Shipbuilding at Barrow-in-Furness

January 2023

This episode was recorded at the fabulous Dockyard Museum in Barrow-in-Furness during the filming of their magnificent collection of ship models for the Lloyds Register Foundation’s project ‘Maritime Innovation In Miniature‘. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century Barrow experienced one of the fastest and most extraordinary transformations in history when it changed from a small farm to one one of the largest and most successful shipbuilding centres in the world in just a handful of years. Dr Sam Willis speaks with John Irving, Barrow local and premises manager at the Dockyard Museum to find out more about the history of Barrow and about their extraordinary collection of ship models, two of which are now immortalised in super high-definition video – HMS Vengeance, one of Queen Victoria’s most important battleships and RMS Orion, a passenger liner from the 1930s that transformed our expectation of comfort and safety at sea.

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello, everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror Podcast. Today I’m in the wonderful Barrow in Furness. Now, if you don’t know where Barrow in Furness is, then just imagine you’re in Liverpool. So west coast of the UK about halfway up and Barrow is to the north of the very southern tip of the Furness Peninsula.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Now I live in Exeter in Devon, and I’ve been trying to work this out on my journey here. And I reckon that Barrow is about as inaccessible from Devon as anywhere else in the entire UK, though what a magnificent journey it is to get here. I particularly enjoyed coming past Furness Abbey on the train, which was founded almost exactly 900 years before my visit, and was once the most powerful Cistercian monastery in the country. Now, this history of lost influence is something of a theme up here. Those who live in Barrow will no doubt argue vociferously that because they still build a nuclear submarine, they still remain influential and innovative. Now, I don’t want to contest that, of course, but I’m up here today to look at the history of shipbuilding in Barrow. And it doesn’t take long to realise just how important this place once was, somewhere with a deep and safe port with easy access to the Irish Sea and from there to the Atlantic, with fabulous natural resources for shipbuilding in the industrial age all around the town. Now I’m here more specifically because the Dockyard Museum at Barrow, which is something of an engineering marvel itself, built over one of the original dry docks here, well  this museum has the most mind blowing collection of ship models. And for those who are close followers of the Mariners Mirror podcasts, you will know that we have a great interest in ship models here, in particular in bringing them to the public. Last year we filmed two ship models at the National Maritime Museum using ultra modern camera equipment to bring you as close as technically as possible to these models. And the results are astounding. You can find them on the Mariners Mirror podcasts  YouTube page, models of Brunel’s SS Great Eastern and HMS Royal George, a first rate ship of the line from the mid 18th century. Inspired by these remarkable videos, the Lloyd’s Register Foundation have now launched their own project called Maritime Innovation In Miniature in which they are exploring the history of maritime technical innovation through ship models, using the same innovative filming techniques. You can find the project at the History of Education Centre of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation at h e c.lr foundation.org.uk. Or probably quicker just Google Maritime Innovation in Miniature. And so today there’s a film crew in the museum tackling two of the finest models in the most remarkable collection here. Those models are HMS Vengeance, one of Queen Victoria’s most distinctive battleships, and RMS Orion, launched in 1934. She was one of the most innovative passenger ships of her age, a landmark in the evolution of the modern liner. She really was a ship of the future. I took a break from filming to have a chat with John Irving, the building manager from the Dock Museum and a Barrow local through and through. As ever I hope you enjoy listening to John as much as I enjoyed talking with him. Here is the enthusiastic, entertaining, enthralling John

     

    Sam Willis 

    I am with John Irving and he is the business premises manager.

     

    John Irving 

    That’s correct.

     

    Sam Willis 

    At the Dockyard Museum at Barrow. We’re here filming for the Lloyd’s Register Foundations Maritime Innovation In Miniature series. So if you haven’t checked that out do make sure you do so, it’s the History and Education Centres, part of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation website, you’ll be able to find links in this episode. And we’re here to film two extraordinary models. So I should say at the beginning that Barrow in Furness has an amazing shipbuilding history from the 1870s onwards, and not only that they build amazing ships here but they also built models of some of the amazing ships they built. There was even a model shop on site. And so some of those fantastic models have been gifted to the Barrow Dockyard Museum, which is why we’re here. We’re  looking at two of them, HMS Vengeance, a Victorian battleship built in 1899, a truly remarkable model, and then something a bit different, the Orion, which is a passenger steamer from the 1930s, which changed forever the whole history and design of passenger ships. So John It’s been quite chaotic, take me through what’s happened this morning, if you’ve been enjoying it.

     

    John Irving 

    Well, this morning I suddenly discovered there’s another five o’clock in the day so I could get down  down here. And then we obviously met yourselves and  the film crew, and a company that we’ve used to remove, shall we say, the very large glass casings that obviously protect all of our collection. But there were four strong lads and I hope they had their Weetabix for breakfast.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, well, let’s just talk about this. So these models are in glass cases, the models themselves are enormous. They’re two and a half, three metres long.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, some of them certainly three metres long.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, and they’re in massive cases. And I mean, the glasses are one of the bigger ones, they’re easily three metres, a panel of glass that I mean, phenomenal. But we don’t reckon anyone’s been in these cases for a century maybe?

