The Loftsman
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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Tales from the Yard

Apprentices were a skiving lot.   We would avoid work at every opportunity and I was no exception.  


It was mid winter, bitterly cold and I could not resist warming myself frequently at a riveters fire.   Our foreman was short, face like a cobbled road and a nose red with nightly boozing.   He had a permanent smell of stale beer.


He was a good marine fitter who had seen many years at sea before returning to work for Robb’s.   We were terrified of him.   One day he caught me warming my frozen self in front of a riveter’s fire and gave a very severe warning.   Back on the job for a quarter of an hour convinced me that it was safe to return to the fire for another heat.   Cooper!!! I nearly fell into the coke with surprise (and terror).   HOME!!!! You are suspended for a week.     My leaving the yard and return to Melville Terrace was prolonged by wandering the streets so that when I got there it would be at the normal time.   My father was on leave so there was no way I would arrive back at the house until the evening, which meant that I left the yard but stooged around for the rest of the day.   Next morning I turned up for work as usual, ‘what the f*** are you here for.   I groveled and said that my father was at home and if he knew I had been suspended he would kill me; I’ll work for nothing.   For that week I was given the dirtiest, coldest and most difficult jobs.   Come pay day as I expected nothing I did not go to the pay window.   Next week I collected my wage and surprise surprise it included the previous weeks pay.   The old b****** had a soft streak.  

Now I was required to work as a journeyman and I had a mate, a new apprentice.   We knew Robb’s as “Robb by name and rob by nature” perhaps it was a way of employing cheap labour more likely because there was a shortage of skilled people but in reality it pushed me forward to understand and discharge greater responsibility.   By this time the war was well advanced.   America had entered and much of their production practice had crossed the Atlantic.   In particular their ability to part fabricate ships in diverse parts of the country took hold.   Riveting was discarded to be replaced by welding.   Automatic shop welding machines were seen for the first time.   The most dramatic change was to see large sections of a vessel brought by rail and road to then be assembled on the slips.   No longer were we building from the keel up.

Skills were probably far from practice to day.   We were disturbed to see a bow section, which didn’t mate with the hull sprung into place using a winch to twist the structure and then to be welded up.   Some of us who had by now some technical knowledge were horrified to think of the possible effect of inbuilt tress in battle conditions.   Perhaps the Americans were also guilty because by now it was well known that Liberty ships had a habit of splitting in two in a heavy sea.

My days in a boiler suit were drawing to an end, thank goodness my liaison with Margaret Taylor was not in keeping with dirty overalls, once married found me again, but this time out of working hours, back in some form of oily occupation, this time endless preoccupation with various DIY projects.

What other memories, a visit to a Russian submarine to collect something for repair, surprise the Chief Engineer was a woman!   Regret that I failed to raise £5 to purchase a M.O.D. boat, which was up for sale having been damaged by fire.   Sitting in the propeller tunnel with a candle during a launch to watch for any leakage.   Trying to get released to join the Air Force.  

There was an idea to fit the many coastal ships with a grenade launcher.   This was just a length of pipe with a steam connection.   The principle was to drop the grenade into the pipe where the pipe restrained the detonator then the steam valve was opened the theory being that the grenade would be projected high in the air and then explode deterring attacking aircraft.   Frequently under test it would just pop out the end and blow a hole in the deck.   We were also engaged in fitting a heavy cable right round a ship.   Long afterwards we found out that this was to generate a magnetic field to neutralize the ship against magnetic mines.   All the corvettes were fitted with something connected to the bottom of the hull.   We had no idea what this was as only naval artificers were allowed to do this.   Much later we found out that this was the Asdic

gear to detect submarines using echo-sounding principles.   Another endless gripe was, it’s the plumbers again, there was always some conflict between those concerned with the pipe arrangements and the work done by fitters.   On one occasion I was responsible for installing extended valve spindles.   All valves of any importance, i.e. most, in a naval vessel must be fitted with controls on deck to ensure operation in dire circumstances.     I had just fitted a fairly complex arrangement and went off home at the end of my shift.   Next morning back to work where I found that my spindles had been bent to permit pipes to be placed the plumber concerned was surprised at my indignation, he could not understand how a bent spindle would not work.

By this time I was working as journeyman but paid as an apprentice.   This was the culmination of three and a half years and the practice was recognized as a necessary arrangement to meet wartime targets when most adults were in the forces.   The personal return was immense.   The early responsibility gave me a firm footing in the profession of my choice.   Shortly after I was transferred to the Drawing Office

The Boiler suit was no longer my daily garb.   However cars and motorbikes meant that the oily hands were still there.   It was February 1944 when I entered the drawing office, no more rushing to check in at the yard gate, a clean suit, collar and tie and the time clock inside the offices of Robb’s, shipbuilders Ltd.

