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The History of Clyde Shipbuilding: The 19th Century Atlantic Race and American Competition

I'm a graduate in Economic and Social History from the University of Strathclyde and studied the history of the Clyde for my honours thesis.

(photo by atomic jeep at Flickr Creative Commons)

(photo by atomic jeep at Flickr Creative Commons)

A competitive market opened up between Britain and the USA with the invention of the ocean-going liner trade in the early 19th century. Advances in steam technology and ship construction allowed bigger ships to be built that could achieve the trans-Atlantic voyage faster and more safely than ever before.

The Clyde shipbuilding industry became an important player not only in building ships but also in founding and operating shipping lines. The race was on to win the Atlantic Ocean.

The Royal Mail Steam Navigation Company

The mutual network between the shipping companies and the shipyards on the Clyde fully converged in the middle of the 19th century. This was the period which saw what economists describe as 'vertical integration' of the shipbuilding process.

The trend was begun by David Napier earlier in the century when he combined the construction of ships with improvements in marine engines.

His cousin Robert moved in the opposite direction as he entered the business of shipbuilding later in his career after enjoying success in engineering. In 1840 he acquired an interest in setting up the Royal Mail Steam Navigation Company with Canadian Samuel Cunard, starting a process that became more and more common.

For example, in 1856 the Anchor Line was formed mainly to conduct trade with Canada but after 1864 with the more profitable service to New York. In 1866, Barclay Curle and Company gained an interest in the Liverpool-Hamburg Steamship Company.

Normally shipbuilders purchased shares in the steam packet companies but sometimes shareholding was accepted in lieu of payment for orders. This was especially common during period of economic depression when finances were tight and therefore helped to strengthen links between the two sectors.

Robert Napier only subscribed the relatively small sum of £6,000 towards the £270,000 required for the financing of Cunard's company. However he played the even more important role of helping Samuel Cunard obtain funds from other investors.

This capital venture had its origins in the Canadian links forged earlier in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Friendships and business relationships were formed by the Scots with financiers in places like Halifax and Nova Scotia.

Napier's reputation was almost single-handedly responsible for the success of this massive undertaking. Investors had confidence in his business acumen and more crucially in the excellence of his machinery and the design of his vessels. In the 20 years between the 1840s and 1860s he constructed many of the Cunard liners and until 1865 provided all of their engines.

The SS Hibernia, built in 1843 at Greenock by Robert Steele & Co.

The SS Hibernia, built in 1843 at Greenock by Robert Steele & Co.

The race for the Atlantic

The liner was invented by the Americans and marked by the voyage of the ship the James Monroe from New York in 1818 and they dominated the subsequent trade in the first half of the 19th century. It was owned by the Black Ball Line who ran a fortnightly service from New York to Liverpool and whose ships could make the crossing more quickly than the British.

By 1825 the firm's ships were making the eastern crossing in 23 days with the help of the western winds of the Gulf-Stream and the return journey in 40 days. This was around two-thirds of the time taken by British vessels and highlighted the lead that the USA had in building bigger ships for long voyages.

Other lines followed this success, namely the Red Star Line, Old Line and Blue Swallowtail, as major liner companies who operated mail and passenger services. They helped consolidate American dominance of large ocean sailings between the USA and Britain.

Cunard was in competition with the US company the Collins Line and eventually emerged triumphant when the American firm went bust in 1858.

However, initially, the Americans led in terms of speed and Napiers first four ships for Cunard, the Arcadia, Britannia, Caledonia and Columbia, launched in 1840-41, faced stiff competition. An advantage of the Cunard liners was that they usually arrived on schedule and completed an incident-free voyage across the Atlantic.

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Even by 1852 the Collins Line vessels were still 14 hours faster on average than the Cunard ships. By 1855 Cunard were taking the lead heralded by their first iron steamer the Persia, built in Govan and which was the largest ship in the world at that time.

Sadly, the fate of the Collins Line was sealed with the twin tragedies of the Arctic which sank in 1854, killing 323 people and then the disappearance of the Pacific in 1856 with the loss of 186 lives.

SS Persia built in 1856 by Robert Napier & Sons at Govan, Glasgow.

SS Persia built in 1856 by Robert Napier & Sons at Govan, Glasgow.

Competition and co-operation

The competition between shipping lines was healthy for progress as it provided the drive for improving speed and efficiency. Both the financial rewards and the intrinsic satisfaction of technological achievement acted as strong stimulants to energetic individuals with talent, skill and inquisitive minds.

Napier's role in fostering talent continued and the majority of shipyards and marine engineering factories on the River Clyde were established by his former employees.

John Elder left in 1852 to form a partnership with millwright Charles Randolph, establishing a marine-engineering firm and, from 1860, shipbuilding in Govan. Also, William Denny, a relation of Napier, was a naval architect in the firm for a time before founding the famous Denny of Dumbarton shipbuilders in 1844.

