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In the early 1800's there were a couple of small boat builder yards dotted along the rivers' edge, however there was no large scale shipbuilding of any kind. That all changed when the Thomson brothers opened their new yard - now John Browns/UIE/Kvaerner. The two main shipbuilding yards in Clydebank were Thomson's (then John Brown's) and Napier's (then Beardmore's).

The Thomson Brothers

In the mid-1800's the Thomson brothers setup a foundry called the Clyde Bank Foundry in Finnieston Street, Glasgow, and opened another site at Cessnock in Govan a few years later. The site at Govan was taken from them under a Compulsary Purchase Order servered by the Clyde Navigation Trust in 1872. This meant they had to go looking for a new site, but had 90,000 from the Trust to play with.

The site they found at Clydebank was flat and fairly near to their works at Finnieston Street, so in 1871 they acquired the land and commenced construction. As transport was non-existent, workers were brought to the yard via a small paddle steamer. This was the main transportation method until the Glasgow, Yoker and Clydebank railway was opened, with a station just off Cart Street (now closed).

From this yard the Thomson brothers started to build up a small community around it. They built houses for their workers (see the
History : Housing section for more detail) a small savings bank, and a school.

The yard received regular orders from Cunard for around 30 years, mainly due to the fact that one of the other Thomson brothers (Robert Thomson) was a superintendent engineer for Cunard. Orders from other major steamship comapnies at the time brought increased prosperity to the company, so much so that by 1880 nearly 2000 men were employed at the yard.

Thomson & Co. went through a period of reconstruction, with the Thomson brothers' influence decreasing as time went on. In 1897 the company was renamed the Clydebank Engineering and Shipbuilding Company, however it didn't last long - John Brown's was about to come to town...

John Brown's

Not many people may realise this, but John Brown's was not originally a shipbuilding company, nor is it even Scottish! In the 1800's John Brown Engineering Company was part of a group of English companies, based in Sheffield, producing armaments, coal, iron, and steel armour plate to list but a few.

A spate of company mergers left Brown's in the position that it could be potentially forced out of the lucrative Admiralty market unless it could find another way for it's products to be sold and used by the Government.

So, they went on the hunt for a shipbuilding company that had plenty Admiralty work and was ameniable to a takover. One was found, in the shape of the Clydebank Shipbuilding and Engineering Co. The yard was bought in 1899 for around 1 million GBP (a lot in those days).

The newly acquired yard became the shipbuilding division of the John Brown group.

John Brown Shipbuilding Co. and Naval work

The reason for purchasing the yard quickly became clear - the company were very successful in winning major Admiralty orders in the first few years of opening. By 1906 the yard has built 9 ships for the Admiralty, with more orders coming in all the time.

Brown's was, at the time, the only yard in Britain capable of building ships that were powered using new steam turbines. It's not surprising then that when the Admiralty wanted new battleships and cruisers constructed using these turbine engines, they turned to John Brown's.

To handle the spate of orders, the yard was expanded westwards - towards what we know as Cable Depot. By the First World War almost 1 million GBP had been spent of expanding the yards' facilities, and modernising equipment and facilities.

Diversify or die...

The local management were fairly independent of the parent company, and realised that they could not survive simply on building Naval ships. Diversification into merchant shipping and cruise liner construction provided many thousands of jobs, and secured the yards' future for many years to come.

By establishing a relationship with the Cunard Shipping Co., John Brown's succeeded in landing major contracts to build five cruise liners -
The Saxonia, The Panonia, The Caronia, The Carmania and The Lusitania. The Lusitania won the Blue Riband in 1907, crossing the Atlantic in under 5 days.


William Beardmore owned a growing steelmaking company, originally based in the East End of Glasgow, and in a similar fashion to John Brown's had to seek alternative markets for his heavy armour plate, and specialised steel products. He decided to build his own naval shipbuilding yard in Dalmuir, west of the Thomson's yard.

Due to financial constraints placed on him by his participation in some rather 'dodgy' partnerships, as well as rescuing his brother-in-law's engineering company at the turn of the century, he had to merge with Vickers and Son, his main rival.

By 1901 construction of the Dalmuir naval shipbuilding yard finally got under way - a huge wet dock was constructed, as were massive engine shops, boiler shops and gantries. The work took longer than expected, meaning the yard was not completed until around 1906, but the yard was one of the finest in the world when totally finished in 1908.

In almost exactly the same fashion as the Thomson yard, housing had to be provided for the influx of workers now employed at the Beardmore yard. William Beardmore was just one of many house builders in the area at the time, building the now familiar tenements around the areas of Caledonia Street, Scott Street and Dunn Street, to name but a few.

Because the yard was built from nothing, so was it's reputation. This made work hard to come by, and it took until around 1910 for the yard to achieve a steady flow of orders for naval ships and passenger ships.

The yard was not profitable, regardless of how visible it's success appeared to be - it made a loss up until the start of World War I. The war brought massive orders for steel and ships, and the yard became profitable from this point on. What a price to pay!

The World's Finest

John Brown's and Beardmore's produced the some of the best ships in the world, with superb craftsman producing some of the finest quality interiors known to man. The scale of the work carried out by these yards has never been equalled.

The Great War

The shipyards were slowly going into decline in early 1914, however the onset of the First World War saw demand for naval ships stretch the shipyards to breaking point. The Clydebank yard became an Admiralty controlled yard in 1915, building destroyers, battlecruisers, a battleship and even a seaplane carrier.

The Clydebank yard built more destroyers than any other British Shipyard during the war. This work meant full employment for thousands of workers, many of whom had to be drafted in from merchant shipbuilding yards when existing workers volunteered for military to fight for King and Country.

As almost everyone was caught off guard with the outbreak of war, no-one took much notice of the thousands of men who willingly volunteere for military service. In particular nobody thought about who was going to manufacture shells, mines, fuses and large fields guns like the Howitzer.

William Bearmore, in typical Beardmore fashion, was more than happy to install the necessary equipment at the Dalmuir yard to allow field guns and the like to be constructed there. Within a matter of days shells and fuses were being manufactured at the Dalmuir yard to satisfy the military hunger for firepower.

Orders for mines, destroyers, planes and even two E-class submarines were placed by thr Admiralty at the Dalmuir yard. This lead to a massive shortage of skilled men to do the work, and like the Clydebank Yard, Beardmore had to draft in external workers, and try and break down the strict divisions historically made between the different skilled crafts. This upset a lot of people, and lead to a strike in 1915.

The strike did not last long, and the Government (not impressed by the strike action) enforced controls over the companies who were involved in the war effort. This gave the yard greater powers, but lead again to strikes and even shop stewards being deported to Edinburgh - a place worse than death for someone from Glasgow!