For thousands of years most civilizations beside a river or the sea built boats or ships to fish, transport people or goods, wage wars or for leisure the latter being a big market today.
These early boats were of all shapes and sizes, constructed from various materials but mainly wood. The construction and method of joints would vary but one of the main types was Clinker where the hull joints were overlapped fixed with nails and the strengthened by adding a light timber frame inside. The other type was Carvel where a stronger frame was constructed using wood like oak and planks fitted externally with caulked joints. Carvel type was more suitable for larger ships and its smoother hull surface created less friction and turbulence which was more desirable.
To prevent decay and slow down barnacle growths some hulls were sheathed with copper especially naval warships where speed was desirable and less time wasted in cleaning the hull.
A major development was the construction of Iron ships which was introduced about 1820 and this progressed on to steel ships which were first built about 1880. During this period however composite ships were also built having iron frames and deck support beams with timber hull and decks as some builders were reluctant to build an all iron ship.
The iron and steel ships were constructed using iron rivets to join the plates together progressing to part welding and riveting until the present day practice of all welding.
The early ships were powered by sail but the introduction of steam engines in the early part of the nineteenth century led to paddle and screw propulsion. The steam engines and the subsequent introduction of diesel engines radically changed ship design and construction. Ships had to be built larger not only to accommodate the engines but also to store the coal or oil fuel. The increased power also enabled ships to be built larger to carry more cargo and cover greater distances in less time.
Records of local shipbuilding can be traced back to about 1765 when a new sloop "Lord Duncan" was launched from Mr Smith's yard situated near where RRS "Discovery" is today.
In the early part of the nineteenth century shipyards would come and go and at least fifteen companies were situated, at various periods, from Broughty Ferry in the East to near the Tay Rail Bridge in the West. It is fair to confirm however that most of these were situated in the Seabraes, Yeaman Shore and Dock St areas. Most of these ships were small timber sailing vessels, used mainly for fishing, river and coastal work with some trading on the Continent.
The largest ship built on the Tay at that time was a 350 ton vessel in 1817 by John Caiman, and the first with a steam engine was the "Tay" built in 1814 by James Smart. The earliest recorded Iron Ship the "Caledonia"was built in 1838 by the well known engineering firm of Carmichaels.
Two major developments, the construction of the railway between 1838 and 1847, and the construction of new docks between 1820 and 1875 completely changed the face of local shipbuilding. The ground where many of these yards were situated and the adjacent foreshore was reclaimed for the Railway and the Docks.
This disruption, coupled with the introduction of iron ships, steam engines and the rapidly developing local Jute industry led to a new building era and three major shipbuilders appeared on the scene.
Alexander Stephen & Sons had a long history of shipbuilding prior to starting their Panmure yard in 1843 at the West end of Marine Parade and built a total of 97 ships prior to closing in 1893. They built a mixture of wood, Iron and Steel ships including Clipper sailing Ships and also steam ships for many local and overseas owners but will be remembered for the building of many fine Whaling Ships with steam engines. Stephens were also owners of some of their well built ships and also owned and operated some of the processing plants in Dundee for Whale Oil and tanneries for the sealskins.
In 1851, Stephen and two of his sons started up the now well known Glasgow Shipyard but Alexander returned to Dundee to continue operating the Dundee yard with his son William until their deaths.
They built many a fine ship for the local Jute industry and the 264 ft long Clipper sailing ship "Lochee" captured in 1888 the record time from Calcutta of 113 days. They were also responsible for building the largest steel sailing vessel on the Tay at the time i.e. the "Pitlochry" which was 320 ft long and 3088 tons. It must be recorded however that their contribution to building strong Whaling ships was most valuable and it was their successors Dundee Shipbuilding Co that went on to build the "Discovery" in 1901.
Gourlays of Dundee were a well established engineering company akeady producing fine steam engines when they commenced building ships in 1854. As engineers they constructed iron ships from the start and they fitted engines with screw propulsion instead of paddles. With the driving force of Henry and Gershom Gourlay the company progress was rapid and by 1867 had become the largest of the five shipbuilding companies employing about 300 men.
Gourlays continued to expand, receiving orders for various types and sizes of ships from not only local shipowners but from many countries abroad. This continued success prompted them in 1870 to move from the east end of Marine Parade to a larger yard at the east end of Camperdown dock. Their foundry and engineering works continued to operate from the building in Dock St and it should be noted it still exists today as Marks and Spencers Food Hall (formerly Borders Bookshop) in a slightly different relocation.
According to the writers information Gourlays built the first steel ship in Scotland in 1880, SS "Loch Rannoch" for the Dundee Loch line. They also built many fine ships for the large and well known ship owner DP&L (Dundee Perth and London shipping company). These fast passenger steamers were built with high quality interiors and in 1885 Dundee III had "a good and reliable" lighting system installed.
The largest ship built in the Tay by the end of the 19th century was the four masted barque "Bengali" at 450 ft long.
Although the yard was modernized in 1904, due to a number of difficulties it had to close in 1908. Gourlay Brothers was a major engineering and shipbuilding company sending 230 fine ships down the Tay for companies round the world.
W.B. Thompson set up the Tay foundry in Stobswell hi 1866 and then proceeded to open his own shipyard hi 1874 almost next door to Gourlays yard. His first contract was a yacht for the Earl of Caledon who gave permission for the yard to be named Caledon.
The early history was similar to Gourlays, building in iron and proceeding to steel, mainly with steam engines but a number of fine sailing ships were also built. The development was steady averaging four to five ships per annum of varied sizes for numerous owners.
1889 was a significant year as Thompson not only built their largest ship to date but also acquired the adjacent yard and Lilybank Foundry belonging to Pearce Brothers.
Due to the vagaries of shipbuilding, Thompson was forced into liquidation in 1896 but the yard was later reconstituted as the Caledon Shipbuilding and Engineering Company with P. S. Brown as chairman and Grant Barclay as Managing Director . Progress continued under the new management and many fine passenger and cargo ships were built for many well known owners. In 1908 they built the largest ship to date being "Hilary" of 6325 tons for the Booth Steamship Company.
The next and very significant milestone was the yard's move to the a new site at Stannergate in 1919, complete with six building berths capable of accommodation ships up to 550 ft long and workshops complete with the most up to date machinery. The following year craggs yard closed leaving the Caledon the only shipyard in Dundee. Sadly the founder W.B. Thompson died in 1923 but it is significant that in the same year the yard built two of the many Blue Funnel ships, the largest to date at over 10,000 tons each. Like all industries the Caledon felt the draught during the Depression years but managed to ride that period unlike some others. The yard prospered during the second world war years and in the 1940's a total of forty decent size ships were built including an aircraft carrier, corvettes and frigates.
The final record laid down by the Caledon was in 1954, when they constructed the largest ship to be built on the East coast of Scotland - a Norwegian tanker "Storass", 12075 tons gross weight, 530 ft long x 72ft wide x 39ft high.
During 1955 to 1961, the signs of depression were only too evident due to cancellation of orders. A programme of modernization was carried out during the 1950's and 1960's but the number and size of ships continued to dwindle. In 1968, the yard merged with Henry Robb of Leith and in 1977 became part of UK Shipbuilding but sadly closed hi 1981.
The Caledon produced almost 550 fine ships spanning 107 years employing 3500 of a workforce at its peak and carried on a long tradition of shipbuilding laid down more than 200 years ago by many skilled predecessors.
Although the Dundee shipyards were small compared to some others, you will probably have gathered that they were at the forefront of many technical advances. They were no backwater operation and we should be proud of all their many achievements.
Thanks to John Dein for this article.