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Issue 44 - A day in the life of ...a ship builder

Scotland Magazine Issue 44
April 2009


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A day in the life of ...a ship builder

David Fleetwood looks at another of the country's traditional occupations, from a time when the Scotland was the greatest nation of ship builders in the world.

The cranes tower over the tenements at a dizzying height.

The ribs of the great ship slowly rise up out of the dock, dipping into the water at the far end of the hull. The noise and the sparks of the welders across the hull are a hint that work has already begun in the yard, even though it is not yet six in the morning.

Nowadays, the mighty shipyards of the River Clyde have reduced in numbers, yet some iconic names still remain, including Camel Laird. The River Clyde runs like an artery through Glasgow, and shipbuilding is a part of the city’s soul.

The early morning alarm call no longer brings streams of men through the streets to work in the yards, but, for many, it still conjures up memories of what used to be.

The main influence on the Clyde’s development was the emergence of steam ships in 1812, and the construction of the first ever seagoing steam-powered vessel in Europe, The Comet, in Port Glasgow. As a result, Glasgow’s reputation as a shipbuilding city was confirmed, a status it retained until the outbreak of the First World War.

After the river was deepened in 1824 at Elderslie, the Clyde was able to accommodate the construction of some of the largest ships in the world. The reputation of Glasgow was further increased by the development of the compound engine by John Elder, and by 1860, more than 80 per cent of British shipping tonnage was built on the Clyde. By the early 20th century, the Clyde’s shipyards were building some of the most iconic ships in the world, including the Lusitania in 1907. By the end of the 1920s, one of the most iconic vessels in history was under construction at John Brown’s shipyards in Clydebank. Weighing 80,000 tonnes and measuring more than 1,000 feet, the Queen Mary dwarfed the ships that had gone before her and came to stand for the quality and innovation that was synonymous with the term ‘Clyde-built’.

The glitz and glamour of the major liners produced by the shipyards on the River Clyde was the result of the hard work and expertise of a huge number of men and women, all of whom were known as shipbuilders. The day began with the timekeeper, who occupied a small booth near the entrance to the yard. Inside the booth was a board with a hook for every man who worked on the yard. As the men walked into work, they handed their disc to the timekeeper who marked them present for the day in his logbook.

Every Wednesday, the timekeeper took his book to the foreman who signed the record and the men were paid accordingly. It was worth keeping on the right side of the timekeeper, as he was also responsible for assessing the work done and noting any changes in pay due to special secondments. The hundreds of hooks in the timekeeper’s office were a testament to the size of the yards and the variety of jobs involved with them, from welders and riveters to caulkers and platers. The tonnes of iron and steel used were a far cry from the timber spars and hulls produced a hundred or so years before.

The riveters were considered to have the toughest and most crucial job in the shipyard and were renowned for their physical strength and skill. They were gradually replaced after the Second World War by welders, who had a reputation for being militant in their approach to negotiating pay and conditions. Welders and riveters worked alongside platers and caulkers to make up the so-called ‘black squad.’ These were the men who formed the metal into the shell of a ship.

In order to join the ranks of the black squad, it was necessary to serve an apprenticeship which was usually around five years in length. During this time, the apprentice worked with a journeyman who taught him the skills of the trade. All of the men in the yard were part of a strict hierarchy with the skilled tradesman at the top of the pile. At the bottom were labourers who did the fetching and carrying. It was very difficult to progress up the hierarchy and so apprenticeships were very highly sought after; no-one wanted to remain a rivet boy throughout their career.

The men who held both the ship and the shipyard together were the rivet squads.

These groups of four men consisted of the riveter, the holder-up, the heater and the boy.

Rivet squads were highly respected in the shipyard due to their skill as a team. The riveter would be lowered down the side of the ship on a plank with a pneumatic hammer. Inside the hull, the heater was stationed with a smoking brazier filled with coke. He would grasp a red hot rivet out of the coke with long tongs then toss it across to the boy who had the difficult job of catching the burning metal in his own tongs. The boy then passed the rivet to the holder-up, who pushed it through the hole that had been drilled in the plate.

The moment the glowing tip of the rivet poked through the other side, the riveter hammered the end. He would rain down up to 700 blows a minute while swinging on a high and rickety platform. The members of rivet squads were famously men of few words and were almost entirely engaged in their delicately choreographed task. As a final act, the riveter put a stroke of white chalk across the finished rivet to mark the number completed in the day.

The caulkers followed this trail of fresh chalk marks. Their job was to make the joints between the great plates watertight. This was done using pitch or oakum. Although both of these jobs were dangerous, the most dangerous job in the yard probably belonged to the men on the frame-bending floor. The structure of the great ships was formed from huge girders. The loftsmen would produce a template for the beams that were required and bring it down to the frame-bending floor.

This was a concrete floor cast with a grid of small holes across it. The shape of the beam would be chalked onto the floor and it was the job of the frame benders to shape the beam to match. The huge girders would be slid into a large furnace at the top end of the floor and heated until they were white hot.

The beams, often longer than 30 or 40 feet, would then be hauled out of the furnace. All around the chalked outline of the frame the men would bang large metal spikes, called dogs, into the holes in the floor. Then a hydraulic ram would be placed against the gleaming hot bar to slowly put pressure on the beam, bending it into place.

All of the while, men would be scampering around banging in or moving the dogs to bend the 30-foot beam to the chalk line depicting the gentle curve of a prow or stern.

The cluttered space filled with spikes was lethal; one trip onto the white hot bar could have horrific consequences.

One of the enduring memories of the men who worked in the Clyde’s shipyards is the sound of the claxon at the end of the day. This was the signal for a torrent of men to flood through the gates onto fleets of buses waiting to take them home. One Clydesider used the simile of the exodus of a hive full of bees to describe this mass movement. It is apposite.

Like bees, every man had a function, many of which were dangerous and required great skill, and all were crucial to the others.

Although the hive may now be predominantly empty, examples of its great work can still be seen.

So influential was Scotland’s shipbuilding industry that it is still burned into the souls of many who live within sight of the Clyde. A shout of ‘where’s the boy?’, the traditional warning of a red hot rivet being tossed into the air, still produces a wistful look in members of the old black squads.

Information For more about Scotland’s shipbuilding history, visit one of the Scottish Maritime Museums at: Laird Forge Buildings Gottries Road, Irvine, Ayrshire, KA12 8QE Tel: +44 (0)1294 278 283 Clydebuilt Braehead, Renfrewshire, G51 4BN Tel: +44 (0)141 886 1013 Denny Tank Dumbarton, Dumbartonshire, G82 1QS Tel: +44 (0)1389 763 444