Cammell Laird and the shipbuilding mastery of Birkenhead

New York is famous for its majestic skyline. Paris is renowned for its culture and romance. But for millions around the world, Birkenhead, and the Wirral in general, conjures images of maritime excellence. We have a remarkable reputation for shipbuilding, forged through almost two centuries of hard graft, that endures to this very day.

From the earliest settlers to modern times, Wirral residents have danced to a nautical beat. The close proximity of the River Mersey and North Sea has made our peninsula a tantalising prospect for dreamers and schemers of various descriptions, from the Vikings of yesteryear to the businessmen of modernity. However, one name echoes through the record books and stands as a fitting symbol of the region's shipping genius: Cammell Laird, that famous old yard at the heart of Birkenhead.

The company that would eventually make Wirral known in the world's remotest corners can be traced to 1824, when William Laird, a Scottish entrepreneur, opened an iron works on the south bank of Wallasey Pool. Initially specialising in boilers, Birkenhead Iron Works struggled to get off the ground, and Laird eventually went into business with his son, John, who suggested building ships from iron, rather than wood, in a key foresight. 

Their humble venture grew in stature, and soon became a significant force on the domestic scene. The Lairds made further advances in technology, most notably in the area of propulsion, and operations were expanded. In 1838, their Robert F Stockton was launched, becoming the first screw steamer to cross the Atlantic. Two years later, production was finished on the Dover, which was the first iron ship ever owned by the British government. Other notable builds included the HMS Birkenhead, a courageous trailblazer in the Navy fleet, and the Ma Robert, which some people consider the first ever steel ship.

William Laird died in 1841, but his company thrived under the guidance of John and his three sons. For instance, the CSS Alabama, the most famous and successful Confederate warship in the American Civil War, was built beside the Mersey, somewhat to the detriment of a tense British-US relationship. Nevertheless, such momentous feats of engineering substantiated Wirral's shipbuilding reputation, and opened new horizons for the family business.

Even after John Laird's death in 1874, lucrative contracts continued to trickle in, as the firm turned its attention to warships, torpedo boats and destroyers for the Navy. Then, in 1903, a merger with Johnson, Cammell & Co of Sheffield formed Cammell Laird, a venture combining expertise in iron and steel to yield a powerhouse yard that would play a significant role at the very forefront of global shipbuilding for many decades to come.

Cammell Laird played an indispensable role during both World Wars, building and repairing key vessels with accuracy and speed unlike anywhere else in the world. Indeed, George V and Queen Mary visited the yard twice, in 1914 and 1917, specifically to thank staff for their phenomenal efforts. Subsequently, the 1920s were something of a boom time for Wirral shipbuilding, as orders for the Fullagar and HMS Rodney arrived off the back of Laird's glowing reputation. 

The economic depression ate away at that popularity, and the workforce was reduced to as few as 2,000 as work dried up. However, the natural resolve and spirit of Birkenhead shone through, and business picked up again in the 1930s, as a £3 million deal was struck to build the HMS Ark Royal at Laird's. Some thirty thousand people gathered to watch the launch in 1938, as one of Britain's most famous warships set sail down the Mersey. 

Yet, Cammell Laird's greatest day came a year later, when the RMS Mauretania was launched from Birkenhead. To that point, it was the largest merchant ship ever built at an English yard, a towering monument to Merseyside's unbeatable expertise in the field. During World War II, the Mauretania carried over 335,000 troops and covered more than 500,000 miles. It was, quite simply, one of the most vital cogs in the war machine, and a feather in the cap of Cammell Laird.

The yard was a pillar of strength throughout the Second World War, repairing 120 warships, 9 battleships, 11 aircraft carriers and 2,000 merchant vessels. Men worked on amid bombing, brave and resilient and dedicated to the cause. Once again, Cammell Laird was visited by royalty in 1940, when George VI and Queen Elizabeth offered their heartfelt gratitude for the valorous work carried out in Birkenhead.

In the post-war years, Cammell Laird benefited from new trade routes with Africa and the Far East, while domestic business also increased. Huge crowds gathered to see Queen Elizabeth launch the second HMS Ark Royal in 1950, as she became the first reigning monarch to launch a Mersey-built ship, while troop carriers being refitted for civilian use kept the yard very busy.

Nevertheless, in 1977, government passed the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act, which nationalised the two fields in a controversial move. Cammell Laird, so long a bastion of independence, was ushered under the restricted umbrella of British Shipbuilders. Jobs were cut and the organisation lost a great deal of its freedom to negotiate contracts. Before long, Britain fell far behind its international competitors, with Asia and continental Europe offering a more viable alternative. Laird's returned to the private sector under a new name in 1986, but British shipbuilding was slowly suffocated to within an inch of death, and the yard was sadly closed in 1993.

The remaining assets were later assumed by Coastline Group, which floated a renaissance company on the stock exchange in 1997. However, that proved to be a false dawn as receivership beckoned in the new millennium. A buyer was found in the form of the A&P Ship Repair group, which sold the firm to Northwestern in 2005. Two years later, PEEL Holdings bought the land and became half owners of Northwestern. The famous Cammell Laird name returned in 2008, and the yard concentrated on repairing ships and building ferries.

In October 2015, the largest contract in a generation was won, as a £200 million deal to build an advanced polar research ship for the British Antarctic Survey stoked the resurrection. Cammell Laird beat out four foreign bidders for the project, which will provide hope for a bright future and extend Wirral's maritime influence into a new era.

The throb of a juggernaut yard may not dominate Birkenhead as it once did, but shipbuilding will always be printed on the town's soul. For numerous generations on Wirral, Cammell Laird was the predominant employer, the best opportunity to build a life and career. The company strived to lead in workplace conditions and union rights, and gaining an apprenticeship there was a right of passage for many local youngsters, who often followed in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers. In turn, Cammell Laird developed an illustrious reputation around the world. If a worker was trained in Birkenhead, an instant respect was accorded, a spontaneous admiration evoked.

For more than a century, our humble yard blazed a trail of technical innovation, but also set a unique standard for remarkable pluck and determination. From the banks of the Mersey, a global powerhouse was born. And how we're proud of its achievements and its legacy.


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