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Steel, Ships and Men

Steel, Ships and Men: Cammell Laird and Company 1824-1993

Copyright Date: 1998
Edition: 1
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Steel, Ships and Men
    Book Description:

    The firm of Cammell Laird originated in a boiler works in 1824 before growing and diversifying to become one of a small number of companies worldwide which could build, armour and arm the largest warships from the operations of a single company group. After World War I, it was reconstructed as a naval and mercantile shipbuilder with important financial interests in steel and rolling stock manufacture. Booming activity in World War II and continuing prosperity until the late 1950s was followed by increasing competition and deepening problems. By the 1980s the firm’s remaining steel interests had failed; in 1993 the once great Birkenhead shipyard closed. How and why did the businesses grow, then experience such problems and eventually collapse? This book tries to find answers.

    eISBN: 978-1-78138-076-5
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures and Tables
    (pp. vii-xi)
  4. Abbreviations used in Notes
    (pp. xii-xii)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    Kenneth Warren
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Industrialisation involves a continuing sequence of technical and organisational changes—the process speeds up and slows down but never stops. Some technical changes are small, merely daily, monthly or annual improvements in operations. Infrequently there are major shifts in technology. They eventually alter everything else, even perhaps the very nature of the company, so that it would be unrecognisable to those who worked at an earlier stage of its evolution. Those companies which keep their place in the competitive race do so only at the cost of unceasing improvement. The present case involves a number of critical changes of technology...

  7. Part One: Nineteenth-century Developments

    • CHAPTER 1 The Establishment and Development of the Cammell Enterprise to 1864
      (pp. 11-25)

      In his late teens Charles Cammell, fourth son of a prosperous father, a shipmaster with Scottish connections, worked in the ironmongery trade in his home town of Hull. He moved to Sheffield in about 1830 when he was 20. Though later it was said he arrived with only £5 in his pocket, his family background makes this rags-to-riches story doubtful. By 1832 he had become a traveller for the 40-year-old file and cutlery business of Ibbotson’s of the Globe works. The industrial community he now joined was already firmly dependent on the steel trade, though one very different from that...

    • CHAPTER 2 Laird Shipbuilding to the 1860s
      (pp. 26-39)

      Even before Charles Cammell arrived in Sheffield the foundations had been laid for the shipbuilding successes of the Laird family. They were associated with the world-wide role of the Mersey as a focus of trade. The massive growth in the commerce of the port of Liverpool during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries required an increasing supply of ships and other marine supplies to support its trade.¹ As its commercial eminence increased the Mersey declined as a focus of shipbuilding, but Laird’s of Birkenhead became shipbuilders of national and international reputation.

      Apart from the immense growth in the tonnage of...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Rewards and Problems of Headlong Growth: The Early Years of a Limited Company
      (pp. 40-56)

      By the mid-1860s conditions were ripe for the reconstruction of the leading Sheffield firms. They needed large injections of capital to finance expansion. External circumstances were favourable, for 1862, 1863 and 1864 had been the best three years to date for exports of iron and steel. Finally the Companies Act 1862 provided the legal framework for the formation of joint stock, limited liability companies. An interesting result of their opening to wider participation was an influx of Manchester capital into the Sheffield industry.

      In 1864 both John Brown and Charles Cammell were converted into public limited companies, each with a...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Struggle to Retain the Rail Trade
      (pp. 57-76)

      Sheffield products were characteristically of high value in relation to their weight. This applied in traditional trades such as cutlery or files, to the early railway products, springs, buffers, tyres and axles, and to heavy but highly priced armament materials such as gun forgings and armour-plate. In such circumstances its inland location and general lack of supporting blast furnace capacity was of no material significance; skill and reputation were more than sufficient counterweights to a less than ideal material supply situation. However, for nearly 20 years Sheffield also played a prominent part in two fields from which it had to...

    • CHAPTER 5 Loss of Momentum: Charles Cammell and Company, 1873–1903
      (pp. 77-89)

      Beginning the last quarter of the century with a prominent position in bulk steels, the Sheffield share of these grades fell as other districts with greater advantages got fully into their stride. As late as 1877 the Sheffield–Leeds district made 25.3 per cent of the nation’s Bessemer steel; by 1890 it made 14.6 per cent though by 1900 its share recovered to 18.8 per cent. In open hearth steel Sheffield did not rank as high and its relative decline was steadier as the great shipbuilding steel areas of the North-east and Scotland made their impact: 9.4 per cent in...

