Clyde-built for the world


By Dorothy Bruce

Three items linked like pieces of a jigsaw in my mind this week. The first was a Scottish Government press release informing that External Affairs Secretary Fiona Hyslop is to undertake a five-day visit to Japan and the Republic of Korea to strengthen economic and cultural links. The second and third items were to do with shipbuilding, with Ferguson Marine announcing it had successfully led a European consortium in a bid for EU funding support to pave the way for the building and launch of the world’s first sea-going car and passenger ferry fuelled by Hydrogen. The third item was an announcement that the yard would receive a £30m loan from the Scottish Government to enable diversification into other areas.

In September 2014 Clyde Blowers Capital, led by entrepreneur, Jim McCall OBE, stepped in (with encouragement from the Scottish Government) to buy Ferguson Marine, renaming the company Ferguson Marine Engineering Ltd, saving almost 100 jobs and halting the loss of the last shipbuilders on the Clyde.

Speaking of the £30m loan, Finance Secretary Derek Mackay said: “This investment allows FMEL to further diversify their business by moving into innovative areas, like low-carbon marine projects, and target decommissioning work.

“The loan is a strategic investment in our industrial capability as both the marine engineering sector and commercial shipbuilding have vital roles to play in Scotland’s future.”

Japanese investment in Scotland

When Fiona Hyslop visits Japan she will not be cold calling as this will be her third visit since 2015. Scotland’s links with Japan have a 158-year foundation to build on. The links between the two nations date back to a time when Scots engineers helped Japan kick-start its own industrial revolution. With the recent EY attractiveness survey indicating that outside of London Scotland is the most attractive location for foreign direct investment for the 6th year running, such high profile visits are critical to Scotland’s global strategy to promote our unique assets to international audiences.

In 2016, goods exports to Japan increased by more than 10% to £460 million, making Japan the 19th top destination for Scottish exports. Foreign direct investment into Scotland from Japan over the past decade has accounted for almost 6% of all inward investment with 90 Japanese-owned businesses at 135 local sites employing 6,060, and generating a Scottish turnover of more than £1.8 billion. Japanese companies that already invest in Scotland include Mitsubishi, life sciences firm Kyowa Kirin (headquartered in the Scottish Borders) and medical firm Reprocell.

Clamour and clangs of the Clyde

Why did these items link arms in my mind? Well, in its heyday Clyde yards built ships for much of the world including Japan. Sadly those days are long gone and Ferguson Marine carries the flag of the once great Clyde shipbuilding industry. Although in decline for many years, I still remember growing up in a Glasgow where it was almost inevitable a member of your family or your circle of friends worked in a Clyde yard. I remember too one summer when in my late teens taking a couple of Dutch girls on a trip ‘doon the water’ and being unable to hear much on the boat apart from the sounds of banging and clanging from the yards lining the shores of the river. All gone now – with the exception of Ferguson’s.

Mitsubishi’s Scottish founder

During that century and a half Scotland’s trade with Japan was based on the supply of ships and expertise, building on the foundations of another Scot who took advantage of the openings brought about by the upheaval of the Meiji restoration. In 1859 Fraserburgh born Thomas Blake Glover arrived in Nagasaki to make his mark in Japan where he became increasingly influential.

In 1873 the shipbuilding business set up by Yataro Iwasaki was renamed Mitsubishi — the acorn from which the international Mitsubishi conglomerate grew. The following year Glover joined it, inputting not only his expertise but also considerable funds.

Glover ordered ships from Scotland, initially from Aberdeen, later from Clyde shipyards. Lobnitz & Co at Renfrew developed close links with Japan in the 1870s, and supplied the first vessel to the NYK, the Japanese shipping line. Several Japanese apprentices trained in the yard whilst bookkeepers from Lobnitz introduced a modern accounting system at Mitsubishi.

In a previous article I mentioned Alex Reid, the Glasgow art dealer. Reid’s younger brother, James, a friend of Henry Lobnitz, was a naval draftsman working in the Nagasaki shipyard on the recon­struction of the Japanese navy. Glover had an interest in the yard, which had belonged to the Japanese government, and was then leased by Mitsubishi. The surviving correspondence between James and members of his family provides a fascinating insight into a country, closed for years to the West, coming to terms with the modern world.

Empress of Scotland

Napier Shanks & Bell, another Renfrew yard, also built vessels for Japan. The first, the Meiji Maru, designed in 1874 for light­house work, is preserved in a dry dock at Tokyo Maritime University – a reminder of Scottish co-operation in the modernisation of Japan. Another of the ships the yard built, the Sanuki Maru, helped evacuate refugees from the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. In 1930 Fairfield’s built the Empress of Japan, described as the finest Pacific liner ever built, later renamed Empress of Scotland.

Japan still recognizes in the 21st century the contribution Scotland has to offer in engineering and cutting edge technology.

