One afternoon in early Spring 1967, a treat lay in store for me. Along with a number of school friends, I was driven to some fields at Renfrew, immediately to the south of the River Clyde.
The central attraction of the daytrip was lying several hundred yards across the river. Sitting on large wooden stocks, and not far from completion, workmen were busy labouring away on the construction of ship 736.
We were hardly the first group of school kids from the Glasgow area to be taken down to the River Clyde to watch the construction of another ship, but there wouldn’t be too many to follow us; the heyday of shipbuilding in this area had long since passed, at least for a ship of this magnitude.
Despite this, most of us school kids had heard the term ‘Clydebuilt’ and knew what it meant. This denoted not just that the ship was a product of the labours of workers on this stretch of water but that generations of local experience had been expended in its construction. Clydebuilt meant ‘world class’ to us and, indeed, the world over; Clydebank was renowned for building world class ships.
On the 20th September 1967, contract number 736 slipped its moorings and entered the Clyde to much celebration on the part of its craftsmen and builders, along with the wider shipbuilding communities that surrounded the yard. The Clyde is relatively narrow at this point and the might of the ship entering the water caused the river to overflow on the southern bank, soaking quite a few of those who had gathered to watch the launch in the process.
At the time, the ship’s designation as contract 736 gave no indication at all as to the majesty of the vessel in question, nor of the history that it was to create. Better known as the QE2, RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 was the latest (and, as it turned out, the last) in a series of luxury passenger ships built for the Cunard Line by John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank.
From the Lusitania in 1907, through the Queen Mary in 1934 and Queen Elizabeth in 1938, the QE2 had a series of hard acts to follow. All these ships may have sailed the world’s oceans from Liverpool or Southampton with the names of these cities printed on the hulls indicating their home ports, but for those who built them and the shipbuilding communities from which they emerged, they would always be Clydebuilt ships, and for Bankies, they were Clydebank built ships.
At the time of the launch of the QE2, Clydebank, in common with many other areas strung along the reaches of the upper and lower Clyde, had enjoyed an illustrious history as a world-renowned shipbuilding centre. However, and again as with many other Clydeside shipyards, the days of building vessels of this size and importance were rapidly coming to an end.
The history of Clydebank, as with much of the Clydeside region, is tied up with shipbuilding and other heavy industries. Shipbuilding was central to its industrial heritage, shaping the geography and architecture of the wider Burgh of Clydebank from its glory days as an industrial boom town at the height of industrialisation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, through the inter-war depression, World War Two and into the long period of gradual if somewhat uneven decline from the 1960s onwards.
Clydebank has always been overshadowed by its considerably larger neighbour, the city of Glasgow. Unlike other famous Clydeside shipbuilding centres such as Govan, on the southern banks of the Clyde, which was incorporated into Glasgow in 1912, Clydebank has always enjoyed an independent existence outside the formal boundaries of the city. Clydebank was formed as an independent Burgh in 1886 and this independence has featured largely in the area’s local identity and in its relation with other parts of the world. Part of the county of Dunbartonshire, Clydebank’s fortunes, like many of Scotland’s other industrial centres, were largely tied up with the fortunes of the British Empire, and the decline in that Empire during the course of the twentieth century was to hit these centres hard.
For a town with a population of just under 50,000 at its peak in the 1960s, Clydebank has few rivals in Scotland, never mind the rest of the UK, in relation to its global reach or global footprint. Shipbuilding of course represents one highly visible illustration of this, both with Clydebuilt ships sailing the seas far and wide and with the Royal Navy armed with major ‘Dreadnoughts’ and other fighting ships from Clydebank and other local yards.
For shipbuilders such as John Brown’s, luxury liners for the leisured consumption of a largely British and American elite was insufficient to ensure long term survival and it was imperial conquests, rivalry with Germany and two World Wars which, in the form of continuing and huge naval orders, was the life blood of Clydebank’s shipyards – and much of the wider industry and commerce of the area to boot.
Overseas trade, international political tensions, military rivalry and the changing fortunes of the world’s ruling classes were the global factors which impacted directly on the Clydebank economy and which shaped the demand not only for ships, but for other Clydebank produced goods.
Luckily for the area, it had more to rely on than just shipbuilding.