The Upper Clyde Shipbuilding Crisis and the 'Right to Work'

 

Following the end of World War Two in 1945, shipbuilding on the Clyde was booming. Major shipbuilding contracts were won by Clyde side yards as an effort was made to replace the many vessels which had been lost during the war. The volume of contracts received post-war had a dual effect however – they provided bountiful employment opportunities, but they also removed the time, or indeed the requirement for shipyards to modernize.

In the 1950s, shipyards had gotten away with charging high prices and delivering projects late; but by the 1960s their competitors were stronger, and there were not enough orders to go around. Thus in February 1968, in response to fierce international competition, Fairfields, Stephen’s, Connell’s, Yarrow’s and John Brown’s merged to form the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, in an attempt to solve the problem of too many yards vying for contracts and too many workers for efficient production. The post-War period had been rife with strikes caused by disputes over the allocation of work, and accusations of workers overstepping the exact remit of their contracts. These minor disputes often led to work stopping altogether until they were resolved – a cycle that had to stop to enable the yards to operate efficiently.

However, when the merger took place, the government, the management, the owners and the unions provided false or exaggerated information on some important issues. The companies claimed to be more profitable than they were; the Shipbuilding Industry Board set up by the government claimed to have a workforce of 7,500, when in fact it was 13,000; and the Unions would not accept any redundancies. Furthermore, the UCS were so desperate for orders to prove themselves in a competitive industry that they were building ships at a loss. So with huge debts from previous owners, double the required workforce, too many yards, and the accumulation of new debt with every ship built, UCS needed government investment to stay afloat.

In 1970, a Conservative government was elected, replacing a Labour administration. The new government was against subsidizing unprofitable industries and so it was no great surprise when on the 14thJune 1971, an application for funds (£6 million) to keep the UCS in business, was denied. Instead, government Minister for Trade and Industry, John Davies, offered a ‘rescue package’ for part of the company, though with the proviso that the rest of UCS would be liquidated. He proposed closing the Clydebank and Scotstoun divisions and focusing production in Linthouse and Govan – though it is worth noting that production at Linthouse had ceased several years earlier. This suggestion was met with public outcry and protest against the loss of jobs and of local identity that was so closely associated with the shipyards.

On the same day as the notice of liquidation, shop stewards announced they were taking over the yard. At this stage, no one had been made redundant, and the company was being run by the liquidator – an accountant whose job it was to close down the firm and transfer what could be saved to new owners. Work continued as usual, but workers controlled the gates. However, when around 1,400 redundancies were announced, the ‘Work-In’ began. This meant that workers continued to work and were paid out of the shop stewards ‘fighting fund’ – around 400 of those who were made redundant chose to do this, whilst the others left to seek employment elsewhere.

Jimmy Reid, a proud Scottish trade union activist, led the work-in and coordinated the public image of the protest. A second demonstration in Glasgow was the biggest the city had ever seen, and generated sympathy and support around the world. Donations flowed in to fund the protest and support what Reid termed, the ‘Right to Work’. To maintain public attention and support Reid adopted a policy of inviting press to hear speeches. This led him to famously warn his colleagues:

There will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying because the world is watching us and it is our responsibility to conduct ourselves with responsibility, and with dignity and with maturity."

The result of the Work-In was that while the government continued with restructuring, a new firm called Govan Shipbuilding was proposed to include the Scotstoun and Govan shipyards. It would receive £35 million of government funds during its first five years and would be state owned. The Unions found a private buyer for Clydebank called Marathon.

The work-in finally finished in October 1972 following a last struggle to persuade Marathon to employ all Clydebank workers. The protest had captured the attention and sympathies of the public at home and abroad, and Jimmy Reid was pivotal in that.  By bringing public opinion onto the side of the workers, Reid was able to effect change in government plans, and save many hundreds of jobs for his colleagues.

Below left is Jimmy Reid delivering a speech to Upper Clyde Shipbuilding workers, and below right, you can see Jimmy Reid following a speech. Due to Reid's policy of inviting the media to all rallys, these photos were transmitted around the world, gaining the work-in invaluable publicity and public sympathy - which contributed in large part to its overall success.


Making the Clyde Navigable

 

Until the late eighteenth century, the parish of Govan was distinctly rural – a rolling landscape comprised of the estates of Glasgow’s merchant classes; and a small, salmon fishing village built around the church. At around 14 inches deep, the Clyde was fordable on foot at certain places. It was felt however, that Glasgow was falling short of its potential economic value and status due to the condition of the river. Indeed in 1656, Thomas Tucker, a commissioner of Cromwell stated:

“The situation of this towne in a plentiful land, and the mercantile genius of the people, are strong signs of her increase and growth were she not chequed and kept under by the shallowness of her river…” (Thomas Tucker, Nov. 20th1656)

However, it would appear very little was done to rectify the situation in the mid-17thcentury, and deepening the river was not discussed again until around 1740. The lack of action could perhaps be attributed to the difficult, slow and labour intensive nature of early dredging methods, which was performed using large rakes or porcupine ploughs, wrought by hand capstans. And indeed, when civil engineer, John Golborne arrived in Glasgow in 1768 the Clyde was still choked with sand banks and fords – only suitable for herring boats and other small craft. Golborne suggested a system of contracting the river with rubble jetties, and removing the sand and gravel shoals by means of ploughing, harrowing and dredging. By implementing these techniques, Golborne was able to make the first marked improvement to the navigability of the Clyde.