    • CHAPTER 6 Laird Brothers, 1865–1903
      (pp. 90-108)

      In its early history Laird’s had been a pioneer of new technologies. Under the direction of the brothers of the third generation its yard retained its high reputation, but by the last decades of the century there was unmistakeable evidence that the company was falling behind. To some extent this may have been due to the ageing of a narrowly confined top management, but it partly resulted from deficiencies of location and site. Only a programme of yard reconstruction, and new structures of supply and control involving a major amalgamation, would be able to break these limitations; both had to...

    • CHAPTER 7 Workington, 1883–1909: A Case of Better Rather than Best?
      (pp. 109-120)

      To a large extent relocation of Dronfield production to Workington was justified by subsequent events. Cammell’s remained a major factor in the rail business. Even more impressively, 110 years after it made its transfer, Workington was claimed by British Steel to be the world’s leading exporter of rails. On the other hand, within a few years there was evidence that Cumberland was not the best location; in less than a quarter-century Cammell’s was considering another change of location.

      By early May 1883 300 men were at work on the Workington site. The steelworks and mills were brought into production on...

  8. Part Two: Amalgamation, Diversification and Rationalisation, 1903–39

    • CHAPTER 8 Multi-plant Operations and Managerial Difficulties, 1900–14
      (pp. 123-137)

      The few years after 1900 were a great divide in the history of Cammell’s; before World War I the company had been transformed. Charles Cammell and Company Ltd began the century as an important steel firm with plants in the Sheffield area and on the north-west coast; by 1910 it had disposed of the latter but had become a major shipbuilder. Development planning made the shipyard the focus of its activities. By this time the company also had important investments in the west Midlands and on Clydeside. Until 1901 it was led by Alexander Wilson, who had served under Charles...

    • CHAPTER 9 Problems of Commercial Integration: Fairfield’s and Coventry Ordnance Works
      (pp. 138-157)

      The spread of the large Sheffield firms from the lower Don valley to the coalfield and other outlying locations created some problems of coordination that were not present in single-works companies, especially before the telephone. One of the first things that Cammell’s did in 1864 after acquiring Penistone was to install a telegraph connection with Cyclops.¹ The building up of the Cumberland operations increased the difficulty of interplant liaison, and, as events proved, management there could sometimes go its own way with unfortunate commercial consequences. Later still acquisition of shipyards by Vickers, John Brown and Charles Cammell added another dimension...

    • CHAPTER 10 Birkenhead Operations from 1903 to World War I
      (pp. 158-172)

      The period of a little over 10 years, from the formation of Cammell Laird and the early stages of construction of the Tranmere yard to the outbreak of World War I, was one of high activity and general prosperity in UK shipbuilding. Indeed, in annual averages of merchant tonnages launched, it represented the apogee of that industry’s long history. During these years UK yards produced almost two-thirds of the merchant shipping built throughout the world (Table 21). As other industrial economies progressed there was a long-term fall in their share, but in the year-on-year ups and downs of trade it...

    • CHAPTER 11 World War I and the Post-war Boom: The Impact on Steel of High Activity, Plant Expansion and New Technology
      (pp. 173-183)

      World War I was accompanied by major changes in the steel industry. Total war produced higher profits but huge, short-term strains. There was a major expansion of capacity, and a shake-up in long-established methods. Equally importantly, it marked the first large-scale involvement of government in the industry, initiating and helping finance extensions, and in control. Associated with these changes were the beginnings, at least, of industry-wide planning. The wartime boom was a prelude to the disasters of the 1920s. That decade brought a falling away of government interest and commitment, before dire commercial necessities brought their reassertion.

      After the first...

    • CHAPTER 12 Shipbuilding, 1914–29
      (pp. 184-200)

      World War I and its early aftermath gave an immense fillip to demand, activity and investment in all the basic industries. In doing so it paradoxically helped worsen their prospects of adjusting successfully to the new trading conditions that lay beyond; it pushed industrial Britain further in what was later to be seen to have been the wrong direction. Its immediate effect was to cut back business in other industries and boost activity in the heavy sectors of the economy to unprecedented levels. Between the Censuses of 1911 and 1921 there was a 300,000 increase in employment in engineering, shipbuilding...

    • CHAPTER 13 Economic Depression and the Steel Trade in the 1920s
      (pp. 201-209)

      In the aftermath of wartime destruction there seemed good reason to hope for a new era in steel and for profitable use of the four million ton national extension of capacity. The newly installed plant was believed to be much more efficient than that in the older works. For a time results seemed to justify the expectations. Production faltered and then boomed. In 1920, though lower than in 1917 or 1918, it was 1.3 million tons, or 18.3 per cent higher than in 1913, by far the best ever pre-war year. Sheffield fully shared the optimism of the times. An...

