The Loftsman
Leith Shipyards

A history of the Ships built at the Henry Robb Shipyard in Leith, Scotland. Also a testimony to the men who built the Ships and to all who sailed in them.
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Leith Shipyards

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A Brief History of Henry Robb Shipyards


A picture to bring a tear to the glass eye of any old Henry Robb shipbuilder, as this shows a time when the yards eight building berths all had a ship under construction. With the docks at Leith as they used to be, a busy port at the edge of town.
(Photograph from The Loftsman collection)

Henry Robb Shipbuilders known by Leither’s as Robb’s, was the last shipyard to trade on the River Forth at Leith, the Port of Edinburgh on Scotlands East Coast.

Robb’s was notable for building small-to-medium sized vessels, particularly Coasters, tugs and dredgers, one off specialised vessel's difficult and complex to build.

A short dry summary would look something like this.

1918 Henry Robb started his career as a yard manager for Ramage & Ferguson.      

Following the war, he saw an opportunity to set up by himself to capitalise on all the work from wrecked ships salvaged following the ravages of the First World War, he leased dry-docks along from Ramage & Fergusons yard, and went into the business for himself, and along with some top men from the Ramage & Ferguson yard he set up on 1st April 1918, while the war was still going on.

His company’s main activity at the time was the repair of ships damaged in the war.

It was the early 1920’s before they won an order for the building of there first ever ship, a small tug called “WESTMERE” Ship No 16 ordered by Bromports Co Ltd

            1924 Robb bought the shipyard and two berths of Hawthorns and Co..            

            1926 Henry Robb bought theCrane and Somerville yard which was almost adjoining them.       

            This was the commencement of Henry Robb Ltd.

            During the 1920s The new company started by making dredgers, followed by coasters and steamers.   

The company managed to ride out the Depression thanks to a constant supply of orders, although it did experience a lull.

         1930s Steamers and steam colliers were the main output for the yard along with coastal colliers.            

          The Union Steamship Co. of New Zealand made the first of many orders in the 1930s .

          1934 A further yard was acquired by Robb's in 1934 having previously belonged to Ramage and Ferguson.      

This took Henry Robb’s berth numbers up to eight, all of which could launch directly into the sea.

A result of taking over Ramage and Ferguson was entry to the New Zealand market, Ramage and Ferguson

had built many ships for New Zealand owners and were well known to ship owners as builders of fine ships.


The Business of Shipbuilding

The Business of Shipbuilding

The Business of Shipbuilding thoroughly analyses vessel construction, from material receipt and preparation, to final outfitting. It explains the central role of computer technology in the design process, the growing importance of supply chain management for materials and services and the use of subcontractors. Methods of measuring progress, productivity, performance and the need for enforcing standards during construction are also discussed. Through the use of practical examples, The Business of Shipbuilding explains the structure of shipbuilding in Japan, Korea, the European Union, China, Eastern Europe and the Americas and places this in the context of the economic and political climate of each region. Written in a clear and concise style and illustrated throughout with diagrams, charts and plans, The Business of Shipbuilding will be an invaluable reference tool both for experienced shipbuilders and for shipowners, managers, operators, brokers, insurers, lawyers, universities, surveyors and equipment suppliers.

The fitting out basin with Bransfield and the Lloydsman together, around 1970-71



  •  The prolific list of ships repaired by the Shipyard during the War years from 1939 to 1945, it works out at one ship repaired for almost every day of World War II. 

World War II Robbs built a large number of naval warships for the Royal Navy, including preparing the designs and building the lead ship of the following:-

Basset-class - anti-submarine/mine-sweeping trawler. Pioneering,Lofting techniques to speed up production of Warships by modular building.

During the war, the yard built six corvettes, fifteen frigates, two mine-layers, aramed trawlers and deep sea convoy rescue tugs.

In addition, a number of Merchant ships were also completed along with an ongoing series of tugs for private companies

Never ones to miss an opportunity, the company was quick to advertise there prowes as builders of a varied class of vessel both for war and for commercial customers, also very proud of the great war record for building ships during World War II this was an advert produced just after the war finished around 1946.



Advert shown above from a flyer produced by Henry Robbs around 1946

(From The Loftsman collection) 


1950s The Union Steamship Co. of New Zealand ordered over twenty motor coasters during the 50s with a number of cargo steamers also built for the Ellerman Wilson Line.


 1951 Henry Robb died in 1951 and was succeeded by his son of the same name. The company built a number of large cargo/passenger steamers. 

  • 1955 Company was made public.

 1960s Leith Dock Commission constructed a lock at the entrance to Leith’s Outer Western Harbour


    • In 1968 the Dundee yard of the Caledon Shipbuilders was taken over and the Leith and Dundee yards began trading as Robb Caledon Shipbuilders.