My occupation up to this time was that of an apprentice marine fitter.   This training now entitled me to be able to carry out any task associated with machinery and the machining of metal.   My nights-school studies so far gave me grounding in the science of machines, structures and the ability to make and read drawings.   None of us considered ourselves ‘engineers’ you were either a fitter, mechanic or draughtsman it is only in recent times that this description has become the term used by society to describe anyone using a spanner.  

My recollection of the most outstanding ship that I worked on was the Bustler class tugs.  These were naval vessels designed to pull a 10,000 ton ship at 10 knots.   They had yacht like lines and with their two Polar Atlas diesel engines driving one propeller through a Vulcan gearbox developing 10,000 HP.   The accommodation was of very high order specially adapted to deal with survivors.

When they were launched we all had a gut feeling that they would be special.   How true that was.   In 1951 Margaret my wife, and I were coming home from India in the S.S. Celcia and while crossing the Bay of Biscay in a very severe storm heard that we were standing by perhaps to aid a ship in trouble, it was the Flying Enterprise.   I later learned that the tug trying to take her in tow was a Bustler, called Samsonia, on which I had worked, seen in the foreground in appendix chap. 5.   It was afterwards rumored that the reason the captain would not leave his ship was because of gold on board.     Later when reading the book “Grey Seas Under” all about a Newfoundland salvage company I found that as their deep sea tugs became too old how they searched the World for a replacement.   I guessed that a Bustler was what was needed and sure enough the tug they finally decided could work for them was Samsonia.

At this point my ambition for the future was unchanged from that of childhood.   I wanted to go to sea however by now I had divided my life into many facets.   There was my apprenticeship, a reserved occupation; the home guard was shaping my actions in a team; my studies at the Heriot Watt enabled me to go on to higher levels and my relationship in particular with Margaret Taylor coupled with the feeling that the war was drawing to a close began to revise my future plans.

My apprenticeship now entered a new phase, all day standing at a drawing board under the eagle eye of the chief draughtsman.   No more skiving.   This was not too difficult because my early introduction to be in charge of a younger apprentice and to do a journeyman’s job had had some success in molding a more mature outlook.   New entrants to the drawing office were give the job of tracing on linen the very complex and exacting detailed shipboard piping arrangements.   I found this very disappointing because there was no thought skill only exact attention to detail.   We still found time for larking but only at diner time.   On one occasion one of us coveted a pair of socks worn by a draughtsman, remember this

was a time of strict rationing which included clothes, a deal was struck, the socks were removed at a price and the seller then proceeded to paint, using black tracing ink, a simulation on his feet, this to make him feel comfortable for the rest of the day.   Ballroom dancing was all the rage in particular the foxtrot.   We had one or two who considered themselves expert and much time was spent practicing the complex steps and variations that were the vogue at the time.  

Just two months later dreams came true.   I was released from Robb’s to start full time studies at the Heriot Watt.   War demands had required the Watt to offer an engineering course, which was the Higher National plus additions to give the equivalent of a Watt Diploma, (at that time the Heriot Watt was not a University).   The purpose was to prepare recruits for R.E.M.E.E.   Having failed to escape to join the Air Force and with the war coming to an end any hope in this direction had little chance of success but I knew I would be called up as soon as my apprenticeship was complete so I set my sights on R.E.M.E.E. as being the best way of ensuring my career in engineering was uninterrupted.

Being honest I suppose that I could not come to terms with my social life (girl friends) and the wearing of a boiler suit.   Now was my chance collar and tie plus the all-important Watt scarf causally around my neck.   I was up sides with the undergraduates and better still I was being paid during my studies.

By now Margaret Taylor was an item at that time not a known term but as far as we were concerned we were on the road to marriage away in the future.   There were many free periods and double summertime meant we could play tennis until after eleven o’clock.   Study was neglected; exams barely passed then back to the office for a time before returning to the Watt.   Somehow I managed to pass my final exams; National certificate (Higher with Diploma endorsements) Mechanical but not with distinction.   Then back to Robb’s.

The “Early Days” were now ending.   Margaret Taylor and I had gradually accepted that one day we might get married.   This in turn made me determined that I would make a career for myself; at that time a role model was the Sunday school Superintendent who was a Chief Draughtsman and a respected member of the community.   Later I learned that any position was only a rung on the ladder, once there then the next rung became an attainable goal.

My apprenticeship ended on the 8th of March 1946, the following week I was called up.

Ernest Cooper, MBE CE FiMechE(85) served apprenticeship 1941-45 in Robb's sandwich, Heriot Watt Corvettes,Bustler tugs etc. A start in life never to be forgotten, in todays World no longer possible.


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