    • CHAPTER 14 Cammell Laird Rolling Stock
      (pp. 210-217)

      After their wartime extensions, top management in all the great armament groups realised the necessity for major redeployment of resources to meet the circumstances of the post-war world. Demand for armaments would decline, though it was impossible to be sure by how much. At the same time opportunities seemed likely to open in serving a world development process held up or distorted for over four years. This was expected to require massive further inputs of capital equipment. The nations and companies that had previously supplied these needs prepared to resume their old role. At home there seemed good reason to...

    • CHAPTER 15 Amalgamation and Rationalisation: The Formation and Early Development of the ESC
      (pp. 218-232)

      Even during the business boom of 1920 only three-quarters of Britain’s massively war-extended steel capacity was utilised; 1921 output was less than 41 per cent of that of 1920; from 1921 to 1926 the rate averaged about 50 per cent. Gradually some leaders of the large steel, armament, heavy engineering and shipbuilding groups, recognising the intractability of the problems facing them, began to consider collaborative ways of escape. As a result the continued existence of vertically integrated operations, which had seemed logical in pre-war days of rapidly expanding business, came under scrutiny.

      As early as winter 1921–22 Webster Jenkinson,...

    • CHAPTER 16 Economic Efficiency and Social Costs: The Closure of the Penistone Works
      (pp. 233-242)

      The most dramatic incident in the ESC’s rationalisation programme was the ending of steel-making and steel-rolling at Penistone. The facts of the case highlighted the deficiencies of past thinking and practice in British basic industries, the powerful impact of more effective commercial criteria and the issue of the social responsibility of major industrial companies.

      The plant installed at Penistone in the war had reduced hand labour, but the new open hearth shop and the concentration there of operations from three tyre plants into one new mill had led to an increase in employment before recession cut the total back again....

    • CHAPTER 17 Reconstruction and Recovery at the ESC, 1932–39
      (pp. 243-250)

      Rationalisation at the ESC was made more essential but more difficult because it coincided with depression of unprecedented severity. The parent companies were in deep distress. The full flavour of their despair was conveyed in an invitation to visit their works sent in July 1931 to Lieutenant General J. R. E. Charles by the director, Noel Birch:

      We have a very difficult time ahead of us to live at all for the next year or two, and we must sell every mortal thing we can . . . unless you come soon I do not know what there will be...

    • CHAPTER 18 Shipbuilding in the Great Depression and the 1930s
      (pp. 251-260)

      By the standards of the previous seven years, 1929 was a good one for shipbuilding. Even so it was ominous that, within a month of the removal of the headquarters to Birkenhead, R. S. Johnson was quoted in the commercial press as reckoning there were 40 per cent more building berths in the UK than were ever likely to be needed.¹ At almost the same time Hichens stressed that a large proportion of existing yards would have to go out of business before prosperity returned to the industry. In the UK that year 1.5 million tons of merchant shipping were...

  9. Part Three: Culmination and Decline, 1940–93

    • CHAPTER 19 Steel Interests in and after World War II
      (pp. 263-271)

      From 1929 the ESC represented Cammell Laird’s major surviving interest in the industry that until that date had formed its core. Through the former Vickers subsidiary, the Patent Shaft and Axletree Company of Wednesbury, it shared in another, much smaller operation. It retained the first of these investments until the major steel companies were nationalised in 1967 and the second, though with changed arrangements, until the mid-1980s. Both made important extensions, involving modernisation and product development. Each suffered from continuing dependence on the capital goods sector at a time when growth in the national economy, and therefore the derived demand...

    • CHAPTER 20 Shipbuilding in World War II and the Post-war World
      (pp. 272-292)

      World War II again brought incessant pressure for shipbuilding and repair. Naval work in 1943 amounted to 70 per cent of all new construction.¹ The exceptional demands of the times exposed more of the deficiencies of UK yards. Problems were coming to a head in 1942, when they occasioned two assessments of the industry. In July a report, ‘Labour in mercantile and naval shipyards’, was made to government by a committee headed by the chairman of Metal Box, Robert Barlow. It identified a ‘lack of discipline’ at work, and inadequate appreciation of the urgency of the situation on the part...

    • CHAPTER 21 A Long Rearguard Action: Cammell Laird, 1970–93
      (pp. 293-300)

      Through the 1970s the Laird group, as a widely spread holding company, enjoyed very varied fortunes. Its remaining interest in steel now became a financial embarrassment. The nationalisation in 1977 of shipbuilding and the aircraft industry deprived it of its interest in both Cammell Laird and Scottish Aviation. In compensation for an estimated £5.25 million in these two firms, it had by mid-1980 received only £2.5 million and was owed interest on the rest.¹ Metropolitan–Cammell, which had registered losses at the beginning of the decade, became a major profit-maker, later to be sold to the General Electric Company. Other...

  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 301-306)
  11. Index
    (pp. 307-314)