Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company

The Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, Limited was a Scottish shipbuilding company in the Govan area on the Clyde in Glasgow. Fairfields, as it is often known, was a major warship builder, turning out many vessels for the Royal Navy and other navies through the First World War and the Second World War. It also built many transatlantic liners, including record breaking ships for the Cunard Line and Canadian Pacific, such as the Blue Riband-winning sisters RMS Campania and RMS Lucania. At the other end of the scale Fairfields built fast cross-channel mail steamers and ferries for locations around the world. These included ships for the Bosporus crossing in Istanbul and some of the early ships used by Thomas Cook for developing tourism on the River Nile.

Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company
Public company
FateMerged with others to form Upper Clyde Shipbuilders
PredecessorRandolph, Elliott and Co.
Randolph, Elder and Co.
John Elder & Co.
SuccessorGovan Shipbuilders
HeadquartersGovan, Scotland, UK
Key people
Charles Randolph
John Elder
Sir William Pearce
Sir James Lithgow
Sir Alexander Kennedy
ProductsNaval ships
Merchant ships
Ocean liners
Marine engines
ParentNorthumberland Shipbuilding Group (1919–1935)
Lithgows (1935–1965)


Charles Randolph, who began trading as a millwright, founded the business as Randolph & Elliott by building engines and machinery in the Tradeston district of Glasgow in 1834.[1] John Elder joined the business in 1852 and it then diversified into shipbuilding as Randolph, Elder and Company, acquiring the Govan Old Shipyard in 1858.[1] The first ship was built in 1861 as No 14.

The business moved to a new yard at the former Fairfield Farm at the Govan riverside in 1864, changing its name to the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, after the old farm, in 1886,[2] at which time it was owned by Sir William Pearce.[3] The shipyard's imposing red sandstone Drawing Offices were designed by John Keppie of Honeyman and Keppie, with help from a young Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and built 1889–91. The sculpted figures (The Engineer and the shipwright) flanking the entrance are by James Pittendrigh Macgillivray.

John Carmichael was manager of the Fairfield yard in 1894. He had been born in Govan in 1858 and had entered Fairfield as an apprentice in 1873. When his apprenticeship was completed seven years later, Sir William Pearce made him head draughtsman, and later he was promoted to assistant manager.[4]

In February 1897 a major fire broke out in the yard.[5][6] The fire spread rapidly and within ten minutes the vast majority of the buildings, covering several acres, were ablaze with the joiner's, pattern, and fitting shops totally destroyed.[5][6] Various ships under construction were threatened, amongst which were HMS Argonaut and RMS Empress Queen. The vessels were however separated from the buildings and no significant damage was sustained. The cost of the damage was estimated at £40,000 and caused 4,000 workmen to be thrown idle.[5][6]

Alexander Cleghorn FRSE became the Fairfield manager in 1909.[7] The company also established the Coventry Ordnance Works joint venture with Yarrow Shipbuilders and others in 1905.

The Fairfield Titan was built for the yard in 1911 by Sir William Arrol & Co., with a maximum lift capacity of 200 tons. It was acknowledged for many years as the largest crane in the world. It was employed in lifting the engines and boilers aboard ships in the fitting out basin. The crane was a Category B listed building but was demolished in 2007 in yard modernisation works.

In 1919 the company became part of the Northumberland Shipbuilding Company, with Alexander Kennedy installed as managing director.[8] In 1921 Alexander Kennedy was knighted. Sir Alexander became Fairfield chairman in 1930 and remained so until after Fairfield was taken over by Lithgows of Port Glasgow in 1935, after Fairfield became entangled with the insolvency of the Anchor Line.[8]

The Fairfield West Yard had been added at the outbreak of the First World War for submarine construction, but closed after ten years due to severe recession and was demolished by National Shipbuilders Securities in 1934. The Fairfield West yard site was later used by the United States Army Corps of Engineers in 1944 to build four landing craft.

In 1924, the company bought a shipyard at Chepstow on the River Wye in South Wales, previously developed as National Shipyard No.1 in the First World War and then taken over by the Monmouthshire Shipbuilding Company. The works later specialised in assembling bridges and other major structures.

