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Issue 87 - The Titans of the Clyde

Scotland Magazine Issue 87
June 2016


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The Titans of the Clyde

Keith Fergus seeks out the behemoths of Glasgow's industrial past

Between Glasgow City Centre and Greenock are four of the finest and best-loved examples of architecture that stand along the banks of the River Clyde. Affectionately known as the Titan Cranes (or cantilever cranes, to give them their more rudimentary title), they represent a bygone age and hark back to a time when the Clyde was at the forefront of the industrial revolution, when shipbuilding was at its peak, when tens of thousands worked in the yards and when the river reverberated with the sound of heavy industry.

The River Clyde is much quieter now, but these grand structures provide tangible evidence of a time when ‘Glasgow made the Clyde and the Clyde made Glasgow.’ Seven Titan Cranes were built in Scotland (five on the Clyde and another two at Rosyth),and 42 around the world – but it is thought only 11 remain. Of these, some of the most impressive are the Stobcross and Barclay Curle cranes at Glasgow, Clydebank’s Titan Crane and the James Watt Crane at Greenock.
An astonishing 40 of these cranes were constructed by the Glasgow-based Sir William Arrol Ltd. Perhaps the leading civil engineering company of the time, the company was also responsible for the building of, amongst others projects, the Forth (Rail) Bridge. The cranes were able to lift extraordinary weights, up to 200 tons, and would be used to manoeuvre locomotives onto ships, load heavy armaments onto warships and aid shipyards that lacked their own fitting-out dock to build passenger liners, steamships and gunboats, among other things.

Perhaps the best known of the four remaining Clyde Titans is the Stobcross Crane, also known as the Finnieston Crane. It towers 175 feet above Pacific Quay, just a short distance from Glasgow City centre, and its unyielding metal frame stands in sharp contrast to the glossy, flowing lines of the contemporary buildings that now dominate the river here – the striking Clyde Arc bridge and the idiosyncratic Armadillo are just two of the architectural highlights.

The Stobcross Crane was the largest of the Titans, and when built in 1931 by Carlisle firm Cowans, Sheldon & Co. it was the biggest crane of its type in Europe. It serviced the Queen’s Dock and loaded the massive locomotives that were built in Glasgow onto ships, before they were sent around the world. The crane’s jib was 152 feet in length and a full revolution, which amounted to 1000 feet, took just over 3 minutes. The Stobcross Crane ceased operating in the late 1980s; however its prominent location has seen it become a striking and poignant part of the Glasgow skyline, and indeed the city’s identity.

Although the Stobcross Crane is the best- known of the Clyde cranes, it is the Titan Crane at Clydebank that offers the general public the chance to experience the scale and feel of these steel monoliths – it welcomes thousands of visitors every year who make their way to the top for a breathtaking view along the River Clyde and a chance to learn more about Clydebank’s shipbuilding heritage. The Clyde- bank Titan was located at the renowned John Browns, a shipyard that launched several of the world’s most famous ships, and it played a crucial role in the ability of Browns to build huge passenger liners like the Queen Mary and Royal Yacht Brittania.

Built in 1907, the 150 foot high, 800 ton Titan Crane had two cantilever jibs that extended to 150 feet and 90 feet respectively. Due to its enormous size and lifting potential, the crane’s foundations had to be set 80 feet deep. It survived the devastating Clydebank Blitz of 1941 and continued to be operational (albeit on a vastly reduced scale) until the 1980s. It was saved from demolition by the river’s urban regeneration programme that began in the early 2000s. The Titan Crane is now an International Historic, Civil and Mechanical Engineering Landmark and sits within esteemed company; the Eiffel Tower, Sydney Harbour Bridge and Machu Picchu have also been bestowed with this accolade.

Standing somewhat in the shadow of the Clydebank Titan and Stobcross is the Barclay Curle Crane, which rises above Whiteinch near Glasgow. The Barclay Curle Shipyard was founded by John Barclay in 1818, but after his death in 1845 his son Robert (one of the founders of the Scottish Shipbuilding Association and its first president) took over the business. One of its most important launches took place in 1848 when the 500 ton City of Glasgow set sail; this impressive cargo ship had been based on Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s pioneering SS Great Britain. Such was the importance of the event that a public holiday was declared.

The 150 foot high Barclay Curle Crane (again built by Sir William Arrol Ltd) was erected in 1920, and, as it could lift weights of up to 150 tons, allowed the yard to remain at the forefront of shipbuilding along this section of the River Clyde through to the late 1960s. Although not operational today, the Barclay Curle Crane still dominates the industrial skyline of Whiteinch.

The final Titan takes us downstream to the Firth of Clyde at Greenock. Shipbuilding was just as important to the town as it was to Glasgow and there were numerous docks along the river, including the James Watt Dock, which opened in 1886. It was hoped that the dock would allow Greenock to attract transatlantic shipping traffic and compete with Glasgow. For a while it worked, with a number of yards operating along this section of the river, including Scotts, which was established in 1711 and built ships for an incredible 277 years.

The James Watt Dock Titan was built in 1917 (by, you guessed it, Sir William Arrol) and rose to 150 feet in height. It played a key role in the development of Greenock as the Clyde’s ‘other’ industrial heartland, with its main purpose to fit out ships, including many built at Scotts. Today, this Grade A listed structure is the only crane left in the dock after shipbuilding declined during the 1960s and the yards were cleared. It provides a welcome link to Greenock’s past as well as its future, with much work having been done in recent years to redevelop the quayside, including the busy and bustling James Watt Dock Marina. Hopefully this will encourage more people to visit the area and discover its fascinating heritage.

And that is why these final four steel monoliths must remain in situ on the banks of the mighty River Clyde; as without these great colossuses, a slice of Scotland’s momentous industrial story will slowly begin to fade.

Visitor Information

Barclay Curle Crane
739 South Street, Scotstoun, Glasgow, G14 0BX

Stobcross Crane Exhibition Way, Glasgow, G3 8YW

James Watt Dock Crane
James Watt Dock Marina, Marina Office,
The Sugar Warehouse, East Hamilton St, Greenock, PA15 2UT
+44 (0) 1475 729 838

Clydebank Titan
Titan Enterprise, 1 Aurora Avenue,
Queens Quay, Clydebank, G81 1BF
+44 (0) 141 562 2889

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