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Leith Shipyards

A history of the Ships built at the Henry Robb Shipyard in Leith, Scotland. Also a testimony to the men who built the Ships and to all who sailed in them.
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Leith Shipyards

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A Brief History of Henry Robb Shipyards


The case of the ship Kobenhavn remains one of the great mysteries of the sea. The ship left Buenos Aires on the 14th of December, 1928, bound for Melbourne, with a crew of 60 men. She was last heard from on the 21st of December, in radio contact with a Norwegian steamer.

Kobenhavn was a nearly-new sail training ship for the Dutch East Asia Company. Built in 1921, she was a five-masted barque of some 3900 tons, and was equipped with a small auxiliary diesel engine. In her seven years afloat, Kobenhavn had an excellent record. The auxiliary engine gave her a distinct advantage over sail-powered vessels, in that she did not require expensive tows in and out of port. The ship was in command of Hans Ferdinand Anderson, who had previously served in her as chief mate. Andersen had made only one voyage in command, an uneventful passage from Copenhagen to Buenos Aires. The passage to Australia would be in ballast, as no cargo could be found for the Kobenhavn in Argentina. This was a simple enough passage, via the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean. It should have taken perhaps six weeks, with favorable winds most of the way. But, as is often the case, good ships will go missing for no readily explicable reason.



 Photo above of the 5 masted Barque Kobenhaven (photo credit unknown)

After the 21st of December, 1928, nothing was heard, and no wreckage found, from Kobenhavn. At first, it was assumed that her radio had failed, but when the big ship didn't turn up in Melbourne as expected (she was expected by early February, 1929), a massive search was mounted. The search covered the South Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and the Antarctic, and lasted for over a year.

A missionary on the island of Tristan da Cunha, in the South Atlantic, claimed to have seen a derelict five-masted barque drifting among the island's reefs on the 21st of January, 1929. This story was eventually disproved-- the Finnish four-master Ponape, a similar-looking vessel, was identified as the ship which had passed Tristan da Cunha that day, also bound for Australia but in no distress-- and an extensive search of the island and its reefs turned up no wreckage.


The photograph above is from the State Library of Victoria (Australia)

An official inquiry found no fault with the ship, her officers, or the stowage of her ballast, and collision with an iceberg was considered the most likely cause of her loss. The fact that she sailed in ballast may have also played some part in her loss, as the ship would ride higher in the water and could conceivably be capsizedd by a strong wind from the wrong angle.

Perhaps we will never know and her disappearance will forever remain a mystery or she may one day be found on the seabed by underwater explorers.


This photograph above shows the fantastic construction of the bow of the Kobenhaven in this photo from the State Library of Victoria's Alan C Green glass negative collection


But long before the Kobenhaven was built in fact as far back as 1505 ships were being built in and around the Port of Leith


Michael (popularly known as Great Michael) was a carrack or great ship of the Royal Scottish Navy. She was too large to be built at any existing Scottish dockyard, so was built at the new dock at Newhaven,(only a couple of hundred yards from the Leith shipyards of Henry Robb when he started in 1918)  constructed in 1504 by order of King James IV of Scotland. She was ordered around 1505 and laid down in 1507 under the direction of Captain Sir Andrew Wood of Largo and the master shipwright Jacques Terrell, launched on 12 October 1511 and completed on 18 February 1512.

A model of James IV's flagship, the 'Great Michael', made between 1984 and 1986 by George Scammell from Granton, near Newhaven where she was built.

The model is on show at the Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre where the Leith Shipyards of henry Robb once were and prior to Robb the shipyards of Cran & Sommerville, Hawthorns and Ramage & Ferguson.


Edinburgh Leith History

Leith lies to the north of Edinburgh on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth. It has been Edinburgh’s port since the settlement first required it, and has since served for freight, whaling, and cruise liners and even briefly as an airport when flying boats used its waters in the 1940’s.

The burgh of Leith was for many years separated from Edinburgh itself and to this day retains its own identity. Leith was officially merged with Edinburgh city in 1920 even though its inhabitants voted five to one against the move in a referendum.

Over time Leith has been the venue for several historically important battles. In 1560 the area was laid siege to by a joint force of English and Scottish troops whilst occupied by the French at the hands of Mary Queen of Scots’ French mother Mary of Guise. Remains of the cannon emplacements can still be found on what are now the Leith Links. Oliver Cromwell also used Leith as his headquarters for a time in the 17th century.

During the time of the American war of Independence, Leith was attacked by a flotilla led by John Paul Jones, who would later be credited with founding the US Navy. Reasons for the attack are sketchy to this day but in any case his efforts were thwarted by bad weather. Responding to the threat, areas of Leith were fortified and to this day part of Leith is still known as ‘The Fort’ although nothing of the fortifications apart from a single gatehouse remain.

