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Modern Times: 1950s to The Present Day

Industry and Technology

By Michael Moss

Linthouse Engine Shed This period was the most traumatic in Glasgow's industrial experience. At the end of the war the city could still claim to be the "Workshop of the Empire", by the 1990s most of the engine shops were derelict and the shipyards reduced to wasteland. Industrial decline was not sudden but a slow and painfully protracted process, which was punctuated by initiatives promising revival. With the coming of peace in 1945 orders flowed in and the yards and engine works were busy. Their owners, remembering the long depression which followed the last war, were reluctant to invest or to merge. By the early 1950s the economies of Europe and the Far East had recovered and boasted new facilities with high productivity.

Post-War Challenges

Prince's Dock Moreover markets were changing. The motor car, the diesel locomotive and later long-distance air liners rendered many of Glasgow's traditional products redundant. By the late 1960s there was little demand for passenger liners or ferries or steam locomotives. Conventional warshipbuilding, which had provided a lifeline for many firms, had ceased and been replaced by vessels with sophisticated electrically controlled weapons systems. What the world wanted was ships to carry goods in bulk, diesel locomotives and aeroplanes. With the end of the empire, newly independent countries could choose their suppliers of conventional products, such as bridges or machinery, which remained in demand.

NBL Queen's Park Works The majority of Glasgow firms were slow to respond to these challenges and when they did they often opted for the wrong technology or mix of products. When the British railway network began to be converted to diesel traction in 1955, North British Locomotive Company (NBL) disastrously adopted hydraulic transmission which proved to be a complete failure. Lacking custom NBL diversified with equal lack of success into such unfamiliar products as dragline excavators and metal cutting machines. Bankruptcy followed. Likewise when the shipyards eventually re-equipped in the late 1950s or early 1960s, they assumed in the face of all the evidence that demand for their traditional products would revive. When it did not they became bankrupt. Fairfields, once one of the leading yards on the river, went into liquidation with enormous losses in 1965.

Sir Charles Parsons Much re-equipment was technically obsolete. At a time when numerical control of machine tools was becoming commonplace, Glasgow workshops still placed confidence in the skill and judgement of craftsmen. When the University of Glasgow wished to buy its first computer in the mid-1950s, only ten companies showed any interest in taking a stake in the investment. This was symptomatic of the failure to appreciate that existing factories and methods of working were no longer appropriate. When efforts were made to change them they were often ridiculed, as in the so-called Fairfield experiment from 1965 to 1967.


UCS Cartoon The Labour government when it came to power in 1964 was committed to halting the country's industrial decline by creating larger units which it was believed could compete. In Glasgow Upper Clyde Shipbuilders was formed in 1967 out of the yards of Connels, Fairfields, John Browns, Alexander Stephens and Yarrows. Perceptively nicknamed "Unconditional Surrender" by the workforce, UCS was a fiasco. Although attempts were made to standardise designs to match the current demand for bulk carriers and to reform working practices, the price was higher wages which were not matched by increased productivity. UCS went into liquidation in 1972 which led to the well-publicised work-in organised by the shop stewards to save the yards. The Conservative government had no alternative but to respond to pressure and the Fairfield yard survived as Govan Shipbuilders. These initiatives failed to recognise that shipbuilding on constrained sites on the upper stretches of the river was no longer viable.

Further Casualties

Parkhead Forge Much the same happened to the machine tool-building industry, to structural engineering and to the once mighty Parkhead Forge of William Beardmore & Co in the East End, none of which survive. The logic of such mergers was of course rationalisation, which usually resulted not in the wholesale closure of plant but in parts of it. As a result the operational plant was often a rump within a sprawling mass of Victorian buildings. Skilled workers, who could find jobs elsewhere, left particularly from the 1970s in the fast expanding North Sea Oil industry. Such haemorrhaging accelerated the decline.

Cutting the weft blanket Other sectors were equally exposed to changes in world markets. Carpet makers, such as J & G Templeton, and sanitary ware manufacturers such as Doultons and Shanks, had always depended on the shipyards for the bulk of their orders. Textile spinners, weavers and finishers, of which there were many still in the East End in the 1950s, succumbed to cheaper imports from better-equipped competitors. Some firms simply ceased trading while others sought alliances, often outside the city. By the 1990s only a handful of large manufacturing plants survived, mostly those with specialist niche markets, such as Barr & Stroud and Stoddards, or those which had diversified successfully and invested in precision tools and techniques such as Howdens, Weirs and Yarrows.

Lessons Learned

Queenslie Industrial Estate The Government's response to rising unemployment and the loss of skills was to seek to attract new industries and to provide training opportunities. Scotland as a whole was successful in bringing in new businesses from elsewhere in the United Kingdom and abroad, but most of these were established in new towns which had been created to draw population away from the old industrial towns and cities. In any event most were branch factories, the first to be closed in any economic downturn. Unable to revive its industrial base Glasgow had to look to the service sector to provide employment.

Annick Street Industrial Estate Although such decline in established industrial centres has happened across the world, Glasgow's experience was more acute than most, perhaps because change was both badly managed and ill-considered. Improvements to the environment, which would have removed the worst scars from the landscape, were slow in being made and when they were, they were piecemeal. Only in the late 1990s were ambitious public-private partnership initiatives launched to regenerate the East End and the north bank of the old harbour. These have been modelled on successful schemes elsewhere in the world and as a result should have more chance of success.

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