Death on the Clyde
Michael Moss (photographs by John Hume)
(First published in Dunaskin News, February 2002)
I can well remember coming out of Central Station in Glasgow on the evening of 14th June 1971 and seeing the headlines in the evening newspapers announcing the liquidation of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. I had only been Registrar of the National Register of Archives (Scotland) Western Survey for just nine months. Nevertheless during that difficult year I had already been involved in the rescue of records from several bankrupt businesses. Reading the headlines, I knew instinctively that this was the big one. Apart from Alexander Stephen & Sons, the firms which constituted UCS, had always been secretive about their records. In the case of John Browns at Clydebank it was believed that they had all been destroyed during the Blitz in 1941, even though the yard had sustained relatively little damage. In making an initial approach I was fortunate that the liquidator was Robert C Smith, who at the time was chairman of the Business Archives Council of Scotland. From the outset, despite his many pressing commitments, he was immensely supportive.
The first contact was with the UCS head office at Linthouse. Given the well-publicized problems of the industry, this was a surreal experience. The office had a specially woven carpet incorporating the company’s emblem, which was somehow indicative of what was wrong with the business. Although it was supposed to function as an integrated whole, in practice each yard continued to operate independently. Since Alexander Stephen & Sons had ceased to exist as a shipbuilding enterprise as its berths were needed to make room for the Clyde tunnel, they were the easiest and most co-operative family to deal with. Many of their records had long since been deposited with the University of Glasgow and all that was required was to remove what remained. These were stored in tunnels beneath the UCS Linthouse office and engraved on my memory is the sight of Sandy (AAM) Stephen, resplendent in white boiler suit, assisting me sort out piles of files and drawings.
Of the remaining three yards, Charles Connel & Co. of Scotstoun was still effectively run by the family. The atmosphere was feudal and the yard remarkable for its lack of modern equipment, testimony to the fact that profitability and investment rarely if ever ’gang togither’. The records of the firm were sparse with one important exception - the only extensive run of wages books to survive for any Clyde shipyard or engineering company. These were only preserved because they had been stored in a truly filthy outside safe and the company secretary had forgotten about them. In gaining access to Connels we not only had to deal with the management but also representatives of the work-in.
The Fairfield yard at Govan strongly denied the existence of any records. It had after all been the site of the ’Fairfield experiment’ in the vigorous application of modern production management techniques to shipbuilding and it could have been assumed that this was the case. On a memorable day John Hume and I visited the works. We were shown some photographs, but told firmly that the more important items (particularly the hull drawing) had been deposited with the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. On pressing our enquiry we were taken to the cellars and shown the drawings of one of the firm’s first compound engines, a true work of art and of great historical significance. Being of an inquisitive nature we enquired if there might be any other drawings further along the warren of cellars. When it became clear nobody knew or cared, we set off on our hands and knees. Far underground and after many empty caverns had been explored, John Hume was for crawling out, but I persisted. We were rewarded by finding not only all the drawings of the firm’s engines, including the very first triple expansion engines, but also all the financial records. Marvelling as to who could have put them so far beneath ground, we assembled a remarkable crew for the rescue including several professors, and they were real professors in those days, the University archivist and other stragglers. The sight of the professor of Scottish History passing the records up through a manhole was memorable. It later emerged that the National Maritime Museum had only taken the pick of the hull drawings and the majority survived. Since both Connels and Fairfields were within the city boundary, their records were deposited, as they still are, in the City Archives.
John Browns remained elusive and it was only a chance phone call to the manager’s private secretary that revealed that there was a ’safe’ full of records. My first visit was perhaps the most exciting of any in my career. The ’safe’ turned out to be a huge strong room, which contained all the records of the yard back to the foundation of J & G Thomson in 1847, along with wartime utility underwear and quantities of pickled fish ordered for some long-forgotten launch party. By now it was late in the year and there was no heating in the strong room. Regular sorties were made by Tony Slaven, John Hume, the staff of the National Archives of Scotland and myself to list this formidable accumulation. We all succumbed to chills and ’flu. As we laboured away it became clear that there was much more stored away in various parts of the yard. The photographic department had an unrivalled collection of negatives dating back to the 1880s and, although most the early drawings had gone, there was an almost complete set from about 1900. Far down the yard was an enormous shed full of computer printouts, which no one could interpret because they had lost the code. These we prudently left behind. Our first attempt at removing the records to the University terminated abruptly when the axle of the University lorry broke. Ever resourceful, I persuaded the submarine base at Faslane to supply us with an enormous lorry and a party of matelots on the spurious grounds that the records were mostly of naval contracts, which in a manner of speaking was true.
Although as in any corporate failure there was suspicion of intruders into what was after all very private grief, there was enthusiasm for our ambition at least to save something of the heritage of what had in their day been world famous enterprises. John Hume’s diligent recording of every aspect of each yard was much appreciated. Men could be photographed with their machines and recount their experiences to impartial witnesses. Most knew that the equipment was too obsolete to compete in the modern world and accepted that the Clyde’s glory had departed. Indeed many of the workshops were brutal places, reminiscent of early images of the industrial revolution. The wonder was they had survived so long.
Rescuing and listing the enormous quantity of records from the four yards was only the first step to their final acquisition. Many of the records from both John Browns and Fairfields were still ’classified’, even the drawings of HMS Hood. Declassification involved mysterious negotiations with the Admiralty and the eventual arrival of the head of naval security, the aptly named Captain Handover. On viewing the vast pile of plans and files assembled for him, he simply waved his rubber declassification stamp in the air in the manner of a papal blessing and left. The next problem was that quite properly the liquidator viewed the records as an asset of UCS (and there were precious few). They were therefore valued and advertised for sale. Fortuitously the Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath was sailing in the English Channel when an article about the proposed sale caught his eye. He immediately intervened and a deal was brokered whereby the records were secured for the nation. They were accepted in the autumn of 1972 by the National Archives of Scotland as a gift and deposit on the understanding they would remain permanently in the west.
It is perhaps worth reflecting why so many records for these and other shipbuilding companies survive from such an early date. The over-riding reason must be repair work. Although I did not know it at the time, in most yards this accounts for about a third of all business. The other is probably for design and estimating purposes. Moreover there is usually a good deal of space in a shipyard to store old records. Did we take too much? This is a difficult question because user demand for information about individual ships is very strong, often for most obscure details, and they are willing to pay. (I know commerce should not come into it, but it is a fact of archival life!) This is much less so for engine details, even as in the case of Fairfields for path-breaking designs. There is also much academic interest in the history of shipbuilding to the exclusion of other branches of engineering. The most difficult records to appraise were the financial records and here Hugh Peebles in his excellent book Warshipbuilding on the Clyde (Edinburgh, 1987) suggests that we perhaps kept too little.