"Cammell Laird: Shipbuilders to the World" at Birkenhead, England by Alex Naughton

Content © Alex Naughton (2003-2005) who publishes " The Ocean Liner Virtual Museum" Used with permission.

(1824 - 1993)

Cammell Laird built its first vessel at Birkenhead as long ago as 1828. The company has not built a new vessel at Birkenhead since 1993 and recently plans have been put forward for the redevelopment of the Cammell Laird shipyard site. Ship repair and conversion work continues to expand at Birkenhead under the A&P Group but given the general state of the British shipbuilding industry it seems unlikely that shipbuilding will ever return to the legendary Cammell Laird shipyard at Birkenhead. It seems that this chapter in the yard’s history has now closed forever.

However Cammell Laird did not only undertake shipbuilding they also were involved in the building of railway locomotives and carriages. In the end this operation was spun off and eventually became Metro-Cammell based in Birmingham. So they were not just Shipbuilders to the World. In the 1990s Metro-Cammell merged with GEC Traction to form GEC-Alstom, today this survives as part of the engineering giant Alstom, their last train built there is the new Pendolino tilting trains for Virgin Trains West Coast Main Line route. Sadly these may be the last as Alstom wish to close down the works at the end of 2004.

The Early Years:

Cammell Laird was started in 1824 by a William Laird, a Scottish entrepreneur, who like many of his fellow Scots moved to the River Mersey to seek his fortune. He set up a boiler making works on the south bank of the Wallasey Pool and in 1828 was joined by his son, John Laird, who realised the possibility of expanding into iron shipbuilding. The techniques of bending iron plates and riveting them together to build ships were similar to the principles involved in boiler making. Laird’s first vessel was a 60ft prefabricated iron lighter for Charles Wye Williams’ Irish Inland Navigation Company in 1829. This was followed by further orders for more lighters and in 1833 the paddle steamer Lady Lansdowne was built for the same firm. She could carry 300 tons plus passengers and was used to tow lighters on Lough Derg and the river Shannon. Her hull is still embedded in the river bank at Killaloe.

In 1839 Laird built its first screw propelled steamer, Robert F. Stockton, a 63ft tug for use on North American waterways. By 1840, Laird had built another 21 iron paddle steamers including four gun boats for anti-piracy patrols for the East India Company. Laird’s reputation continued to grow and in the same year the Admiralty gave Laird an order for the paddle steamer Dover which was to be the first steamer for the cross channel mail service. She must have been satisfactory because Dover was followed by further orders for paddle frigates. These included the 1,400 ton HMS Birkenhead of 1848 which was wrecked off South Africa with the loss of over 400 soldiers in 1852. Laird was also involved in developing the new town of Birkenhead and in 1844 starting the construction of the new docks in the tidal Wallasey Pool. These were intended to compete with the Port of Liverpool but the venture was not a success and the system was merged with Liverpool docks in 1858.

Nevertheless Laird continued to expand its shipbuilding business. In 1852 it took over the lease of a south Liverpool shipyard, whose main work was building small gun boats for the Crimean war between 1854 and 1856. This yard was eventually handed back to its owners when Laird opened a huge new yard at Birkenhead in 1857. Covering 20 acres with five drydocks, this site still forms the core of the current yard. In 1858, an engine building works was added.

Laird also experimented by using steel plates instead of wrought iron when it built Ma Robert, a small river steamer for the famous explorer Dr David Livingstone. Between 1850 and 1870, Merseyside’s shipbuilders were among the most innovative in the country. However, those on the Liverpool side of the river were hampered by lack of space, restrictive leases and a dependence on the booms and slumps of merchant shipping so by 1900 they had all closed. Laird on the other hand had a much wider portfolio of customers including the Royal Navy and foreign navies and the company had also built merchant vessels, from sailing ships to fast cross channel steamers.

John Laird, son of the founder, retired in 1861 and transferred the business to his three sons, William, John and Henry Laird. The Laird family continued to run the shipyard until it was merged with Sheffield steel makers Charles Cammell & Co in 1903 and thus the name Cammell Laird was born. With this added financial muscle, the company was able to reclaim a large section of foreshore and build the present works and fitting out basin. The last member of the Laird family to work for the shipyard was J. MacGregor Laird.

