For many years, Ardrossan was advertised in the
shipping publication Lloyd's List as "Ardrossan, the bunker port". But
when the harbour was first built bunkering (taking on fuel) was still a
thing of the future, as ships were all driven by sail.
The foundation stone was laid with much ceremony on
31st July 1806, and in the evening "Earl Hugh", 12th Earl of Eglinton, was
host to 300 gentlemen at a dinner held in a marquee on Ardrossan's Castle
Hill. There was a magnificent fireworks display (just as there was in 1945
on V.E. Day and V.J. Day), and cannon were fired constantly, answered by
two government cutters cruising in the bay. Two joint-stock companies had
been set up to finance the building of the harbour with the Earl as the
principal shareholder in each, and of the £15,000 raised his contribution
was £5,000. No mean amount at a time when a skilled tradesman earned
little more than a pound a week.
The first foreign vessel sailed into Ardrossan in 1810,
to be followed by many more, and in 1825 shipbuilding started alongside
the harbour when Matthew Henderson began building small sailing ships of
100 tons and under. The coming of the railway gave trade a terrific boost,
with a line opening for the Stevenston Coal Company in 1827, and by 1836
the Ardrossan Railway Company was transporting 36,000 passengers per
Steamers were also plying between Ardrossan, Glasgow
and Ayr, and the Burns line (later to be amalgamated with another company
to form BurnsLaird) had occasional sailing's from Ardrossan to Liverpool,
while in 1859 a paddle steamer, the Adela made her first voyage to Belfast
in a record-breaking crossing taking just a little over five hours.
The 1840s had brought further extensions and
developments to the harbour and dockyard, and in 1842 the shipbuilding
firm of Barr and Shearer started in business. Before long they were
employing over 300 men.
By then the Ardrossan Steamboat Company had started a
daily summer service, plus a weekly winter one to Arran, and in the 1890s,
when trade was really booming, both the Glasgow and South Western Railway
Company and the Caledonian Steam Packet Company ran services to the island
in cut-throat competition. Their trains left Central and St Enoch Stations
respectively at about the same time to race each other to Ardrossan, the
drivers shaking their fists at one another as they hurtled along the two
tracks on the dunes between Stevenston and Saltcoats. The record time from
Glasgow to Brodick was 80 minutes - today it is 125 minutes! Speed reigned
coming back, too, even though with their holidays over, the passengers
were probably in no hurry.
The ferry captains brooked no delay, and on one
occasion the Duchess Of Hamilton, racing the Scotia, departed from Brodick
with screaming passengers left stranded on the gangway which still
projected over the edge of the pier. Later these two ships collided while
the Duchess Of Hamilton was recklessly attempting to pass the Scotia near
the entrance to Ardrossan harbour. Altogether a trip to Arran was an
adventure to be viewed with not a little apprehension, until 1908, when
the rival companies called a truce.
During the 19th century steam power gradually took over
and wooden ships gave way to iron and steel, but even as late as 1900 one
third of the world's shipping was driven by sail. Trade fluctuated
somewhat at Ardrossan and was adversely affected by the Crimean War, but
the harbour could boast of handling 200,000 tons of coal per annum, thanks
to the proximity of the Stevenston coal mines, and in 1863 was raised to
the position of a port, while 1886 saw the formation of the Ardrossan
Harbour Company. By then, Ardrossan was a favourite bunkering port for
ships from a' the airts. By1900 in the dockyard ships were being built for
companies in such far-flung places as Borneo and New South Wales.
The first world war brought orders for Admiralty
vessels including mine-sweepers and a large stern wheeler, and HMS
Pactolus was placed at the harbour to care for a squadron of submarines
which, together with other ships, were repaired and refitted by Ardrossan
Shipyard. To refuel the submarines, one of the piers was modified to
become a small tanker berth, and fuel tanks together with the necessary
pipelines and pumps were installed.
Later, in the mid-1920s, this prompted the Shell Oil
Company to choose Ardrossan as a suitable base for a distribution depot
when coal burning was being replaced by oil burning in ships.
In 1920 all the nine building berths in the company's
two yards were occupied with vessels ranging from 300 to 6,600 tons, and
the number of shipyard employees had soared to 2,300. This success was
largely attributed to the energy and enthusiasm of Mr E. Aitken-Quack,
managing director of the Ardrossan Dry Dock and Shipping Co., who was very
unpopular with the workers due to his habit of strolling through the yards
puffing on a big, fat cigar, for there was a strict employees' no-smoking
rule. This had nothing to do with safety. The management simply figured
that if a man was smoking he could not be working.