In the 1950s the yard underwent a major £4 million modernisation programme which was implemented slowly over a period of ten years to minimise disruption to the yard. In 1963, the Fairfield engine building division merged with another Lithgow subsidiary, David Rowan & Company, to form Fairfield Rowan Ltd. Soon after the decade long shipyard modernisation works were completed, Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd and Fairfield Rowan Ltd were placed into receivership and was subsequently sold by Lithgow's in 1965. Fairfield's Chepstow works was sold to the Mabey Group in 1966.[9][10][11]

The marine engine building subsidiary Fairfield Rowan was closed in 1966, but the modernised shipbuilding operation was reconstituted as Fairfield (Glasgow) Ltd, in what became known as the famous Fairfield Experiment, into new ways of improving productivity through new reforms to industrial relations and the application of scientific management methods to improve productivity. The era of the Fairfield experiment was captured by Sean Connery in his documentary The Bowler and the Bunnet.

Then in 1968 the company was made part of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders,[12] which collapsed in 1971[13] when a strike and work-in received national press attention.[14] As part of the recovery deal, Fairfields was formed into Govan Shipbuilders in 1972, which was itself later nationalised and subsumed into British Shipbuilders in 1977.[15] On the break-up of British Shipbuilders under denationalisation in 1988, the former Fairfield yard was sold to the Norwegian Kværner group and renamed Kvaerner Govan.[16] The yard passed to BAE Systems Marine in 1999 and is now part of BAE Systems Surface Ships.[16]

On the 22nd Sept 1914, SM U9, a German submarine sunk three ships in the Southern North Sea. These were the first vessels to be sunk by a U Boat and sadly not the last. Two of Ships were built in Fairfield's Yard, The HMS Cressy and the HMS Aboukir, The Cressy went down with the loss of 560 men and The Aboukir with the loss of 527. The names of these Ships live on in two streets in Linthouse both of which back onto the Yard in which the Ships were built. Maybe the next time your passing by you will pause for a moment and think of the 1087 men that lost their lives. The other ship that was sunk was HMS Hogue with the loss of 48 Men. To put this in perspective the number of men who died on the Action of 22 September 1914 was more than twice the number that died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where the total loss to the British was 458 Men.

Ships built

Some of the better-known ships built by Fairfield's include:

Two of three Ships that were lost in the Action of 22 September 1914 were built at Fairfield's. These ships alongside HMS Hogue were the first vessels ever to be sunk by a German U Boat SM U9.

HMS Cressy

HMS Aboukir

See also


  1. "Charles Randolph". University of Glasgow.
  2. Payne 1967, p. 57.
  3. Payne 1967, p. 58.
  4. Payne 1967, pp. 57–58.
  5. Isle of Man Times, Saturday, February 13, 1897; Page: 5
  6. Isle of Man Times, Tuesday, February 09, 1897; Page: 12
  7. "Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company". Journal of the American Society of Naval Engineers. American Society of Naval Engineers. 20: 9. 1909.
  8. "Alexander Kennedy". 2004.
  9. "Chepstow National Shipyard No.1". National Monuments Record of Wales. Retrieved 24 February 2012.
  10. Daly, Sarah (4 May 2011). "Building Bridges". Chepstow Review. Archived from the original on 20 April 2013. Retrieved 24 February 2012.
  11. "Cabinet Papers 1965" (PDF). National Archives.
  12. "Government's shipbuilding crisis". BBC News. 1 January 2002.
  13. "Parliamentary debates". Hansard. 4 June 1971.
  14. "Heritage 1968 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders". BAE Systems. Archived from the original on 26 May 2010.
  15. "What do you know about Govan?". Evening Times. Archived from the original on 5 July 2008.
  16. "Heritage 1973 Govan Shipbuilders". BAE Systems. Archived from the original on 26 May 2010.

Further reading

  • Payne, Peter Lester (1967). Studies in Scottish Business History. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-7146-1349-9.
  • Johnston, Ian; Buxton, Ian (2013). The Battleship Builders - Constructing and Arming British Capital Ships (Hardback)|format= requires |url= (help). Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-59114-027-6.
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