Pushing the boat out

Pushing the Boat Out

Our family, Mum, Dad, Audrey my older sister and I, on 28th July 1938 started on a mystery trip. I was eight years old. Despite our childish pestering our parents kept the secret of where we were going and why. When we reached the main railway station I suddenly knew.

“We’re going to see the ship launched!” I was right. We had been invited to join an excursion to the Cammell Laird Shipyard in Birkenhead on Merseyside. A few days earlier I had seen a picture on the front page of the family newspaper showing a mighty ship ready for launching. The story explained that this was the Mauretania II, a new passenger liner for the famous Cunard Company. It was the largest ship ever built in England. Every schoolboy knew that the biggest ship built in Britain, indeed, the largest ship built anywhere at the time, was the Queen Mary, but that had been in Scotland. The Queen Mary had three funnels, which meant a lot to small boys. The new ship was a replacement for the old Mauretania, which had four funnels but had been scrapped three years before. The Mauretania II would have only two funnels, but it was a huge ship nevertheless; 772 feet long.[1] I remarked to Mummy, “Wouldn’t it be nice to see the launching?” She smiled and agreed; “Yes, it would, wouldn’t it?” There was something a little odd in her tone.

Cammell Laird Shipbuilders Ltd. had an associated plant in Sheffield and some of the high quality steels needed for the Mauretania came from Allens, the company my father worked for. This explained how we were able to join the private train that went non-stop and finally drew in to the shipyard itself.

Our party joined some hundreds in a special enclosure, as close to the slipway as was considered safe. A much larger crowd assembled further back. The ship towered over us, a mighty wall of steel. A great many men were already on the deck, a row of tiny heads looking down at us. They, I was told, were the workers who had built the Mauretania. They would ride with it down into the water. The lower hull was painted red; the part above the waterline was black and the superstructure white. There were no funnels because, Dad explained, the engines had not yet been installed. That would be done in the fitting out dock after the launch. Audrey and I with other children were allowed to move to the front, up to a stout wooden rail fence with a clear view. The ship was supported above the ground with space beneath where men still worked, hammering noisily. They looked like ants under a mighty log. We learned they were removing wedges that were restraining the ship from sliding down the slipway, which was greased thickly with tallow. When the hammering stopped, only simple steel triggers held the ship. When these were released, this monstrous steel shell would begin to move.


We were privileged to stand in the crowd right at the front, beyond the crane.

I do not remember the speeches or the breaking of the champagne bottle on the bow. Just at that instant, a group of three or four young louts came shoving through the crowd to get to the front, pushing everyone roughly aside. They jumped onto the lowest rail of the wooden fence. The rail gave way under them and they fell, which served them right. Fortunately the hefty timber dropped away from the children.

With cheers from everyone, the leviathan began to slide, imperceptibly at first but accelerating with a loud groaning noise all the way down into the Mersey, stern first. There was no great splash, just big waves spreading out ahead of the hull. As it left the slipway, the bow dipped and rose again, as if bowing out of our presence. I was scared when huge bundles of enormous chains that had, till now, been lying apparently discarded on the ground, were picked up and rolled over with a great rattling, roaring and shrieking, to slide down the slope after the ship, raising clouds of dust. It was explained to me afterwards that these were drag chains to slow the ship down when it was in the water, preventing it charging, uncontrolled, into the estuary.

A quarter of a mile from where we were, the mighty ship swung round slightly to one side, looking quite small on the broad river under the sky. Tugboats appeared quickly, like little water beetles swimming round a dead whale. They began to edge the carcase away to the fitting out dock. Months more work would be needed before the maiden voyage.

We made our way back to the train.

The Mauretania II made only a few passenger carrying voyages before and just after the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1940 she was requisitioned and converted, in Sydney, to a troopship. She was not released to her owners until 1946. She then served as a liner and cruise ship until 1965 when she was broken up. The last ship built by Cammell Laird was a nuclear submarine in 1993. The land has recently been bought to be incorporated into a large residential, office and shopping district.

When the Mauretania II was coming to the end of her life, I was again concerned with a shipyard, this time on Tyneside in North East England. I was writing a small booklet for use in primary schools, one of a series commissioned from various authors to describe the life of different communities in Britain. With illustrations drawn by Val Kennedy, I undertook a description of work at Wallsend.[2] I told the story of building a ship. She was 817 feet long, bigger than the Mauretania but much broader in the beam. Her tonnage, 85,000, was four times as great, a super tanker, the Solen.

Val drew the picture shown here, of children in the street while the ship was being assembled. Their fathers and uncles worked in the yard, designing, drawing, cutting and welding the innumerable steel sheets, laying the keel, and, piece by piece raising massive prefabricated sections into place, putting the hull together like a big jigsaw puzzle, every piece fitting exactly. Welding and prefabrication now were the rule as riveting had disappeared. Even so, the process from first order to maiden voyage took several years. The ship and the boys grew up together.

On the day of the launch, in 1961, I was once again in a privileged position. Except for the sheer bulk of the tanker, very little was different. The Tyne is a narrow river and the slipway was angled so that vessels entered the water at an oblique angle, directly upstream, rather than across to crash into the further bank.

All went well. The traditions I had seen before were observed. This time I heard the speeches and saw the bottle broken on the bow. The ship moved gracefully but ponderously into the water and bowed to us. Again, enormous bundles of drag chain leapt, rolled, screamed and roared to bring the hull to a stop. The water beetles pounced.

This was the largest and almost the last ship ever built on Tyneside. Launching big ships down slipways has almost ceased. Super tankers twice the size of the Solen are built elsewhere in dry docks. The dock is flooded when the ship is ready to float. The Wallsend yard is now expected to become a ship-breaking yard, if it survives at all. The last time I saw Leslie Street, where the boys were playing, the entire district had been cleared for re-development

Everything changes.




[1] 235 metres and 20,551 tons.

[2] Wallsend because this was the eastern end of the Roman Hadrian’s Wall.

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