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A Shipbuilding History. 1750-1932 (Alexander Stephen and Sons): Chapter 2

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Old print of Aberdeen
Entrance to the Port of Dundee
Kelvinhaugh
'John Lodgett'. The first composite ship. 1862
Carmelita. 1865

CHAPTER TWO. 1850-1870. Kelvinhaugh and Dundee

. . . grander things than all the art of towns, Their tests are tempests, and the sea that drowns. MASEFIELD.

IN 1850, Alexander Stephen conceived the idea of establishing a new yard on the Clyde, where the advance of the steam-engine and the use of iron had given a great impetus to shipbuilding. His eldest son, William, who was now old enough to shoulder the responsibility of the old yard under his father's guidance, was to remain at Dundee, while James and Alexander, the younger sons, were to go to Glasgow with their father, and eventually take a share in this new yard.

Accordingly, on 6th April, 1850, Alexander Stephen arranged a lease of the Kelvinhaugh yard from Robert Black for twenty years from May, 1851, Black agreeing to put down a slip capable of taking ships of eight hundred tons. The rent was £850 and seven per cent of the outlay on the slip. William was sent to Stettin, Sussex, and Gloucester, to make contracts for timber for the new venture, and, early in 1851, the whole family, of whom there were originally eighteen, with the exception of William, moved to Glasgow.

In the autumn of 1850, a few months before the Stephens moved to the Clyde, the Dundee Yard launched the Amazon, a vessel of 800 tons, intended to class 14 years. She was by far the largest and highest-grade vessel built on the Tay up to that time, and the first ship in Scotland built under a roof by a private builder. Apropos the latter fact it should be recalled that in 1849 Alexander Stephen had built one of the first covered berths in Scotland, erecting a large shed over the slipway on which the ships were built. Shortly after its erection he invited Mr. Smith, of Smith's Dock, who was the only other owner of a covered berth in the kingdom, to inspect the installation at Dundee.

The launch of the Amazon attracted a large number of notable visitors for whom a special platform was erected. The Dundee Advertiser for September, 1850, tells us that the vessel took the water "amidst a more than usual concourse of spectators, amongst whom we observed the Right Hon. Lord and Lady Kinnaird and family, the Hon. Mr. and Lady Maria Ponsonby, Mr. Harry West, Sir John Ogilvy, Bart., George Duncan, Esq., M.P., etc. It is also recorded that the sum of £20 18s. 10-1/2d. was collected for the Dundee Industrial School on this occasion.

Shortly after her launch, the Amazon was purchased for the East Indian trade by Messrs. Somes of London, for whom another vessel, some fifteen feet longer, was being constructed about the same time.

Of the two Kelvinhaugh yards one, styled the front yard, faced down the river, while the other, termed the back yard, looked across the Clyde towards the entrance which now leads to the Princes Dock. The front yard and the slip dock were at the eastern end of Yorkhill Wharf, where now lie the steamers of the Anchor Line; the back yard is now represented by the west end of the western basin of the Queen's Dock. The engine-house operating the bridge at the entrance to the latter stands almost on the site of the original offices, which comprised an upper floor containing a communicating suite including the counting house, private room and drawing office, and a ground floor occupied by the rivet store, and space for storing cordage for rigging new ships and repairing older vessels on the slip.

Directly across the road from the offices stood a three storey stone building. containing, on the ground floor, a boiler-house, slip and yard engine-house, saw mill and front yard smiths' shop. The first floor housed a joiners' shop and finishing shop, while the upper floor was used as a moulding loft. In the front yard were two large shipbuilding sheds for building vessels under cover, so that work was not hindered by bad weather. In all, there were four permanent building berths in the front yard, one vessel in each shed, one at the foot of the old shed and the other on the offside of the slip next to the riverside road leading to Pointhouse. A fifth berth was made by laying down new construction on the upper part of the slip. This was frequently done when the Firm handled numerous orders at high speed — as during the American Civil War, when the Fergus and Dare were built there in record time for running the blockade. The pioneers of the now famous Anchor Line were built in the front yard — Cora Linn and Ailsa Craig in 1859 and 1860 respectively, then the Roma in 1864, and the Hibernia, Valetta and Venezia in 1865, the Columbia and Arcadia in 1866, and the Europa in 1867.

