Maritime Scotland 2: The Forgotten Shipbuilders of Leith

August 2021

In this, our second episode dedicated to the remarkable maritime history of Scotland, we explore the fabulous shipbuilding heritage of Leith, the port just to the north of Edinburgh. To unpick this story Dr Sam Willis speaks with Ron Neish. Ron is a remarkable man with many man stories to tell. Born and bred in Leith he served his apprenticeship as a Ship Loftsman, in the Henry Robb Shipyard in Leith. When it closed in 1984 he worked all over the world but always retaining his love for ships and the sea and never forgetting where he came from. Ron has worked on more than 40 new build vessels, ranging from a 58 foot aluminium fishing boat to 65,000 tonne aircraft carriers. In the past few years Ron has dedicated himself to writing a history of the ships built in Leith, a testimony to the skill of the men who built the ships and to the many men and women who may have sailed or served on them. Leith had begun building ships some 400 years before the great shipyards of the Clyde and these Leith vessels reached all corners of the globe. It’s a story of global economic change, industrial change, military endeavour, and disaster, wealth and poverty, innovation, and above all brutally hard work.

Make sure you also listen to episode 1 of our Maritime Scotland Special and check out the remarkable video of showing a 3D model of the wreck of a midget submarine in Aberlady Bay, East Lothian, overlaid with a 3D model of the submarine as it once would have been.

  • View The Transcription

    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. Today we continue our investigation into the maritime history of Scotland with a chat with Ron Neish. Ron is a remarkable man with many stories to tell. Born and bred in Leith, he served his apprenticeship as a Ship Loftsman in the Henry Robb Shipyard in Leith. When it closed in 1984 Ron worked all over the world, but always retained his love for ships and the sea and never forgot where he came from. Ron has worked on more than 40 new build vessels, ranging from a 58-foot aluminium fishing boat to 65,000-ton aircraft carriers. He has experience of salvage tugs, survey vessels, oil support ships, heavy-lift barges, firefighting tugs, LNG carriers, roll on-roll off ferries, ships for the Ministry of Defence including oceanographic survey vessels and boom defence vessels, Canadian Coast Guard vessels, steel hulls, and other minimum superstructures. In the past few years, Ron has dedicated himself to writing a history of the ships built in Leith. Two volumes of a plan the four-volume series have already been published, and they are a testimony to the skill of the men who built the ships and to the many men and women who may have sailed or served on them. Many of you may be unaware of the part played by the shipbuilders of Leith in the UK’s maritime history. This port was once Scotland’s main port, with many firsts to its name. In fact, Leith had begun building ships 400 years before the great shipyards of the Clyde, and these Leith vessels reached all corners of the globe, touching many people’s lives. It’s a story of global economic change, industrial change, military endeavour and disaster, wealth and poverty, innovation, and above all, brutally hard work.

    Do sit back and listen to Ron tell us all about it; I doubt that many of you will ever have heard from the mouth of a trained loftsman before, let alone one from Leith, I certainly hadn’t before I met Ron. And now I want to know everything I can about his fascinating career. So here is Ron, a living piece of history.

    Ron, thank you so much for talking to me today.

    Ron Neish

    Sam, it’s an absolute pleasure.

    Sam Willis

    Now, I’ve had a wonderful morning reading your book about these Leith shipbuilders. And I just want to start off, for people who are listening to the podcast who don’t know where Leith is, can you give some kind of sense of geography please?

    Ron Neish

    It’s actually – it’s a strange one because Leith used to be a port on its own until it was taken over by Edinburgh in 1920. So, it’s actually the official port of Edinburgh, where the Britannia is based now. Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, of course, and Leith, we like to say that Leith is the capital of Edinburgh.

    Sam Willis

    That’s very good! So, you’re flying the flag for the East Coast maritime history of Scotland.

