels under construction at Greenock in that year was 24 - twenty of iron and four of wood, eleven paddle and nine screw steamers, a total of 16,000 tons and 2700 horsepower, the aggregate value £500,000, and the annual payment in wages to the 2700 men employed over £100,000. It was not until the higher strength and greater durability of steel was demonstrated in the eighties that timber was finally superseded.


In the course of his Watt lecture in Greenock in 1914 Mr S. J. P. Thearle, of Lloyds, stated that never were wooden ships so well built as at the time when they were supplanted by ships of iron, and never were they so durable or so strong as they had then become under the stimulating influence of classification. At the date of speaking, of 47,000,000 tons only 17,300 were of wood and composite construction, while 38 years before out of 4,320,000 tons 1,523,000 were wood, the remainder iron and composite. So far as we could ascertain, the first classed iron vessels built at Greenock or Port-Glasgow were the steamer Melbourne, 817 tons, built by John Scott & Co. in 1849, and the steamer Collier, 195 tons, by John Reid & Co. in the same year. So quickly did steam navigation make its way that by 1832 100 steamers were classed in Lloyd's Register, in 1836 the number was 554 of an aggregate tonnage of 59,363, the majority of them, however, of wood. By 1914, so completely had steel taken its place, there was not one iron vessel in course of construction in the British Isles.


Three Greenock families have been especially distinguished in shipbuilding - Scott, Steele, and Caird. Two of them are so still. The first of the three enjoys a continuous record of over 200 years.

From the volume, "Two Centuries of Shipbuilding" (first Scott. edition 1906, second 1920) We learn that the Scotts' firm was founded in 1711 by John Scott primus, who built herring busses and smaller boats. Records of the early times were in existence up to the beginning of the nineteenth century, when they were destroyed by fire, and then much invaluable information regarding the industrial and shipping history of the town. The word of the Scotts for the greater part of the first hundred years was almost entirely confined to fishing and coasting vessels, their original yard at the mouth of the West Burn, on ground leased from Sir John Schaw. Previous to this the industry had been carried on intermittently. It was then placed on a stable basis. A development in the size of ships began in 1752 with the opening of the Greenland whale fisheries. William Scott, son of John, who succeeded to the business arid with his brother James greatly extended the works, built in 1765 a large square-rigged ship for Hull owners, of timber from the Ducal woods at Hamilton. In 1776 the number of vessels built at Greenock, ranging up to 77 tons, was eighteen, of I073 tons aggregate, and of these six were from this yard. The Brunswick, 600 tons (1,000 tons carrying capacity), in 1791, for the Nova Scotia trade, and the Caledonia, 650 tons, in 1794, both by the Scotts and each in its year the largest ship in Scotland, signalised the start of a period of greater activity, especially in respect of large ocean ships. Some years before, in 1767, this firm had feued ground on the shore east of the West Burn and built a graving dock, on the floor of which the inaugural dinner was held. John Scott secundus, son of William, who died in 1769, followed in his father's footsteps, while his brother William established an important shipyard at Barnstaple. It is noteworthy that William was the father of James M. Scott, who about 1847 founded penny banks in Greenock, and engaged in much other social work. On the departure of William the firm was known as John Scott & Sons. So successful was the management that in three successive years - 1787-8-9 large plots of ground were purchased from Lord Cathcart for extensions, which at that time almost wholly occupied the foreshore from the West Quay to the West Burn.


At the beginning of the nineteenth century much of the overseas work done by the Scotts was for the West India trade. Between 1773 and 1829 their output was 16,800 tons, the vessels not often of more than 600 tons but the business steadily developing. Early in this century the firm began the construction of yachts, with which section of the industry it was long and honourably associated, successive genera­tions of the family taking also a prominent place in the racing and pleasure sides of the sport. A 452' ton cutter for Colonel Campbell, of the Yorkshire Militia, was launched in 1803, and was pronounced to be one of the completest of the kind ever built in Scotland up to that date. Since then the family have been closely identified, officially and otherwise, with the sport. John Scott secundus (1752-1837) was long a member of the Royal Northern Club. Among the old yachting families in the west of Scotland, indeed, the Scotts and Steeles filled a foremost place. The firm built many of the largest steam yachts in the world, including Mr A. D. Drexel's Margarita, the Cassandra, the AEgusa (afterwards Sir Thomas Lipton's Erin, sunk in the Mediterranean during the war), Mr Wm. Clark's Tuscarora, Lord Inverclyde's Beryl, and Scotts' own series of Gretas, etc.