The Clyde’s bizarre Russian floating palace


With shipbuilding in mind my thoughts wandered to another ship, not built for Japan but for Russia. The quirkiness of the story appeals to me.

Tsar Alexander II’s steam yacht, Livadia, must surely rank as one of the most bizarre vessels built in a Clyde yard. At the time it was described as a floating palace on the back of a steel turbot. The novel ship was the brainchild of Admiral Popov of the Russian Navy, who after digesting an article written in 1868 by the Scottish shipbuilder and marine engineer John Elder, had a naval architect design the Novgorod and Vitse-admiral Popov, shallow-draft armoured warships. Elder advocated that widening the beam of a ship would reduce the area requiring protection, and would allow the carrying of thicker armour and heavier, more powerful guns in comparison to a normal ship. A ship of such a design would have a shallower draught, and to match the speed of a normal ship only a moderate increase in power would be required. The Vitse-admiral Popov was not quite circular, an ungainly ship that was a prodigious consumer of coal so limiting her range. Moreover it took 40–45 minutes for her to make a full circle, and the ship was almost unsteerable in a severe storm.

Nevertheless, with the bit of new design between his teeth, Popov decided that the new imperial yacht to replace the one destroyed in a storm, should follow a similar design. So in the summer of 1879, drawings were sent to Sir William Pearce of John Elder & Co in Govan, Glasgow and Pearce agreed to build the unusual yacht. It was built in 1879/80 at a cost of £300,000, the most expensive steam yacht to have been built at that time.

The Livadia was like no other yacht. With its innovative pontoon hull it was hoped the unusual shape would satisfy the design requirements of speed, strength, spacious comfort and stability – Tsar Alexander II being prone to severe seasickness. Flower beds and a large fountain were included in the sumptuous fittings as well as striking tile panels by William De Morgan.

Severe doubts about her design and performance prompted great demand for tickets for her launch, attended by Grand Duke Alexei of Russia (representing the Tsar), Admiral Popov, the Duchess of Hamilton, (who christened her) and Bret Harte, the American Consul. In his launch speech, the Grand Duke is reputed to have said, “Glasgow is the centre of the intelligence of England”, though newspaper reporter, later author, Neil Munro suspected this was an invention. (The Brave Days, Neil Munro, 1931)

Unlike the Novgorod and Vitse-admiral Popov the Livadia turned out initially to be a surprisingly maneuverable and stable ship with a respectable maximum speed of 15.7 knots with her efficiency comparable to conventional ships. Her performance during sea trials surprised most naval architects and this was attributed to the favorable placement of the propellers.

Visitors were hugely impressed by the size and luxury of the ship’s interiors which had been designed by William Leiper, the Glasgow architect responsible for the unusual Templeton’s Carpet Factory building, and the Sun Life Building in West George Street, which won a silver medal at the 1900 Paris International Exhibition. He also designed the interior of Glasgow City Chambers’ Banqueting Hall, for which some of the Glasgow Boys painted murals.

At the end of September 1880 the Russian crew of 24 officers and 321 enlisted men boarded the Livadia and began preparations for a homeward voyage. The Livadia’s trip back to Russia was a stormy one, and it became apparent her wide flat bottom was highly prone to damage by wave slamming A storm was encountered. As a result the hull cracked, and the space between inner and outer bottoms was flooded.

From floating palace to warehouse

The Livadia could have been quickly repaired in a dry dock but because of her unusual design none of the world’s docks was wide enough to take her, not even the dry dock in Nikolaev designed for the battleship Novgorod and the other popovkas, as it had not been expanded to fit the Livadia. So the steel turbot-like yacht languished in Ferrol, Spain for seven months, until the Russians dispatched 83 men to carry out repairs. The yacht eventually reached Sebastopol at the end of May 1881 to find that Tsar Alexander II had been assassinated the previous March. So the Tsar never had the opportunity to appreciate his new yacht’s lavish interiors, with its tile panels by William De Morgan, and determine whether its unusual design had been successful.

Alexander III had no interest in resurrecting what he saw as an inherently flawed ship, and only once did she leave dock before the luxurious yacht was stripped of its fittings and engines, leaving the rusting hulk relegated to the mundane job of a floating barracks and warehouse, before finally decommissioned in 1926 and broken up for scrap in 1927.

The Livadia may have come to an ignominious end but, at the beginning of the 20th century, its design attracted renewed interest from shipbuilders as the risk of torpedo attacks forced navies to reconsider ship protection techniques and employ submerged anti-torpedo bulges similar to that used on the Livadia. Its design prompted new thinking, new ways of resolving problems – just as Ferguson is doing today with its hydrogen-powered ferry. Had Scotland been able to retain more of its shipbuilding industry then other yards may also have been at the forefront of new technology and design, just as Scotland was during its great years of ship and locomotive building.

This video link shows images of this famous Clyde-built yacht including the incredible interiors designed by Glasgow architect William Leiper. Furniture by Gillows.