    Ron Neish

    Absolutely, yes. I mean, it’s a strange one because, I actually got into the internet many, many years ago, when I was working in America. The internet was just starting, and I was working at Boeing, and I was being shown how to use the internet. So, curiosity gets the better you and you know, being a shipbuilder, you’re always looking for old ships and stuff, you know, ship names, whatever. So, I started typing in ship names, you know, as an exercise, and I started getting a lot of information. It was all for the Clyde, or the Tyne, Newcastle, all the big shipbuilding centres, Harland and Wolff; I thought where’s the stuff from the East Coast, you know, Aberdeen, Dundee, Leith. And then slowly but surely over a period of time, we started finding little bits and pieces. But even then, I’m looking at it and I’m saying, well, a lot of this, some of this is just rubbish. So, I eventually said, me being me, I said, you know, somebody needs to get this stuff all sorted and get it together. And it never happened, obviously, but over a period of time, it was ‘Joe Bloggs’ that decided to put it all together.

    Sam Willis

    Well, very well done. Let’s start with a little bit about your experience. Because – do you know, let’s start with, what is a loftsman?

    Ron Neish

    Oh, that’s a very good question, Sam! Even

    Sam Willis

    You are a Loftsman, so tell us about being a loftsman.

    Ron Neish

    I’m probably one of the very few loftsmen left alive, and certainly, one of the few loftsmen left, still active and working in the industry. Although they don’t have a loftsman nowadays, we were overtaken by computers. The loftsman was the guy who actually defined the naval architects, scantling, lines and drawings, and offsets, reproducing them full size on a loft floor, defining the shape of the vessel, and then flattening the vessel shape, and then templating it, so it could all be built – brought back together. And then the loft actually controlled the dimension, the dimensional build of the vessel as well. So, we were involved in planning. I think when I speak to youngsters nowadays, and as their eyes glaze over when I say I’m a Loftsman, I say to them, it’s kind of like we were the human computers. We provided all the data so that the ship could be built on the slipway. And it was a huge, hugely involved job that every single bit of steel on the ship had to be lofted.

    Sam Willis

    So, it had to be drawn full size. Let’s just go back to your statement, “we draw it full size”!

    Ron Neish

    It used to be done full size, and then it went 10th scale, and then it went computerised obviously. And they decided in their wisdom that they didn’t need loftsmen anymore. I speak to old ship – to people that know about shipbuilding nowadays, and they say the worst thing we ever did was to do away with lofting, do away with loftsmen.

    Sam Willis

    And you started as an apprentice but then you hope to become a ‘journeyman loftsman’. So, what’s the difference between an apprentice and a journeyman?

    Ron Neish

    Well, you become a journeyman after you’ve done your apprenticeship, you know: you have to have passed your exams; you have to stay there for the length of time; and then you had to go through the initiation ceremonies etc (which will not go in to here, there may be family people listening!).

    Sam Willis

    I’m going to come back and make you tell me about them!

    Ron Neish

    So, and then you were given your journeyman papers, basically; the company recognised you as a tradesman, qualified tradesman. And more importantly, you got paid as a qualified tradesman.

    Sam Willis

    So how old were you when that happened?

    Ron Neish

    I was 21 – I was 20-21. It’s a long time ago now Sam, you know. I finished my time, 1971. No, that’s – finished in 75. I was 20 years old.

    Sam Willis

    Wow. And you write with a great deal of pride actually about the business which you’ve been a part of. And there’s a wonderful bit in the beginning when you say that shipbuilding in its purest form is an art. Tell us a bit more about that.

    Ron Neish

    It really is. And it’s – lofting, I don’t know. I looked at – I’ve done a bit of family research as well, you know, trying to get to the bottom of this. Why I was so interested in shipbuilding. And I can trace my family name back to 16th century Perthshire, for 1622 in fact, and there was a few battles before then, with the McNabb’s and the MacNeish’s. And they were mostly land dwellers, you know, they were ploughmen in Perthshire, and then they came down to Fife, worked in the linen mills in Fife as foremen and overseers. And then my grandfather on my dad’s side, he worked, and he moved to Leith, he worked in Leith as a sailmaker. And then I found that my older half-brother, he was – he started as a shipwright as well, that I never even knew about, you know, he worked in Leith as a shipwright.

    And we were always close to the water. The water was only 100 yards from us anyway, you know, and it was just one – I still remember it to this day. I have to tell you a funny story, Sam, and it might be a bit un-pc nowadays, but it’s how I ended up in the shipyards.

