John Brown’s shipyard has a special place in the history of Clyde shipbuilding. The yard was started on Clydebank by brothers, J & G Thomson, in 1871, after they moved their operations from the site of the Graving Docks in Govan. They had themselves been apprenticed to Robert Napier (1791-1876), usually recognised as the father of shipbuilding on the Clyde. He was a superb engineer who established his yard at Govan, and went on to win ship building contracts both from the Admiralty and from the Cunard Line.
The Thomsons built over 20 liners for Cunard as well for other shipping lines. Among the other vessels they constructed were the elegant paddle steamers which sailed up to the Western Isles and the Highlands. These were especially popular with parties heading north to stay at hunting lodges and Queen Victoria herself on occasion used the service to travel to the Highlands.
In 1897 the yard was taken over by John Brown & Co., Sheffield steelmakers. It continued to make a variety of ships but became best known for its great liners and warships. Before the age of jet transatlantic flights in the 1960s the passenger liner was in great demand, developing in size, speed and sophistication.
For instance, the advanced 1880s liner, City of Paris, built at Clydebank, was a steel screw steamer, 528 ft long, weighing 10,699 tons and powered by 18,000hp compound engines. The ill-fated Lusitania’s sister ship, Aquitania, launched in 1913, was 901 ft long, weighing 47,000 tons and was driven by 60,000 hp turbine engines.
During the 1930s depression there was great despondency locally when work on a new Cunard liner, no 534, was halted in December 1931. The recommencement of work in 1934 and subsequent launch of this vessel as the Queen Mary, seemed symbolic of the resurgence in the Clyde’s fortunes. However, by the 1960s the yard was no longer economic and was threatened with closure. It briefly became part of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders which closed down in 1971. Thereafter the John Brown engineering division continued in various ownerships. The yard continued until 2001 building oil rigs and modules for North Sea oil exploration, firstly as Marathon Shipbuilding and then as UiE. The Queen Elizabeth 2, launched in 1967 and which recently docked in the Clyde for a final visit before leaving for her new mooring in Dubai, was the last great liner built at the yard.