     

    John Irving 

    No, certainly from when they were created to when they were brought here. It will be here when the glass would have been put on, so we’re certainly talking three decades since they were last opened.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Extraordinary. And so the cameraman Roberto said it was like watching them dismantling a bomb which was quite astute, it was terrifying.

     

    John Irving 

    It really was terrifying. I’m just glad the curator wasn’t here today to see that, so far so good.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, I mean at one stage, I think there were ten people just standing around  wondering what to do. Nonetheless, it’s all been done very safely, very professionally and we are going ahead with the filming. So let’s just talk about the history, the maritime history of Barrow to start with. When did it become a shipbuilding centre?

     

    John Irving 

    You’ve already said, it was two years ago, but obviously with COVID they couldn’t celebrate it, so this Friday we’re having the 150th celebration of shipbuilding in Barrow. And that’s in partnership with BEA as it is now, BEA Maritime Systems.  And we are hosting their anniversary party this Friday, so the timing is perfect.

     

    Sam Willis 

    OK, so I should say, for those of you who have not been to Barrow in Furness, I doubt there are many of you out there who haven’t been here, the Dockyard Museum is stretched over the old dock from the 1870s, one of the old docks, and we are shadowed by, I don’t even know what it’s called. What’s the enormous shed behind us?

     

    John Irving 

    Well, there’s two now but the original one that we’re shadowed by is Devonshire Dock Hall  and that’s where they also built the first round of  the nuclear submarines, the next ones that come up they’re having to  build a bigger shed, because they’re a bit longer.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So what they did I suppose back in the 80s, was that they were building the nuclear subs and they needed to do it in secret so no one could see what was going on. It’s the biggest building I’ve ever seen.

     

    John Irving 

    Yes it really is, commonly known round here as  the Shed.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Right.

     

    John Irving 

    That is some big shed like you say, it houses nuclear submarines.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes.  So we’re in the shadow of the Shed. So 150 years celebrating shipbuilding in Barrow, and it’s all to do with the access to iron, basically  iron ore isn’t it.

     

    John Irving 

    The access to the iron ore was originally when Barrow was  formed, because 160 years ago Barrow  was but a  farm. Everywhere else historic around here, the ancient capital was Dalton in Furness. But you’re right, they  discovered the iron ore, started manufacturing, and they started to ship it all around the world, basically. But what they thought of was, well, instead of shipping it all around the world, we can just build the railway lines to supply the docks and build the docks. So that’s when the shipbuilding itself began, because we had all the raw materials here. So it made sense to actually build them here.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And an amazing harbour.

     

    John Irving 

    An amazing harbour  It was a  natural harbour but also all the sea defences were put in, and it’s slightly relocated from its original position, which was going to be around the Piel Island area. But then obviously they did all the surveys that they would do back then, and they created the dock system that we’ve got down here.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes. And there were many years of very successful shipbuilding, with  a reputation for innovation.

     

    John Irving 

    We really are, and it’s still going on today. And that’s what Barrow itself is really proud of. You are right, 150 years ago, through all the decades that we’ve gone through then, Barrow always produced in it submarines, shipbuilding, new designs, but it still goes on today in  that they are building the world class nuclear submarines.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s great news, isn’t it? And it’s still a major employer.

     

    John Irving 

    Still very major. It’s gone through all the various names, but it’s still one of the major employers in the town.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes. And the museum here gives us a real sense of the variety of ships that were built here; tell us a little bit about about some of the ships that were built.  I mean, it’s quite interesting that they’re from different countries as well and people may not know about that, but Britain was at the forefront of building ships for everyone.

     

    John Irving 

    Yes, we’ve got two models of this building for the Imperial Japanese Navy. We built two submarines for Estonia. They were both built back in the 1930s, and we celebrated with them with a trade deal last year and we found out so much about these submarines.  The submarines when they were purchased  actually cost 20% of their GDP for the whole year. And they’ve only ever had two submarines. One sank, the other is in the museum in Tallinn. And so you are right you know, we just don’t build for the Royal Navy. Over the 150 years we’ve built for many countries around the world, both civil and military.

     

    Sam Willis 

    The Japanese Navy is an interesting one, isn’t it? You built a model of Kongo.

     

    John Irving 

    Kongo yes.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And do  you get many Japanese visitors?

     

    John Irving 

    We really do. And when speaking to them when they come in they have specifically come to Barrow.  Obviously they tour the country, but they all come to Barrow simply because of a lot of the links that we have with Japan.

