Here is where you will find some of the stories from men who worked in the Leith Shipyards of Henry Robb Shipbuilders & Engineers Ltd.
Or Robb's as we all knew it.
If you have a story and you want it included then please feel free to send it in and we shall publish it here.
You can read more stories from the yard on the Blog at the top of the page.
The Marine Fitter Apprenticeship 1941 to 1946
On the 4th of August 1941 I made the journey by tram to work for the first time, leaving home by 7 o’clock in the morning to enter the docks for the first day of my apprenticeship. I wore a new blue boiler suit. Later that same day much effort was taken to cover it in oil and grime better to return to anonymity. What do I remember; the dock gates; a policeman, watching; great respect, awe and fearful of transgression was the reaction of the day to this pillar of authority, what a difference now.
Lourie was right, a column of men rushing through these gates, along the dock side then to the yard gate hell bent to avoid ‘quartering’ by being even one minute late in ‘clocking on’ truly this took on the form of ‘match-stick men’.
I established my presence quite quickly. Ten days after starting for some reason I had to cut a piece of steel plate. In the platers shop there were many large belt drive guillotines constantly in use solely by the ‘platers’ cutting sections of plate for ship construction. During the ’dinner break’ lunch was an unknown word the machines were left running so I picked up a scrap of plate and cut it to size.
Within minutes all the plating shop came to a halt. A strike had been called and I learned the meaning of ‘demarcation’. I was quickly in front of the yard manager to be given a lecture in industrial relations in British Industry as it was in these days.
Schooldays were now very much past. The war was the wireless, newspapers and special editions and a weekly visit to the cinema to see Movitone News.
Vividly comes to mind the cry ‘Extra Extra, read all about it’ then one report 200 enemy shot down.
The work in the yard was wholly the building of naval craft, corvettes and tugs mainly.
Flower Class Corvette
In addition to building ships there was a constant stream of naval vessels in for repair and modification. Churchill had leased 50 World War 1 destroyers from America some of which came to Leith to be commissioned. The war at sea was vividly borne on us when the badly damaged destroyer Cossack came in.
HMS Cossack – Returning to Leith from Narvick
Battle of Narvick
Content to add
To the west of Robb’s yard was a large lagoon protected by a sea wall. Into this stretch of water all vessels were launched
then to be towed round into the harbour of Leith for fitting out. We noticed in the far west corner activity that in time took on the appearance of large concrete buildings except these were in the water. Came days when one would be towed out into the firth. Not until long after D – day did we realise that we had seen being built sections of the Mulberry harbours produced for the invasion of Normandy.
I was attached to a mate, an experienced fitter who took great pains to ensure he taught me his trade. The first shock was a trip to the store to collect a ‘bastard file also male and female pipe ends’. All the counter hands were women !!!!!! Just outside the stores two very fat men worked. They have formed a vivid picture in my memory. To the left were the stores, in front the large doors into the machine shop and to the right exposed to the elements the jolly-faced two mostly sat fashioning copper pipe and sheet into all forms suitable for water and steam systems. They were the Copper Smiths and I was fascinated to see them making these huge copper bends, which would eventually carry seawater and low-pressure steam aboard one of the naval craft under construction. I saw how molten resin could be poured into a pipe then this could be bent without losing its shape. Heating afterwards then removed the resin. The blacksmiths shop was adjacent to the platers shop. Here steam hammers pounded into shape forgings and white-hot iron swiftly taken from charcoal fires would be fused under these hammers to manufacture forged steel components. The boiler shop took plate of many sizes and often by hand hammer alone would be formed and cut. Above the platers was the ‘loft’ a great expanse of wooden floor, polished and clean but for the laths laid out to determine the frames for the construction of a ship on the slips. All work here was full size. To one side was a smaller space here was the pattern shop. Shelves and shelves of past made wooden patterns all ready to go to the foundry when the need arose were neatly stacked and referenced. Around were the woodworking tools. Most memorable was that all this work used yellow pine. Today shipbuilding in the stocks is under cover but then all was in open air, wet or shine, cold or hot, work never stopped. Wooden structures surrounded a hull, scaffolding had yet to be developed. This was the time when ships were still plated and riveted, on these platforms high above the ground riveting gangs worked. The fire would be at ground level. Rivets ringed around the coals all in a heat sequence. By sound only the hottest rivet would be picked from the fire with tongs, then tossed many feet up to the ‘catcher’ to be then entered by the ‘placer’ into the hole in the plate for the ‘backer’ and ‘knocker-up’ to hammer into place. All by hand, no pneumatics at that time, just considerable skill. Once the rivet had cooled it was swabbed with paraffin, if then there was the slightest sign of penetration on the other side the offending rivet would be replaced. Later this knowledge was of great help to me including the winning of a case of champagne in the Congo. Often rivets would be too long, while still red-hot they would be placed partially through the hole for the excess to be removed by a chisel. You can imagine the noise of this activity inside the hull (a ship would be completely plated using bolts before riveting began) yet there were times when out of sight others and I would do our homework inside.