    The street that I lived in, there was a few beautiful girls. You know, you’re just getting at that age, you begin to notice the other fair sex. And there was this young girl, and she was going out with this guy who drove an E-type Jag, a white E-type Jag. Now very few people even had cars in these days. I made it my policy to find out what that guy did. And I found out that he was a pipeline welder. Now pipeline oil, the North Sea oil boom was just beginning, and they were beginning to lay the pipelines on the mainland, and they were getting paid mega-money, absolute mega money. And I said to myself there and then, I said, “That’s for me. That’s what I’m going to do”. And the only place that done electric welding like that was the shipyards. So, I went into the shipyard with this idea of being an electric welder. I was very good at it, and I’d done it for about two months, and I thought, oh, no! I ain’t got to do this anymore. And I was actually I was picked out as the best apprentice. And, you know, they asked me if I wanted to go up the loft and serve my apprenticeship is a loftsman. And I went up there, it was wintertime – they weren’t silly, you know – it was wintertime and I went up there, it was nice and warm, it was big. Nice and warm, as I said, and it looked really interesting what the guys were doing. And I was sold on it. So and the ships were all around you, you know, there was all these beautiful models, the builder’s models in glass cases. It was like a wonderland to a 16-year-old kid, wander around looking at all this. And you were working in timber; I’d got away from the smelly hot welding. I thought this is brilliant And I’ve realised how fortunate I’ve been.

    Sam Willis

    Because you’ve said it’s, you know, it’s not – it is an art form, and yes, science is involved in shipbuilding. But it has nothing to do with the emotion of building a ship. I love that idea.

    Ron Neish

    No, it’s – I mean, I’ve worked in lots of other industries and, you know, aircraft, designing parts for cars, even the nuclear industry, there is – there’s no other industry that gives you that feeling when you see the accomplishment when you’ve worked on a project and you see that ship going down in the water. And it’s another – it’s a strange thing, because you follow the life of that ship with great interest, at least I do, and a lot of other people do as well. And there’s a tangible – I mean, I remember very, very briefly working on a ship called the MV Hero, when I first started in the shipyards and she sunk in the North Sea, with one of the crewmen lost their life, and I remember, you know, there was a real sense of loss. The shipyard was still open at the time, and it made me realise as well that we participated in, what we built, people’s lives depended on it. So, there was never – it was never just a job for me. It was never just a case, “Oh, that’s close enough, that I’ll do”, no, that’s just not in a loftsman’s vocabulary anyway, because we were the kings of the shipyard, you know; if you told somebody to move something or do something, they respected the fact that you actually knew what you were talking about, and they did it. So, there was no arguing, there was no question about it – it was done. All-encompassing. Somebody once wrote that you needed a, like a, 3D seeing eye inside your head. Which I thought was quite good.

    Sam Willis

    I definitely don’t have one of them. So, I wouldn’t have been able to do that job. I would have been one of the people outside doing the dirty and dangerous work. Let talk about

    Ron Neish

    I would have been helping you, Sam

    Sam Willis

    If anyone let me anywhere near the ship in the first place! Just talk briefly about the reality of shipbuilding, before we go into just you know, telling stories about it.

    Ron Neish

    It was a rough dangerous job; there was no health and safety at the time. I, in fact, when I started in the loft it was only 18 months after the foreman loftsman there had been killed in an accident in the shipyard. I’ve seen two people die in the shipyard, while I was there, one was an apprentice, same age as me, he was married with kids – a couple of kids. It was a tough, tough existence, you know. But it also – and I always had this, this feeling that, well it was proven to be true once I moved on – that you could be trained in a shipyard and you could go outside the shipyard and work in any industry, but you could not come into the shipyard from any industry, not initially anyway, and do the same job, and that was proven. And in the end days of British shipbuilders, you know they tried to bring in – they’ve gone back to that nowadays, in fact – trying to bring in plumbers, welders, electricians from outside and expecting that we build a ship. It just doesn’t work that way, you know, yes, you can do the same job, but you need further training. And this all added to the – I guess we thought we were kind of special, you know, shipbuilders did think they were special.

