"It makes you greet.”

So responded shop steward Gerry Ross as the 18,000‐ton bulk cargo carrier MV Alisa, slid down the slipway into the River Clyde on October 5, 1972. This was the same slipway that had launched the three “Queens” – the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Elizabeth 2. However, the Alisa was the last ship to be built at the John Brown & Company shipyard in Clydebank. 

The Alisa was one of four Standard Clyde Class vessels, along with Orli, Hilla and Varda, all of which were built at Clydebank or Scotstoun for the Israeli line Zim, with each vessel reportedly named after the daughter of each of the company directors.

“The last ship to be built at the former John Brown shipyard in Clydebank was launched yesterday,” one Scottish newspaper sombrely reported about the launch of the Alisa. “Last Ship Leaves Clyde Yard That Built ‘Queens’,” wrote the New York Times the following day.

It was a funereal end to a shipyard that, since brothers J&G Thomson moved their operations to Clydebank from the site of the Govan Graving Docks in 1871, before John Brown & Co took over the yard in 1899, had witnessed the launch of more than 1,000 ships. 

A shipyard that had became one of the most respected in the world, where ocean liners such as the Lusitania and Aquitania were built as well as warships and battleships such as HMS Hood, Tiger, Indefatigable, Duke of York and Vanguard.

Reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Alisa, Clyde shipbuilding author and historian, Ian Johnston, lamented the fact that the end of shipbuilding in Clydebank had been marked by the launch of such an ordinary ship given the remarkable history of the John Brown & Company yard.

The Herald: NewsquestNewsquest (Image: Newsquest)

“It was the end of shipbuilding at Clydebank,” he said. “After that the yard became an oil rig yard but it was the end of shipbuilding, which had started in 1871. After a huge number of ships being built there it was the absolute end of it which was such a shame because John Brown’s was one of the leading, if not the leading, British shipyard for such a long time.

“In fact, no shipyard probably anywhere in the world built as many famous ships as it did. 

“It’s a fantastic story. It really is a world-class story what happened at Clydebank. And it was very sad that it came to an end because it became uncompetitive like the rest of British shipbuilding. They couldn’t compete on international markets and so on. That was the end of it. So it was very poignant when that ship was launched.

“It was a very humble and ordinary ship, given that John Brown’s built these amazing liners and other vessels such as the Royal Yacht Britannia. But the swansong was this very, very ordinary merchant ship, which probably says something too about the decline of that great yard.”

Little fanfare met the launch of the Alisa, one marked by the absence of the cheers of the 20,000 strong crowd, the Queen among them, who joined the roar and rattling of the chains that soundtracked the launch of the QE2 just five years earlier as millions around the UK watched on from home.

The Herald: NewsquestNewsquest (Image: Newsquest)

Ian Johnston believed that “a sense of failure” lingered in the air at the shipyard when the Alisa launched in the knowledge things were coming to an end. 

He said: “The Alisa was just a humble bulk carrier. What always mystifies me is just a few years earlier they had completed the QE2, the most famous ship in the world. 

“You would have thought that that would have been a licence to capitalise on that; that you’d be building and getting orders for all sorts of things. But it wasn’t like that. The QE2 sort of marked the end. It was just a bit of a paradox that they were building the finest ship in the world and then two or three years later the place is closing.

“I think at the high point you had 100,000 people attending launches. When the Aquitania was launched – that was 1913 admittedly – you had about 100,000 people, half of those would be in the yard and the other half would be on the other side of the river watching this. 

“They pulled in crowds from all over Britain, such was the fame of the shipyard and the ships they built. But Alisa as I said was a humble vessel.”
Johnston, who was a student at the time, wasn’t present at the event.

However, he said: “From the photographs I’ve seen there were just a handful of people there. 

“I think there was a sense of failure because the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders [episode], for all that it was a triumph in some ways it was a tragedy in others, because it really did highlight the fact that shipbuilding was, in a commercial sense, coming to an end, it was finished.

“So that would be hanging in the air with the Alisa. 

“This was the last ship and it was such a shame that such a distinguished and famous shipyard as this should end on such an ordinary note”.
The launch of the Alisa followed the collapse into receivership of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) consortium in 1971, three years after it was formed from a merger between John Brown’s and other Clydeside shipyards.

Read More: Historian calls for national museum to honour Clyde glory

It prompted the historic work-in protest under the leadership of shop steward leader Jimmy Reid as workers seized control of the yards amid the threat of closure by Edward Heath’s Conservative government as part of a policy of withdrawing support for what were deemed “lame duck” industries.

Heath’s government would soon back down and the Clyde yards would be saved, with the work-in generating “unprecedented” solidarity across the globe amid Reid’s famous declaration that: “There will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying, because the world is watching us.”

The Clydebank yard would later be saved from “oblivion” after being sold to US oil-rig giant Marathon Manufacturing Company, who would use it to build oil rig platforms for the North Sea oil industry.

But the decline had already started, although Johnston noted that the purchase of the yard did make for a “a sort of the feather in the cap” for UCS following its liquidation.

He added: “If Marathon hadn’t taken over the yard in 1972 they would probably have faced oblivion completely at that point. But when Marathon and then UIE took over, it extended its life to the end of the century.

“The Conservative government of the day wanted to rationalise the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders right down to just the Govan yard. So the John Brown yard was to go. 

“And the unions held out and said, ‘No we want all the yards saved’. So the only way they could save John Brown’s, the only buyer they could get for it, was Marathon oil company. And of course they took it over and that was the salvation.

“That was sort of the feather in the cap of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders if you like, that they had saved Clydebank and a lot of the workforce. I don’t think there was much concern about the fact they were stopping building ships and starting to build oil rigs. The fact was, they’d saved the working lives of a lot of people. And I think the focus was on that more than the wonderful history that John Brown’s had.”

Now, 50 years on from the launch of the Alisa, the Clydebank campus of West College Scotland stands in place of the iconic shipyard. 
And running along the east side of the college is a small road called Alisa Road, a lasting memorial – the only one – to the last ship to leave the former John Brown’s.