Saturday, 11 December 2010

Early days of shipbuilding on the Clyde

Bell's Comet


As we all know the rapid growth of our cities during the Industrial Revolution produced massive overcrowding, deprivation, disease and social turmoil. It also gave rise to fantastic opportunities for persons with the drive and intelligence to come to grips with the new technologies that were being developed.


At a time when the universities had just recently given up delivering lectures in Latin and only offered courses in the older professions of law, divinity and medicine a new generation of engineers was growing up, obtaining its education in the drawing offices and workshops that clustered in districts such as Glasgow's Tradeston. The insatiable demands of industry could not wait for academic institutions to catch up and those at the cutting edge were literally learning on the job.

The qualifications for the new breed of industrialist had nothing to do with social class or money. Typical was James Kennedy, whom I came across when researching my family history project. Born in 1797 into a family of millwrights in Liberton he left school at thirteen and within a few years was workshop manager to George Stephenson of Rocket fame. He eventually became the president of the Institue of Mechanical Engineers and was one of the founders of the Barrow Shipbuilding Company, later Vickers plc. You can read about him on my other blog here.

Four wheeled locomotive by Bury, Curtis and Kennedy

There was a close connection between the skills of mill-wrights and shipbuilders. Millwrights were experienced in designing and building steam engines and gearboxes and also had knowledge of hydraulics. For example Henry Bell had early experience of water mills, which helped with the design of the paddle-wheeler Comet in 1812.

There's a fascinating account of the Comet in "The Ingenious Mr Bell" by Brian D Osborne.

A good example of the new type of entrepreneur is Charles Randolph, who was born on 26 June 1809 and died on 11 November 1878. His father was a printer and stationer in Stirling and his grandfather had been a surgeon who was imprisoned at Carlisle after the 1745. He was educated in Stirling initially, then at Glasgow Grammar School (High School?), then studied classics at Glasgow University. He didn't enjoy this and transferred to Andersons Institution to study science. He served an apprenticeship as a millwright with David Napier at Camlachie, then started his own business as a millwright at Tradeston Street, now Centre Street, in 1834, being joined by John Elliott from 1837 to 1841. In 1852 he was joined by John Elder and the firm became Randolph & Elder. After that the firm branched out from mill machinery into marine engines.

John Elder, born on 8 March 1824, was the son of the legendary David Elder, who was really the father of marine engineering on the Clyde. David was brought up in Kinross-shire and observed water mills in his youth. A mathematical genius, he came to Glasgow in 1817 at the age of 32 to work as a millwright and engineer. By 1821 he was the manager of Robert Napier's works at Camlachie and the following year designed his first steam-ship engine, for the Leven, which plied between Glasgow and Dumbarton. His son John was educated at the High School and briefly at Glasgow University before being apprenticed to his father and Robert Napier. By the time of his death at 45 on 17 September 1869 he would have produced 111 marine engine sets and numerous patents.

The principle of the compound engine was discovered about 1781 by one Jonathan Hornblower. It reused steam by exhausting it from the first high-pressure cylinder into the second, larger, low-pressure one. The low initial steam pressures from the early boilers meant that it was unsuccessful. In 1811 an English inventor called Wolff had produced a better design, which John Elder developed as an advanced two-cylinder compound engine. In 1856 Randolph & Elder took out a patent for a version of this that put the cylinders in a "V" formation, saving space in the engine room. Further versions had two sets of high and low pressure cylinders, opposed to each other. Later, John Elder developed the triple expansion engine, which carried the principle further.

It seems that the first ship engined by Randolph & Elder was the Brandon, launched in 1854 from a site that I haven't yet identified, but probably at Napiers. She was equipped with Wolff-type engines designed by Elder and built in Tradeston. The Brandon became part of the fleet that worked in South America. It was a very successful design and led immediately to orders from the Pacific Steam Navigation Company for sister ships, the Inca and Valparaiso. Because of the efficiency of the engines these ships were able to travel vast distances with minimal coal consumption.

Randolph & Elder went on to become a major force on the upper Clyde. Both men became extremely wealthy, partly as a result of building at least five extremely fast blockade-runners for the Confederate navy during the American Civil War, the Condor, Evelyn, Falcon, Flamingo and Ptarmigan. It's fascinating that these devoutly religious entrepreneurs were not averse to taking part in what the US government regarded as a form of piracy and doing business with people who they knew were supporters of slavery. The UK government turned a blind eye, partly because in typical fashion the USA had refused to sign the international treaty banning piracy at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. When Abraham Lincoln decided that his government should after all sign it and outlaw the British ships he was told that he was rather late. Ultimately both principals left fortunes to good causes, Randolph endowing inter alia the Randolph Hall at Glasgow University and Elder the park named after him in Govan.

There is an excellent book on the Scottish blockade-runners, "Clyde Built" by Eric J Graham.

In 1864 Randolph & Elder moved to the Fairfield Farm at Govan, when they renamed their business Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company.

My direct ancestor Angus Kennedy played a part in the history of Randolph & Elder. Angus, born in 1809, started out as a cabinetmaker and became in succession an iron turner, a mill-wright, a civil engineer, an architect and a sort of industrial estate agent before dying of overwork in 1870. He does not seem to have had any formal training for these diverse occupations. His history is also on my family blog here.

By 1855 Angus was in partnership in a firm of millwrights at Cook Street, round the corner from Randolph & Elder. When the latter took over a site in Govan just up-river from Napier's yard they gave Angus his first major commission, to work as civil engineer with the architect William Spence in designing their new engineering works at 13 to 23 Tradeston Street. This building was completed in 1858 and stood until 1969.

After moving to Fairfield the company commissioned Angus Kennedy, this time wearing his architect's as well as his engineer's hat to design their new engine shop, which was his last and greatest project, currently Grade A listed. This was completed in 1868 and still stands at 1048 Govan Road.


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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water