1970s A large deep sea tug was commissioned by the United Towing Co which was followed by two others and salvage vessels, one of which was the largest tug in the world at the time.  


In 1977 Under the provisions of the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977, the yard became part of the nationalised "British Shipbuilders". This was on the recommendations of a man called Geddes (Geddes report) the same man who destoyed the railway network in the United Kingdom, a network that they are only now trying to revive in areas.

Now this was a man who knew about Shipbuilding eh, aye right!!!  


The M.V.TRENTINO in a busy dock, with a lighter tied upside of her.


1980s The Caledon yard in Dundee closed down in 1981 due to lack of orders. The Leith Yard continued building:-  a passenger/vehicle ferry, a dredger, two crane barges, two oil rig supply vessels, two tugs, a lighthouse supply ship and two ferries.



 The ST HELEN Ship No 535

  • The second of the two ferries, named St Helen was the last ship launched from the yard of 15th September 1983.(Badly in need of a paint job)                                    

        1984 The yard ran out of orders at this point, and was not supported by British shipbuilders, and was given no orders to work on, the end of shipbuilding in Leith arrived on 27th April 1984.              

All part of the “Thatcherism thinking” of the time and the yard was forced to close down with the loss of around 700 direct jobs. And directed by a man who had already closed down most of the car industry in the United Kingdom he was a Canadian if I remember correctly and by all accounts another person employed by Government who really knew his stuff?.


                                This brought to an end over 660 years of shipbuilding in Leith.

The land once occupied by Robb's shipyard is now the Ocean Terminal shopping centre (That’s what they now call progress?) and a home for the Royal Yacht Britannia.             

 I could never figure out why, as an Island Nation, built on the back of a Strong Navy and huge Merchant Fleet, we ended up as a country that could not build another significant merchant ship, due to the lack of shipbuilding capacity capable of doing so.

Quite apart from the fact that 2 generations of Scots have been denied the opportunity to learn what have become the fast forgotten skills that are required to build such ships.


The Lloydsman (Ship No 509) full steam ahead into a heavy sea.

But of course the above could never do justice to all the ships built in this fine shipbuilders, who relied on the skill of it’s workforce to stay competitive for so long.        

Part of the reason for creating a website to try and do justice to all the ships built in the Leith Shipyards of Henry Robb.            

The building of a ship and her launching into the water for the first time is just a beginning, in the story of that ship, and here we also bring to life the stories of the men and women who sailed on the ships.

No small part in the history and stories of the Leith Shipyards could be complete without some reference to the other shipyards in Leith, which eventually became the yard known as Robb’s.

So this website will also delve into the other yards such as Crane & Somerville, Hawthorns, Ramage & Ferguson and Menzies.

There will also be a category for the fine shipyard in Dundee called the Caledon yard which Henry Robb took over, but is still part of the long pedigree that grew to become the shipbuilders of Leith.


<hrdata-mce-alt="Shipbuilding in Old Leith" class="system-pagebreak" />

Prior to the emergence of yards like Henry Robb shipbuilding had been a mainstay of employement in the Port o Leith for many, many years.

Shipbuilding in (old) Leith

Although the Forth ranks next to the Clyde among Scottish shipbuilding districts, yet the shipbuilding industry in Leith has not kept pace with the progress of the Port. During the first half of the nineteenth century Leith gave promise of being one of the great shipbuilding centres of the country, but the Clyde seems to have drawn the trade away from the Port. It has five shipyards in which vessels up to four hundred feet can be built and engined, but now most work is done in the branch of ship repairing. It has six public and two private dry docks, all thoroughly equipped for cleaning and repairing ships. Vessels can there be overhauled without shifting port, a great convenience and economy.

One of the oldest shipbuilding firms in Leith was Messrs. Sime and Rankin's, which built several warships in the days of the old "wooden walls." Their yard, now built on, was opposite the Custom House, but their dry dock, dating from 1720, and the oldest in Leith still remains, between the Shore and Sandport Street, and now forms the repairing dock of Messrs. Marr and Company.


At the Old Dock gates is the yard of Messrs. Menzies, a firm which has been established for over a century, and which has sent out many fine ships in its day. In 1837 Messrs. Menzies built the Sirius, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic, which she did in eighteen days, arriving a few hours before the Great Western, which had set out three days after her. The Sirius ran out of coal, and had to keep her furnaces going with timber and resin. The picture of the launch of the Royal Mail steamship Forth, of one thousand nine hundred and forty tons, from the yard of Messrs. Menzies in 1841—a painting greatly prized by the firm—shows that the launching of a vessel in Leith in those times, like the annual departure of the whaling fleet on its perilous voyage, was a notable event—the day being quite a gala day.

