A Little Treasure – “Build the Ships” (HMSO 1946)

Trawling the internet, as I am inclined to do when away during term time in the hope of finding more information to help with my research, I came across a 1946 HMSO publication “Build the Ships” and decided to purchase it. Whilst it does not seem to mention Robb’s, nor even Leith, in the text (though it is dense, so I may have missed it in my two fairly comprehensive scans) it includes some good generic information and insights, so I plan to review it over a series of posts for my own benefit as well as that of others researching similar matters.

The pictures rarely mention which yard or ship, never mind which individuals are in the photographs. A part of this might have been an unwillingness to give away information so soon after WWII had ended, given that the generation producing it had experienced two world wars in quick succession during their lifetimes. There is perhaps also an element of not considering individuals’ names as important as the common cause of contributing to the war effort.

So, to the book. There are 10 chapters, it was prepared by the Ministry of Information with the approval of the Admiralty and the text was written by V.S. Pritchett the author, who worked for the Ministry during WWII. The style and fluency of the telling of the story of shipbuilding during the war is indubitably that of an experienced and engaging story-teller.

The opening chapter “A Man’s Job” begins with an account of a sailor standing in a shipyard during lunch hour recounting his experiences of having been torpedoed, survived for a month in an open boat while men died all around him, been picked up by a German armed cruiser and finally let go to take his chances when the German cruiser was hit and sinking. The point is that such tales helped to inspire the yard workers to see their job as more than a wage, as a necessity for the war effort.

There are descriptions of ships coming in for repair with “rat bites” out of them, including the “Aconit”, “Normandie”, “Thetis” and the amazing “Javelin” which had her bows and stern blown off simultaneously so limped home with squared off ends for repair!

The secrecy surrounding wartime shipbuilding is well illustrated by the description of the sailing of the “Queen Elizabeth” from John Brown’s on February 26th 1940 in the fog to her destroyer escort, who “did not know what ship he was getting until she appeared”. Workers at Barrow-in-Furness and Birkenhead knew something of the great carrier “HMS Illustrious” which they had produced, but as the author pointed out, the detailed knowledge of the ships produced and their service was not available as it had been pre-war.

After the talk, the men’s return to work is described including the “machine-gun burst” of the pneumatic riveter, the “limelight” flash of the welder’s flame (as described by John, Frank and Terry in their conversations with me about their time at Robb’s – see here, here, herehere, here and here in my previous posts). The author’s attentions then turn to the origins of these workers and he points out that many were not life-long shipyard workers as the slump had seen many shipyard jobs disappear between the wars. Some workers had returned to it after many years in other work. A break would soften a man’s hands and make it harder to get back into the way of things. But the knowledge that their country needed shipbuilders in their droves again had brought them back to, or into the yards.

Then the day ends and: “They pack the trams and buses, men whose skins are yellowed and greasy with the fume of industry, who have been deafened by pneumatic tools, who are soaked by the sweat of the forge, who have scorched their boot tips as they drew the steel frames from the furnace, or ruined their overalls on the welding frame.”

The commitment and dedication of the shipbuilding workforce to whatever task was thrown at them is unquestionable.

Copyright: Ruth Patterson 2010

About Ruth Macadam

Great Granddaughter of Henry Robb. School teacher.
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8 Responses to A Little Treasure – “Build the Ships” (HMSO 1946)

  1. Pingback: Build The Ships – book review – Chapter 6 – The Ship is Born | Henry Robb's Shipyard

  2. Pingback: “Build the Ships” – Chapter 7 – “Escort Carrier Number One” | Henry Robb's Shipyard

  3. Pingback: Build the Ships – Chapter 8 – Ships on the Operating Table (Part 1 of 2) | Henry Robb's Shipyard

  4. Victoria Wimpenny says:

    Thank you so much for this. I don’t know whether a copy of the book is still available or a reprint.
    I have just research my mother’s family tree and discovered a whole branch which were riveters in liverpool and wallsend. The other side were blacksmiths in the shipyards and I think my grandfather was a shipwright/designer. Never knew him and my grandmother said little of her childhood and I was too young to know to ask!
    Stumbled across this when I needed to know what trade a ‘holder’ was from a census.
    You are right that the writing is atmospheric (Matt ancestors or otherwise). It is in the details that the whole thing comes alive.
    Best of luck with the research and thanks for being there on the search 🙂
    Toria .

    • I found my copy on ebay, so you never know, another one might turn up. Its worth checking ebay and amazon under various topics, though on amazon you have to be very specific as there’s a lot there!

  5. Pingback: Build the Ships – Chapter 8 – Ships on the Operating Table (Part 2 of 2) | Henry Robb's Shipyard

  6. Pingback: Build the Ships – Chapter 9 – Build the Little Ships | Henry Robb's Shipyard

  7. Pingback: Build the Ships – Chapter 10 – Epilogue (A Review) | Henry Robb's Shipyard

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