The Warships:

By 1869 Laird had built a large number of small warships for the Royal Navy or associated government organisations such as the Indian colonial administration. The succeeding decades saw Laird selling an increasing number of warships to foreign navies. By far the most notorious was the schooner rigged steamer Alabama of 1862. She was commissioned by the American Confederate Government as a “fast merchant steamer” and departed the Mersey unarmed, picking up her guns in the Azores. For two years she terrorised Federal shipping and sank 68 ships. The following year, Laird was commissioned to build two armoured coastal monitors for the Confederates. These vessels were technically significant as they were equipped with revolving turrets instead of the traditional broadside arrangement. The British Government seized both ships because they compromised the country’s neutrality and they were commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Scorpion and HMS Wivern. Laird also built four turret ships for the Dutch Navy between 1866 and 1869, as well as one for Peru and two for the Royal Navy, including the disastrous HMS Captain of 1869 which capsized with heavy loss of life a year after she was completed. The Company also delivered warships to the Portuguese and Chinese navies and the 1870s saw further commissions for foreign navies including two turret ships for the Argentine navy.

In the 1880s, the growing threat to battleships from attack by fast torpedo boats was countered by the development of larger faster “torpedo boat catchers” or destroyers as they later became known. The launch of the experimental HMS Rattlesnake in 1886 was followed by a succession of destroyers including 19 for the Royal Navy before 1914 and orders for the Argentinean and Chilean navies.

Cammell Laird did not build its first submarine, E41 until 1915. The Company went on to build a further seven up to 1918 and continued to maintain this expertise right up until the building of its last ship in 1993, the U class submarine HMS Unicorn for the Royal Navy. Over those 78 years, notable submarines constructed at Birkenhead included the 1939 built HMS Thetis which tragically sank on her trials with the loss of all but three men on board. Three nuclear submarines were built at Birkenhead: HMS Renown, HMS Revenge and the hunter killer HMS Conqueror which sank the Argentinean cruiser General Belgrano during the Falklands War.

Laird built earlier types of naval capital ship including seven big gun battleships for the Royal Navy between 1895 and 1941: HMS Royal Oak (1892), HMS Mars (1895), HMS Glory (1899), HMS Exmouth (1901), HMS Audacious (1901), HMS Rodney (1925) and HMS Prince of Wales (1941). The last took part in the sinking of the German battleship Bismark in 1941 and HMS Prince of Wales was sunk by Japanese aircraft in December of the same year. Between 1911 and 1919, Laird built nine light cruisers and the last, HMS Achilles of 1932 was one of the three cruisers that cornered the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee in 1939.

Cammell Laird also completed three aircraft carriers, two fleet carriers both named HMS Ark Royal in 1939 and 1950, and the smaller HMS Venerable of 1943 which was sold to the Dutch navy. The first HMS Ark Royal was sunk in the Mediterranean in 1941 and the second was a major component of the Royal Navy into the late 1970s. This ship was notable as being the subject of the TV programme “Sailor” one of the first fly-on-the-wall style documentaries.

Merchant Ship Building:

While the naval contracts probably provided more in the way of prestige and profit, merchant ship construction was Laird’s bread and butter and most were mundane vessels, such as bulk carrying iron sailing ships, tugs, dredgers or barges. Early on the company gained a reputation for fast mail packets and cross channel steamers. In 1860, it completed steamers for the London & North Western Railway (LNWR) which, with a speed of 18 knots were the fastest ships afloat for many years. Orders for cross Channel steamers continued into the 20th century and these included St George of 1906, one of the first turbine steamers operated on the Fishguard to Rosslare service.

Laird was also among the first to build steam cargo liners which could carry enough cargo to pay their way without a mail subsidy. The pioneering African Steam Navigation Co, which was run by a relative, Macgregor Laird, ordered the 900 ton Faith, Hope and Charity in 1852. From then on Laird built for a wide range of liner companies, but not the obvious ones such as White Star Line or Blue Funnel, which both had strong links to other shipyards. Laird’s major customers included the Pacific Steam Navigation Co, Singlehurst’s Red Cross Line to Brazil and foreign companies such as Messageries Maritime. The Company built three liners for Cunard Line: the 5,517gt Cephalonia of 1882, the yard’s first passenger liner, the 19,602gt Samaria of 1920, and the largest and most famous, the 35,738gt second Mauretania of 1939. This vessel was only exceeded in size by the yard’s last passenger ship, Union-Castle Line’s 37,277gt Windsor Castle completed in 1960.

Cammell Laird’s mercantile output included a number of innovative designs. In 1909, Laird built the world’s largest suction dredger, the 10,000 ton Leviathan for the Mersey Docks & Harbour Co, and the year after built the world’s largest floating dock designed to take the Royal Navy’s latest dreadnoughts. Perhaps a more important technical breakthrough was Fullagar, a small motor coaster of 1920, which was notable as having the world’s first all welded hull.

