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Tales from the Yard.

Here you will find some tales and stories from the men who worked in the Henry Robb Shipyard in Leith, Scotland.
By the end of this history on the Yard in Leith, there will be stories from the majority of the trades represented in the shipyard.(Remember if you want your story here then send it in for review)

From the memories of

Ernest Cooper, MBE CE FiMechE

On the 4th of August 1941 I made the journey by tram to work for the first time, leaving home by 7 o’clock in the morning to enter the docks for the first day of my apprenticeship. I wore a new blue boiler suit. Later that same day much effort was taken to cover it in oil and grime better to return to anonymity. What do I remember; the dock gates; a policeman, watching; great respect, awe and fearful of transgression was the reaction of the day to this pillar of authority, what a difference now.

Lourie was right, a column of men rushing through these gates, along the dock side then to the yard gate hell bent to avoid ‘quartering’ by being even one minute late in ‘clocking on’ truly this took on the form of ‘match-stick men’.

I established my presence quite quickly. Ten days after starting for some reason I had to cut a piece of steel plate. In the platers shop there were many large belt drive guillotines constantly in use solely by the ‘platers’ cutting sections of plate for ship construction. During the ’dinner break’ lunch was an unknown word the machines were left running so I picked up a scrap of plate and cut it to size.

Within minutes all the plating shop came to a halt. A strike had been called and I learned the meaning of ‘demarcation’. I was quickly in front of the yard manager to be given a lecture in industrial relations in British Industry as it was in these days.

Schooldays were now very much past. The war was the wireless, newspapers and special editions and a weekly visit to the cinema to see Movitone News.

Vividly comes to mind the cry ‘Extra Extra, read all about it’ then one report 200 enemy shot down.

The work in the yard was wholly the building of naval craft, corvettes and tugs mainly.


Flower Class Corvette


Bustler Class H.M.Rescue and Salvage Tugs

In addition to building ships there was a constant stream of naval vessels in for repair and modification. Churchill had leased 50 World War 1 destroyers from America some of which came to Leith to be commissioned. The war at sea was vividly borne on us when the badly damaged destroyer Cossack came in after the battle of Narvick.

Mulberry Harbour
To the west of Robb’s yard was a large lagoon protected by a sea wall. Into this stretch of water all vessels were launched then to be towed round into the harbour of Leith for fitting out. We noticed in the far west corner activity that in time took on the appearance of large concrete buildings except these were in the water. Came days when one would be towed out into the firth. Not until long after D – day did we realise that we had seen being built sections of the Mulberry harbours produced for the invasion of Normandy.

I was attached to a mate, an experienced fitter who took great pains to ensure he taught me his trade. The first shock was a trip to the store to collect a ‘bastard file also male and female pipe ends’. All the counter hands were women !!!!!! Just outside the stores two very fat men worked. They have formed a vivid picture in my memory. To the left were the stores, in front the large doors into the machine shop and to the right exposed to the elements the jolly-faced two mostly sat fashioning copper pipe and sheet into all forms suitable for water and steam systems. They were the Copper Smiths and I was fascinated to see them making these huge copper bends, which would eventually carry seawater and low-pressure steam aboard one of the naval craft under construction. I saw how molten resin could be poured into a pipe then this could be bent without losing its shape. Heating afterwards then removed the resin. The blacksmiths shop was adjacent to the platers shop. Here steam hammers pounded into shape forgings and white-hot iron swiftly taken from charcoal fires would be fused under these hammers to manufacture forged steel components. The boiler shop took plate of many sizes and often by hand hammer alone would be formed and cut. Above the platers was the ‘loft’ a great expanse of wooden floor, polished and clean but for the laths laid out to determine the frames for the construction of a ship on the slips. All work here was full size. To one side was a smaller space here was the pattern shop. Shelves and shelves of past made wooden patterns all ready to go to the foundry when the need arose were neatly stacked and referenced. Around were the woodworking tools. Most memorable was that all this work used yellow pine. Today shipbuilding in the stocks is under cover but then all was in open air, wet or shine, cold or hot, work never stopped. Wooden structures surrounded a hull, scaffolding had yet to be developed. This was the time when ships were still plated and riveted, on these platforms high above the ground riveting gangs worked. The fire would be at ground level. Rivets ringed around the coals all in a heat sequence. By sound only the hottest rivet would be picked from the fire with tongs, then tossed many feet up to the ‘catcher’ to be then entered by the ‘placer’ into the hole in the plate for the ‘backer’ and ‘knocker-up’ to hammer into place. All by hand, no pneumatics at that time, just considerable skill. Once the rivet had cooled it was swabbed with paraffin, if then there was the slightest sign of penetration on the other side the offending rivet would be replaced. Later this knowledge was of great help to me including the winning of a case of champagne in the Congo. Often rivets would be too long, while still red-hot they would be placed partially through the hole for the excess to be removed by a chisel. You can imagine the noise of this activity inside the hull (a ship would be completely plated using bolts before riveting began) yet there were times when out of sight others and I would do our homework inside.
This great tale is to be continued on the new website, coming soon.

