As I stood on the Birkenhead Priory tower overlooking the yard the 10.55 hooter, followed by one at 11, I presume signifying a tea break. I remember my own time spent working in a huge factory where our day was dictated by the rhythm of the hooter. 7.30 hooter – pick up the tools and get to work, 9.30 hooter- brew, 9.45 hooter – back to work, 12.00 hooter – dinner, 12.45 hooter – back to work, 4.25 hooter- tools down and tidy up, 4.30 hooter – go home. Next day the same. Repeat as nauseum.
Despite being a Sunday, there was still activity, the groans of steelwork being worked and vehicles moving round site. A line of men walked along the dock, seemingly tiny against the vast ships. Of course, Cammell Lairds isn’t that big a yard by many standards, and not as big as it used to be. But it’s still working, still got orders for new builds and repairs, and a diversification into nuclear engineering will doubtless making use of the Construction Hall that dominates the yard.
An unpainted Sir David Attenborough, AKA Boaty McBoatface can be seen on the left.
The Construction Hall is a sizeable space, not as vast as the Devonshire Dock Hall at Barrow (by some margin, the biggest building I’ve ever set foot in), but big enough to accommodate the hull of RRS Sir David Attenborough (albeit without superstructure). The 50 m high hall was, was completed in 1978, long after the yards heyday. Indeed only four ships were launched after it’s completion in the 1970’s, six in the 1980’s and two in the 1990’s before the yard closed in 1993. The site is much reduced in footprint compared with the aerial photos from 1950, with several buildings demolished or reduced in size around 2007, although some of the buildings on the site today can be identified.
The yard was in the thick of the British shipbuilding turmoil of the 1970’s and 80’s, being nationalised in 1977 and then privatised in 1986 when it became a subsidiary of VSEL for the construction of three diesel attack submarines. On completion of these the yard closed, although the company name continued in ship repairing and with a good order book the company borrowed heavily in the late 90’s to win the contract to build a new middle section for the cruise liner Costa Classica. The section was built and the ship was to sale to Birkenhead in early 2001 to be cut into two and the new section welded in, between the two halves thus extending the ship. All was going well – the ship was underway in the Bay of Biscay – when the owners gave the order to turn back to Genoa, claiming the new section wasn’t ready (a claim contested by Cammell Laird). The company was thrown into turmoil, the unused section was eventually sold for scrap, and the company was bought by A&P Shipbuilders in late 2001. The yard was then sold in 2005 to Northwestern Shiprepairers & Shipbuilders who changed their name to Cammell Laird Shiprepairers and Shipbuilders Ltd in 2008.
Ship building returned in 2012 when the yard won the contract for two small car ferries, these were launched the following year. The flight decks of the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers were also built.
Cammell Lairds have the contract to refit the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, and RFA Fort Victory being the current ship in the yard.
A view from the air in 1950, image courtesy of Britain From Above
A full list of ships built can be found here: http://www.wirralhistory.com/lairds.html
Bibliography and References:
Life at Lairds (David Roberts)
The Battleship Builders (Ian Johnston, Ian Buxton)