Engine wise, Cammell Laird had the expertise to build steam turbines but not diesels, and in 1956 the yard built the Shell tanker Sepia the first major merchant ship with gas turbine propulsion. This did not lead to a flood of orders, although gas turbines became the accepted propulsion for modern warships. Cammell Laird was a versatile yard. For example, during the Second World War when building tonnage to replace war losses, Laird undertook anything from the largest tankers of the day to refrigerated ships for Shaw Savill Line (among others) and new Mersey tugs. This variety of orders continued into the 1970s, although competition from abroad made orders increasingly difficult to win.

Among their completions in the 1970s were three container ships for Canadian Pacific, two gas tankers for P&O and three “combi” ships for Pacific Steam Navigation Co. After the mid 1970s, orders became scarce and on privatisation the Company was barred from tendering for merchant ship orders.

Some Survivals:

A number of Cammell Laird’s products are still sailing or preserved, including more recently built vessels such as the RFA tankers Brambleleaf and Appleleaf of 1979, the Type 42 destroyer HMS Liverpool and Type 23 (Batch 3) destroyer HMS Campbelltown. Other notable survivors include the First World War light cruiser HMS Caroline, which acts as the base for the Royal Naval Reserve in Belfast, and the O class submarine HMS Onyx of 1966. The latter has been saved and opened to visitors in Birkenhead Docks as part of the Historic Warships Birkenhead collection.

A number of older vessels around the world also survive, including the turret ship Huascar built for the Peruvian Navy in 1865 and subsequently captured by the Chileans who have preserved her at their naval base Talcahuano. The corvette Uruguay of 1874, which was used as an Antarctic exploration ship, and the sail training ship Presidente Sarmiento of 1897 which are both preserved in Buenos Aires in Brazil. In Peru, the river gun boat America of 1904 is preserved as a memorial to the war with Colombia in 1911. She was in fact built by the Tranmere Bay Development Co which was set up by Cammell Laird and a smaller shipbuilder John Jones & Co who had a small site at Tranmere next to Laird’s yard. This new company took on the task of reclaiming the tidal area of Tranmere for the new shipyard.

Another surviving vessel is the former Manchester Ship Canal Co’s tug and director’s boat Daniel Adamson of 1903. She was another product of the Tranmere Bay Development Co and has recently been saved from scrapping and is under restoration. Also the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company steamer Manxman still exists and is the subject of a campaign by the Manxman Steamship Company to bring her home to Merseyside for preservation. So ranging from the HMS Onyx to the 1955 built Manxman, a fair representation of the ships Cammell Laird built throughout the 20th century still survive in preservation as the lasting legacy of this famous shipyard.

The Final Years:

Cammell Laird continued in business as a public company until the Government took a 50% stake in 1972. The yard was subsequently nationalised as part of British Shipbuilders and then privatised and bought in 1983 by Vickers, the famous Barrow in Furness shipbuilders. Cammell Laird was designated as a shipyard only for building warships. Its last ship, the U class conventional submarine HMS Unicorn was completed in 1993. The yard was subsequently sold off to Coast Line Industries which built up a good business in ship repair and major conversions. However, the company changed its name back to Cammell Laird, such was the power of the name, and embarked on a bold plan of expansion, acquiring repair yards in France, USA and Gibraltar.

Sadly in the spring of 2000, Cammell Laird was forced into insolvency by the rejection of a new mid-ship section built to stretch Costa Line’s cruise ship Costa Classica. Hopes that the company could be saved were then pinned on the building of two new cruise ships for the American Luxus group but this order never materialised. The name Cammell Laird still survives at Gibraltar after that yard was bought by its directors to become reactivated as Cammell Laird Gibraltar Ltd. While the original Birkenhead yard is now in the hands of the successful A&P Group of ship repairers. However A&P Group only owns the northern part of the site comprising the fitting out basin and the drydocks, as the ship hall and the slipways in the southern part of the site is owned by Reddington Finance. This company recently announced radical plans to redevelop large areas of the southern part of the site including the 1978 built ship hall for a variety of uses thus bringing to an end forever the chance of reviving shipbuilding at the famous Cammell Laird shipyard at Birkenhead, Merseyside, England, UK.