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The Loftsman.

A - Brief summary of my time at the Henry Robb Shipyard in Leith, Scotland.
I wandered into the Shipyard, of the then Robb Caledon Shipyard at the Victoria shipyards, on this August morning in 1971 a Gallus young 16 year old, (who did not know nothing) having already spent a full year at technical college after leaving school at 15 years old (the legal leaving age in them days) fascinated by the size of the place with red painted lumps of steel lying all over the place, and the noise of a real working shipyard all around. I suppose as a local Leith boy, it was natural that I would find my way into something to do with ships or the sea.

There seemed to be ships all around the place and workers going about there daily business. I remember the Antarctic survey ship Bransfield was being fitted out at the quayside and the huge tug Lloydsman was on the building berth just a month away from being launched.

So it was another year to be spent in the shipyard training school, where they were to teach us all about building ships? (Ye right) During this time there were also a couple of Ro/Ro Container ships being built. From there the star apprentice was picked to serve the rest of his apprenticeship in the Shipyard Loft to learn the “black art” of a Loftsman.

The loftsman was the guy responsible for taking a set of naval architects scantling lines and turning them into the finished and faired ships lines along with a body plan and offsets, from which the full size body plan was drawn down on the floor so that the platers could bend the frames of the ship. We were also to develop the hull and superstructure. So that the plates could be formed we made templates for almost every bit of steel that made up a ship, so you were involved in the whole process from start to finish.

I considered myself fortunate to be trained up by some of the best craftsmen in the shipyard and there were only 5 of them at the time so a pretty specialised job for sure.

There was 2 shipwrights there, as well to help with the outside dimensional control work.

It always seemed to be very busy or there was not much to do, this was due to the way that orders came into the yard as the Loft was always first to work on any order, and follow it all the way through to even putting the load lines and draught marks on the vessel. Over the course of the build as a loftsman you got to know every single frame line on a ship and we also developed every single plate so that it could be made.

It really was the most interesting job, and I learnt things then that were to go with me into other industries and benefit me for sure. To quote a comment put onto the it was a start to working life just not possible in today’s world.

Robb’s also got an order in to build 3 ships for the Admiralty and at least 2 of these ships were to serve in the Falklands conflict, one as a converted hospital ship H.M.S. Herald and one as a heavy lift supply/safety ship.

It was a love hate affair working in a shipyard to me at least, and happy to say that most of the time I loved it. So many characters worked there and I know a lot of them are still around so I shall refrain from mentioning names. The fact that the very funny comic Billy Connolly was an ex-shipyard welder meant that he had no shortage of material. I will say that it being the seventies there were some funny hair styles for sure. It was a funny place on reflection to look back at with all the different trades and fractions that operated in the yard, and then there were the management, who were on the whole o.k. except for the higher up ones at yard/director level who used to treat people as if they were something unwelcome that they had found on there shoe, they were not local is all I shall say about them, and the fact they would have been better of being around in the Victorian times (It would not have made them any more better humans, just more suited to the times).

I dare say that they felt the same way about the men, and remember this was in a time when man management was really unheard of and health and safety was a notice on a wall some place that no one looked at.

The only ones supplied with a hard hat were 3 or 4 of the above mentioned managers types. It was a dangerous place to work in those days and I even remember the so called medical centre was in fact a small cubical based inside the “gents toilet” no joke, seem to remember the guys name was Joe, and if you had anything that required more than an aspirin or a plaster then it was of to the local Leith hospital, he used to double up as the cleaner of the toilet by the way, “management making sure he had enough work to justify him being there”.

There were the inevitable strikes of course as the yard was a closed shop and we were always trying to get better pay and conditions, as the place had never progressed from the war times and in fact a lot of the machinery the guys had to work on was from the previous century, I kid you not, there were rolling machines and bending machines stamped with dates from the late 18th century and this was at a time when the industry was struggling to survive in a world market and wondering why the Japanese and others where streets ahead when it came to delivery times and costs.

All the while Robb’s built the H.M.S.Herald, H.M.S. Gooseander and the H.M.S.Pochard, while striving to win more orders to keep the place going, the next on the stocks was an order for Caledonian Macbryne for a passenger/car ferry to be called Pioneer.

There was an immense sense of pride felt when the ship that you had helped to build slipped down the ways and into the water for the first time, a pride of accomplishment that is, in my opinion unequalled in any other industry.