Mentioned earlier, Leith Links is also important for a different reason, it is widely accepted to be where golf was invented, and the very first game was played. The sport was banned in 1457 by King James II as he considered it to simply be a menace to more useful pursuits such as archery. The game eventually came to fruition in 1744 however, when rules were formalised by the ‘Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers’.

Over time Leith Docks became known as the Port of Edinburgh and ship building flourished. Some of the 19th century ship yard buildings remain, along with the Leith Nautical College building on Commercial Street which was established in 1903.

At the end of  the Second World War Leith, degenerated into a rough, undesirable area known for prostitution and low standards of living. The contrast between then and now is remarkable. Extensive regeneration projects have transformed Leith into one of the most sought after locations in and around Edinburgh, especially the areas know as ‘The shore’ and ‘The Waterfront’. The Royal Yacht Britannia is moored alongside a brand new shopping complex named Ocean Terminal, and nearby is the Scottish Executive building.

Many upmarket bars, restaurants and luxury hotels are scattered around The Shore as well as several new apartment complexes.

(What the above fails to mention is the fact that Leith was built not just on ships and shipbuilding but on a very strong sense of identity and community.)


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0 #12 Bruce Partington 2016-07-15 21:10
I served my apprenticeship at Henry Robb as a Shipwright. I worked there from 1962 to 1972 and worked on 20 odd ships, barges, tugs and tankers plus RFA Engadine.
0 #11 graeme white 2015-09-13 13:07
i worked at menzies robb in the sixties as a brassmoulder the photo of the dredger was where the foundry was a mister woods was the manager of the yard he was a ruthles man who pay men off at the flick of coin
0 #10 Jennifer Steadwood 2015-06-18 22:22
My grandfather George Petford Steadwood, was like a secretary, he kept the minutes of meetings at the dockyards, he wrote them in old copperplate handwriting, my father David Linkstone Steadwood was a chap who caught rivets and hammered them home into the metal. I have photos of work mates of both eras.
0 #9 M R Ross 2015-03-02 14:14
The chairman of BS refered to was J Graham Day, a solicitor. He succeeded Sir Robert Atkinson. day was appointed by Mrs T and in a meeting I attended shortly after his appointment, made it very clear that his remit was to sell the warshipbuilding yards.
I started in Robbs in leith, but only stayed for a year, before moving to Brooke Marine and finally Govan. What is missing from this paper is the international nature of shipbuilding. Keynes commented about the "loss" we suffered from the failures of the Luftwaffe to flatten more of UK industry. The problem that bedevilled UK shipbuilding was a failure to rationalise and invest after the war in a few large yards (Robbs would have been a casualty), built around dry docks, with an internationally competitive supply chain eg. steel plate. It was not poor industrial relations but woeful management and political neglect, that sunk UK shipbuilding. Ironically we still managed to design yards in Korea and the Middle East
0 #8 Margaret Fraser 2014-03-09 02:01
My father, William Jenkins, was a ship draftsman, and worked at Henry Robb's shipyard during WWII. He became shipyard manager and I recall a visit to the yard by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Somewhere in the archives is a newspaper photo of the royal couple touring the yard and my father (complete with bowler hat).
0 #7 John Spink 2014-01-22 12:45
Just had a brief look but will come back. Looks fascinating
+1 #6 Ken Garden 2014-01-19 22:10
Worked at the Leith yard briefly in 1982. Just before the Falklands war, on the Trinity lighthouse ship 'Patricia' I recall how the yard was starved of investment. Everything was old & clapped out, cranes. Buildings, machinery etc. Our tea shack was a rotting portacabin and my mate and I had a pop rivet nailed into the wall of this rotting hulk of a cabin on which to hang our jackets. All in all I recall the place being a cold windswept depressing dump. That said the guys were great
0 #5 Graham Hamilton 2013-10-29 02:12
Do any of the ship drawings still exist. I am looking for the drawings in order to make a model of the Wolraade Woltemade which was a tug built by Robb Caledon in the 1970's.
+2 #4 Malcolm Robb 2012-01-29 13:55
My father, Magnus Robb - no relation to Henry - worked at Henry Robbs during WWII. I trained as a Radio Officer at Leith Nautical college in the 1970's and recall the launch of a tugboat at Robbs. It is sad that the dcks are no longer a the vibrant industry that they were. :sad: Splendid website!
+2 #3 Gordon Reidie 2011-12-28 14:39
What an interesting site , I served my apprenticeship in "Robbs" from 1972 to 1977 approx . It was a great place to serve an apprenticeship although it was very tough and always freezing cold . I have fond memories of my time in Leith docks . :-)

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