The First World War
During the First World War, the Clyde was the most important British centre of production of warships: 43 per cent of the tonnage of ships ordered by the Admiralty between 1914 and 1919 was built in the Clyde yards. Most of these ships were built in yards which had experience of warshipbuilding: John Brown's, Fairfield's, Beardmore's, Scott's, Denny's and Yarrow's. These yards had already built a substantial proportion of the warships ordered during the rearmament before the war.
The war caused problems for the shipyards. It was very difficult to obtain adequate supplies of imported raw materials, especially steel and timber, and it was difficult to maintain the labour force. The west of Scotland was a major recruiting area and many shipyard workers volunteered very soon after war was declared. The shipyards had to compete with one another and with other industries for workers.
Working relations between employers and workers were very tense during the war and this led to some famous disputes. Industrial relations in the industry had never been good and peace was kept by a fragile balance of power between the employers and the trade unions. This balance was upset by wartime conditions.
The Munitions of War Act
On the one hand, the unions were strengthened by the shortage of labour and they were soon able to achieve increased wages. On the other hand the government greatly strengthened the employers' power by the Munitions of War Act of 1915. The purpose of this Act was to allow the maximum output of munitions, including warships, and its provisions were quite dramatic. The main provisions were that munitions factories, including shipyards mainly working on orders from the Navy, should be declared 'controlled establishments'. In controlled establishments –
1. strikes were made illegal
2. disputes were to be settled by special munitions tribunals
3. no worker could be employed without a 'leaving certificate' from his
previous employer (to show that he was a satisfactory worker and was
leaving with his employer's permission)
4. 'dilution' of labour was to be organised so that skilled work could be
done by unskilled men and women.
This disruption of normal working practice was made more difficult by the mutual suspicion of employers and workers and the suspicion that the government were not satisfied to have agreement in industry: they required agreement on working practices which maximised production. There were some employers and some politicians who believed that the workers were potentially revolutionary and that they should therefore be dealt with very severely. There were some employers who wanted to use the war to break the unions' power. Most workers believed that JJ employers wanted to break the unions and that the employers were making large profits out of the war which were not all being paid out in increased wages. They also resented the idea, which at one stage was given national publicity by Lloyd George, the Minister for Munitions, that shipyard workers were not working hard enough and that most of them were usually drunk.
The shipwrights' strike
This was the background to the shipwrights' strike of August 1915 which nearly brought production on the Clyde to a standstill. A dispute between two shipwrights, accused of not attending to their work, and a foreman, was badly managed so that it escalated to a strike of 426 shipwrights in Fairfield's. Under the Munitions of War Act this strike was illegal and seventeen men were convicted and fined. Three of the men refused to pay their fines and were imprisoned. The shipwrights' union informed the government that there would be a strike of all Clyde shipwrights if the men were not released. The government appointed a Committee of Enquiry into the dispute which reported within one week. The report of this enquiry, which sat for a time in Duke Street Jail to take evidence from the imprisoned shipwrights, disentangled the facts of the original small dispute from the large amounts of politics and emotion which surrounded it and made practical recommendations about solving future problems of this kind. The union considered that the strikes were vindicated by the report, they paid the men's fines, the men were released and the Clyde strike called off.
This was one of the incidents which gave the Clyde its reputation for being revolutionary - 'Red' Clydeside. Memories of these wartime disputes certainly played a part in industrial relations in the shipyards for most of the rest of the century.
The appearance of women as labourers and metal workers in the shipyards was a dramatic development. (Women had always worked in shipbuilding, but as tracers and french polishers). By the end of 1916 it was calculated that about 1800 women were employed in the Clyde yards and that about 1000 were employed as labourers. Among the men there was considerable fear that this was the beginning of a permanent change in the pattern of employment. It is more difficult to establish if the women had corresponding hopes of careers in shipbuilding.
Wartime output, 1914-1918
The ships built on the Clyde included:
11 Cruisers 5 Monitors' 155 Destroyers 36 Submarines
2 Submarine Depot Ships 3 Aircraft Carriers
2 Destroyer Flotilla Leaders
and miscellaneous other vessels:
patrol boats minesweepers sloops
minelayers troopships hospital ships barges
oil-tank vessels salvage vessels
The Glasgow Herald Trades Review, 1919
Materials and productivity
· The authors of the book from which this extract is taken were university economists.
While steel is the most important item for shipbuilding, it is only one of a large number of materials on which the industry depends. Timber is probably the next in importance, but partly manufactured and wholly finished articles are required in large numbers and in great variety. These during the war period were all difficult to procure, high in price and irregularly delivered. Timber in particular caused difficulty, as it is almost wholly imported; and this scarcity led to some developments which are likely to be permanent. For cabin fittings, for instance, and other parts in which finer woods are required, home-grown ash, beech and pines were used; concrete was effectively employed as a substitute for wood in keel-blocks; and in other directions experiments were made with new wood-substitutes, with varying success. The shortage of timber mainly affected mercantile building, since little is used in naval construction.
The scarcity of materials was hardly less serious than the shortage of labour. The pre-war disparity in price between the German and the Scottish shipplates and sections delivered on the Clyde had led Clyde shipbuilders to go more and more to Germany for their plates. The cutting off of this source of supply with the outbreak of war caused scarcity and soaring prices; and the huge demands being made for steel for munitions intensified the problem of the shipbuilder.
By the end of the war the shipbuilding industry of the Clyde had a greatly increased productive capacity. Technically, certain advances had been made. Ships had been transferred in large numbers from their original used to more strenuous employments; general cargo vessels had been converted into carriers of oil in bulk; and river craft had had to be fitted and strengthened for work on the seas; and the work of reconstructing vessels for such new purposes yielded much valuable experience. Standardisation had resulted in simplification in many departments, particularly in template work; and the necessary speeding up in construction had led to the introduction, on a greatly extended scale, of pneumatic tools for riveting, caulking etc., and of electrical tools for drilling and other purposes. The increase in building facilities on the river itself is not of a kind which can be reduced to figures or indicated by any statement of the increased extension of building slips. In part it is visible to the eye in the shape of giant cranes which tower above the fog, suggestive of an illustration to Mr Wells' War in the Air.' But for the greater part the development consists of improvements and the re-allocation of space within the yards, making for speedier work and increased output. Fortunately many of the changes and improvements which were necessitated by the demand for naval construction, in which most firms took part, were of a kind available for post-war commercial work also. The net effect, therefore, was an improved capacity which promised well for the future.
W R Scott and J Cunnison, The Industries of the Clyde Valley During the War, 1924
· This is part of a list of soldiers who were released from military service to work on naval ships in the Port Glasgow shipyard of Russell and Co.
Russell and Co. Register of soldiers released for munition work, 1916-18