The back yard, which had two building berths, making seven in all, contained all the frame bending blocks, service boards, plate rolls, keel-plate bending machinery, punching and shearing machinery, counter-sinking drills, main smithy, spar shed, boatbuilding shed, block shop and large store for timber in the log. All iron masts and yards were made there. As the punching machines could not all be placed under cover for belt drive, many were installed separately outside and driven by their own steam-engines. To the north of the back yard a large piece of ground was taken in for further timber storage.

For the first year at Kelvinhaugh, Alexander Stephen concentrated chiefly on repair-work, and in eight months' time had forty ships on the slip, but in August, 1852, the first vessel was begun and given the number "One". Although trade was slack at the time, wages being 16/6 and 19/6, Alexander Stephen closes his summary of the year's work with the characteristically progressive decision — "Settled to commence iron shipbuilding."

Here the diaries of Alexander Stephen, senior, cease and those of his son, Alexander, begin. The latter do not give such full details of the whole business for the first few years, being almost entirely confined to the records of the Kelvinhaugh branch.

To appreciate the significance of Alexander Stephen's decision regarding iron shipbuilding, one should recall the storm of criticism and opposition aroused by the introduction of iron into the shipyards. At first many owners refused to admit that iron-built vessels would float, and declared that they must sink immediately they left the ways. When these arguments were proved groundless they could hardly believe their eyes, and even then they were slow to acknowledge the advantages of the new material, which was destined to advance the construction and efficiency of all vessels by the close of the nineteenth century. Looking back on that time, and remembering the deeply rooted prejudices that had to be overcome before the use of iron became general, one appreciates the feelings of Alexander Stephen, senior, as he penned the words that were to mark another milestone in the Firm's history. Behind the entry one senses many a heated discussion between the far-sighted master of Kelvinhaugh and his less progressive associates.

One of the chief incentives to the use of iron lay in the fact that wooden vessels were not strong enough to withstand the vibration of the screw-propeller, which began to oust the old-fashioned paddle-wheels in the early days of steam. An additional incentive was the encouraging approval of Lloyd's, whose underwriters soon began to make concessions in favour of iron-built vessels.

When the use of iron became general even the more conservative owners were forced to admit its superiority over wood. Iron-built ships were obviously not only lighter and easier to handle, and thus more economical to run, but had also a far greater cubic capacity than their wooden predecessors, as their sides were seldom more than half-an-inch thick, as against the twelve-inch sides of the wooden ships. As iron-built ships passed into service their strength and safety were amply demonstrated. It was found, for example, that they could travel for many days with their cargoes on fire, a feat impossible to their oaken forerunners. It was also proved that they stood far less risk of foundering

when they ran aground, or collided with other ships. Even so, one finds that as late as 1860 the Government refused to sanction the transport of mails in iron vessels.

In 1852 the first ship, the Typhoon, was launched at Kelvinhaugh. She was an iron sailing-ship of dimensions 190 ft. length by 32 ft. 6 ins. beam, with a depth of 22 ft. 6 ins. from main deck to top of keel. She was a fully-rigged, three-masted sailing-ship with clipper bow and a single deck all fore and aft, with a forecastle and poop. The captain's and passengers accommodation was arranged in the poop in cabins on each side of a large central dining space, and the crew in the forecastle forward. On deck she had three small cargo hatches and a galley, or caboose, abaft the foremast, a hand capstan abaft the mainmast and a long boat stowed amidships.

In the following year three ships were launched, and thereafter the number increased annually for several years. In launching vessels in the front yard no drags were necessary, as the ground formed a natural bend in the river — they were simply let go and brought up by their own anchors dropped from the catheads once they were free from the standing ways. But in the back yard it was a more delicate problem, as the launching was straight across the river, which was then very narrow, with muddy banks. Piles of logs were used as drags, the ships' chains being attached to them, then rove through large iron snatch blocks fixed to wooden piles driven into the ground, the other end of the cables being led up through the hawse pipes of the vessel, then several turns round the windlass. Such launches were always successful as, after dragging the logs up to the iron blocks, the ship was held fast and could go no further.