The no-smoking policy was just one of many
restrictions. A man could only spend seven minutes a day in the antiquated
toilets, and was only allowed to go once. This was not such a strain as
might be supposed since, like smoking, the drinking of tea was taboo. Each
man was given a round brass check which he put in at dinner and at night,
and which had to be handed in at the office before he visited the
One of the yard managers who has gone down in history
was Ulsterman John Coleman, who used to vehemently declare that the three
greatest men the world had ever known all had the initials J.C. - Jesus
Christ, Julius Caesar, and John Coleman! Usually, when the men working on
the ships saw anyone in a bowler hat they signaled to others who might
cross his path, by a form of tic tac, to look out. But sometimes this
early warning system failed, and on one occasion J.C. came on a heater boy
for the riveters boiling up an illicit billy can for the squad. "Whose tea
is that?" he demanded. "Lipton's, sir," the lad stammered in confusion and
for once J.C. was speechless.
The tea embargo lasted throughout the entire lifetime
of the dockyard, and bred a craving for the forbidden drink in everyone
who worked there. Since fair means to get it, or forbid it, did not work,
both sides resorted to foul, and when I interviewed retired shipwright
James Black he had bitter memories of a manager of the 1960s known as
Puggy became aware that some men were brewing up tea,
and stood chatting to them amicably until the billy can boiled dry,
leaving a hole which made it a write-off! Then he strolled away with a
satisfied smile on his face.
Amongst the ships closely associated with Ardrossan
between the wars were those of local man Hugh Hogarth's Baron Line, and
the fleet of arctic supply vessels built for the Hudson's Bay Company.
Retired master mariner Archie Murchie, aged 83 and a native of Ardrossan,
sailed on every kind of craft during a career which spanned more than half
"I had left school at fourteen and was apprenticed to a
sailmaker for two years," he told me, " but I was always determined to go
to sea. My father and uncle were in the Arctic trade, and I sailed on the
Baychimo (see "Phantom of the Arctic", The Scots Magazine December 1979)
in 1929." Archie missed most of the excitement as, after making the fur
run to lonely Arctic outposts, the boys amongst the crew were paid off and
sent home at Vancouver before the Arctic winter set in.
"We were five days and nights on the train, travelling
across Canada to join a homeward- bound liner, and I thought that a great
adventure," said Archie. But it was nothing to that experienced by his
cousin, Finlay Murchie, then a third engineer and one of the skeleton crew
left to guard the ship when she became imprisoned in the pack ice near
Seahorse Reef in Alaska. Finlay and his shipmates spent much of their time
on the icefield, searching for driftwood to save the Baychimo's coal for
when they got moving again, and transporting fresh water from an inland
They also built an igloo-style hut, banked up with
snow, and one day emerged from it to find the Baychimo had disappeared!
She had been lifted by the pack ice, which had moved, and taken her
towards the North Pole on an Arctic sea where the icebergs reached a
height of 70 feet. It took three days and nights for Finlay and a young
trapper who had been a passenger on the Baychimo to travel over the ice
for 22 miles in a blinding blizzard and get help at an Eskimo village, but
fortunately everyone lived to tell the astounding tale.
And what of the Baychomo? She was sighted many times
from 1932 until 1969 roaming over 100 square miles of Arctic seas, and
became known to the Eskimos as the "umiak", their word for great ship and
also as "the phantom of the Arctic". A wonderful advertisement for
Ardrossan shipbuilding, some people thought, as she seemed indestructible.
But alas, unlike so many vessels of the Hudson's Bay line, including the
Baychimo and Bayrupert, Baychimo was not built at Ardrossan.
"She was built in Germany," Archie informed me, "and
her original name was the Amer Bonalfan. She was handed over to Britain in
part payment of British ships lost in the First World War."
Regarding his time on the Hogarth-owned Baron Dechmont,
he confirmed that the label "hungry Hogarth" by local men was no misnomer.
"I sailed on her during the 1930s and saw the cook
treating meat which had gone off with permanganate of potash to make it
edible," he told me. "And when that was finished we got the Board of Trade
whack (ration) called salt horse which had to be boiled for four to five
hours. That and cracker hash made with maggoty biscuits. We got two ounces
of tea each per week, a tin of condensed milk had to last three weeks, and
half a pound of sugar a week. But the Board of Trade regulations also
ensured that we got an issue of lime juice to protect us from scurvy. We
also had to provide our own bedding, including the chaff mattresses known
as 'donkeys' breakfasts'."
Another shipping line, which had better remain
nameless, had very religious owners who gave to charity but were
exceedingly mean to their seamen, and of this line it is said that you got
a sausage and a tract for breakfast!
