April Folly – Part Two – Bigger and Better …

We left Robb’s feeling quite proud of its achievements, having repaired the SS Brussels against all the odds, and so restoring one of the country’s national symbols of her determination and grit during WWI.

Order number 17 provided a similarly challenging step into pastures new. Well, not so much new, as a continuation of previous practices but on a much, much larger scale.

One of the solutions Henry Robb had to the absence of water at his yard was to pre-fabricate ships, send out the parts and have them reassembled elsewhere. Ikea have nothing on them, flat pack was well and truly up and running, on a far greater scale, over a century ago!

The firm had made close links with Priestman Brothers – who, as you can see below, worked on some very large scale projects!

Priestman Brothers, of Hull wanted a 500 ton twin screw hopper dredger to serve the Bhavnagar State in India. The craft would be some 150 feet long, double the size of anything previously undertaken by the new wee yard in Leith. However, they were clearly convinced by Great Grandfather Henry Robb’s confidence that the ship could be built there and awarded Robb’s the contract. Almost all of the hull was pre-fabricated in the platers’ shop and erected in a dry-dock leased from Leith Dock Commissioners and in due course, the Bhavsinhji was delivered … all 443 GT of her with dimensions of 139.6 x 29.6 x 12.9. Ships 18 and 19 were 81 and 65 ton pontoons for Bombay PT and the India office respectively and were reputedly ordered at the same time as the Bhavsinhji, work was certainly coming in steadily!

The map below shows Bhavnagar which is to the north west, a bit below and to the right of the letter ‘I’ of India. The Bhavsinhji worked this area for at least 26 years, possibly more.


So, back to our story …

Although 1924 was a difficult period for ship builders, it brought Robb’s an opportunity when Hawthorn & Co., of Leith, an established firm of ship-builders, repairers and engineers, decided to cease trading. Henry Robb set about negotiating with them and acquired the Victoria Shipyard.

By the end of that year the keel of a tug had been laid and throughout most of the rest of its history as a shipyard it was never without at least one ship under construction.

In 1926 John Cran and Somerville closed and their building berths were merged with the Victoria Yard, so more contracts for new and repair work could be secured. When the yacht builders Ramage and Ferguson Ltd, whom Henry Robb had served as yard manager just before setting up on his own, ceased their business, Robb’s took over their yard (in 1935). Extensive alterations, extensions of existing departments and the establishment of new ones enabled them to take on new methods of design and construction for the increasingly diverse range of vessels being produced.

Postcard on http://www.edinphoto.org.uk site

This thumbnail links to the full sized postcard picture on www.edinphoto.org.uk ‘s site which shows Leith Docks in 1933, shortly before Robbs’ major expansion. There is an annotated version below the picture on the site with details of all the features in the picture.

Copyright: Ruth Patterson 2010


About Ruth Macadam

Great Granddaughter of Henry Robb. School teacher.
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7 Responses to April Folly – Part Two – Bigger and Better …

  1. John D. Stevenson says:

    I am an ex Robb’s engineering apprentice ( 1948/53) who went on to become a Chief Engineer in MN.
    For the past three years I have been researching an “A to Z of Leith & Granton Shipbuilders”
    If we ignore the “Royal builders” I now have a total of 168 ( and counting) commercial ship/boat builders who operated in the two ports.
    The problem has been that there is so much privately held information around the world that every time I think I have finished a new reference turns up !!
    Many people do not realise that Leith’s shipbuilding industry goies back a long way before the days of R & F ,Menzies, Cran etc.
    This quote from the “Daily Mail” of 1937 sums things up nicely
    “The men of Leith were building ships at the time those on the Clyde were still fishing from coracles !”.

    Hopefully will have my findings ready for publishing in early 2011

    • Hi John,
      Good to hear from you again, and hopefully we can meet up some time in the near future. I’ve moved to Scotland but will still be travelling up and down from Norfolk until a job is secured. However, it would be great if we could get together say towards the end of August before I go back down as I am sure there is a lot we could both share!
      I am glad you got in touch as my email system seems to drop emails after a period of some months, so i’ve lost several contacts made that way – I am now noting the information down so that cannot happen again.

    • Norman McBain says:

      As the grandson of James Andrew Somerville, the Somerville partner in Cran and Somerville, I am interested in your work and wonder if you did publish your researches three or four years ago, and if so, is the publication available?

      • Ruth Macadam says:

        Hi Norman
        My research is still continuing, so not yet in print.
        What I have collected together with the help of a whole raft of amazing people sharing their memories as well as their research skills and knowledge is very diverse not to mention copious, so i may have to split the work into different categories and hope to develop a set of linked but separate books.
        Hopefully, however it works out, it won’t be too long until something is finally in print!
        kind regards

      • Norman McBain says:

        Many thanks for your prompt reply Ruth and I will be grateful to be included in any updates. Kind regards, Norman Date: Thu, 20 Nov 2014 22:05:21 +0000 To: normanmcbain@hotmail.com

      • Good morning Norman,
        Have not yet completed the research on ” Leith Shipbuilders” but thanks to the good offices of Peter Stubbs , who runs ” Edinburgh Photo’s” website , the basic details are on his site under
        ” Leith Boat Builders”;


        If you live locally would be pleased to meet up and pass on what I have re Cran/Cran & Somerville.
        iook forward to hearing from you
        kindest regards

      • Norman McBain says:

        Hi John T Many thanks for the quick reply. I now live in the north Pennines but am back up in Scotland quite often. I presume that you live in the Edinburgh area. Thanks for the details of the website. kind regards, Norman Date: Fri, 21 Nov 2014 10:50:37 +0000 To: normanmcbain@hotmail.com

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