During 1854, the Firm constructed the iron paddle steamer, William McCormick, for the Liverpool and Londonderry trade. The side-lever engines for this vessel, which were placed with Messrs. Randolph Elder and Company, then in Centre Street, Glasgow, and now the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, were that firm's first essay in marine engineering. In passing it may be mentioned that the late Mr. William Esplen, founder of the firm of Messrs. William Esplen and Sons, Consulting Engineers and Naval Architects, Liverpool and London, was for some time chief engineer of this steamer.

Another interesting vessel built during the same period was the iron sailing-ship, John Bell, of 1,208 tons, for Bell Brothers, of Glasgow. After trading as a sailing-ship for many years she was acquired by Messrs. James and Alexander Allan, who lengthened her, converted her into a screw steamer, and installed passenger accommodation. Thus transformed, and rechristened the St. Patrick, she became one of their pioneer steamers to Quebec and Montreal. As the Allan Line grew in importance, larger and more powerful steamers were added to keep the fleet abreast of the times, so the St. Patrick, together with other older vessels of the Line, became obsolete and was withdrawn after establishing the success of steam on this route. The St. Patrick's engines and boilers, together with her passenger accommodation, were taken out and she was reconverted into a sailing ship. After sailing in the same trade under the Allan flag for many years she was eventually sold to German owners. Undoubtedly a staunch and well-built vessel of her time, she profitably carried the flag of her new owners for many years after her conversion.

At this period the firm owned four vessels, the Pestonjee Bomanjee, the White Eagle, the Storm Cloud, sold in 1862, and the Wallace.

The severe gale of 1856 caused extensive damage to the Clyde shipyards, several half-built ships being almost floated away. Messrs. Todd and McGregor are stated to have lost £18,000 in two building slips destroyed during the storm.

Though the year 1856 was an unlucky one for the Stephens on the Clyde, September '56 saw the firm at Dundee launch the large wooden East Indiaman, Eastern Monarch, the fifth ship built by them for Messrs. Somes' East India Service, and the largest ship of her class, A1 fourteen years at Lloyd's, built in this country up to that date, excepting the Schomberg.

The building of the Eastern Monarch occupied fourteen months. Her length between perpendiculars from back of sternpost to forepart of stem on deck, was 239 ft.; and overall 266 ft.; extreme breadth, 40 ft. 3 ins., and depth of hold 24 ft. 9 ins. The tonnage, or old builders' measurement, was 1,849, and she carried 2,600 tons deadweight altogether. Her lower masts and decks were all of teak, as well as the lower deck planking. She was timbered with English oak and teak, the timbers being knit together with a double crossed series of diagonal iron straps, which gave great strength to the body of the vessel; beams were strapped in the same way. She had three decks — poop, main and lower, and 50 tons of copper were used in her construction. Her full complement of hands was sixty, including the captain, four mates, boatswain and eight midshipmen. She had accommodation for seventy-five first-class passengers and from five to six hundred troops.

On her launch day Dundee was like a great fairground, all the aristocracy from the surrounding countryside being present. To prevent overcrowding in the yard a charge was made for admission and the proceeds, which amounted to £21 1s. 6d., divided among the charitable institutions of the city. After the launch Alexander Stephen, senior, presided over a great banquet, which must have been an exceedingly lengthy affair, as the toast-list contained eighteen toasts, to all of which there was a reply. In the evening a ball was held, one quadrille being performed to the tune "Eastern Monarch," specially composed for the occasion by Mr. Thomson. After being handed over, and loaded for her first voyage, and before leaving the English Channel, the Eastern Monarch received a visit of inspection from Queen Victoria, the only inspection of a new merchant vessel ever performed by Her Majesty.

But, despite her auspicious inauguration, the Eastern Monarch was doomed to an untimely and dramatic end. Returning from her maiden voyage, in 1859, with troops and a large cargo of general merchandise, the vessel was totally destroyed by fire, off Spithead. Fortunately, however, no lives were lost in the disaster, though it naturally created a considerable sensation throughout the country at the time.

The financial crisis of 1857, following on the Crimean War and other events, made business very difficult and led to the failure of many leading merchants. Undaunted, however, by the general atmosphere of depression, the Stephens, on the Clyde, were building the famous wooden sailing-ship Tyburnia, of 1,027 tons, for Messrs. Somes of London, for their noted line of Eastern clippers.