Yet despite the harsh conditions, there was never any
shortage of pierhead jumps! These were men who loitered on the piers in
the hope that a ship would be short of a crew member at sailing time - for
pierhead jumps took place in both directions!
"I told you not to trust that pierhead jump! When he
was washed overboard he took that new bucket with him," it was once said
of an unknown hapless amateur deck hand.
During the Second World War Ardrossan was taken over by
the Admiralty and named HMS Fortitude. All passenger services from the
port were suspended, but ferries sailed from Fairlie. Between the wars the
number of employees at the shipyard had declined, but at that time about
700 men were kept busy and 25 new ships built, including
minesweeping trawlers and boom defence vessels. There was also a vast
amount of repair work; 49 submarines, 31 destroyers, 10 frigates and also
8 corvettes were repaired or refitted in addition to another 359 Admiralty
vessels and 288 Merchant ships.
Ardrossan was a very important sea port in war time,
and there was also a substantial army presence in the town, yet no air
raids were inflicted upon it by the enemy. Even the nearby Nobel's
explosives factory in Stevenston was only targeted once in a raid which
did little damage. There was a major sea disaster however, involving an
aircraft carrier, HMS Dasher, which sank in a few minutes in the sea
between Ardrossan and Brodick on 27th March 1943. An explosion on board
resulted in 379 lives lost from a crew of 528.
This incident was never reported in the media, but in
1995 became the subject of a book The Tragedy of HMS Dasher by Ardrossan
author John Steele. It aroused much interest and there is now a memorial
stone in Ardrossan's sunken garden, and a plaque at a local church, both
tributes to the men who lost their lives in the sea of fire. But although
the whole affair remained top secret, as HMS Dasher was not lost through
enemy action, every year from 1944 Leading Wren Barbara Kay, who was
serving at the Royal naval sick bay in Ardrossan where some of the
casualties were taken, laid a red rose on the water in memory of them.
Of the many heroes of the occasion, one was John
Templeton, a native of Islandmagee, who was the captain of a coaster, the
SS Cragsman, built in Paisley in 1924. When other rescue ships, including
Royal Navy vessels, stopped at the perimeter of the searing flame and
dense smoke, he chugged on into the inferno and reappeared laden with
survivors whom he transferred to a naval vessel, then slipped away
During the war Ardrossan was a Commando base, and local
man James Boyle, then a lad working in the Shell office, remembers seeing
yachts come in bearing the scarred Commando barges. "We never knew where
they had been," he said. "The Commandos wore polo-necked sweaters instead
of the usual army jackets, and officers and men were dressed alike."
It was James's duty to go to the tanker berths with
documentation, and he often passed ladies who were Ardrossan's equivalent
to Liverpool's famous Maggie May.
"They were usually very overweight," he recalls, "and
favoured ocelot coats. Sometimes they had to be helped down rope ladders -
it was quite a sight!" The overweight appearance might have been due to
the spoils hidden under those "leopard" coats, such as cigarettes and
foodstuffs from the ships to eke out rations. The dockyard workers
subjected the Maggie Mays to a barrage of catcalls, but they took those in
After the war, the harbour and shipyards remained busy
until the mid-1950s, and ship- wright Jim Black, who retired in 1969, was
accustomed to working a 48-hour week. "The shipyard hooter sounded at 7.25
a.m.," he told me, "with a second blast five minutes later, when the gates
closed. If you were late you were locked out until dinner time and lost
four hours' pay. It was reckoned 400 bikes streamed out of the dockyard
every midday and evening, but I just took a piece for my dinner, eating it
in the blacksmith's shop."
Launches had always been very special occasions, and in
the early 19th century were followed by a dance in the evening, at which
the apprentices sported uniform dress of blue jacket, yellow vest, and
white jean trousers. Later all that went by the board, but Jim remembers
with affection the launch of a boat for the Guinness firm.
"The launch money we got was £17, so we headed for the
nearest pub and plonked it on the counter." He laughed. "That was for the
shipwrights, who were also given two bottles of Guinness each. All the
wives and weans came to the launches; it was a nice day out."
But launches did not always go according to plan. For
the launch of one Guinness boat a mixture of half champagne and half
Guinness was requested - "black velvet". There was some concern that the
bottle might not break, but in fact it exploded when it hit the ship.
Throughout the 1950s, pierhead jumpers were still
trying their luck, but some youngsters sought to join the mercantile
marine in a more orthodox way. My mother worked in the office of shipping
agents R.L.Alpine and Co., who were the local vice-consulate for Norway
and Denmark and the Netherlands consular agency. On one occasion a young
boy came in and asked the office manager, Johnnie Craig, if he could join
the Merchant Navy. Johnnie was busy and waved the lad aside, saying, "Och,
you'll need to go to the Pool for that, son." He meant the seamen's
employment bureau in Glasgow. But the boy (naturally enough) duly turned
up at the only pool he was familiar with Saltcoats bathing pool!