My mate was given the task of assembling a steam rail crane to be used by the yard. Here was a real job, a complete steam engine when finished that would be tested by us. The boiler had to be fitted with a zinc plate, this to inhibit corrosion. It was my job to enter this very small vessel to secure the plate. No problem, I’m inside, tools and material are passed to me, job finished. I could not get out. Eventually after removing all my cloths and plastering myself with grease out I came very scared.
That wasn’t the end of the crane initiation. The time came to raise steam and to test the boiler. I stoked the fire and up went the pressure. The working pressure was passed and the pressure gauge needle rose towards the red mark. Suddenly there was a frightful roar of steam (the safety valve had lifted as intended). I shot of the footplate much to the amusement of my mate.
Our time together soon passed and I was transferred to the machine shop there to be allocated a capstan lathe and required to make thousands of ladder rungs. It was a boring job; a capstan lathe is designed to carry out repetitive work and is very limited when anything else is attempted. I was determined to make a small lathe and this would be entirely from round bar, which was the only raw material suitable for the capstan. As each bit was completed it was scrumptiously hidden and then smuggled out of the docks past a very attentive policeman. I comfort myself in the belief that most of us have some hidden transgressions in our past but I still shudder at the thought of mine.
Fame was mine at last, even if only to myself. The corvette Dianthuses had in the Atlantic intercepted a German submarine, after a prolonged depth charge attack the submarine was forced to surface. The corvette then rammed it three times until it finally sank. This I learned when the captain came to the yard canteen one dinnertime to tell the tail. My pride was that I had made the ladder rungs in his ship. In time I was transferred to a ‘proper’ lathe the work was varied and mostly interesting being no longer repetitive.
About this time through the college works visits were sometimes arranged. We were taken to a machine shop in Edinburgh entirely manned by women. Most were on very repetitive work making pipe flanges. One, like myself was working a center lathe. I suggested to her that she must find this much more interesting than facing flanges. Not a bit of it, she couldn’t get back to that quick enough and why? This job required continuous attention whereas with flanges she could give attention to chat with her mates, mostly about boyfriends and the night before. Lesson never learned, ‘there is more to life than just the job’.
Up to this time I was fairly well behaved but with experience bad habits began to emerge, that is skive when you see a chance. I can’t remember what we had done but as punishment a number of us were instructed to test condenser tubes (these are long brass tubes about 1” bore and 10’ long. Testing was to insert each tube in a holder and inject mains pressure water. It was the middle of winter; before we could start we had to thaw the system out with a naphtha flame gun. This required care to ensure that the preheat coil was sufficiently hot to vaporize the naphtha, if not it became a flame gun. It was fun fooling around with it as a weapon and the inevitable happened. One of us, not me, was drenched in flaming naphtha. Fortunately he had the presence of mind to jump into a tank of water. No harm to him but fright but Jimmy’s (foreman) office window was directly above. He saw the commotion; rushed to the scene; we managed to convince him that it was an accident, just.
By summertime I was now besotted with love for my girlfriend Margaret Taylor. She was still at school therefore had the long holiday and had gone with her parents to North Berwick. I didn’t get home from work until 6 o’clock. One evening, remember during the war we had double summer time and it didn’t get dark until midnight, I decided to cycle to and back from North Berwick, 52 miles in all, to spend an hour with her. When I got there she and her girlfriends decided they didn’t want to know me. However on another occasion I was invited to stay in the holiday home with her. My mum thought that I had been given leave from Robb’s, whereas Robb’s thought I was sick. To be off work required a sick note, which cost money because all visits to a doctor had to be paid for. When I returned to work I explained that Mum was a nurse who had decided that I was unfit for work. I got off but I don’t think I was believed.
I was transferred from the machine shop to the yard. The demands of the war had exceeded the availability of male workers. Women in large numbers were recruited to be ‘chippers and painters’ in the yard. They were the toughest breed you could imagine. Woe betides an apprentice caught alone in an area where they were working. He would be very fortunate if he managed to escape being their plaything and just to lose his pants. One unfortunate was kept captive for a day and emerged a shattered wreck. It was so bad that the apprentices went on strike and demanded protection, which was given by the management.
I was learning about the other side of life.