This splendid vessel had a remarkable career, and in 1884, twenty-seven years after she was built, was chartered by the Pleasure Sailing Yacht Company, for a trip to various ports at the rate of a guinea per head per day — an enterprise which may be regarded as the beginning of ocean cruising in liners, so popular at the present time.

On arriving at Madeira she was anchored near the Loo Battery in the quarantine ground and ballasted with goods, such as cement, etc., which might yield a profit at the different ports visited. Owing to a misunderstanding with the Portuguese customs authorities, on account of their system of extortion, her commander, Captain Kennaley, was informed that his ship would be seized and confiscated. Whereupon he replied that if the Portuguese officers attempted to board the Tyburnia they would be flung overboard! The Military Governor then gave orders to fire upon the vessel when she tried to leave her moorings. Captain Kennaley, who had successfully run the American blockade thirteen times between 1864 and 1865, was unperturbed by this threat, and, being assured of the confidence of his passengers, made sail at 8.40 a.m. the following morning, when on seeing the yacht's head go round, the fort fired two blank charges. As soon as the Tyburnia was under way the fort fired at her with ball, carrying away some ropes on the bowsprit. In spite of the continuous firing, which dashed spray over those on board, no lives were lost, although the passengers, both ladies and gentlemen, declined to go below. The British Ensign was dipped as each shot went singing past, and the Tyburnia proceeded swiftly to Barbadoes. This grand old ship was latterly owned in Australia, where she was often seen discharging lumber. About 1890, thirty years after she was built, she sailed to Townsville, Queensland, to take up her last resting-place as a hulk for transhipment of cargo, and it is quite possible that she may still be thus employed.

In 1858, Alexander Stephen, senior, made an agreement with his sons, James and Alexander, by which they took over the Kelvinhaugh business, repaying him over a number of years. During the following year, James Stephen left the Firm, which was carried on for some years solely by Alexander Stephen, junior.

In 1861, his younger brother, John, became a partner in the business and Charles Connell, head foreman shipwright and latterly yard manager, resigned to commence shipbuilding on his own account, and founded the now famous firm of Charles Connell and Company, of Scotstoun. It is amusing to find that although Alexander Stephen, commenting on Connell's resignation, writes: "I do not think he will succeed," a pencilled note on the opposite page, inserted many years later, states that "Connell died in 1898 leaving over £300,000."

At this time there was some talk of the Firm buying one of the Scotts' yards, at Greenock, eventually sold in 1862, partly to Caird and Company, and partly to McNab and Company. Meanwhile, another branch of the Scotts had moved to their present dockyard. Wood's yard, at Port Glasgow, was also under consideration, and Alexander Stephen, senior, was contemplating sites for a new yard at Troon, Maryport, Workington, Chepstow, Barrow or on the north-east coast of England.

The following year witnessed an important advance in the history of the Firm. Most of the vessels built at Kelvinhaugh up to this date had been of iron, only one or two being of wood. But in 1862 Alexander Stephen, junior, was granted a patent for composite construction and, commencing with the John Lidgett, of 770 tons, with iron frames and wooden planking, built many ships to his own system. The Admiralty showed great interest in his method and paid many visits of inspection to Kelvinhaugh, which was also visited by the Under Secretary of State.

Composite vessels were practically unknown to the Clyde before the Stephens undertook their construction. Although the principle was quite an old one, and therefore familiar to the Clyde builders, few of them cared to assist its development. Yet, for long voyages the merits of the composite construction for the moderate-sized vessels of the time were unquestionable, and this fact the Firm was not slow to realize.

One of the greatest objections to iron vessels for long voyages lay in their liability to get foul on the bottom; and the removal of the barnacles that adhered to the iron was a labour of considerable difficulty. Wooden vessels were liable to an objection of a similar nature, being afflicted with a worm that ate into the planking and seriously impaired their safety. But by the construction of composite ships, having bottoms sheathed with copper or yellow metal, both disadvantages were removed, the poisonous nature of the metal preventing the adherence of barnacles, and enabling the vessel to make her way with greater smoothness through the water.

When composite ships became popular the steam-driven frame-saws could not cut enough planking to keep the shipwrights supplied, so the Firm employed hand-sawyers to supplement them. These men worked in pits formed by the piled logs, cross-beams being placed on the top of the pit to receive the logs for sawing. After being lined off into planks, they were cut up by two men, one operating the hand-saw on the top, while the other stood below.

