1963 Samuel White TS

Vosper Falmouth United Kingdom

Red Ensign (1934)Shipbuilding was basically a craft-based, labour-intensive assembly industry. From the days of iron and then steel construction it required a great deal of organisation of individual trades and processes within shipyards. Shipbuilders’ were primarily responsible for around 30 to 35 per cent of the finished product, i.e., the ship’s hull, the rest, main engines, steering gear, propellers, auxiliaries, derricks, electrical fittings, etc., at the outfit stage was usually sub-contracted to various firms and trades. The in-house percentage rose to around 50 per cent if firms owned their own main engine shops, foundries, and joinery shops. The process of building a merchant ship usually began with reviewing enquiries to build from ship owner’s and or shipbrokers before either proffering a stock design or designing a vessel to fit anticipated requirements before tendering for contracts. An historical basis of cost accounting was normally used to come up with a reliable estimate of labour and material costs plus an element for profit. The decision on whether or not to tender for a particular type of ship or ships was dependent on the product mix building in any one yard or yards and the amount of work in hand. If a tender was accepted then negotiations over contract/s began and a design and building plan/s were formulated. If agreed, materials were then purchased and production drawings drafted. Production normally began with the laying of the keel and then the erection of the frames and shell plating by the hull trades. Each of these building milestones triggered stage payments to shipbuilders ensuring liquidity.

British shipbuilding did not conform to easy assumptions about the growth of managerialism in industry generally during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and consequent organization of production and supervisory control resulting in increasing use of technology and consequent de-skilling of the workforce. Shipbuilding, per se, did not lend itself to standardisation of product. Built to order for individual owners and ship owning firms, ships were largely bespoke in nature. Indeed, the sheer size and versatility of the British Shipbuilding industry, which held 80 per cent of the world market for ships during the late nineteenth century, and on the eve of the Great War, 60 per cent of all tonnage launched, facilitated almost every whim of British shipowners, whose ships comprised the world’s largest mercantile fleet-the British Mercantile Marine. In addition, shipbuilding took up to 30 per cent of the national output of steel plates and sections of the British steel industry up to 1914.

British shipbuilders also dominated the export market for merchant ships and warships and its highly-skilled workers were the most productive in the world using craft-based labour intensive methods of production. Indeed, the industry’s productivity easily outstripped its competitors, by 1900; productivity was twice that of American, three times that of Germany and six times more productive than French shipyards.

The structure of the British shipbuilding industry was atomistic; firms ranged from huge vertically-integrated conglomerates such as Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness, Cammell Laird at Birkenhead and John Brown at Clydebank, to medium-sized and small-scale family-controlled enterprises. The major loci of firms were the rivers Clyde in the west coast of Scotland and the Tyne, Tees and Wear on the northeast coast of England. Together, these areas accounted for over one-half of the labour force engaged in shipbuilding. Other centres of shipbuilding activity were Southampton (Vosper and Thornycroft) on the south coast, and Leith, Grangemouth, Dundee and Aberdeen on the east coast of Scotland. Another major firm was geographically isolated: Harland & Wolff at Belfast in Northern Ireland. However, this firm also had interests in shipbuilding, ship repair and marine engineering on the Clyde, and ship repairing in Liverpool, London (mostly marine engineering) and Southampton.

A plethora of craft unions, many of their members organized in squads, their functions strictly demarcated, dominated the production process in British shipbuilding. In the hull trades, dominated by the Boilermakers Society (The United Society of Boilermakers and Iron and Steel Shipbuilders), a form of supervisory control was exerted by squad leaders who in turn were hired and overseen by foremen who had been promoted from the ranks of the skilled workforce. Higher management control was basically left to a small cadre of middle managers appointed by owners.

Payment of labour was determined by a plethora of time rates, piecework, price-agreed contracts, bonuses and allowances to particular trades, and the form of employment, owing to the cyclical nature of the demand for ships, was essentially casualised. Termination of employment was usually at one-day notice and in some cases at one hour’s notice, and the average working week up to January 1919, when there was plenty of work available, was 54 hours, thereafter it was reduced to 47 hours.

Ships Platers who were at the apex of the hull trades, belonged to the Boilermakers Society, as did Angle Iron Smiths and Riveters. Platers, the highest paid of the hull trades, were organised in squads of skilled (including Angle Iron Smiths) and unskilled (platers helpers) men, although the numbers varied in different shipyards and districts. Riveting squads comprised the principal method of metal joining in the industry. A squad consisted of a rivet heater, a catcher, (these were normally boys, and heating and catching were sometimes combined) a holder-on and a riveter. Some squads might contain a left and a right handed riveter. Payment in both cases was met by a pre-agreed weekly lump sum on individually priced contracts, which was divided among squad members. Other methods of payment were determined by results, that is, number of rivets deposited.

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