When the monopoly of the East India Company was annulled and ocean trade enjoyed a remarkable fillip, the firm was amongst the first to turn out fast Indo-China clippers. While during the first half of the nineteenth century a long series of successful sailing ships was produced, the Scotts at the same time were taking a leading part in the evolution of the steamship. The last wooden ship built at Greenock, the Canadian, came out of this yard in 1859.


The firm was amongst the first to enter upon the building of steamships, and in three successive years-1819-20-21-the largest steamer in the kingdom came from their works. The first engines manufactured by the Scotts at their Greenock foundry were for the Trinacria, built by them in 1825. This foundry had been started on a small scale in 1790, and was acquired by John Scott in 1825 at £5,000. Since that date they have continued to turn out first-class engine work, not only for vessels built by themselves, but for hulls constructed on the Thames and elsewhere in England, as well as for the series of warships built by them for the British Navy and by the Government at the Royal dockyards.


This naval engine work began with the Hecla and the Hecate in 1838-9, the first warships built in HM dockyards to be sent to Scotland for machinery. Their first building contract for the Navy was as long ago as 1803, the warship the Prince of Wales, and the firm have also the credit of having built the first steam frigate turned out from Clyde works for the British Navy, the H.M.S. Greenock, launched in 1849. This was the largest iron warship of her day, the first to be fitted by the Scotts with the screw propeller. The figurehead was a bust of John Scott secundus, in recognition of his labours for the advance of naval architecture and the development of Greenock. From this time onward the firm had a steady and extensive business connection with the Admiralty, and built and engined all classes of war vessels for the British Navy.


In the tale of mercantile steamships there were sonic for the Mediterranean trade of the P. & 0. Company, and for their Eastern route. Contracts were made with the Royal West India Mail Company the Holt Lines in 1855, when they traded to the West Indies, in 184I, and for Holt's China steamers in 1865. Several of the early Atlantic Liners were also built by them. The early Holt Liners, built and engined by Scott & Co., starting from Liverpool, never stopped until they reached Mauritius, a distance of 8,500 miles, under steam the whole way, a feat until then considered impossible. Throughout the century the firm continued to have a close association with the China trade. For the Holt Line they built 63 steamers, aggregating 248,032 tons, within fifty years and for various China services in the past sixty years they completed about 130 steamers. Since 1876 the yard has practically never been without a vessel for one or other branch of the Eastern trade, and particularly for the China Navigation Company. The firm was responsible for the design of almost all the merchant ships constructed by them.


"That Scotts played no insignificant part in recent years is suggested by the fact that they built the first Dreadnought and the first submarine constructed on the Clyde, that for the merchant service they built the first ocean liner to be propelled by geared turbines, and that for the war and during the war they contributed vessels of practically every type required for the fleets of the British Navy."


It has been mentioned already that the construction of steamship engines was started by the Scotts in 1825. The Greenock Foundry was carried on as a separate but correlated concern under the designation of Scott, Sinclair & Co. until 1859, when it was changed to the Greenock Foundry Company, the principal partner of which was John Scott (IV.), and under this title it was known up to 1904, the shipbuilding yards and engineering works being then combined under one name, Scotts' Shipbuilding and Engineering Coy., Limited. The Cartsdyke yard, which was bought in 1850, has been completely reconstructed in recent years, and the Cartsburn dockyard, on the site of the shipbuilding yard and graving dock of the late Robert Steele & Sons, has been laid out and equipped for naval construction. The yards of the company now extend to 45 acres, and their works are capable of dealing at one time with the construction in aggregate tonnage of from 70,000 to 80,000.


The genealogy of the Scott family is naturally of great local interest. John Scott (I.) founded the firm in 1711; his son William, born 1722, died 1769; John Scott (II.), born 1752, died 1837; his brother William, born 1756, migrated to Barnstaple as shipbuilder; John Scott (III.), born 1785, died 1874; his brother, Charles Cuningham Scott, born 1794, died 1875; John Scott (?), son of Charles, born 1830, died 1903; Robert Sinclair Scott, his brother, born 1843, died 1905; Charles Cuningham Scott, son of John Scott (IV.), born 1867, died 1915; Robert Lyons Scott, his brother, in 1915 succeeded to the chairmanship of the company, and associated with him are James Brown, CBE, as managing director, and J. B. Hutchison, Colin C. Scott, Cedric C. S. Scott, and Lawrence D. Holt as directors.


