Stephen of Linthouse
A shipbuilding Memoir 1950- 1983
by Alexander M M Stephen
Published and distributed by IESIS
230 pages, map, illustrations, fleet list and index
Price £15 Hardback
To purchase a copy please download this flier.
Review by Fred M Walker
Former Consulting Naval Architect to the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, of Tenterden, Kent
The story of Stephens is well recorded up till 1950, but thereafter the scent runs dry – at least until Sandy Stephen (the last Mahaging Director of the Company) produced a memoir of the final thirty three years of their history. The text covers a wide spectrum: From industrial relations to shipyard modernisation and from contract negotiation through to ship design, it has been pleasurable reading. With the author’s light hand and wide knowledge, we are introduced to some hardly known aspects of recent industrial history, whilst simultaneously entertained to delightful anecdotes of shipyard and personal family life. This book is a tour de force and must be recommended for every maritime library.
With a fleet list approaching one thousand ships, a corporate history of nearly 240 years and seven generations of one family directly involved, Alexander Stephen and Sons is one of the most respected names in the British shipbuilding industry. Throughout their entire history, Stephens have operated in Scotland, initially in the north east at Burghead, then in Aberdeen, Arbroath and Dundee – where they were renowned for the excellence of their timber built whalers and sealers. In 1851 the company expanded, first leasing ground at Kelvinhaugh in Glasgow, before moving westwards some years later to a green field site on the south bank of the River Clyde at Linthouse. It was at Linthouse that the Stephens decided to concentrate their business, and it was there that the shipyard produced some wonderful ships that epitomised the very best of high quality tonnage: Two of the many ships mentioned in the text are undisputed world leaders for both quality and appearance – the 1929 P&O liner Viceroy of India and the 1951 Elder Dempster Aureol for the West African passenger trade.
The timing of this volume as a first hand account could not be more welcome, as it encompasses the period of run down; in a few years such a book could not be written, as already nearly forty years have passed since the company ceased production – and sadly the same forty years has witnessed the virtual demise of all British merchant shipbuilding.
For this Sandy Stephen must be congratulated as it is a detailed exposition of the back-breaking and heart-breaking task of managing a medium sized British shipyard in the difficult 1960s and 1970s. We are fortunate that his papers and records and those of his late brother Jim Stephen (the previous company chairman) have been preserved, as they give an unique insight into the day to day battle endured by those struggling to win orders whilst modernising a shipbuilding facility, and also trying to agree to improvements in working practices.
Much of the text describes happy relationships within the shipyard, and the fine professional relationships with clients, many of whom were long-standing friends. It also describes on a less happy vein the general miseries on the River Clyde when Fairfields (Glasgow) Ltd became a quasi-nationalised undertaking and refused (rightly or wrongly) to be part of the Clyde Shipbuilders’ Association. The judgement of Sandy Stephen on the senior staff is correct, and the undersigned who worked in the “new Fairfields” found their top managers arrogant and aloof, the very charge they placed on the more traditional shipbuilders – whom they said “needed re-education”. However on one matter, the undersigned did take heart – Sir Iain Stewart who headed Fairfields (Glasgow) and was a signatory to the far reaching Marlow Declaration on industrial practices – was a man who cared deeply for Britain and industry.
Again the undersigned while running (not as a director but as a manager in the 60s and the 70s) another excellent shipyard, but on the East Coast of Scotland enjoyed amicable relations with the unions and workforce. This underscores the deep divisions on the Clyde between Employers and the representatives of the workforce. Sandy Stephen clearly endured a rough ride with the Iron and Steelworkers Trades Unions; but it is mark of the man that he can write of that period without rancour or bitterness, and with the true pride imbued in all Clydesiders.