In 1862 an order was received for a very fast tea-clipper, and the full-rigged auxiliary screw steamer, Sea King, later to become the notorious Confederate cruiser, Shenandoah, was constructed, on the same principle as the John Lidgett, and launched at Kelvinhaugh in August, 1863. The career of this famous vessel is so remarkable that it has been described in full in another chapter of this volume.

In the same year, 1863, in answer to the demand for blockade runners for the American Civil War, the paddle steamers Fergus and Dare were built in the record time of six weeks, the former doing 20.5 knots on trial. The following year witnessed the trial trip of the Luzon, for Ker Bolton and Company, the vessel visiting various Firth of Clyde seaside resorts and taking up the owners and builders before doing her trials. During 1864 the Firm also put together the paddle steamers, Lake Ontario, and Bay of Kandy, for Messrs. J. and A. Allan for the Canadian Lakes service in connexion with their fleet of Montreal clippers. The steamers were taken asunder, packed and shipped by the Allans' own vessels, re-erected and completed on the shores of the lake, and became the pioneers of the lake steamers. Two years later the third steamer, Topsy, was similarly constructed and shipped.

Another interesting vessel built during this period, for Messrs. Henry Bath and Sons, of Swansea, was the full-rigged iron auxiliary ship, Zeta, of 734 tons, built in 1865. She was the first ordinary trading ship to navigate the Straits of Magellan, at the southern extremity of South America, a feat that prompted the Pacific Steam Navigation Company to run their steamers direct from Liverpool to Chili by this route in 1867. While negotiating the Straits, the Zeta fell in with the Lookout, an American vessel that had been boarded by Fuegan Indians, and towed her through. During the Chilian and Spanish War, the Zeta was chased by the Chilian steamer Covodonga, but managed to land her passengers, who went overland to Valparaiso. Next day the Zeta was chased by a Spanish frigate, but finally escaped capture by running into the same port.

A little later the Firm built the composite barque, Kappa, of 516 tons, for the same owners for their copper ore trade. The carriage of copper ore in sailing-ships being an exceedingly difficult problem, owing to the excessive concentration of weight due to the high specific gravity of the copper, this vessel had to be arranged with large trunks formed of stout timber planks, securely fitted together and strongly shored between its sides and back of planking running fore and aft in the hold of the ship.

At this period the yard was employing almost a thousand men, and in 1863 carpenters' wages rose from 27/- to 30/- per week. Joiners were getting from 22/- to 26/- according to quality. In 1864 the joiners received an advance of 3/- while the carpenters were increased to 36/-. 1865 opened with a whole year's work on hand, but later, owing to shipbuilding slackening off, the carpenters were reduced from 36/- to 30/-. Piecework was first introduced and applied to riveters and platers in 1869.

In 1866, twenty-four shipbuilding and engineering firms formed an association, which was a forerunner of the Clyde Shipbuilders' Association. In the same year Charles Scott of Greenock failed, and nineteen of his apprentices were taken on at Kelvinhaugh.

One of the most notable vessels constructed during the 'sixties was the iron sailing ship, Abeona, of 980 tons, built in 1867 for Messrs. Allan's clipper line of sailing-ships between the Clyde and Montreal. She proved herself the fastest clipper in the trade, making the passages with great regularity in from twelve to fourteen days from port to port, and often overhauling and passing steamers. Her commander, Captain Tannock, was recognized as the most capable master of his day in the Atlantic trade. The Abeona formed one of the Allan Line clippers for many years, until sailing-ships were ousted from the trade by modern steamers. She was then sold, along with other older vessels of the Line, and was afterwards employed in the East India trade. Her splendid record was ultimately closed in September, 1900, when she was lost on Thunderbolt Reef, Cape of Good Hope, thirty-three years after she was built.

Two extremely interesting and unusual vessels were constructed about this time. The first, ordered early in 1868, was for Mr. Lamont, of Knockdow, Argyll, brother of the Chief of Clan Lamont, who required a small wooden ship for Polar exploration. Mr. Lamont eventually published a very interesting volume dealing with the vessel's various cruises.

