‘Transport is the Thing’ – Sir William Beardmore
By Evelyn McKechnie
I grew up in Parkhead, and the Forge was the main employer for the East End of Glasgow and beyond. My father worked there, my uncle and so many thousands of others, and when it closed in the early 1980s, the heart and soul went out of the East End.
Glasgow was known as the 2nd city of the British Empire, and its East End was the engine. Everything was made here, from soap, distilling, textiles, to glass and cotton. Glasgow’s industry grew rapidly during the first half of the 19th century.
Much of the city’s wealth was connected with cotton, as it provided over one-third of the workforce jobs. But it was the middle of the 19th century that saw Glasgow expand with the focus more on iron, engineering and perhaps most famously shipbuilding.
William Beardmore’s Parkhead Forge not only employed directly but indirectly thousands of people from Inchinnan in Renfrew to the shipbuilding yards at Dalmuir. The shipyards lining the River Clyde were the birthplace of over one-fifth of the world’s supply of ships from the end of the nineteenth century until the First World War.
Beardmore said ‘Transport was the thing’, and he was right, this was the place where everything was built – taxis, cars, steam engines, airships, ocean liners, battleships, aircraft carriers and the track for the Great War tanks. It was a world-renowned centre of excellence for steel making and the workforce was one of the very best.
Sadly like so many engineering works throughout Britain, Beardmore’s Forge closed in 1983. This is a snapshot of the amazing history of Beardmore’s Parkhead Forge.
Parkhead’s industrial traditions are synonymous with one man, William Beardmore, whose personal drive created the climate of economic confidence in which the area could flourish. Beardmore invested in the latest machinery and the best workforce. For 50 years this charismatic figure made Parkhead a world centre for heavy engineering. William Beardmore’s Parkhead Forge Steelworks operation was the vigorous response of an enterprising Victorian to the needs of his time. He was knighted in 1914 becoming Sir William Beardmore and received a peerage in 1921 to become Baron Invernairn of Strathnairn. He was born in 1856 and died in 1937.
INAUGURATION OF 12,000 TON PRESS
The inauguration of the 12,000-ton hydraulic forging press on 16th February 1899, a 12,000-ton hydraulic press — the largest and most fully equipped tool of its kind in existence at that time and was used to shape nickel-chrome steel armour plate. It was ordered by Beardmore specifically to outdo his competitors at John Brown, Armstrong Whiteworth and Vickers. They were supplying many of the world’s navy with armour plate.
Beardmore’s Dalmuir Naval Construction shipyard began in 1900 and was to become the most extensive, well-equipped private shipyard and marine engineering works in Britain. Spurred on by the naval race between Germany and Britain, Beardmore produced some of the best ships of the time. Parkhead Forge supplied heavy plate, armour, marine boilers, naval guns, and stern rudders for these ships. The Zaza was the first vessel to be built in the Dalmuir yard. It was a 450-ton steam yacht built for William Beardmore and launched by his wife on 5th July 1905. It was then used as an armed patrol vessel during the First World War. The shipyard was forced to close in 1930 after the post-war recession.
Launched on 23rd June 1906, the HMS Agamemnon was the first battleship to be built by William Beardmore at his Dalmuir Naval Construction Works. Her gun turrets and armour belt at her waterline was 12 inches thick, all heavy armour produced by Parkhead Forge. She was the most powerful warship in the world at that time. In the Great War, she served at the Gallipoli landings in 1915. During the Dardanelles Campaign, a Turkish 6-inch howitzer battery hit her 12 times in 25 minutes; five of them hit her armour and did no damage. The heavy armour plate made at Parkhead Forge had done its job well. The Turkish delegation signed the armistice on her decks in 1918. She was the last surviving British predreadnought when scrapped in January 1927.
“The Cathedral” – was the name given to the heat treatment plant in the gun factory at Parkhead. This was a huge building that dominated Beardmore Forge. It needed to be high because large naval guns were first treated in a tall vertical furnace before being lowered into oil pits 30 feet below ground. The Forge made naval guns for numerous Royal Navy ships including HMS Hood and HMS Repulse.
“The shops were incredible, I went to one where they were making a 15 inch gun for HMS Hood. It was being heat-treated in a vertical furnace. They opened the doors, all the way down, and out comes this wonderful pinky vermillion gun held by one chain on a travelling crane that comes in front of you. It’s lowered into an enormous tank of oil, the whole thing disappears and a tiny bit of blue smoke comes out.”
Cavendish Morton, artist
SHACKLETON’S NIMROD ANTARCTICA EXPEDITION
The British Antarctic Nimrod Expedition was the first of three expeditions led by explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, CVO, OBE (15 February 1874 – 5 January 1922). William Beardmore partly financed the expedition at a cost of £7000, equivalent to hundreds of thousands of pounds today. Shackleton had to turn back before reaching the South Pole but he was the first person to set foot on the polar plateau.
In 1908, he discovered one of the largest glaciers in the world, with a length exceeding over 100 miles and named it after his main financial backer, William Beardmore.
Sledges made at Parkhead Forge were also used in the expedition. Beardmore had also recently acquired the Arrol-Johnston car company, and one of these vehicles went to Antarctica but performed poorly because of the severe weather.
After the Nimrod Expedition, 1907–09, he was knighted for his achievement in establishing a record furthest south latitude at 88°23’S, 97 nautical miles (180 km) from the South Pole.
