Shipping & Shipbuilding News -  30 July 2007 - The Brightest Maritime Daily

Feature: The Story of the Clyde Bank Shipyard
As giant shipyard crane is opened to the public, Shipping Times looks at the history of one of the world's most famous shipyards...


Last week saw the latest tourist attraction opened on the River Clyde, the towering Titan crane built by Wm Arrol situated in Clydebank where John Brown's famous yard constructed the world's biggest ships of their time.

Visitors can reach the jib by lift and step out and take in the dizzying views over the river that crane operators used to see - or rather, they will see a 21st century reincarnation of the former shipyard, which was flattened except for the crane just a few years ago.

Given that one of the world's most famous ships, the QE2 was built there and will visit the river of her birth in September, Shipping Times takes this opportunity to give a history of the much loved shipyard and some of the ships that were built there.

Amongst the finest ships built in the Clydebank yard in Victorian times were the Inman Liners CITY OF PARIS and CITY OF NEW YORK

Part One: The Beginnings

The story of the yard goes back to Victorian times when the firm of J&G Thomson needed to expand their activities and seek a new site for their shipbuilding business. They chose a site north of Glasgow on the Clyde situated opposite the River Cart, a location that would become very significant in the future. The area was then known as the Barns of Clyde.

This new shipyard opened in 1871 and was given the name of the Clyde Bank Shipyard, this indeed was the name of their old yard which was situated roughly where the Science Centre now glitteringly stands at what was once Plantation Quay in Govan.

The shipyard needed workers so soon a town clustered around it, and smart sandstone tenements in neat rows were given the name the Clyde Bank tenements - it was not long before the place itself became known simply as Clydebank. It is a moot point that when it is said (and has been said by those who should know better!) that with the regeneration of the Clydebank shipyard the people of Clydebank are getting their river back, there would be no Clydebank at all without the shipyard!

The Thomson brothers had had long an association with Cunard and indeed one of the last ships built in the final years of their Govan operation was the ABYSSINIA of 1870. But it was in the early 1880's that they really got down to business together and between 1879 and 1883 built five ships for the company including the splendid SERVIA of 1881 and the AURANIA of 1883. Thereafter they only constructed one vessel for Cunard under the name of J&G Thomson and that was passenger tender SKIRMISHER in 1884.


What J&G Thomson were probably most noted for in the late 'eighties were the ships they built for the Inman Line, a great rival to Cunard on the North Atlantic. These were the imposing, if old fashioned, CITY OF NEW YORK and CITY OF PARIS, great three funnelled ships with clipper bows built for the luxury market. These two ships, built in 1888 and 1889 were the first ships to exceed 10,000 tons since the GREAT EASTERN and did much to propel the Thomson brothers into the public gaze.

But of course the Clydebank yard built many other vessels and of many different types. We cannot forget that they built ships for the more local of trades such as services on the Clyde and west coast. They constructed many a famous paddle steamer and one of the most famous was the mighty COLUMBA for David MacBrayne in 1878. This imposing twin funnelled paddle steamer was 301 feet long, making her the biggest Clyde steamer of her day and was employed on the 'Royal Route' to Ardrishaig, so called after HM Queen Victoria famously made a highland trip and truly started the fashion for holidays in Scotland for the well to do. This powerful ship lasted until 1936 when she was broken up at Dalmuir, but her legend lived on for decades afterwards, and still does amongst aficionados today.

The Presidential Yacht, MAYFLOWER

It is not possible (with regards to the purposes of this article) to cover every ship built by the Thomson brothers firm, but one other deserves mention and is a surprising one! As the firm neared the end of its days under J&G they concentrated on building ships of war, but they also built a vessel called the MAYFLOWER IN 1897.

She was built for Ogden Goelet of New York, one of the great society names of the era in that city and a wealthy banker, as a private yacht. But in 1898 she was commissioned by the US Navy and saw service in the war between the US and Spain and acted as flagship on subsequent occasions before becoming a Presidential Yacht in 1905.

On board her President Roosevelt welcomed the delegations for the Russian-Japanese peace conference on the 5th August and played a central role in these until their conclusion. She served as a Presidential Yacht until 1929 and in that time many a royal and head of state was entertained on board. It is said too that Roosevelt used the yacht to impress Mrs Edith Bolling as he courted her!

But now was the depression and she was disposed of, a succession of failed enterprises came and went until WW2 when she acted under the US Coastguard and as a training vessel. After the war she was purchased by Collins Distributions and went to Israel. She was scrapped finally in 1950.

Continue to Part Two: John Brown

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