    Sam Willis

    Is it important, you know, thinking about where the shipyard is as well, when you think about how Leith developed over time because it was a very rundown poor place, wasn’t it?

    Ron Neish

    We used to say and pardon my French, we used to say it was a shithole. But at least it was our shithole, you know. And when we tried to improve it. And you would never – there was a respect amongst us growing up, you know, that you don’t get nowadays, you know, that respect, I feel that that respects gone between a lot of youngsters and slightly older people. But it was never – I never look back, and I never try and write about it. I mean, I write novels now about starting in Leith as well, and certainly no rosy coloured glasses, you know. I read a lot of stuff and people are like ‘Oh, how wonderful’, it was never quiet, it was never really like that, you know, it was a rough, tough place. And a rough tough industry.

    Sam Willis

    And when you think what it was like in the, you know, the early 19th century, when there were slums down by the water.

    Ron Neish

    It was a horrendous way of life, you know, really. I mean, I think in that time, the life expectancy in Manchester, which was the big centre of the cotton industry, was something like 27 years old, between 27 and 32 years old. The life expectancy in Leith might have been 35 years old. Nowadays, it’s what 75, wherever, you know, it’s a massive, massive difference. But that went when – we say that that’s what helped to make you. I think in my, certainly in my case, is what helps to make you want to better yourself. There are no two ways about it.

    Sam Willis

    And there was a big change in terms of charitable missions, the Seaman’s Mission, Leith hospital, and you know, people kind of did latch on to the fact that the conditions were not what they could be, and to try and help the poor sailors and those who’d fallen on hard times,

    Ron Neish

    There were massive changes happening with entrepreneurs and charitable people. But there was also the other side of the coin, with the greedy ones, you know. We still have this thing about Edinburgh, you know, the Edinburgers used to send their shit down the water to Leith, you know, and they are still given it to us, arguing over who should pay for the clean-up.

    Sam Willis

    So that’s a problem of being downstream of a major city.

    Ron Neish

    Of course, you know, because everybody’s

    Sam Willis

    You get their sewage.

    Ron Neish

    That little main river was where all the shipyards originally started. It’s not really changed an awful lot when you look at it. There’s a lot of five-star eateries and wine bars and stuff, but once you look behind that frontage, you start noticing that a lot of these buildings have never really changed since the 16th-17th century. The King’s Wark pub, where Mary, Queen of Scots landed, it’s still the same, it’s a very gentrified place, I mean, it’s not the place I used to drink in, that’s for sure.

    Sam Willis

    You talk about how old it is there, it’s 600 years or so of shipbuilding history that you’ve got at Leith.

    Ron Neish

    And it was all done away. I mean, it’s very political, obviously. But it was a crime, what was committed back in the late – early 80s, mid-80s, between government and industry, not just in shipbuilding, it happened in the mine industry, it happened in the steel industry. And I was a young shop steward at the time as well, and trying to keep people’s jobs going, you know, and it was impossible. But my argument at the time was, well what happens when – we’re turning the country into a service industry, you know, where we don’t make anything. I said what happens when everybody’s got that – all the services they need. Now this pandemic has actually brought it right back in sharp focus. At the start of it, we never had any PPE, because we don’t make anything in this country anymore. We don’t even have the capability to build commercial ships anymore – we’re an island! How cuckoo is that?

    Sam Willis

    And if you think about how much of the, you know, the mercantile ships in the world were being built here

    Ron Neish

    We had 87% of the market at one time.

    Sam Willis

    87% of all merchant ships.

    Ron Neish

    I mean, it’s incredible.

    Sam Willis

    All changed. So, let’s just talk a little bit about your books and how you went about doing it and maybe pick out a few of these wonderful, wonderful Leith built ships because there are some really fantastic names there from maritime history, aren’t there.

