THE aerial picture here was taken in March 1966, and shows the extent to which shipyards dominated the Clyde back then.

The year before, the Glasgow Herald had hired, as a sub-editor, a 20-year-old man named Ian Jack. Glasgow made a big impression on him, as it would on anyone his age.

Ian went on to have a most distinguished career as a journalist. In 1999, in an article for the Herald, he looked back to the Glasgow and the shipbuilding industry he had encountered in 1965. His words put that aerial shot of the yards into some sort of perspective. 

“The city's economy had been shrinking since the start of the century”, he wrote.

“The latest cull of industry had occurred earlier in the 1960s, with the closure of the North British Locomotive Company and a scattering of Clyde shipyards. A skyline of chimneys and cranes had taken a thinning. But Glasgow was still smoke-blackened and its remaining sources of wealth still obvious. The eastern suburbs lived under the haze of Lanarkshire's steel smelters, rolling mills, steel plate and tube manufacturers. 

“Down river, welders' torches sparked from hulls on the slipways of Fairfield, Alexander Stephen, Connell's, Yarrow's, Barclay Curle, Fleming and Ferguson. At John Brown's yard, in Clydebank, they had just laid the keel for the QE2. In Greenock, Lithgows had plans to build super-tankers”. 

Great pains had been taken to modernise most of the Clyde yards. The five years to 1960 had seen an estimated £20 million being spent, sweeping away forests of spidery cranes and replacing them with mobile giants of the heavy lift. 

The Herald: Workers at Barclay, Curle leave the yard at the end of a shiftWorkers at Barclay, Curle leave the yard at the end of a shift (Image: Newsquest)

By 1960, ships were no longer built mainly on the berth from which they would be launched. Prefabrication had made the modern ship largely a factory job. Huge sections were assembled under cover in bays as wide as a city street. Overhead cranes could lift 60 tons at a time and carry their load down the production line. 

The new methods of working could clearly be seen at the Clydeholm yard of the venerable company of Barclay, Curle. The company had started building at Stobcross in 1818 and moved to Clydeholm in 1855.

The Herald: Welders at work on the troopship Nevasa, under construction at Barclay Curle, WhiteinchWelders at work on the troopship Nevasa, under construction at Barclay Curle, Whiteinch (Image: Newsquest)

After the Second World War, Britain’s shipbuilding industry began to witness a boom period, replacing tonnage that had been lost during the conflict and building ships for overseas owners. In 1945, the industry was responsible for 45 per cent of all shipping under construction. The enforced absence of two major foreign shipbuilding rivals, Germany and Japan, helped. 

As the National Archives website puts it: “Major competitors Germany and Japan returned to the market, but the effects of this were offset by the outbreak of the Korean War. British shipbuilding remained buoyant during most of the 1950s, although its percentage share of the sector declined. The fact that the industry was unable to expand to meet demand indicated structural and organisational problems, including low levels of investment and poor industrial relations”. 

The Herald: The John Brown yard at Clydebank, 1960The John Brown yard at Clydebank, 1960 (Image: Newsquest)

The Scots industry was thriving in the 1950s. Historian Professor Sir Tom Devine records that between 1948 and 1951, Scots shipbuilders launched fully 15 per cent of the world’s tonnage – and one-third of Britain’s. 

But the seeds of long-term decline had already been sown. Another historian, Richard Finlay, writes that although Scotland’s shipbuilding output remained fairly constant between 1955 and 1965 at between 400,000 and 500,000 gross tonnes per year, the country’s position as one of the world’s key centres of the industry was in rapid decline. 

“In 1950”, he notes, “the Clyde launched a third of the world’s shipping tonnage; by 1960 this has declined to 5 per cent, and by 1970 it was less than 2 per cent”. The Scottish shipbuilding industry had failed to adapt to meet change. This was a mistake, to say the least, when the world’s output of shipping increased tenfold between 1945 and 1975. Economic planners’ pessimistic forecasts that the post-war industry would decline were wide of the mark. 

Author Robert Jeffrey, in his book Giants of the Clyde, examines the decline of the yards that ónce lined the river.

The Herald: An undated shot of the Clyde yards in GlasgowAn undated shot of the Clyde yards in Glasgow (Image: Newsquest)

Changes in world shipbuilding hit the Clyde hard. "Competition from yards in the Far East and eastern Europe, combined with ageing facilities and heavily unionised workforces ... made it clear there had to be changes".

The 1966 Geddes Report and the subsequent Shipbuilding Industry Act of 1967 paved the way for consolidation and co-operation. This led to the creation of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders consortium - Fairfield Govan, Stephen's Linthouse, Connell Scotstoun and John Brown Clydebank, with Yarrow as an associate subsidiary.

UCS workers honoured by city 50 years on from their legendary work-in

It was a great success for a while, Jeffrey noting that it transformed industrial relations and saved some yards and jobs. Then came the occupation and work-in of 1971, which defeated proposals by the then Conservative government to axe the yards with the loss of 6,000 jobs.

UCS needed a loan from the government of £6million to keep going, but the Conservative minister for trade, John Davies, said there would be no further state support for ‘lame ducks’.

Jimmy Reid: 50 years on, does the UCS work-in still matter?

The workers' bold action, which attracted global attention, led to a substantial reinvestment programme that saved three of the yards from closure.