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ICONIC MARITIME: Shipbuilding on the Clyde, then and now

Celebrating maritime, marine engineering and shipbuilding across the globe, we take a look at the iconic people and locations that are instrumental to the industry – this week we focus on the famous shipbuilding heritage on the banks of the River Clyde in Glasgow, Scotland.

Despite the majority of the Clyde’s shipbuilding history being associated with the Govan area of Glasgow, following the industrial revolution in the UK much of the country’s shipbuilding was based at Denny’s Shipyard in Dumbarton, 15 miles West of Scotland’s largest city. The town’s shipyard is known for being the building site of the first steamship to cross the English Channel as well as the famous Cutty Sark, the worlds last surviving ‘tea clipper’, currently on display in London.

Through the 19th and 20th centuries the Fairfield shipyard in Govan was the heart of maritime manufacturing on the Clyde. Robert Napier & Sons, founded by the man known as the father of shipbuilding on the Clyde, was known as universally as the finest firm of shipbuilders in Britain with many firms founded by former employees of the company. The successes put Glasgow and the Clyde on the map as a leading supplier of ships to the Royal Navy, a tradition that still carries on to this day in Govan and Scotstoun.

The Finnieston Crane on the banks of the Clyde (Picture:  Les Hull, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons)

One of the landmarks that makes up the skyline of Glasgow is the famous Finnieston Crane on the Northern bank of the Clyde in the Yorkhill area of the city. Built in 1931 for loading large containers and fitting engines onto steamships, it remains an impressive symbol of the area’s maritime heritage and as a testament to its manufacturing quality, it remains in working order to this very day.

After the shipyard at Clydebank to the west of Glasgow was heavily bombed in the Second World War, the shipbuilding industry in the area went into decline with global competition catching up, however investment in the late 20th Century has seen a resurgence with new government contracts. The Govan Shipyard was pivotal in building of the Type 45 destroyer project between 2003 and 2013 which saw six new ‘daring class’ destroyers replace the retired Type 42 vessels.

Currently, the Type 26 Frigate project to replace the Royal Navy’s type 23 fleet is being built at BAE Systems Govan site. The first vessel already named the HMS Glasgow will then be launched and finished at the company’s Scotstoun shipyard in 2021.

With the Type 26 programme employing more than 1,200 people, the Clyde still plays a vital role in British shipbuilding. Admiral Sir Philip Jones the former First Sea Lord paid tribute to the area when the first of the City-class T26’s were named;

“The Clyde was the birthplace of some of the greatest fighting ships the world has ever known and so cutting steel there for the future HMS Glasgow is symbolic of a Royal Navy on the rise once again.

“The City-class names have been chosen for the Type 26 to provide an enduring link between the Royal Navy and our great centres of commerce and industry. The name Glasgow brings with it a string of battle honours, stretching from the Arctic Circle to the South Atlantic.”

At the launch of the HMS Duncan in 2010, 40,000 people gathered on the banks of the Clyde, showing how truly important the shipbuilding industry remains to the region. It is often said by locals that ‘the Clyde made Glasgow and Glasgow made the Clyde’ and with over 30,000 ships in total being built across its shipyards, shipbuilding is very much in the river’s DNA.