Of Shipyard Trades and Cameraderie

Ship Number 307 – Dianthus, K95, Flower Class Corvette. Courtesy of www.navyphotos.co.uk


To the modern imagination it is like a scene from Mordor.

Dark, cold, cramped conditions in which workers squeezed into the eighteen inch (that’s 45cm for those of you reading in metric!) double bottom of a ship to complete work. The clanging and ringing of metal being worked all around, riveters and caulkers don’t practice quiet trades! No ear-defenders in those days, there were hard hats available but no self-respecting man would part with his bunnet for one of those pansy things! Not surprisingly, deafness was a common problem amongst shipbuilders. Temporary blindness from catching sight of the flash frm a welder’s arc would make for a miserable evening as the effects wore off with the aid of cold tea leaves wrapped tightly round the eyes to stop movement which was excruciating and sometimes to much to bear so a visit to hospital for some numbing drops was required. Fingers were often damaged, and worse, it was a hard, harsh environment and it was taken as a part of the job that you could, and probably would, get hurt.

Amongst the hazards was the temporary lighting, rigged up to bring some ability to see what you were doing, cables strewn everywhere and water aplenty to give you a shock if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. All the temporary lighting equipment had “Stolen from Robb’s” stamped on it and there were searches on the way out of work, but apparently things still managed to find their way out of the yard, welding cable wrapped around someone’s waist, as a bob or two could be had for the copper, for example.

Not that much would be taken because each trade was allocated a budget for a ship, if work had to be redone then the trade that caused it would have the cost claimed back from their budget. Once the ship was finished any excess would be awarded as bonuses which went up on a list on a board and apparently caused some interesting conversations when the workers’ wives compared notes!  

One electrician learned about using the gang plank rather than jumping off the ship at the end of his shift, when he fell in as the ship moved and narrowly avoided being crushed. Welders would hold onto a railing to earth themselves and reach out and shock the unwary, there was a welder who welded the charge hand plumber’s heels to the deck, that probably didn’t only happen just the once either  – all part of the everyday mucking around, or as people today have a habit of saying “no offence”.

No breaks were allowed, there were no statutory times after which you were entitled to knock off for a bit, although, as I have mentioned in a previous posting, there were ways of creating a break or men would heat up water and have a brew if they were working with equipment which could double as a temporary stove/kettle.

But for all that, there was kindness and compassion, the painter who today would be categorised as having special needs – nobody needed a label in those days, people just understood that Davie the painter talked to himself and his paintbrush all day and was quite able to do a day’s work in his own way and didn’t need to be mistreated, the shock he had reputedly suffered from the blitz was enough for him to deal with, he didn’t bother others and they didn’t bother him. Everyone I talk to about the yard fondly remembers the camaraderie in and out of the yard. On a night out, if “The Valder Boys” appeared and gave anyone grief, a call of “Robb’s” would bring others straight over to make sure their boys were okay.

My sincere thanks to Frank Condie, Terry McGuire and John Stewart whose shared memories feature heavily in this posting.

Copyright: Ruth Patterson 2010

About Ruth Macadam

Great Granddaughter of Henry Robb. School teacher.
This entry was posted in Henry Robb, Leith, Leith Shipbuilding, Shipbuilding, Shipyards and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Of Shipyard Trades and Cameraderie

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