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Last Updated: Monday, 5 March 2007, 22:19 GMT
History of a shipbuilding family
By Karin Goodwin
BBC Scotland news website

It started more than 100 years ago when the four Ferguson brothers - Peter, Daniel, Louts and Robert - decided to go it alone.

Shipyard worker - generic
Ferguson's bosses insist the yard has a future

In March 1903 Ferguson Shipbuilders leased the Newark Shipyard in Port Glasgow for 500 a year and secured their first order for two steam tugs.

They had launched themselves successfully as part of Glasgow's buzzing shipbuilding industry.

A century later the company is facing an uncertain future.

It has been claimed that up to 99 of the remaining 126-strong Ferguson staff are to be made redundant.

The company insists the yard is staying open.

However, Jim Moohan, chairman of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, believes that unless the Scottish Executive awards it a major 14m contract for a fisheries protection vessel, the yard will close within the year.

Whatever happens, the latest redundancies will be a bitter blow for a once bustling yard, which has launched more than 300 ships since it opened for business.

As the Clyde - once a vibrant hive of frenetic activity, reverberating with the sound of riveting and billowing with smoke - gradually fell quiet, Ferguson Shipbuilders fought against the gradual decline of Scottish shipbuilding.

There are now no other merchant yards open on the lower Clyde. BAE Systems is the only other firm operating on the Glasgow waterway.

It was a close knit company, it tended to be brothers, or uncles, or cousins that worked there and they would recommend others
Vincent Gillen
McLean Museum

One of the smaller yards, its status as a family firm has been both a blessing and a curse, allowing it to swing between periods of phenomenal successes and intense anxiety, according to Vincent Gillen of the McLean Museum, Greenock.

"It was a family employer and as such was more susceptible to changes in the market place," he said.

Although it did not pull in the big orders achieved by larger companies, there were many advantages.

"It was a close knit company - it tended to be brothers, or uncles, or cousins that worked there and they would recommend others," said Mr Gillen.

"It used to be that the nature of shipbuilding was you would go where the work was, but in a smaller yard I would think there would be a greater pull to stay, a loyalty to the people you were working alongside.

"Because it was a small company it was forced to specialise. It started making dredgers and then expanded into small ferries and so on. It faced many pressures over the years so they had to develop other skills."

The company has passed through many hands since it was set up by the band of brothers.

Closure threats

After the death of Bobby Ferguson in 1954, the company was sold to Lithgow's Ltd, and in 1969 became part of the Scott Lithgow Group.

In 1980 the yard amalgamated with the Ailsa yard at Troon, forming Ferguson-Ailsa within British Shipbuilders, and nine years later was sold to the Greenock engineers Clark Kincaid, becoming part of the HLD Group.

The management board has been through many transformations, but the old ethos has remained. Many believe its good management has allowed it to weather the shipbuilding storms, avoiding previous closure threats.

A hundred years ago the river would have been a hive of activity and the din of the riveting deafening
Michael Moss
Glasgow University

The most recent came two years ago when it lost a vital contract to a Polish rival, laying off 34 temporary workers.

Although a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry contract later offered a lifeline, there are currently no new orders on the books.

"It's really sad, but in some ways there seems to be a relentless inevitability about it," said Mr Gillen.

"It's part of strong heritage and tradition - there's a real pride in having it in the town. In a small town like Port Glasgow everyone knows someone who works there.

"We've seen it go from thousands to hundreds and there is a certain amount of resignation about this announcement."

International equality

But for Professor Michael Moss, of Glasgow University, the prognosis is not so bleak.

He believes that the yard could take on design or repair work, and claims there will eventually come a time when the international economy has been equalised and shipbuilding may return to the Clyde.

"A hundred years ago the river would have been a hive of activity and the din of the riveting deafening," he said.

"Now Ferguson is the only merchant yard left, which is very sad. But I don't think it's true to say that it's inevitable that no ships will ever be built here again. I suspect that one day the industry may re-emerge."


SEE ALSO
Shipyard workers in crisis talks
05 Mar 07 |  Glasgow and West

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