Then next on the list was to be the largest and most powerful tug to be built in the world at the time, called the S.A. Wolraad Woltemede a huge tug for South Africa.

Which has now, sadly just gone to the breakers (Feb 2010.)

At the same time 3 tugs were to be built that would ply there trade in the River Forth for a while looking after Tankers coming to offload crude at the Hound Point Terminal which by the way had been built in the yard as well, this was regarded as a plumb job at the time because you got an extra 5 pence per hour as an apprentice working on this, yes I did say 5 pence. “The good old days”

Robb’s were then to build the largest ship ever built in the Leith yard; a vessel called Garrison Point at nearly 8,000 tonnes the longest and biggest.

This was a busy time for the yard and lots of employment for a short while, but there was always the worry of their not being another order just around the corner, and of course the management played upon this to get there way.

The gas tanker Borthwick was built then and another ferry for cal-Mac but we were now into the “Thatcher ara” and the threat of no work always on the horizon.

Robb’s got allocated a couple of crane barges from the huge Polish order secured by the government at the time, most other yards got a bigger share, but Robb’s was in a staunch Labour ward so the Tories had no chance of getting back in there, so I reckon policy was just to give the yard bits of the large order and concentrate the majority of the order to yards that were in somewhat marginal seats, it all boils down to politics and that business is perhaps just as dirty as shipbuilding. In fact the only time they ever spent any money on cleaning the yard up was when some “Flunky” was to visit and be given a look around.

This was at a time of huge unrest amongst the workers in the U.K. and the yard would be full of rumour and counter rumour. The shipyard dropped the Caledon part when the yard with that name closed down in Dundee and they reverted back to the name which it had always been referred to “Henry Robb”

I left the place for a little while and then was asked back, in the meantime a couple of tugs had been built for Nigeria and work was going on for a couple of North Sea supply ships along with a new Lightship for Trinity house, but the yard had changed a bit and it just did not seem to be the same place anymore, a lot of the feeling of camaraderie had gone from the yard and I think there was a new feeling of look after yourself time.

The place had been too slow to change, too slow to embrace changes in working practices and technology and with too little investment (make’s you wonder where all the money went in the good times), it was dying a slow death, now part of the nationalised British shipbuilders group the small yards had no voice.

The early eighty’s an order was won from Sealink Ferries for 2 vessels (I in fact done the last full size lines to be completed in Leith) which at the time we did not realise were to be the last vessels launched in Leith (Also managed to get onto the launch of the last one) bringing to an end over 600 years of a proud shipbuilding tradition. This was not a good time to be relying on the incumbent Tory government for work and the inevitable was going to happen even though we tried to fight on and keep the work in Leith.

So a sad end but I am always proud of the fact that I served my apprenticeship as a Loftsman in the Henry Robb shipyard and worked with some of the best and finest craftsmen in the industry. It is something engrained into you and I for one will never forget where I started out.

The Loftsman
“Fairline” A line that is pleasing to the eye.

The Ship's Joiner
The Shipyard Joiners Story

I, like many others, left school on the Friday, and started work on the following Monday. My uncle, Peter Jeffrey, who was a left handed riveter in the old hand squads, got me a start as an apprentice joiner in Robb's. I started with two other lads, Billy Harper, and Davy Wood, we were put into the Joiner's store as store boys, until we were 16 and old enough to start our apprenticeships. There was no structured training for the stores, but we just "Picked it up," as we went along, learning how to measure screws, and identify general ironmongery, whilst fetching and carrying, collecting time cards daily, and assisting in the plywood stores, or Fairways shed, at the Old Dock, where completed furniture was stored prior to fitting out in the ships.

On reaching my 16th birthday I was put "On the bench," with a tradesman, and was given some sandpapering to do. This seemed easy, but at the end of the day my fingers were raw with the abrasion, some toughening up had to happen quickly! Then the first job,- to make my own tool chest, all hand dovetailed, in Californian Pine, with sliding trays and brass lock, completed with chest handles. The paint shop painted it, and sign wrote my initials on the front, I still have it, 61 years later!

Then, after a spell in the Joiner's shop with a journeyman, I was sent out on to a ship, "On the stocks," Here marking out took place to determine the position of the wooden bulkheads dividing the accommodation into cabins, and locating welded nuts and hangers for the fixing of furniture and fittings. We were given a leather glove, and a stick, and would hold the nut or hanger in position while the welder tacked it. Of course we suffered from welding flashes, and were entitled to a free pint of milk daily, (Early Health & Safety.) The first ship I worked on in the "Fitting out " berth at the West Pier, was the BI ship Mombasa, A passenger/cargo vessel plying between Africa and Arabia and India largely for the Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca. She also had first class passenger cabins, and these were fitted out to a very high standard. I worked with a tradesman fitting out the first class smokeroom, all Sycamore panelling and Walnut French doors and furniture.