     

    John Irving 

    The Mikasa is obviously their big maritime museum out in Japan, the Kongo  was built here, so it’s a natural link there. And in the town hall where we will be exhibiting soon there’s a lot of porcelain or gifts that were given to Barrow or the shipyard from the Japanese Emperors of the time. So again, the Japanese people,  they want to come and see. And we’ve had one family that said their great great grandfather was on the Kongo and they were in absolute floods of tears just by seeing the model of it here.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, that’s amazing, those kind of international connections. I don’t want to be rude but      Barrow really is not very close to anywhere else.

     

    John Irving 

    You are right.  We are the hidden gem that does have many, many international connections, mainly through the shipbuilding itself.  People  come in and learn the trade, or the contractors, they don’t just come from this country either. You know, at the minute, we’re getting the best people in here to design the best bit of equipment. So you know, on that way, on the industry side, Barrow is on the map. And also it’s the gateway to the Lakes.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That’s interesting as well, because  I was reading that when Barrow was set up as a shipbuilding centre there was obviously nothing here. So they needed to bring shipbuilders in, they brought them in from Glasgow.

     

    John Irving 

    Yes, they came Glasgow it’s right.. But you think of all the other trades that go with shipbuilding, you know, equally from actually getting the iron ore out of the ground. So there’s huge Cornish representation up here, Welsh, Irish, and you are right for the Glasgow and specific bulk building trades themselves.  Everything else that’s around those industries, people migrated to Barrow, and back in the 1870s Barrow was known as the Chicago of the North

     

    Sam Willis 

    Chicago of the North.

     

    John Irving 

    It took that many people coming in, and a lot of the housing estates that had to be built really quickly to house all these people that were coming in. So there’s various parts of Hindpool,  certainly parts of Walney, that are all terraced housing.

     

    Sam Willis 

    There was a planned  town, wasn’t there?

     

    John Irving 

    It was; one was a planned  town for Vickers.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Right, so let’s go back to Vickers;  who were Vickers?

     

    John Irving 

    It was Vickers Armstrong, they were part of  the shipbuilders themselves. So obviously when it started and all these workers came in they had to house them all. But also where’s your facilities, sporting facilities, recreation, so all that was specifically built. Walney is a  Island that’s half a mile away, let’s create Walney Island as a residential area.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Amazing. And I enjoyed looking around the museum. And it was interesting what you were saying about the international connections because there’s a bit where you’ve got a Viking Hoard, we should talk about that as well, which is quite cool. But next to it is a Chinese Hoard and I’ve not seen one of those before.  I was fascinated by that because they suspected it had been left by a Chinese sailor who had been here, because a Chinese ship had been built here as well, which I liked..  What else have we got in in the museum?

     

    John Irving 

    Originally, the Dock Museum was the Town Museum.  The Town  Museum got relocated, so originally we were going to be a Maritime Museum. But the people that were supporting that, obviously that folded, so Barrow Council  took it over, so it became the Town Museum as well as the Maritime Museum. So certainly on the entrance area that you’ve seen, you can walk around and it’s the history of Barrow from basically when it was a farm right through until the modern day. Obviously not a lot of people would know but Barrow was badly bombed in the Second World War, so we have a huge section on that. Obviously again they were looking at the rail network, because Barrow was pivotal in the rail network, as well as obviously the shipbuilding capacity as well, and all the ammunition around it. So we have quite a big section on that. You are right, we can go right back to the time when the Viking Hoards were found, which was really interesting, and they’re still finding them in the area, although we haven’t found a Viking or Roman settlement yet. And I hope I’m here when that does happen.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, almost implausible that, there wasn’t one.

     

    John Irving 

    No, and it’s just finding it. That is the key. So yes, as a Town and Maritime Museum  we pride ourselves that we are a small museum, our footfall is really good. And under the Visit England guidance for the first time we’ve got to 90%, we’ve been put in for various awards under the small museum category. So  yes it’s a really friendly, happy place, and a great way to spend the day, and the best of it Sam, we’re free,

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yay, that’s wonderful, and I can absolutely guarantee that it’s true. And you’re really leading the way helping Lloyd’s Register Foundation with this ship model project. So thank you very much.

     

    John Irving 

    You’re more than welcome.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, brilliant, great talking to you John.

     

    John Irving 

    And you.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Thank you all so much for listening. Now if this all sounds exciting, you must hunt out the Lloyd’s Register Foundations Project Maritime Innovation In Miniature. The best way to get there is just Google Maritime Innovation In Miniature. And you will see the mind blowing results of today’s filming as well as those original films I mentioned on the Great Eastern and the Royal George from collections of the National Maritime Museum, and also another model of a  fabulous Liquefied Natural Gas carrier, a type of ship that is leading the way in our transition towards a carbon free future and is enormously important to the modern world maritime economy. Please remember that this podcast comes from both the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the Society for Nautical  Research. Please check out both of those wonderful institutions. You can find the Society for Nautical Research at snr.org.uk where you can join up and I would urge you all to do so. Thank you so much for listening as always.

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