The Steele family connection with Greenock shipbuilding began in 1786. James Steele was a Burgess and Guild Brother of the burgh of Ayr. His son Robert, born in 1745, was for some time engaged in building fishing vessels and coasters at Saltcoats, and on the death of his father in 1786 he entered into partnership at Greenock with John Carswell, the firm being known as Steele & Carswell. This partnership was dissolved in 1816, when Mr Steele assumed his sons Robert and James as partners under the designation of Robert Steele & Co. The firm almost at once began to build steamships, many of the fine vessels of the Burns, Clyde Shipping Company, Dublin Steam Packet Company, and Isle of Man Steam Packet Company fleets coming out of their Yard. The head of the company died in 1830, aged 85, his son James, had predeceased him, and Robert Steele secundus was left to carry on the concern. The business continuing to expand and, in course of time he took into partnership his sons Robert and William and the firm was soon building for the Cunard, Allan, North German Lloyd, Donald Currie & Co., George Smith & Sons, and other great lines. They turned out one of the first of the Cunard fleet. They also built a number of racing yachts that were successful at many of the regattas round the British coast. In the construction of clippers they occupied great the renown of their China clippers being world-wide. After the new co-partnery, the company, took over the works of the Shaws Water Foundry and Engineering Company. About this time also, when iron was coming into vogue for ships' hulls, they opened a new yard in Cartsdyke for the building of iron vessels, keeping the older Yard it the West Burn for wooden ships and Yachts. Robert Steele secundus died in 1870, in his 88th year. He was a notable citizen of his day, public spirited, entering into all movements which, aimed at benefiting the community, and in business a man of singular integrity. It was said at his decease that " to him it was not simply a question of pushing trade and dispatching orders, but the execution of examples of naval architecture that should disarm criticism with respect to material, form, and finish, and that should meet all the demands of commerce with reference to stability, speed, and capacity." Robert Steele tertius and his brother William carried on the business for some years, but on account of financial difficulties entirely unconnected with shipbuilding, and contracted in their father's lifetime, the firm was in 1883, obliged to go into liquidation, and was wound up.


The Caird family has been connected with shipbuilding from early in the nineteenth century, the firm of Caird & Co. having first been established as an engineering concern in Cartsdyke. Mr John Caird, the founder, was the father of Principal John Caird and Edward Caird, Master of Baliol. The father of Mr Caird with his son James, had previously carried on business as house and ship smiths at the East Breast, next to the premises now occupied by Gourock Ropework Company. Afterwards the son, John Caird, jun., went into partnership with Mr Anderson, Port-Glasgow, as smiths and founders, their Greenock shop being in Hutcheson's Court, Cartsdyke. They removed to Arthur Street, and the firm became Caird & Co. The business originally was a general one, but the firm devoted special attention to the fitting up of sugar machinery and also to locomotives, and built the first locomotive on the Greenock and Glasgow railway. It was to the ability and enterprise of Mr James Tennant Caird, a distant relative, that much of the subsequent success of the firm was due. He was born at Thornliebank in 1816, served his apprenticeship at Greenock, and afterwards widened his experience in Glasgow and Govan with St Rollox Engine Works Co. and Randolph, Elder & Co. He returned to Greenock in 1838 as head draughtsman, was made assistant manager, and in 1852 managing partner. From 1863 he was sole proprietor of this business, and latterly took as partners his four sons Patrick, William, Robert, and Arthur. It was in 1844 that the firm began iron shipbuilding, the first two vessels both under 100 tons. They were built in the Yard in Main Street, Cartsdyke, now occupied by the Greenock Dockyard Company. The present yard in Dalrymple Street was formerly held by Mr John Scott, and on its sale about 1863 it divided into two, Mr Caird taking the one half, Mr McNab the other. The entire ground passed into the hands of Caird & Co. in I872, in which year also some subjects were acquired at the West Quay, the shipyard thus extending from the Albert Harbour on the west to the West Harbour on the east. Mr Caird died in 1888, and was succeeded by his sons, two of whom, Patrick and Arthur, are surviving. It was said of Mr James T. Caird that "no man during the last forty years has done so much to keep Greenock in the van of shipbuilding." "He belonged to the great revolutionary band of shipbuilders." "He was not only the shipbuilder, but also the originator of many improvements in marine engines." During his time 250 vessels were built by the firm. After his death Caird & Co. was formed into a limited liability company, with Mr. Patrick as chairman and Messrs William, Robert, and Arthur as directors. The company have since built a large number of steamers for the Hall Company, Nederland Company, Gulf Line, Austrian Lloyd's, Pacific Steam Navigation Company, Union Company of New Zealand, and many of the best known Peninsular and Oriental Company's intermediate and mail steamers, these including the Medina, which took the present King and Queen to the Indian Durbar, and the last mail steamer Naldera. The list of steamers built by the firm for the principal shipping companies of the world comprises the following:- Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company, 85 steamers; North German Lloyd Company, 29; Hamburg-American Company, 25; Netherlands India Steam Navigation Company, 12; Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, 6 -;. Pacific Steam Navigation Company, 5; British India Steamship Company, 5; Inman Steamship Company, 2. The Peninsular & Oriental steamers turned out by the firm aggregate 533,373 tons and 474,000 indicated horse-power; the cost to the company amounted to and the wages in constructing those vessels, exclusive of the wages in preparing the material, were £1,000,000.