The second vessel was even more unusual. In 1869 Messrs. Antony Gibbs and Sons, London, contracted with the Firm on behalf of Senor Geromino Costa, of Puna, Peru, for an iron sailing schooner, dimensions 48 ft. x 10 ft. 6 ins. x 6 ft. deep to top of floors, for trading on Lake Titicaca, Peru, which is the highest body of water in the world, about 120 miles long and between 35 and 45 miles broad. Senor Costa's instructions were that no single piece, save the spars, was to be longer than 18 feet, nor more than 150 lbs. in weight, as mule-back was the only method of conveyance up the steep gradient leading to the lake. The schooner, which was named the Aurora Del Titicaca, was built in the back yard, being completely fitted up, masted, rigged and sails bent. After being all carefully marked she was taken asunder, packed, and sent round to Liverpool, where she was shipped to Peru. On arrival everything was successfully transported up to the lake and reconstructed at the lakeside.

The year 1867 brought misfortune to the Dundee business, the whole yard, including two ships on stocks, being totally destroyed by fire, the damage being estimated at well over £20,000. The Dundee Advertiser, recalling the disaster in its issue of December, 1868, says: "The building yard belonging to this firm — one of our principal shipbuilders — was unfortunately destroyed by fire on 8th October, 1867, when two fine vessels, one a composite and the other intended for the whale fishing were totally destroyed; indeed, so destructive was the fire that it scarcely even left the iron frames of the composite vessel. Their building sheds, machinery and everything connected with their business, was also totally destroyed. The consequence is that this firm has not launched any vessels during the year now ending, as they have been busily employed building new sheds, erecting new machinery, etc. But having got these completed some time ago, they have now a fine composite sailing vessel of about 600 tons register to Class 17 A1 at Lloyd's, nearly ready for launching; and are also commenced to another composite vessel of about 88 tons register, also to class 17 years AI at Lloyd's."

Meanwhile, with the increase in the size of vessels following the introduction of iron into shipbuilding, the Kelvinhaugh yard, which was only on lease, was proving far too restricted. During 1867 there was some talk of the Firm taking Todd and McGregor's, or Denny's yard, while in 1868 Mr. Alexander Stephen, junior, paid a visit to Barrow-in- Furness in search of a new site for the business. Later in the year he became interested in the Linthouse estate and, as an alternative, another site down the river on the Shieldhall estate. Finally, towards the close of the year, he purchased the Linthouse estate from the trustees of Mr. Rowan, for the sum of £32,000, obtaining possession early in 1869. As soon as the Firm took over the new estate work was commenced in laying it out as a shipyard.

The lease of Kelvinhaugh expired in May, 1871, and the last ship to leave the yard was the Lima, launched in November, 1870. After the yard was vacated by the Firm, the slip was leased by Aitken and Mansell, in 1872, and ultimately the present Queens Dock was excavated on the site of the back yard. The remainder of the front yard and slip dock was occupied by Shearer and Sons until further alterations to the river front resulted in the Yorkhill quays, where present-day Anchor liners are moored on the site of the berths of their old-time sisters.

Between 1863 and 1869 the yearly totals of vessels launched were as follows:

1863: 11 vessels
1864: 14 vessels
1865: 24 vessels (including 7 iron, 5 composite, and 12 Bombay barges).
1866: 9 vessels
1867: 13 vessels
1868: 10 vessels

In 1869, just prior to leaving the "Haugh," eighteen vessels, amounting to 13,535 tons, were launched — a very fine year's work. In all, 147 vessels were constructed at Kelvinhaugh.

With the resources at the Firm's disposal the output was phenomenal, considering the variety of the work, which included iron sailers, iron screw steamers, composite sailers and composite screw steamers, etc. There were frequently two launches per month, and 1869 was brought in by launching three vessels in January — the composite barque, Singapore, being launched on New Year's Day, to the strains of the "Haugh" brass band, composed largely of the Firm's apprentices.

In addition to all this new construction, the Firm carried on, simultaneously, a continuous succession of repair-work, the slipway being kept busy practically day and night, carrying out work of all descriptions, such as painting and repairing iron vessels, stripping the copper from wooden ships, re-caulking and re-coppering, etc. Enormous quantities of copper sheathing and bolts were used month by month.

See Also