Robert Alpine used to get very irritated by the efforts
of his male members of staff to hoist the Norwegian, Danish and
Netherlands flags above the office buildings when there was cause for
celebration in any of those countries. The flag invariably slid down the
flag pole, and R.L. would come in tut-tutting, "The flag's at half mast,
Foreign seamen visiting Ardrossan for the first time
were still amazed, as they had been in war time, at how small the town
was. From the busy harbour and dockyard area they expected Ardrossan to be
a city the size of Hull or Liverpool.
But from the mid-1950s the work force declined
dramatically, as orders for the dockyard became few and far between. In
1964 the yard was put up for sale and taken over by Archie Kelly, a
self-made man from Greenock, formerly a ship's engineer. Business improved
for a time, but in October 1969 Kelly was glad to give up his interests in
the shipyard to the Harbour Company. Another local man, Bill McCrindle,
who had started work in the yard as an apprentice fitter in 1955, acquired
some 13 acres of ground in the 1970s and began shipbuilding on a small
scale, but despite all efforts the dockyard finally went out of business.
The last ship was launched in 1987, and so ended Ardrossan's renowned ship
building industry which had lasted for over 160 years and produced 450
The harbour seemed to be in good heart in the 1960s and
there was still a line of ships to be seen lying "in the roads" as the
approach to the port was called, on many a morning, waiting for berths.
Amongst them was sure to be at least one tanker, and in 1968 four tanker
berths at Ardrossan handled 950,000 tons of oil products. But due to a
combination of circumstances the Shell depot closed in the 1980s.
Another misfortune was the ceasing of many ferry
services. The troubles in Northern Island had an adverse effect on
sailing's to Belfast, especially after there was a bomb hoax on the Lion,
a 4,000 ton ship able to accommodate 1,200 passengers and 176 cars.
Another alarming incident was a fire which gutted her engine room, and her
last sailing was in 1976. Another Irish ferry of which many older
Ardrossan folk have fond memories is the Laird's Isle, known locally as
"Smokey Joe" for obvious reasons.
Local historian Leslie Callan told me the four-hour
journeys to Belfast by "Smokey Joe" used to be very popular indeed, and
allowed for two and a half hours ashore before the return trip. She was a
sturdy ship which saw 46 years of service, not only as a ferry but during
both World Wars.
The cessation of the Isle of Man ferries was still
another nail in the coffin of Ardrossan harbour.
"An attempt was made to revive it last year, for events
like the T.T. Races and Glasgow Fair but it was so poorly patronised it
doesn't look like the experiment will be repeated," Leslie explained.
If more evidence was needed that the harbour was
recently fallen on hard times, Jim McGregor provided it. He started as a
boatman with port control when he was 13, and worked shifts right away.
Apart from National Service, he remained at the harbour until 1990 and has
a medal to commemorate 30 years in the Auxiliary Coastguard Service.
"One of my cherished boyhood memories is of the crew of
a puffer who were a bit drunk and sailed away leaving all their fish
suppers stacked up on a bollard." He chuckled. "I scoffed the lot!
"I've fallen off staging into the dock myself a few
times," he went on, "but more often I've had to get people out. And
towards the end of my time at the harbour I had to rescue a very
heavily-built merchant navy officer. It was hard work hauling him out but
the captain of the man's ship was generous. He gave me 50 pence for my
trouble!" Well, I suppose the captain would know best himself the value of
his officer's life...
The only ship now regularly using Ardrossan harbour is
the roll-on, roll-off car ferry to Arran which has always been well
patronised. But gone are the days when Britain had more ships in the cargo
and passenger trade than the rest of the world put together, and more than
two-thirds of the world's shipping was built on the Clyde!
Archie Murchie informs me that now even Denmark has a
bigger merchant fleet. And, as regards Clyde shipbuilding, only the
Norwegian-owned Govan yard remains.
At one time, Ardrossan was a busy little town with a
row of high-class shops in Princes Street, a cosy little cinema and two
dance halls, one of which had a very cosmopolitan atmosphere due to the
number of foreign ships in port. Now the place looks somewhat forlorn and
run down. But miracles still happen and the nod has been given by the
local council to a multi-million pound development at the harbourside
involving a yachting marina and some 200 up-market houses, bringing hope
for the future.
So it seems you can't keep a good town down!
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