His company were innovators in steam turbines and also developed the first commercial use of ship model experiments in their indoor tank built in 1882.

There arose on the Clyde a tight-knit community of engineers and builders with a pioneering spirit and a progressive risk-taking attitude towards the business. It was a time of discovery of ideas and dissemination of information displaying the close connections and intimate business relationships between prominent figures in the industry.

George V Dock in Govan, Glasgow.

George V Dock in Govan, Glasgow.

Gradually the Clyde began to succeed the Thames as the major shipbuilding river in Britain. The geographical advantage of the Scottish west-coast, the plentiful mineral deposits locally, cheaper wages and the innovation of designers and builders all combined to give the river the lead.

New inventions and improvements on old techniques were welcomed with open arms whereas complacency and inflexibility existed elsewhere. Men like Napier and Cunard were embracing steam technology at a time when the conservatism of the Americans encouraged them to cling to sailing ships.

Partly this was due to cost as, despite the fact that one steamship could make two voyages for every one by a sailing ship, it cost three-times as much to build. The first Cunarders cost £45 per ton compared to £15 per ton for the American vessels. In compensation the steamships offered more regularity of service as they were free from the dictates of wind and tide.

However the British companies owed much of their success in the 1830's and 40's to mail subsidies provided by the government which defrayed much of the extra expense incurred in constructing steamships.

By 1860 the total amount of government subsidies to all shipping companies, such as Cunard, P&O and Pacific Steam, amounted to £1 million clinching Britain's role as the world's greatest maritime power. Nevertheless it must be borne in mind that the US government also provided subsidies to their ships indicating that competition was fair.

SS City of Glasgow (1850) built by Tod & Macgregor at Partick, Glasgow

SS City of Glasgow (1850) built by Tod & Macgregor at Partick, Glasgow

The rise of steam and steel

Furthermore this period witnessed an increase in large-scale emigration from Europe to North America, especially from 1845 in the wake of the Irish Famine. In the 1830's an average of around 30,000 per year sailed to the USA and Canada. This more than doubled to around 70,000 in the early 1840s.

This became an exodus in the decade after 1845 when over two and a half million left British ports alone during that 10-year period with figures swollen by the Irish tragedy. Most embarked on US ships as they provided better living conditions than the steamships free of the noise and smell of steam-driven craft.

But in 1850 the ship City of Glasgow began to change the fortunes of the trans-Atlantic passenger trade for British ships. More efficient engines with less coal consumption allowed more space for passengers and less cramped conditions than before.

By the 1860s even more commercial considerations were exerting an increasing influence on the fortunes of the Clyde. Wage levels in a labour-intensive industry and the price of raw materials were the most important especially when steel replaced iron in the construction of ships.

In 1886 steel was 50% more expensive than iron but eventually became cheaper and was a huge advance in the history of Clyde shipbuilding. Steel was lighter and therefore ships became faster and required less fuel. It was also safer as it was a metal with a higher tensile strength than iron which previously had caused ships to break up.

The Clyde shipbuilding industry was about to enter its most historic phase.


Patricia Cleveland-Peck on November 21, 2011:

I am researching the connection between Scottish shipwrights and a small Caribbean isalnd Carriacou where many of the descendants are Scots and where they still build sloops and other boats on the beach - a skill which apparently came from the eighteenth or nineteenth century when almost all the island was owned by Scottish planters. if anyone has any information on shipwrights who went out to the West Indies to build small boats I'd be very gratefu.

wanderingmind from North Carolina on July 08, 2010:

I've been enjoying this series of articles very much, as said before, you seem well researched and knowledgeable about the subject. I'd like to see the Clyde first hand one day, but for now I'll keep on reading :)

Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on January 18, 2010:

Hi ralwus, I'm fascinated by all those stories from history, those crossings in 1700 would have been gruellling.

Thanks prasetio30, it was an incredible time in Glasgow in the 19th century

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on January 16, 2010:

nice information. I never heard about this before. You open my eyes about the history of race in Atlantic ocean. I can tell this story to my student. It would be nice.

ralwus on January 16, 2010:

Amazing stuff, and to think my family came over here on an old sailing ship around 1700 and had to worry about so many things during the crossing not the least of which was Piracy. I'd have to dig up my records for the name of the ship, but I have it.

Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on January 15, 2010:

Thanks to both of you for your comments. It's interesting that you both have had family connections with the Clyde.

Susan Keeping from Kitchener, Ontario on January 14, 2010:

My grandfather worked at the Clyde shipyards, I guess in the 1920s or 30s. It's great to learn the history, thanks :)

Russell-D from Southern Ca. on January 14, 2010:

My oldest daughter, who lived in Dumbarton was married to the son of Clyde River ship builder family going back centuries. He's now gone and daughter and granddaughter now live in the States. But, we did spend a lot of time touring the small Scottish villages abutting the Clyde. The son's parents, also gone, had a wonderful collection of boats built in the family yards through the years. I think most of that business now is being done in Asia. David Russsell

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