The greater part of the new tonnage launched at Leith is usually from the yard of Messrs. Ramage and Ferguson. The firm have built about ninety high-class steam yachts, and it is in connection with yacht building that their name is best known; but, in addition to yachts, they have also turned out many fine types of sailing ships, and passenger and cargo steamers, including light-draft passenger vessels for service in China.

A notable vessel recently built (early 1930's) was the five-masted sailing ship KØbenhavn, built for the East Asiatic Company, Copenhagen, and which is unique in being fitted with a 650 h.p. Diesel engine. The vessel is one of the largest sailing ships in the world. Messrs. Ramage and Ferguson's engine works have recently been modernized, and a large number of new machines fitted which enable them to cope with all branches of marine engineering. The boiler shop is capable of building boilers of the largest size.

Other shipbuilding firms are Messrs. Hawthorns, Messrs. Cran and Somerville, Messrs. Robb, and Messrs. Morton. Since the war a principal feature of the work of all the firms we have named has been the altering and equipping of the vessels surrendered by the Germans. In 1919, for instance, Messrs. Cran and Somerville alone dealt with over thirty surrendered merchant ships. The Port has also had a large share in refitting for their ordinary commercial service those merchant ships which the Admiralty had called into its service, and which had done splendid duty in patrolling, mine-sweeping, or transport.

Kobenhaven The Kobenhavn

 For more on the Kobenhaven see the next page.


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0 #9 M R Ross 2015-03-02 14:14
The chairman of BS refered to was J Graham Day, a solicitor. He succeeded Sir Robert Atkinson. day was appointed by Mrs T and in a meeting I attended shortly after his appointment, made it very clear that his remit was to sell the warshipbuilding yards.
I started in Robbs in leith, but only stayed for a year, before moving to Brooke Marine and finally Govan. What is missing from this paper is the international nature of shipbuilding. Keynes commented about the "loss" we suffered from the failures of the Luftwaffe to flatten more of UK industry. The problem that bedevilled UK shipbuilding was a failure to rationalise and invest after the war in a few large yards (Robbs would have been a casualty), built around dry docks, with an internationally competitive supply chain eg. steel plate. It was not poor industrial relations but woeful management and political neglect, that sunk UK shipbuilding. Ironically we still managed to design yards in Korea and the Middle East
0 #8 Margaret Fraser 2014-03-09 02:01
My father, William Jenkins, was a ship draftsman, and worked at Henry Robb's shipyard during WWII. He became shipyard manager and I recall a visit to the yard by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Somewhere in the archives is a newspaper photo of the royal couple touring the yard and my father (complete with bowler hat).
0 #7 John Spink 2014-01-22 12:45
Just had a brief look but will come back. Looks fascinating
+1 #6 Ken Garden 2014-01-19 22:10
Worked at the Leith yard briefly in 1982. Just before the Falklands war, on the Trinity lighthouse ship 'Patricia' I recall how the yard was starved of investment. Everything was old & clapped out, cranes. Buildings, machinery etc. Our tea shack was a rotting portacabin and my mate and I had a pop rivet nailed into the wall of this rotting hulk of a cabin on which to hang our jackets. All in all I recall the place being a cold windswept depressing dump. That said the guys were great
0 #5 Graham Hamilton 2013-10-29 02:12
Do any of the ship drawings still exist. I am looking for the drawings in order to make a model of the Wolraade Woltemade which was a tug built by Robb Caledon in the 1970's.
+2 #4 Malcolm Robb 2012-01-29 13:55
My father, Magnus Robb - no relation to Henry - worked at Henry Robbs during WWII. I trained as a Radio Officer at Leith Nautical college in the 1970's and recall the launch of a tugboat at Robbs. It is sad that the dcks are no longer a the vibrant industry that they were. :sad: Splendid website!
+2 #3 Gordon Reidie 2011-12-28 14:39
What an interesting site , I served my apprenticeship in "Robbs" from 1972 to 1977 approx . It was a great place to serve an apprenticeship although it was very tough and always freezing cold . I have fond memories of my time in Leith docks . :-)
+1 #2 ken robb 2011-02-16 03:36
A wonderfull history lesson. Thanks :-)
-1 #1 Brett Wheeler 2010-12-15 04:13
Served my Apprenticeship with Union Steam Ship co of NZ Ltd, which is now no longer, like all the great companies of ship's of England.
I sailed in many of the Scottish built ships from the Henry Robb yard of Leith. What fine, strong, beautifully built ships the were, with fond memories of all that sailed in them. They stood up well to the hard punishment that the Tasman Sea dished out to them. They were then sold on after 20 years with USSCo, to owners up East, like Manners of Hong Kong, and Maldive Shipping Co; who could spot a good ship when they saw one. One I remember was still trading in Indonesia aged 38 years old!!!

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