I worked on many of the ships built for Australia and New Zealand, remembering particularly the Ligar Bay, a bulk cement carrier. I was also on most of the tugs built at that time for Manchester Shipping Canal. These were excellent training for older apprentices, as the curved shapes of the tugs meant much more detailed fitting.

I did sea trials on another couple of tugs for Bibby Line in West Africa, the Fourah and the Farren. I was appointed "Key Boy" for these ships, which meant holding all the keys of the ship securely, and allowing access to those requiring it, both at the berth and during trials. What we did in effect, was to cut our own skeleton keys for each of the lock suites, and that saved constantly looking up the keyboard. I remember, before the Fourah sailed for Africa, being called out to fix a lock on the binnacle. It was late afternoon, and I was told I could probably book "Overtime." (*A big bonus in those days!) To save time, instead of cutting a new key, I altered the wards in the lock, so any key would fit it! This still took time, and I was in the Tug's engine room, using the vice. On coming up to the bridge it was a dark winter’s afternoon, and the boat had sailed! No one realizing I was still on board I At eighteen years old, I was starving, and just wanted home for my tea !Robb's sent the small steam pinnace they had, and took me off just off the May Island, much to my relief !

Industrial relations were always very poor in my days at the yard. There was no trust at all between management and workers. Conditions and pay were worse than other industries’, even going to the toilet, was regulated, you had to drop your brass number check at the entrance turnstile to use the toilet, and if you were more than 7 minutes you lost a quarter of an hour's pay. Timekeeping generally was very strict. A minute late in the morning meant that you lost a quarter of an hour, 16 minutes lost you half an hour, and at 31 minutes late, you were locked out for the day, losing a whole days pay. For apprentices, at the end of your five years apprenticeship, all these lost minutes were added up, and added to your time at apprentice rates; even tough you'd done five years, and were on journeymen's wages! There were no official tea breaks, but everyone managed an illicit cuppa! The hot water urns for making tea at dinner break were kept padlocked until the hooter sounded for break!

I did however love working there. The work was of the highest standard, and everyone took pride in their craft and the ships we worked on. The men were rough, but kind in many ways, and helped to build our characters in later life, setting standards and moral guidelines, and particularly giving us a Political education, and examples of decent working class living.

I left the yard after my three years in the Army. I returned for one year on return, but then left never to return.

It's sad to see the closure of such a fine yard and the loss of employment for so many men whose community was so dependent on Shipbuilding, the end of an era.

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The Ship's Plumber
Henry Robb
My Apprenticeship 1951 - 1956

In March 1951, I presented myself at the plumbing shop of Henry Robb, Shipbuilders at Victoria Pier for my first day of apprenticeship as a ships plumber. This would last for a period of five years.
For the first time in my life I wore a pair of dark overalls and working steel toecap boots. It was strange to say the least. The previous week I had been wearing a suit, shirt and tie as required of an office worker. What had I let myself in for? I would soon learn. I was going in as a raw lad and would emerge a man. Shipyards were, as I was soon to find out, renowned to sort out men from boys. To quote the old maxim, `if you can`t stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen`. It was not an unfriendly place, and the friends I made there would become friends for life. However that was yet to come.
I was met by the plumbing foreman, Duncan `Dandy` McLean. For the unitiated, the `Dandy` was synonymous with the name McLean through the fictional detective character featured in the Weekly News at that time.
I was immediately assigned to work with an experienced plumber, David Borthwick within the workshop proper. How disappointed I was, for I was hoping to begin work on the ships straight away.
My workplace was on a mezzanine floor above the main workshop. This was not a pleasant place, for the smoke from the gas fires that heated pipes for bending drifted up to it, despite the presence of large air extractors.
My work here consisted of lead lining the wooden rocket boxes that would contain distress signals, lead window boxes that were fitted beneath the opening windows of wheelhouses, making lead pipe flanges, and lead 4" soil adaptors for W.C.s on board ship.
Although I did not enjoy the working environment of it, I appreciated I was getting a firm grounding in the basics of the trade. I knew that the boys who were assigned to shipboard work in the first instance were denied this learning.
However, after six months I was moved out into the yard proper where I was to work on a seagoing tug boat, the Arusha. This was still on the stocks. Here I became knowledgeable in nautical terms.
It was a language all on its own. Aft - back, for`wd - front, bulwark - side, midships - middle, deckhead - ceiling, bulkhead - wall, companionway - corridor, the list was endless.
For the continued story of The Ship's Plumber

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The Welder
Rather than get someone to re-write their story, you will find a welders story here,  
For the Story of Willie Wright the Shipyard welder.

You can now read more stories and also send in your tale of the yard at the new website which you will find at 

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