They Once Were Shipbuilders
R O Neish - writer of no less than seven volumes on Leith Docks and its many trades - on shipbuilding
From top: Hawthorns & Co., Great Junction St and SS Sirius. Credit: Francis Caird Inglis, 1915, West Passage Maritime Museum
Many outside the Edinburgh area are often surprised to learn that shipbuilding had been a mainstay of industry and employment in the Port of Leith since the 14th century; 400 years before they even thought about building ships on the Clyde.
A shipbuilding pedigree unmatched anywhere else in Scotland and for that matter the United Kingdom.
Throughout that long time span Leith has been at the forefront of many firsts. Including the first dry dock and the building of the SS Sirius, first steam ship to cross the Atlantic.
It was a town sought after and fought over throughout those turbulent times, always with the larger town of Edinburgh casting envious glances down at Leith; which by the 17th century had overtaken Bo’ness to become Scotland’s main port.
Over time, Leith established itself as the main entrance for goods and people coming to Scotland from the south as well as the near continent, France in particular.
As the port and its importance grew so did shipbuilding in the docks. In 1720 the first dry dock in Scotland was built at the western entrance to Leith harbor.
Ten years later a stone pier was erected, extending the existing wooden pier by some 300ft. A small dock was also built on the west side of the river mouth.
Excavated by AOC Archaeology as part of a development by Cala Homes, this important survivor of Leith’s ma ritime past was constructed towards the end of the Napoleonic War and incorporated large defensive artillery bastions.
The remains of one bastion were uncovered along with two dry docks constructed as part of its original design and the easternmost of the docks was extended over the bastion wall in the late 19th century, a period when the area to the north was reclaimed to form shipyards.
(N.B. Working with the developer of the project, new foundations were successfully designed to preserve in-situ these important remains and minimise any potential impacts.)
Alongside the larger shipyards set up around this time, a great many smaller “Leith Smacks” would be built by numerous small boat builders. This was during the time of the huge herring fleets that based themselves in the small ports around the Forth and beyond.
Builders worked on Leith Sands, with its small incline, so they could easily launch their boats into the Forth. Once completed and launched they would move on to the next job.
The history of the docks of Leith teems with memories, people, cargoes, intrigues, industries, ships, and, over the centuries, shipbuilders. Here are just a few:
Sime & Rankins: Builders of sailing ships such as the frigate Fox which saw action in the Crimean War and warships such as the large West Indiaman, the Arcturus. (Theirs was the dry dock built in 1720 mentioned earlier).
Morton and Co: The inventors of the patent slip for hauling up vessels for repair instead of placing them in dry dock.
Lachlan Rose and Son: Best known today as the people who produced Roses Lime Juice Cordial, the world’s first commercially produced fruit cordial, from their Commercial Street factory in 1868.
Anderson’s: Who in 1827 launched one of the largest wooden ships to be built in Leith up to that time, the Gladstones.
Menzies & Co: Builders of SS Sirius, the first steamship to ever cross the Atlantic, arriving from Cork in 18 days. Beating its rival, the Great Western, by a scant few hours. They also launched the Royal Mail ship Forth in 1841 - the largest ship then built in Leith.
During the 20th century there were still many shipyards in the port including Cran & Somerville and Hawthorns, both of whom converted and re-equipped many surrendered German merchant ships after the First World War – Hawthorns also built railway locomotives.
In the early 19th century Leith promised to be one of the world’s greatest shipbuilding centres going forward but they lost that accolade to Glasgow’s Clydeside.
As a result of that, for most of the 20th century, Henry Robb Ltd (known locally as Robb’s) was the major, or latterly the only, shipbuilder in Leith.
Mr Henry Robb senior started business in April 1918 in premises rented from James Currie & Co (later to become Currie Line Ltd). Robb’s took over Ramage’s Victoria Shipyard in the early 1930s allowing their business to expand. It remained their main yard until the company’s demise.
Which came when Henry Robb Ltd, Shipbuilders & Engineers, were ordered to close by the Government in 1984. Thus the building of the ferry St Helen by Robb’s, in 1983, proved to be the last ship to be built in their shipyard. Ending over 660 years of recorded shipbuilding in the Port of Leith.
Info: R O Neish has written no less than seven volumes concentrating on Leith Docks and its many trades – not least, shipbuilding. Available at: www.theloftsman.com
Thanks: To the fine folk at the 100 Days of Leith project for all their help. Read more here: www.leithforever.org