    Ron Neish

    It’s incredible. I think – going back to this initial search on the internet and stuff when I used to – it did, it annoyed me that I could never find much about the Leith ships. Because I knew there was a lot – I know a lot more now, obviously, but even at that time, I knew there was a lot of well-known names that were just discounted. Nobody knew about them; nobody knew about the histories. I went to see my old gaffer, Jimmy Russell, he was the foreman loftsman that took over. And here’s a strange thing about lofting, Sam, that in all the time that Henry Robbs was there in Leith from 1918 until the closure in 1984, there was only ever four, four in number, foremen loftsmen – four men, that became foremen loftsmen. Now, Jimmy Russell was the last one, and I was working overseas. And as I said, and I thought I need to do something about this. So, I came back and I said, I’ll go and have a word with Jimmy, I went to see him, and I said to him, I’m going to write a book about the ship’s built at Leith. And he says, oh, you fool, you, you’ll never do that! He said what I’ll give you is, he says what I’ll do is I’ll give you this list, the ships that were built, you know, the actual ships list. He ordered a copy of the order book. So, I started off with that Sam. And I said, well, I can start off – what I’ll do is I’ll start off with a blog and I’ll find out all I can about each ship, chronological order, and I’ll set it down. And then I realised I was getting a lot of interest, a lot of people getting in touch with me, contacts. And I said my God, I need more than a blog, you know, I said, I need to do a website. So, I started a website called Leith Shipyards, which grew huge. Over six or seven years, it grew enormously, and I’ve got so much information and data sent in. And then the hackers got a hold of it, obviously, you know. So yes, at the end of the day, you know, if you went on to Leith Shipyards you were directed to, could have been worse, you were directed to a bank in Brazil. So eventually I thought, oh no, I’m going to have to, I’ll close this down. So, I closed it down. But then, obviously, I had intentionally starting a new one up, you know, and because I was beginning to say to myself, now if I start, I’d actually started writing a lot of training manuals for the maritime world. And I looked on that as an apprenticeship, because here’s another little thing, and I mean, this is going to go public, I don’t care – publish and be damned! – I am a bit dyslexic. I don’t actually know the whole of the alphabet. There’s a couple of letters I always miss out. I’m not going to go through it here, but I always miss it out. So, I’ve always had this, this thing, you know, it goes back to my days at primary school – this teacher, we never got on, she tried to break me, and I tried to break her. I think I won!

    Sam Willis

    Do you know what, you have won, you won this – you’ve written this. It’s a magnificent book and I love the stories of the ships involved. Tell me about the Sirius, built in 1837.

    Ron Neish

    The Sirius, again there was very well known about the Sirius, you know. Every time I looked the only thing, I could find was the American ship that had went the opposite way, I think it was called the

    Sam Willis

    For those of you who don’t know, for our listeners who don’t know, can we just give them a bit of a background to why the Sirius is important.

    Ron Neish

    The Sirius was important because she was the first steamship that ever crossed the Atlantic completely on steam alone. And she was in competition with the Great Eastern because they set, the Great Eastern, off a couple of days after Sirius,

    Sam Willis

    Do you mean the Great Western?

    Ron Neish

    Great Western sorry, yes. I keep getting mixed up with them. That Kingdom Brunel, you know, he should have had a bit more imagination when he was naming his ships

    Sam Willis

    The Sirius, so the Sirius crosses the Atlantic

    Ron Neish

    The Sirius was just a small, she was a small side paddle steamer, a mail packet, she was never built across the Atlantic. This Irish company got a hold of her, and they thought, well, let’s try and send her across the Atlantic – because a ship had went the other way partly on steam partly on sail. And Sirius ended up – I think she was about 16 hours outside of New York and she ended up having to burn furniture, start burning the furniture, you know. So, she got in New York Harbour, it was only a few hours before the Great Western, but in terms of achievement, it was miles and miles and miles ahead. She was the first steamship to cross the Atlantic, and she was built in Leith, she was built in Menzies. So, we have a saying that Leith steam done first.

    Sam Willis

    Very good. And you also have Thomas Morton I enjoyed this story about what his involvement was. Tell us about him.

    Ron Neish

    He’s incredible. He invented the patent slip. Now, patent slip, for anyone who doesn’t know is a means of raising the vessel out of the water on a slip, slipway. And it saved the cost of it going into a drydock. But the problem with that was it was easily copied. And the Americans in particular, they’ve still got them – you’ll see them around the world – Americans copied the slip. And Mr Morton even took his case to Parliament, and he spent years and years getting very stressed and spent a lot of money trying to win the patent back. Parliament eventually agreed with him a little bit and they decreed that he could get, I think it was a nominal sum of money. So, he’d spent all that time in his life with this fantastic invention with very little return for it, which was a bit of a shame.

