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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Tales from the Yard


The Shipyard Joiners Story


I, like many others, left school on the Friday, and started work on the following Monday.  My uncle, Peter Jeffrey, who was a left handed riveter in the old hand squads, got me a start as an apprentice joiner in Robb's. I started with two other lads, Billy Harper, and Davy Wood, we were put into the Joiner's store as store boys, until we were 16 and old enough to start our apprenticeships. There was no structured training for the stores, but we just "Picked it up," as we went along, learning how to measure screws, and identify general ironmongery, whilst fetching and carrying, collecting time cards daily, and assisting in the plywood stores, or Fairways shed, at the Old Dock, where completed furniture was stored prior to fitting out in the ships.

On reaching my 16th birthday I was put "On the bench," with a tradesman, and was given some sandpapering to do.  This seemed easy, but at the end of the day my fingers were raw with the abrasion, some toughening up had to happen quickly! Then the first job,- to make my own tool chest, all hand dovetailed, in Californian Pine, with sliding trays and brass lock, completed with chest handles. The paint shop painted it, and sign wrote my initials on the front, I still have it, 61 years later!

Then, after a spell in the Joiner's shop with a journeyman, I was sent out on to a ship, "On the stocks," Here marking out took place to determine the position of the wooden bulkheads dividing the accommodation into cabins, and locating welded nuts and hangers for the fixing of furniture and fittings.  We were given a leather glove, and a stick, and would hold the nut or hanger in position while the welder tacked it. Of course we suffered from welding flashes, and were entitled to a free pint of milk daily, (Early Health & Safety.) The first ship I worked on in the "Fitting  out " berth at the West Pier, was the BI ship Mombasa,  A passenger/cargo vessel  plying between Africa and Arabia and India largely for the Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca.  She also had first class passenger cabins, and these were fitted out to a very high standard.  I worked with a tradesman fitting out the first class smokeroom, all Sycamore panelling and Walnut French doors and furniture.

I worked on many of the ships built for Australia and New Zealand, remembering particularly the LigarBay, a bulk cement carrier. I was also on most of the tugs built at that time for ManchesterShippingCanal.  These were excellent training for older apprentices, as the curved shapes of the tugs meant much more detailed fitting.


The Manchester Ship Canal Tug MALLARD (From the time of the Joiners story)

(Photo courtesy of the MSC Company Ltd)

I did sea trials on another couple of tugs for Bibby Line in West Africa, the Fourah and the Farren.  I was appointed "Key Boy" for these ships, which meant holding all the keys of the ship securely, and allowing access to those requiring it, both at the berth and during trials. What we did in effect, was to cut our own skeleton keys for each of the lock suites, and that saved constantly looking up the keyboard. I remember, before the Fourah sailed for Africa, being called out to fix a lock on the binnacle.  It was late afternoon, and I was told I could probably book "Overtime." (*A big bonus in those days!) To save time, instead of cutting a new key, I altered the wards in the lock, so any key would fit it!  This still took time, and I was in the Tug's engine room, using the vice.  On coming up to the bridge it was a dark winter’s afternoon, and the boat had sailed!  No one realizing I was still on board I At eighteen years old, I was starving, and just wanted home for my tea !Robb's sent the small steam pinnace they had, and took me off just off the May Island, much to my relief !

Industrial relations were always very poor in my days at the yard. There was no trust at all between management and workers.  Conditions and pay were worse than other industries’, even going to the toilet, was regulated, you had to drop your brass number check at the entrance turnstile to use the toilet, and if you were more than 7 minutes you lost a quarter of an hour's pay. Timekeeping generally was very strict.  A minute late in the morning meant that you lost a quarter of an hour, 16 minutes lost you half an hour, and at 31 minutes late, you were locked out for the day, losing a whole days pay. For apprentices, at the end of your five years apprenticeship, all these lost minutes were added up, and added to your time at apprentice rates; even though you'd done five years, and were on journeymen's wages! There were no official tea breaks, but everyone managed an illicit cuppa!  The hot water urns for making tea at dinner break were kept padlocked until the hooter sounded for break!

I did however love working there. The work was of the highest standard, and everyone took pride in their craft and the ships we worked on.  The men were rough, but kind in many ways, and helped to build our characters in later life, setting standards and moral guidelines, and particularly giving us a Political education, and examples of decent working class living.

I left the yard after my three years in the Army.  I returned for one year on return, but then left never to return.

It's sad to see the closure of such a fine yard and the loss of employment for so many men whose community was so dependent on Shipbuilding, the end of an era.

 (Note: The above sentiments seconded by so many ex shipbuilders)


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