Between 4,000 and 5,000 men worked at the Parkhead Forge pre World War One. They were producing over 10,000 tons of armour, 50,000 tons of boiler, ship and other plate as well as over 20,000 tons of forgings, 15,000 tons of castings, 25,000 of wheels and axles every year. At its peak, William Beardmore’s employed more than 43,000 workers throughout Scotland.
1911 – 1919
Shipbuilding before and during the Great War saw Beardmore build four battleships, seven cruisers, 13 submarines, 21 destroyers and 24 hospital ships. He also built 73 warships including the battleships HMS Conqueror, Benbow, Ramillies and Rainbow (1911, 1913, 1916 and 1917).
The world’s first aircraft carrier, HMS Argus was built in 1917 at Dalmuir. HMS Ramillies served throughout both world wars and on DDay, 6th June 1944, she was tasked with silencing the Berneville battery on the Normandy coast.
Throughout the Normandy engagements, she fired 1,002 15-inch shells, thought to be the greatest bombardment by any single ship to that time. These were naval guns made by workers in the Parkhead Forge.
THE GREAT WAR
During the Great War, William Beardmore secured a contract with the British Government to supply shells and fields guns for the war effort, worth millions of pounds, producing 32,000 18 pounder shells, 6,000 4.5 inch shells and 1500 8 inch shells every week.
The dilution of labour saw women employed for the first time on the factory floor, mostly working making shells.
50 tanks were also built along with 800 6-inch howitzer guns. Beardmore built four battleships, 21 destroyers, 13 submarines, 24 hospital ships and sea-plane carriers in the period between 1906 and 1919.
R34 AIRSHIP 1st DOUBLE CROSSING OF ATLANTIC
Beardmore built several airships including the 643ft R34 which flew the first East-West crossing of the Atlantic, taking 108 hours (2nd to 6th July). The R34 left the East Fortune airfield in East Lothian, bound for New York, eventually arriving at Mineola Airfield, Long Island, south of New York City on July 6th 1919. On completion of the return journey which took 75 hours, she achieved the double journey, crossing the Atlantic both ways. There is a monument to R34 at East Fortune and also in Long Island, where it landed.
The 1920s and 30s
WILLIAM BEARDMORE LOSES CONTROL OF PARKHEAD FORGE
Beardmore once declared that ‘Transport is the thing’ and after the Great War, Beardmore produced a range of cars, taxis and motorcycles. Car production continued until 1929 and the manufacture of taxis continued south of the border until the 1960s.
However, the expansion after the Great War was short-lived, the industry was in decline and Beardmore’s financial position became critical. Beardmore relinquished control to the Bank of England in 1929. It was the end of an era after 50 years at the helm. Sir James Lithgow purchased Beardmore debentures from the Bank of England and took control in 1934. The Forge continued to produce some excellent work including the 180-ton casting for the Queen Elizabeth rudder in 1937.
THE EMPIRE EXHIBITION GLASGOW
The British Empire Exhibition was held in Bellahouston Park from May to December 1938. It was a great boost to the economy of Scotland and showcased many of its industrial achievements. Despite being a very wet summer, the Exhibition attracted over 12.5 million visitors. In the Steel Pavilion, there was a theatre which showed ‘Romance of Engineering’, a film specially commissioned by William Beardmore’s.
Beardmore built a special exhibition engine, a Prince of Wales class 4-6-0, which went on display. 90 of this class of engine went to London Midland and Scottish railways (LMR) and nearly 400 were built in total, with some for abroad, mainly India.
India Railways is the second largest employer in the world and many of the Beardmore built steam engines are still operating.
1939 – 1945
THE SECOND WORLD WAR
After the economic slump of the 20s and 30s, there was a revival due to increase production of armaments for the war effort during the Second World War. However, post-war the demand for warships and armaments declined. In the early 1970s, there were only 400 workers left at the Forge after one time employing thousands.
The 1950S – 1970s
THE DECLINE OF THE FORGE
The Parkhead Forge was nationalised by the Iron and Steel Corporation of Great Britain, then in 1957, it was acquired by Firth Brown Steels. In 1959 over 1000 forge workers took to the streets to show their concern over job losses. My own father was made redundant in 1963, just a few weeks after the birth of his youngest daughter. The company suffered from the rapid decline of heavy engineering and barely survived through the late sixties and despite an investment programme the company could not survive the stock market collapse of 1975.
In the early 1980s, the company was wound down, some workers brought back from redundancy to dismantle the plant and machinery. In 1976 ‘GEAR’, the ‘Glasgow Eastern Area Renewal’ project was established, Europe’s largest urban renewal scheme at that time. The beginnings of regeneration for the East End had begun. Where the famous steel works once stood is now a shopping centre.
CAVENDISH MORTON, 1911 – 2015
Cavendish Morton, a Scottish painter, was commissioned by Beardmore to exhibit paintings of the Parkhead Forge at the Empire Exhibition in 1938. I was privileged to speak with Cavendish in early 2013 and he explained that he had never known that steel was so colourful, something he conveyed very well in his series of paintings.
It should be Cavendish Morton who has the last word on the Parkhead Forge, his words speak volumes, much more than I could ever convey.
“It was a privilege to watch the men working. They would open half furnaces and use long rakes to get the slag moving. As they opened the doors you would see their heads go down near the entrance of the furnace and a puff of steam would come up off the wet handkerchiefs tied round their necks. They were a wonderful lot of workers.”
Cavendish Morton, artist,
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