    Sam Willis

    How did it work? Did it drag them up onto the slip?

    Ron Neish

    It dragged them up on winches. Yes, winches on the slip, you know. So, it was a cradle that went down, the ship was manoeuvred on top of the cradle and then the both – the cradle was then hauled out of the water with a ship on top of it. I was sent an email not long ago as well which is – it’s amazing to find out – but Morton’s also – they built diving bells. Now you can imagine this is in the days when, you know, you went down under the water with a pipe was your air supply. And they gifted one to the Belgian government and one to the Japanese government. And one of the divers had been in touch with me asking if I knew anything about. It was news to me, and I thought God this guy – there was a lot more to this guy than you could ever imagine. And then while I was doing some research on early industry in Leith, there was a company there in Commercial Street that was building aluminium boats. This is in the late 18th century. And he was so successful with them he had to stop taking orders in. He got bought out eventually, obviously. That’s what happened in shipbuilding. If somebody was creating a problem, you’d buy them out, you know and just get rid of – a bit like the man that invented the vehicle, Tucker I think it was, you know, we’ll buy him out and we’ll just ruin him.

    I was going to say as well that there was a shop, a shop in Leith walk in the early 19th century that you could actually go into called Gibson’s, and you could buy an aeroplane. You could buy an aeroplane! It was in kit form, put it together and you could fly it. Four hundred and something pound it cost. Leith was such a dynamic, diverse place full of hooks, crooks and bottle merchants, we used to say, you know – characters!

    Sam Willis

    Does that mean you are well placed with dealing with changes in technology, like you know the changes from timber to iron and then iron to steel?

    Ron Neish

    I think there was also the Leith nautical college opened up, which used to – that produced more engineers than you could shake a stick at the time you know. Every – we’re all aware of Star Trek, you know, even the engineer in Star Trek is called Scotty. Every chief engineer on a ship, certainly in the steamship days, was a Scotsman. And a lot of them came out of Leith nautical college that trained them up. And the fact that there was a lot of initial shipbuilding in Leith meant there was a transient workforce of shipwrights in the wooden shipbuilding days. When they transferred over to steel – I mean even – when you look at shipbuilding some of the fantastic shipyards, they never managed to make the transformation from timber to steel – to iron and then to steel. But Leith was well-positioned with boilermakers as well, who were trained on iron, so iron ships and then they soon discovered that you know, Bessemer discovered a cheaper way of making steel. Hence, we had the steel ships and that was the birth of the trade called a plater, which is relatively early. You know, shipwrights, we used to say that the shipwright was the second oldest profession in the world. If you have to ask what the oldest profession is I’m not going to tell you.

    Sam Willis

    With all of this technological change, I mean I love this patch of history of Leith and building these kinds of extraordinarily luxurious sailing barks

    Ron Neish

    They were absolutely incredible.

    Sam Willis

    Yes. La Belle Sauvage – there’s a picture – that is some ship.

    Ron Neish

    These are – I’ve got a book on the go about it Sam. These were actually luxury steam yachts and

    Sam Willis

    They’re like superyachts of today

    Ron Neish

    They were superyachts today we would call them superyachts. They were the epitome of what a wealthy person, what the Rockefellers, the Stevenson’s these types of people. The railroad barons, the oil barons, that’s what they spent their money on. The titled royalty spent their money on a luxury steam yacht. And Ramage and Ferguson, which was the main shipyard in Leith at the time, happened to build ninety-three of these beautiful vessels. The other two shipyards built another ten or eleven. So, there’s more than a hundred of these vessels built in Leith. Which on average – when you work it out, meant that they were the most proficient builders of these vessels in the world, even surpassing the Clyde. And these vessels were purchased by the likes of the Archduke Ferdinand, you know, the guy that got – that kicked off the First World War. And Marconi, he had one of them. Pulitzer, he had a specially converted ship because his deafness and his blindness – so the designers and Ramage and Ferguson built him a vessel that had no sharp corners on it, and it was all ramps, you know. Amazing, amazing ship. And she ended up being – I don’t want to give away too much of my steam yacht book, you know because I’m actually, I’ve actually got – there’s a guy called Dr William Collier, who owns G. L. Watson limited, who are the oldest ship design company in the world. Now they – George Lennox Watson designed a lot of these luxury steam yachts, and five or six of them are built in Leith. So, Dr Collier is actually looking at my book just now give me some pointers, you know, how I can trim it down a bit and you know, improve it and stuff. But these vessels are – apart from probably the Kobenhavn which was the big sailing barque

