Port Glasgow took its name from the fact that the upper reaches of the Clyde, closer to Glasgow, were too shallow to accommodate ships, sometimes being as shallow as 2 feet at low tide. The Glaswegian authorities therefore bought land at Newark Castle in what is now Port Glasgow and used that as their main port: this occurred in 1668 and Port Glasgow was for a number of years the Clyde’s main customs port.
Glasgow was once known as the second city of the British Empire: a vast proportion of the ships, used for both military and commercial purposes, were built in and around Glasgow on the shores of the River Clyde. The Clyde was in many ways the maritime powerhouse of the British Empire.
The first ship to be built in Port Glasgow was the Comet in 1812, Europe’s first ocean-going steamship and establishing the Clyde as a global shipbuilding mecca. Some of the world’s most famous ships have been built on the Clyde, with Port Glasgow at its centre: John Brown and Company at Clydebank built and launched RMS Queen Mary launched on 26th September 1934; RMS Queen Elizabeth launched on 27th September 1938; and RMS Queen Elizabeth II (The QE2) launched on 20th September 1967.
John Brown and Company were responsible for building and launching a number of other world famous ships, both civil and military, including HMS Hood, HMS Repulse, RMS Lusitania and the aircraft carrier HMS Indefatigable. A number of other excellent shipbuilders were prolific on the Clyde, including Fairfield Govan, William Fife Fairlie, Alexander Stephen & Sons Glasgow, Scotts Bowling, Ailsa Shipbuilding Company, Yarrow Shipbuilders Scotstoun, Ardrossan Dockyard, James Lamont & Company Greenock, Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, Govan Shipbuilders, Scotstoun Marine, Campbeltown Shipyard and Kvaerner Govan.
Glasgow and Clyde shipbuilding was really the lifeblood of many Glasgow and West of Scotland communities. The yards were forever a hive of activity, with engineers, platers, welders, sheet metalworkers, plumbers, electricians, draftsmen, painters and many other craftsmen applying their trade. Local communities were highly dependent on the shipyards for employment, so that shipbuilding was really an economic necessity for many families, and it also played a social function too. Trade unions were also strong in the shipyards, with union leaders leading their men out over a variety of industrial disputes. Getting a job in those days was often as simple as turning up at a mass rally of men at a shipyard, where positions would be announced and candidates selected on the spot.
In more recent times Clyde shipbuilding has diminished sharply, with rising costs, foreign competition and the decline of Britain as an industrial exporter. World War II also helped in the demise of Clyde shipbuilding, with the German Luftwaffe inflicting serious damage on Clydebank where many of the shipyards were located. Whereas once there were more than 70 shipyards on the Clyde, today there remain only two: Ferguson Shipbuilders at Port Glasgow, largely producing car ferries; and BAE Systems Surface Ships on the former site of the Yarrow Shipbuilders, specialising in advanced surface naval ships.
If you are interested in finding out more about shipbuilding on the Clyde and in Scotland generally, then the excellent Scotland’s Great Ships is for you.