As part of our interdiscplinary project on Titanic, ten 4th years accompanied by Mrs Mulholland and Mrs Macfadyen, headed for the Titan Crane at Clydebank, to learn more about shipbuilding processes and working conditions. We were worried that the winds would prevent us being able to climb up the crane, but it was much calmer in Clydebank, and after a safety warning, we headed up in the lift.
The first thing that caught everyone’s eyes was the fantastic views from the crane. Despite the weather, we could see for miles in all directions, including downwards as the solid mesh provides excellent and somewhat stomach churning glimpses of the concrete below. However, the views of the Rivers Clyde and Cart, the Erskine Bridge, Glasgow and Lanarkshire were far more interesting, as were the constant planes flying into Glasgow airport.
Not surprisingly, some of the group were a little nervous; others were more fascinated by how the original crane drivers managed to work without any of the essential safety equipment used nowadays. Staff explained that the drivers would often climb up the structure for speed and wandered around on the girders quite fearlessly. The drivers had to climb carrying their lunch and a bucket because they couldn’t come back down until the end of their shift.
The safety discussion started questions about how many people had died from the crane; perhaps surprisingly there are no records of any deaths at all, although, the guide added, that may be because they weren’t recorded. Then the group remembered that people go bungee jumping off the crane and begged for details. Bungee jumpers squeeze through a small door in the mesh fence around the platform and walk around to the end of the crane, a thought which turned most of our group off immediately.
The view allowed the pupils to see how large John Brown’s shipyard had been before it closed, a closure which hit Clydebank as badly as Motherwell was affected by the closure of Ravenscraig. The Titan Crane is the last remaining part of the yard, but was originally only one of several.
Back on land, Titan staff provided some background on the crane. It was built by William Arrol and Co, who also built the giant gantry for Titanic at Harland and Wolff. They showed us a photo of some of the men and boys who built the crane. Like the Titanic, the Titan was held together by rivets. Rivet squads were paid as a team: the heater passed white hot rivets to the boy, who would catch the rivets in a bucket of sand or leather gloves, or even long tongs, and pass them onto the holder-up; the holder-up passed the rivet through a hole in the steel plate for the riveter to batter.
Inside the visitor centre, the staff provided some history of the yard, discussing some of ships built there: the Lusitania, the Queen Mary, and the QE2. The following day was the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania by U-boat during World War I, a reminder that the Titanic wasn’t the only disaster at sea. The team also noted that the shipyards mainly escaped the Clydebank Blitz during World War II, possibly because the bombers mistook rain shining on the long winding Dumbarton Road as the River Clyde.
It was a fascinating visit: we discovered a great deal about the life of a shipbuilder, made some further unexpected ties to Titanic, and found out a lot more about Scottish industry.
Our thanks to the team at the Titan Crane for their warm welcome and for sharing their knowledge.