    Sam Willis

    That was the largest sailing barque built.

    Ron Neish

    That was the largest sailing ship ever built in the British Isles.

    Sam Willis

    Yet again in Leith. That’s a magnificent ship as well.

    Ron Neish

    It is absolutely. And

    Sam Willis

    Is it five-masted? I can’t remember now.

    Ron Neish

    Five masted. She had an auxiliary engine as well. 5000 tonnes. These vessels were built primarily to take grain from Australia to Europe, and vice versa. She, unfortunately – she was lost, mysterious and lost in 1928. Lost with all hands, you know, because she was a training ship as well – forty-five Danish cadets. And not a single trace was ever found. You know, there’s a whole load of ban pots on the internet and television and that, that say, well, bits have been found washed up here – not a single bit as ever been found off that ship. No trace whatsoever, you know. I’ve had people get in contact with me saying that she was taken by spaceships, she’s up there, she’s up the Limpopo River, you know, and all kinds of crazy. She just disappeared another mystery of the sea.

    Sam Willis

    We’d love to know. If anyone knows where the Kobenhaven is, please get in touch!

    Ron Neish

    I’ve been asked Sam and I did say that, you know, if James Cameron and the guys that went searching for the Titanic if they were to go looking for the Kobenhaven, it would be a bit more difficult. She was, you know because you don’t know exactly where she went down. But if they spent the time and the money, perhaps it would be able to find her. I don’t know. But the real interesting thing about Kobenhaven as well, apart from the fact she was a beautiful vessel, she was built twice. She was built twice.

    Sam Willis

    How does that work?

    Ron Neish

    Well, the first time she was getting built, she was getting built and the First World War broke out. So, the Admiralty had to look around, you know, what their assets were. And they saw this 5,000-ton hull getting built, and they took her over. And they said no, we’ll have her. So, she was built up to hull stage, launched, and she was taken as an oil hulk for the Admiralty. She was called Black Dragon. She was towed across to Gibraltar and she lay in Gibraltar, in the Mole, in the harbour in Gibraltar, for up until about 1963 something like that before she was scrapped. So, if you were ever in Gibraltar between the First World War and 1960s you would have seen the Black Dragon in the harbour. That’s what it was. That was the original hull for the Kopenhaven.

    Sam Willis

    Amazing. And how did the war, you know – well, let’s talk about the First World War – how did the First World War War affect Leith?

    Ron Neish

    It affected Leith, well it affected Leith in quite a lot of strange ways because the Admiralty in these days, and you know, the snobbery around the Royal Navy, and the Admiralty at the time, meant that they looked down their nose at commercial shipbuilders. They didn’t think that commercial shipbuilders could build ships. There was five royal dockyards, and it was royal dockyards that built the real ships for the Royal Navy at the time, the battleships and cruisers and stuff. And that changed slightly with the likes of John Brown’s, you know. But there was only ever, I think it was only two ships were built during the war for the well apart from tugs (there was a lot of tugs built in Leith during the war – the first war for the Admiralty), but there were no warships built. And a lot of them – during the first war shipbuilding – it was not a reserved occupation like it wasn’t the second war. So, the vast majority of the men signed up and we all know what happened when they went to the front, you know, they were just fodder for the machine guns. And a lot of the, a lot of the labour was supplemented by a female workforce. And it was – there was great sadness in Leith at the time because there was a whole regiment was decimated, in a train crash, Britain’s worse rail disaster as well. That was the Royal Scots Leith.