In November 2004 a further development took place in the long running saga when a study commissioned by Wirral Council into the potential future of the Cammell Laird site concluded that shipbuilding and shiprepair are not commercially viable. This seemed to give encouragement to Reddington Finance's controversial plans for the redevelopment of the site. For in December 2004 it was announced that Reddington Finance (owners of the southern part of the site) had now bought (for £30 million) the northern part of the yard previously owned by A&P Group and used by them and North Western Shiprepairers for ship repair work. This means that Reddington Finance now own all 140 acres of the former Cammell Laird shipyard site. However they are leasing back indefinitely the northern part of the site to A&P and North Western Shiprepairers so that they can continue undertaking ship repair work at the site for as long as this is viable. However Reddington don't seem to think that they will last long and seem keen for them to fail as they are developing redevelopment proposals for the northern part of the site ready for when the time comes for that part to be redeveloped as well! However the two shiprepair companies believe that they have a strong future at the site and that the shipbuilding and repair industry is viable on Merseyside and has a promising long term future.

Reddington's £1 billion redevelopment proposals for the southern part of the site seem to focus on leisure, retail, entertainment, offices, luxury housing and ambitious schemes such as a snowdome and a relocated "Fourth Grace" (originally planned for the Liverpool Waterfront). However they seem keen to reassure people that their redevelopment plans for the northern half of the site when eventually freed up will focus on shipbuilding and maritime history perhaps comprising a visitor centre where people can learn about the shipbuilding industry and maritime history. Whether they will actually stick to this and keep their word is another matter entirely.

However what will the local community make of all this, one can only wonder! Certainly it is a prime site of great importance to the people of Merseyside, but couldn't it be used more imaginatively than just another standard uninspiring retail, leisure, entertainment, office and residential development. Surely a vacant Cammell Laird shipyard containing a large wet basin and dry docks would make an ideal location for a national historic ship centre or at least a major maritime heritage cluster? Indeed this could create a great attraction for Wirral and help attract visitors and people to the area as well as providing much needed jobs, also the skills developed over so many years in the old shipyard could be retained to assist with maintaining the historic ships while also allowing scope for commerical work as required. For example it could perhaps be a suitable home for the Historic Warships Birkenhead, SS Manxman and other further historic ships that might be saved in the future?

Also the No 5 drydock at the site is one of the largest remaining in the UK and therefore is of strategic importance to the UK as the Royal Navy's proposed new large aircraft carriers (due to enter service after 2012) will need to be maintained and will require adequate drydock facilities around the UK to support them. The No 5 drydock at the Cammell Laird site (along with 4 others in the UK: King George V drydock in Southampton, Inchgreen drydock on the Clyde, the Harland & Wolff drydock in Belfast and the No 1 drydock at Babcock Rosyth) is one of only 5 in the UK that currently are large enough to cater for these new large aircraft carriers, as a result this is of great strategic importance and must be safeguarded in an operational state so that this important facility is there if required. We should safeguard our key shipyards and their skills as we need to at least have the capability to build and maintain our warships for the Royal Navy here in the UK rather than abroad, so these facilities and their skills are of strategic defence importance if nothing else. It is also useful to be able to build and maintain at least part of our merchant fleet as well and finally our country's shipyards and their skills are also essential to help maintain our historic ships and maritime heritage. Indeed historic ship restoration work can help sustain our shipyards and give them the flexibility to continue and have work even when there is a temporary lull in commercial work. Some of these sites could be developed also as environmental friendly ship recycling facilities where redundant ships can be dismantled in a safe and environmentally friendly way, indeed all British shipping companies should be encouraged to dispose of their ships in this way instead of on the beaches of China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (where most redundant ships seem to be scrapped these days) where swarms of people just pick the ships apart in very unsafe, hazardous, and uncontrolled conditions at great risk to the environment and the workers heath. However to enable this to be done more facilities such as the Able UK Ship Recycling Centre at Hartlepool need to be developed here in the UK. Thus via a combination of commercial shipbuilding / shiprepair, warship construction & maintenance, historic ship restoration & maintenance, and ship recycling etc there should be enough avenues of work to sustain all our key shipyards of strategic importance for many years to come.

Shipyards must not be overlooked or forgotten either, as they too are the key to the future. Our key shipyards and ship repair facilities are strategic assets and must be safeguarded. We must do everything possible to support their case and highlight their great strategic importance for the UK both now and in the future. This Cammell Laird site is one of these key strategic assets and must be safeguarded and protected from development that could jeopardise the use of this important facility and its No 5 drydock in the future.

Content © Alex Naughton (2003-2005) who publishes " The Ocean Liner Virtual Museum" Used with permission.
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