Govan’s industrialization in the 19thcentury however, necessitated greater changes to the Clyde, particularly in terms of its width and depth, and in 1809 an Act of Parliament instituted the Trustees of the Clyde Navigation. They were given the power to deepen the river to 9 feet at high water, between Glasgow and the Castle of Dumbarton. This was quickly found to be inadequate however, and alterations to the river entered a new phase in 1824 with significant dredging (using a steam dredging machine), straightening and widening programmes. These alterations allowed increasingly substantial ships to navigate to Glasgow facilitating exports and the movement of considerable quantities of raw materials. This contributed in large part to Glasgow’s epithet of ‘Second City of Empire’, as it was essential in the development of shipbuilding and industry. The bed of the Clyde at its confluence with the Kelvin was lowered by approximately 25 feet (c. 7.5m) between 1820 and 1940 – giving an indication of the ever growing size and weight of ships.

Altering the river Clyde to such an extent would have been physically and fiscally impossible without the application of steam power. The introduction of steam dredgers and steam hopper barges allowed vast quantities of material to be removed from the river bed and deposited elsewhere with relative ease and efficiency. The adoption of steam hoppers in 1862 drastically increased the speed at which dredged material could be removed – in 1861, the total quantity dredged was 593,176 cubic yards; whereas by 1892, this had increased to 1,598,984 cubic yards.  

By implementing this programme of ‘improvements’, the Clyde was able to support ships with a draft of between 23 and 24 ½ feet within a century. This incredible feat of engineering saw Glasgow flourish. Indeed, the city’s coat of arms and motto (Let Glasgow Flourish) was registered in 1866, just as the Clyde was becoming central to Glasgow’s economic development and growing international acclaim.

Below are pictures showing fishermen casting their nets in the village of Govan prior to the major alterations to the Clyde; a diagram of a steam powered dredger - the tool that revolutionised the process of making the Clyde navigable; and an aerial view of Clyde following the programme of developments.

Ibroxhill House

 

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Govan was much different in appearance to the present day. Indeed, until the proliferation of shipbuilding and industry in the nineteenth century, the parish was a small, rural salmon fishing community. By the late eighteenth century, this idyllic village was becoming particularly attractive to the flourishing mercantile elite from Glasgow as a quiet country retreat within reach of the city. As a result a number of mansion houses were constructed in Govan which are detailed in the late nineteenth century book The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry, by John Guthrie Smith and John Oswald Mitchell, 1878. This book provides information relating to ownership and use of the properties, as well as a collection of photographs - granting a unique view of Govan during this period, prior to its industrialization.

House for an Art Lover has links to two such estates – Bellahouston (or Bellyhouston as it is sometimes referred to in early sources); and Ibroxhill. It is on the site of Ibroxhill House that House for an Art Lover now sits and so it is this estate that will be discussed here.

In 1590, James VI granted a charter of confirmation of lands to certain heritors of the parish of Govan, who had previously held them as rentallers from the Archbishopric of Glasgow.  A rentaller is someone who rents property usually for life and at a very favourable rate. This was so that “the tenants being thereby become heritable possessors of their several possessions might be encouradged by vertue and politie to improve that country.” In the list of men confirmed in their land was Thomas Hill, of the 25s. lands of Ybrocks. This family of Hills kept the estate of Ibrox until the mid-18thcentury, when John Hill sold the majority of it to John Picken, a maltman from the Gorbals; and the rest to the Graham family. The latter portion of the Ibrox estate was passed to Glasgow merchant John Trotter shortly thereafter. Alexander Trotter succeeded his father and sold the land to Glasgow based writer, John Bennet in 1801, who built the house and named it Ibrox, after the estate.

The property and estate was bought in 1816 by John McCall. He extended the residence using designs from his brother-in-law, James Smith, and renamed it Ibroxhill in order to distinguish it from other portions of the property. John McCall died without issue in 1833, and the estate was passed to his nephews, though his widow continued to live there until her death in 1871. Contemporary literature predicted that if the house remained uninhabited, it would not survive the onslaught of industry, and indeed, after a brief spell as a tearoom owned by the City of Glasgow, Ibroxhill House was demolished in 1914.

Today, the last pieces of physical evidence of House for Art Lover’s earlier heritage are the Victorian Walled Garden and the original portico, which was saved from destruction and reconstructed in the grounds. The Victorian Walled Garden dates to before 1860 and was utilised by the kitchen to supply Ibroxhill House with fresh fruit and vegetables. Located in the west corner of the garden and built into the wall are the original gardener’s bothy and potting shed – features which are repeated in the opposite corner.

Below is a photograph of Ibroxhill House taken by Thomas Annan in 1870. You can see the portico (which survives in the grounds of House for an Art Lover) in situ; and a group of women playing a game on the lawn. And beneath that are photos showing the portico in the grounds of House for Art Lover (left) and the Walled Garden with the gardener’s bothy in the corner (right).