Build The Ships – book review – Chapter 6 – The Ship is Born

So, to return to my review of the Official Story of the Shipyards in Wartime …

V.S. Pritchett begins by describing the preparations for a launch. “Now, underneath the ship, under that low black mine-like ceiling with its corridors of pit props, where the ground is littered with wood chips and where you are glad of a bowler hat to take the crack of a beam you did not see, the men are preparing for the launching.”

He describes two extra rows of blocks built on either side of the row holding the keel as launching ways with sliding ways on top. He watches as thick melted yellow grease is poured between them. The yard at which he is observing have coils of chains to restrain the ship when they launch her, as mentioned earlier, Robb’s prided themselves in needing no such devices, such was the care put into the calculation for our launches. Pritchett talks about the calculations the naval architects have to make to take account of the strength of the tide, weight and speed of the ship, angle of the launch and width of river and prevent her hitting the opposite bank. He describes the ship taking the plunge and the blocks bobbing in the water which will be retrieved later on. There is no mention here of the famous bow to the lady which everyone who has described a Robb’s launch has told me about, as the ship takes to the water and bobs to her launching party.

He then describes the ship being taken by the tugs to get her boilers and engines at a fitting out wharf. He describes the cranes which dominate shipbuilding rivers creating great black inverted L shapes on the skyline, a sight I myself recall from Leith in my girlhood. He describes the immense machines in the works producing the ship engines and the experience of being in a works as “like terrifying and powerful city enclosed unapproachably in its own din.” He sees men turning a red hot boiler round whilst flanging it, before it is bored; men at work with hammers; riveters boys waiting for their next rivet to heat and men and women creating castings.

During the war there were three main requirements: a large number of absolutely reliable engines, simple designs which could be handled by inexperienced sea-going engineers as so many experienced men had been casualties and faster cargo ships. The latter had been effected by introducing geared turbines which gave higher power and saved in weight. Formerly they had only been used in war ships and high class passenger liners, but by the time of the Battle of the Atlantic, many of our ships had them.

Our author goes on to describe the immediate weeks after the launch when the ship is finished, or as the Navy used to term it “building the ship” which the shipyard workers clearly felt was a misuse of the term for the additions to the ship which would not be floating there unless they had … oh yes … built her!

The author’s impression is that those who work on building ships rarely have a desire to go to sea, although he observes that submarine builders are more likely to be attracted to working in their creations.

Painting, wiring, plumbing, caulking and fitting cabins were all taking place at once. Armaments are fitted and there were, from time to time, changes to the order by the Admiralty which would lead to speculation as to the purpose for which the ship was being built.

When he asks those working on her if they will remember the ship when she is gone in a couple of days many say no, a few yes and that they know the number of every ship they worked on. Funnily enough, everyone I have spoken to remembers exactly which Robb’s ships they worked on, maybe that’s because they cared.

The chapter ends with a quote from Brother Gallagher, an elderly man at the yard the author is visiting who says:

“to us who work in the shipyards a ship is like a beautiful woman. That is how we think of her, maybe a young girl, skipping along, or a mother or some heavy old woman – but beautiful.”

See also:

Copyright: Ruth Patterson 2010

About Ruth Macadam

Great Granddaughter of Henry Robb. School teacher.
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7 Responses to Build The Ships – book review – Chapter 6 – The Ship is Born

  1. Wullie Wright says:

    Hello Ruth my name is Wullie Wright i worked as a welder in Henry Robbs shipyard from 1953 to 1984…….

    On leaving school I followed my grandfather Peter Wright, a rivetter, and my father William Wright, a caulker-burner into the shipyard of Henry Robbs. I started as a burners boy to Jock Brown, then as a caulkers boy to George Crease, At the age of 16 I began my apprenticeship as an electric welder.

    I also recall well the pranks of the shipyard, and also agree the shipyard separated the men from the boys. The list goes on and on of all the characters I have met through the years. I served 31 memorable years for Henry Robb with a two year break for National Service in the RAF stationed in Catterick.

    During my 30 years with Robbs, I served as Boiler Maker Union Convenor for 17 eventful years. Serving with me were Jock Boggie, Brian Travers, Nicky Sherry, and John Hart. I had quite a few meetings with your grandfather who was the boss man also on the board back then was Walter Waddle the lawyer Robin Russel and the managing director was Gordon Millne.

    The closure of Henry Robbs was not only a sad event for the Leith community as a whole but was of great personal sadness to myself and many, many more men like me. It had been so much part of my life from my earliest memories.

    I hope any of this information helps you with your research your website has been very interesting to me.
    Thanks Wullie.

    • Thank you so much for getting in contact with me Wullie, and for sharing your very detailed information.

      I may well get back to you for even more details in the future when I get to the book-writing stage, which seems to be approaching fast!

      Meantime, thank you also for your kind comments and I hope that the blog continues to be of interest to you. If you subscribe, you will get an email whenever a new post appears, there are no adverts, pop ups or any other nonsense like that linked to subscribing just the arrival of an email which you can click on to see the latest entry. There is a link to do this on the side or bottom of every page on my blog (I forget which I’m afraid as I changed the layout at one point!)

      Best regards


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