April Folly – Part Four – Key Figures

Before the account of the whereabouts of various Robb’s ships, Alex Wilson recalls the main figures who had steered the company since its inception and up to 1948.

Henry Robb (senior)

It is no surprise that he starts with Great Grandfather Henry Robb who was the sole remaining director of the original board. He describes him as having “courage, foresight and (an) adventurous spirit” and instilling confidence in his colleagues when needed. He describes him as giving much and expecting much of others, a sentiment which has been reflected in the memories of yard workers whose recollections I have had the privilege to share. He talks of how, despite “gathering the years about him” (he was 74 years old by this time) he was still at the yard every day, “an example to all his workers, ready to applaud well-doing and sharp to criticise slackness.”

Sandy Duncan

Next he talks about Sandy Duncan who joined the company at its start and ran the repairs department. He talks of the difficulties of “placating irate superintendents, wading in the bottom of dry-docks and crawling in double-bottoms (a memory of unutterable discomfort and dangers also shared by many of my contacts) and proudly proclaims the repairs department’s preparedness to give 24 hours a day service if required. Presumably this is a reflection on the war effort during which the yard did, indeed, carry out repairs round the clock. After two world wars within their lifetimes, one can imagine that the spectre of another one would be very real. After all, they had thought that “The Great War” was the war to end all wars but that had only too soon proved not to be the case.

Sam Tait

The secretary at the time was Sam Tait, who is described as “worthy and genial”. He had started with the company a few weeks after it began and was apparently always willing to lend a helping hand and his role had grown considerably with the vast increase in staffing over the years.

W. H. Prowse

W.H. Prowse, who joined the company in 1919 “from the Far East” as assistant to Sandy Duncan and became Yard Manager when the Victoria Yard was acquired had retired in 1947 but still served as an advisor to the company. The good relationships across the shipyard are attributed to his skills in tactfully ironing out problems on a day to day basis.

Alex Wilson

Alex Wilson himself joined the firm in 1920, unfortunately he does not say anything at all about himself or his role, readers may be able to enlighten me, and a spot more research on this has been noted for my part!

At this point he refers to the late Robert Crawford, close personal friend of Henry Robb. That I can affirm, the Crawford family remained close friends with my Granny thereafter and I was, coincidentally, taught at nursery school by one of the younger generations of their family. Henry Robb and Robert Crawford had worked together in the early years of their careers and Robert joined the Robb’s board in 1924 until his death in 1931. He is commended for his high moral values and integrity. His role on the board is not mentioned, so this looks like another area for me to explore more fully, and for readers to contribute to as well please!

John Ashcroft

By 1930 additional staff were needed, and John Ashcroft was appointed as Chief Shipyard Draughtsman, and soon after joined the board as a Director. A naval architect with artistic skills, many have commented to me on his considerable abilities and it is well documented that the models he made were so accurate that those translating them into full scale could do so without recourse to the drawings!

Henry Robb (junior)

The engineering department was the responsibility of Henry Robb junior who had trained as an engineer and gained experience in workshops on the Clyde and at sea. He was also encouraged to learn the wider aspects of the business and at the time of the writing of April Folly was Assistant Managing Director. Little did he know that within the next three years he would be taking over from his father.

George Ridley Watson

George Ridley Watson was a Director too, and as he was resident in London, this meant there was a man on the ground, so to speak, to ensure Robb’s interests were attended to. He had a long association with Armstrong’s Shipyard and so was well placed to deal with any problems which could not be solved from Leith.

John Rogers, my Great Uncle, was a junior member of the board responsible for co-ordinating the sub-contractors to keep to delivery dates and provide the materials required in sufficient quantities. I recently received an email from a relative of his best man and told her that I remember Uncle John fondly as always having a friendly smile and a kind word. Lo and behold, in this booklet he is described as always having “a smile and cheery greeting”!

John Duncan

The company auditor and financial advisor was John Duncan and the writer attributes the company’s success in navigating financial pitfalls to his wise guidance.

The personnel are not limited to the shores of the UK. With international business a regular feature of the yaird’s order books, there was a need for links elsewhere. In April Folly we are told of Mr A Marshall Moffat in Buenos Aires who trained at Robb’s and Mr Spencer Clarke of Wellington in New Zealand who took care of “Far-Eastern (and Antipodean) interests”. Again, there is a family link with the Spencer Clarke’s with my Granny having organised for one of the younger generation of his family (Alice) and myself to be pen-pals. This ran for some years, but not recently – perhaps the time is right to reforge that link.

At the end of this detailed section our author pays tribute to the fact that the success of a firm is not solely down to the executive. He describes the staff and workers as “the backbone” of the firm, and talks of how well they have served the yard. He points out that several of the original foremen were still with the firm and that others had retired from the firm on pension. He describes the experienced men as giving a good day’s return and turning out work which would be highly creditable to any craftsman and is a fine example to the younger tradesmen. He does not make out that all is always rosy, mentioning that “despite disputes, which human nature has not yet solved, our relations with the workers have, on the whole, been harmonious”.

The section finishes with “It says a great deal for both sides that they can still have a chat with the boss on many topics. Personal contact is one of the attributes which make for success.” This, above all, is what I have been brought up to believe of Robb’s, how delightful to have my prejudices vindicated!

Copyright Ruth Patterson 2010


About Ruth Macadam

Great Granddaughter of Henry Robb. School teacher.
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