    So, and Leith was bombed by zeppelins as well. They went through it, it’s not as if they were untouched. Not quite as badly as other cities during the, you know, Clydebank or that during the Second World War, but they weren’t untouched. But the shipbuilding went on. And as the war was going on, there was a mass – there was an even bigger market in repairing ships because the torpedoes weren’t quite as deadly as the one in the second war. So, there was a lot of damaged ships that needed repair. And this is where Leith started to excel. And Henry Robb, used to work for Ramage and Ferguson, he was the production manager Ramage and Ferguson, and he obviously seen what was going on and thought there’s an opportunity here and that’s when he – he actually branched out in 1918 on his own. He took half a dozen of the top guys from Ramage and Ferguson, and they created Henry Robb Shipyard. They never had a shipyard to work in but they managed to get a lot of their repair work from the war. And one of them was quite a famous one was the SS Brussels whose captain, Fryatt – there was a big, big stink about the fact that the Germans took him off the ship and executed him within three days, you know. They gave him a Mickey Mouse trial and they said because he had been a pain in them. And basically, this caused a huge stink – diploma stink because you know, Britain, the higher-ups in Britain, thought it was still a just wasn’t cricket, you know, to take someone out and execute – and yet they were sending thousands to their death in front of the machine guns. But this wasn’t cricket. But he was a brave, brave man. Now that ship was sunk in Denmark, sorry in Belgium in Ostend. And they raised her, and the Belgian government gifted it back to Britain. And the British government says okay, they put you know, a tender for anybody willing to take on this job. And Henry Robb did, took on, on an open-ended contract and they done the work in time, done it to a really high standard. She was turned from a passenger vessel into a, I think she ends up a cattle ship. But it got them noticed, it got the shipyard noticed, you know that they could take on big, big jobs and repair them to a high quality, a high standard. And that was the start of Henry Robb’s really. And then he still needed. He actually got, he got a couple of orders to build ships, but he never had anywhere to build them. So, he built them in the drydock. And he leased a couple of warehouses off of Curries, James Currie, who was part of the Currie line (Leith Hull and Hamburg shipping line). And they were actually building module, submodular design, you know, building – long before you know they do it nowadays, but it was only way they could build things and they put it together in a dry dock. Now, without giving away too many secrets, that’s exactly the way the aircraft carriers were built. All around the country in modular form, brought together assembled in Rosyth and then floated out. Henry Robb was doing that in 1920.

    Sam Willis

    Great story of innovation.

    Ron Neish

    I’ve always said there is no, there’s no shortcuts. I say to young apprentices nowadays, I say listen, when shipbuilding went from wood to iron to steel, some of the finest minds in the country worked on them, you know, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Yarrow – Sir Eric, you name it, you know, some of the finest minds in the country engineering, were there. Now, if there were any shortcuts these guys would have, don’t you think these guys would have found them? There’s no shortcuts to quality, to shipbuilding. We square things off, you know, we make flat-sided vessels that look terrible, because they’re easier to build because we don’t have the tradesmen to build them nowadays. We’ve lost the art. We don’t have the people to train them anymore. There’s a massive vacuum. There’s a huge need for skilled people in Britain, not just in shipbuilding but in all manufacturing industry. So if you’re listening to this Boris, get your act together, get something done about it.

    Sam Willis

    It’s a great place to finish. Ron, thank you so much for talking to me today.

    Ron Neish

    Absolutely superb, Sam.

    Sam Willis

    That’s all for now. Do please catch up on our other Scottish maritime histories. We began this series with an episode on the wrecks of World War two midget submarines at Aberlady Bay in East Lothian. And we shall continue it with the story of Joannes Wyllie, a Fife man who made a fortune running guns from Glasgow to the Confederate South during the American Civil War, a little bit of Scotland’s hidden history of supporting slavery. Do please follow us wherever you engage in social media on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, wherever it may be. But best of all, please join the Society for Nautical Research @snr.org.uk, it does not cost very much but it supports this podcast. You get four journals a year, you can sign up to come to our annual dinner on board HMS Victory, and it supports all of the worthwhile goodness that the society does to publish the world’s most important maritime history and to preserving our maritime past.