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Africa ports & Ships

NEW BOOKS: Another new shipbuilding title

Leith Built Ships, Volume 2: Leith Shipyards 1918-1939

By R O Neish

Published by Whittles Publishing Ltd, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG, Scotland, UK. Softback, 144 pages, ISBN 978 184995 481 5. Price £16.99. For orders and to enquire about postal rates see:

This is the second in a series of four books about the almost forgotten part played by Leith in Britain’s fine maritime past. I was pleased to be able to introduce Volume 1 They Once Were Shipbuilders to readers of Africa Ports & Ships at the end of 2019.

Volume 2 provides the history of the ships built at Leith between the First and the Second World Wars including many well-known vessels destined for the home and overseas markets.

A few examples of these were: twin-screw hopper dredger for India, Bhavsinhji; the Danish-flagged five-masted barque sail training vessel København (sadly lost with all hands); Vyner Brooke built for the Straits Steamship Company with home port Singapore; the light vessel Albatross for the Commissioners of Irish Light, Dublin; another dredger for India, Rukamavati; dumb barges for the East Africa Lighterage Company and the tug Ulundi, now preserved at the Port Natal Maritime Museum, Durban.

Then there is Lafonia (renamed Fitzroy), a single-screw passenger / cargo vessel for the Falkland Islands Company and HMS Aldgate, a gate lifting vessel scuttled to prevent her falling into Japanese hands at Hong Kong on 19 December 1941 and the barquentine Mercator of 1931 later commissioned as a submarine depot ship in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and is currently preserved in Ostend.

South Steyne, launched by Robb’s in 1938, an icon of Sydney as a double-ended Manly ferry was preserved as a restaurant vessel in Darling Harbour. These introductions to Leith-built ships and their careers on the Seven Seas is extensive and demonstrates how important was the export trade in British-built tonnage between the wars.

To run down the Shipyard Build List Book of Henry Robb from 1918 to 1939 we see a huge selection over eleven pages from Ship No 1, a pontoon launched in 1918 to No 300, HMS Hickory launched in 1940. Orders for Nos 301 to 305, four motor coasters and a grab hopper dredger were cancelled.

Written by a proud shipbuilder who is still active in shipbuilding and well qualified to tell the story, the book features the shipyards of Cran & Somerville, Hawthorns & Co, Ltd and Ramage & Ferguson and the rise of the Henry Robb Shipyard into which they were incorporated. Each of the yards has some descriptive text with brief career details of some of the hulls sent down the ways

Liberally illustrated with photographs and ships’ plans Leith Built Ships, Volume 2 introduces some fine ships and tells of their careers and trading patterns.

Fortunes of the three main shipyards are followed through good times to eventual closure or assimilation by the man who would open up the shipyard that took his name, Henry Robb. As shipbuilders and engineers they began without a yard in which to build ships, but eventually took over firstly the old S&H Morton Shipyard, now occupied by Hawthorns & Co. Ltd. That gave Robb control of the Victoria Shipyard, and a few years later he would take over the Cran & Somerville yard, before acquiring the plant and goodwill of the Ramage & Ferguson Shipyard – the cream of the Leith yards.

It has been said that his last yard would always have a ship on one of its slipways. At the peak of business they had nine slips, and were pioneers in the building of diesel-powered coasters. Always innovative and with some of the best craftsmen in the industry, the shipyard of Henry Robb quickly acquired the reputation as builders of special ships.

Leith Shipyards 1918–1939 Volume 2: Leith Shipyards 1918-1939 continues the chronology begun in Volume I and provides a fascinating illustrated story that reveals the remarkable and ongoing tales of shipbuilding for which Scotland and the Great Britain were renowned.

Here are recounted the days when shipbuilding flourished and underwent the tough times of the Great Depression. Output of these yards remain a testimony to the skill and determination of the people who built these ships and to those who served in them.

In support there is a handy two-page set of abbreviations some of which are common to shipbuilding. To this is added a ten-page glossary of shipbuilding and nautical terms from Anchor to Warp by way of Deadrise and Pratique.

Mr Neish’s sources are many and include websites and Scottish newspapers as well as museums and State libraries in Australia and museums in New Zealand.

About Whittles Publishing

Whittles Publishing is a well-established publishing company based in the north of Scotland. The company is internationally renowned for producing high-quality academic and professional titles, as well as a wide range of excellent non-fiction books, many of which are now available as e-books. Topics include lighthouses and maritime topics.

Reviewed by Paul Ridgway London Correspondent

Added 22 June 2021

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