In 1916 Messrs Harland & Wolff acquired the shares of Caird & Co., Ltd., and have since conducted the business. Within a few months a great extension scheme was announced. The area to be included extends eastwards to near Brymner Street (taking in the West Harbour), southward to a line through Shaw, Dalrymple, and Crawfurd Streets to Laird Street on the west. The district is thickly built upon, the bulk of it old property comprising bonded warehouses, grain and other stores, dwellings that are fit for demolition only, some modern tenements, shops and offices, the buildings of the Brewers' Sugar Company, the Old West Kirk and graveyard, a portion of the Corporation Electricity Works in Hunter Place, etc. Of the comparatively modern dwelling-houses the best are two blocks erected in the Corporation improvement schemes of over forty years ago. The whole extent covers in distance about three quarters of a mile and an area of nearly forty acres. It has been officially stated that the yard is to be enormously developed and made one of the finest in the country and that in this connection Greenock has a great future.


The shipyard in Main Street, Cartsdyke, now occupied by the Greenock Dockyard Company Limited, is a very old established Yard and has passed through various hands. The head of the company, Mr William Millar, was working in it in 1862, when it was owned by Caird & Co., who were then busy building the first steamers for the American-Hamburg Line and the first of the fleet known as the North-German-Lloyd, all of which vessels were built in this Yard. It had previously been occupied by Scott & Co.. When Caird & Co. left to go west for more room the place lay idle for some years, and was then taken over by three local gentlemen whose firm was entitled Robertson & Co., Mr Robertson having been a foreman with Caird & Co. Business was carried on for a few years, and the yard was once more closed. It was re-opened by Mr J. Edward Scott, who failed in 1878, when Russell & Co. bought the estate from the creditors and conducted business in Greenock until 1900, when the place was leased to Carmichael & McLean, who got into difficulties. The Yard then purchased by Mr Millar, of the Greenock and Grangemouth yard Company, Limited, which while making a specialty of oil and general cargo ships, are builders of all types and classes, as well as of floating docks sliding caissons, etc. In 1918 the business was sold to a London firm, and the yard is known now as The Greenock Dockyard Co., Ltd. The ground belongs to the Harbour Trust, who acquired it from Messrs Burns, of the Belfast Steamboat Company, who had taken it in the early 'seventies with the view of making a dock or harbour for their steamers, but found that the railway connection did not work in well, and the Harbour Trust thereupon gave Messrs Burns certain concessions they had been asking and relieved them of their purchase. The ground was taken over by the Trust and the various leaseholders since that time have been tenants of the Trust.


The firm of George Brown & Co., Garvel Shipyard, was started by Mr George Brown as a shipbuilding and repairing establishment. The work done embraces all kinds of vessels, cargo and passenger steamers, river craft, dredgers, etc., mostly of special type to suit particular trades. From time to time the yard has been extended and improved, and vessels of 5000 tons dead-weight can easily be built. The adjoining docks facilitate the handling of repair work and completion of new vessels.


RM Smith 1922

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