The Shipyards and Transport :Govan

The Shipyards and Transport : Govan 

Transport has always been an integral part of the production process of shipyards, both for the bringing in of the raw materials and the conveyance of large numbers of shipyard workers.

Although sea transport was used on occasions for certain awkward components – for instance, Eric Blackman, in his autobiography “Airman at the Helm” describes how, at the age of 10 in the 1930’s while on a coastal cruising holiday on a cargo vessel of the Clyde Shipping Company from London Docks to Glasgow, they took onboard two of the four huge propellers for Ship 534 (the Queen Mary) being built at Clydebank where they were discharged. 

More commonly the steel and materials for shipbuilding were brought in by rail, the Govan area shipyards being served by two railway goods yards, at Shieldhall Goods for Alexander Stephens of Linthouse, and the goods yard at Govan Cross for Fairfield’s and Harland and Wolff. All three shipyards (in railway parlance Private Sidings) had direct rail connections from the railway goods yards.

At Harland and Wolff the rail connection crossed Govan Road at right angles through the Govan Goods East Gate adjacent to the Plazza Cinema directly into the shipyard, using Harland and Wolff’s own English Electric battery locomotive of 1936 vintage, or their steam pug.

For Stephens and Fairfield the railway wagons were hauled along Govan Road by the shipyards own locomotives utilising the grooved rails of the City’s tram tracks. 

At Shieldhall the Stephens connection left the railway goods and timber yard some 300 yards to the west of the shipyard (beyond the limits of the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital). Stephens had a Barclay’s steam locomotive built in 1924 and a smaller battery locomotive.

Further into Govan Fairfield operated an English Electric steeple cab electric locomotive which in 1940 replaced the original one from the turn of the Century. Electric current was drawn from the overhead tram wires by an extended tram style bowcollector, and later with twin trolley poles from the trolley bus wires when they replaced the trams in 1958. Use of the tram tracks via the Govan Cross Goods yard west gate by the Fairfield locomotive continued under the trolley bus wires until the later were replaced by motorbuses in 1966. This rail access to Fairfield’s was via their decorative arched East Gate at the angled corner of the building at Elder Street. Old 1930s tramway maps show also another rail access at today’s works main gate opposite the park, but its use in practise is not confirmed, and it is not known whether this entrance had overhead wires. On its withdrawal the Fairfield’s locomotive was presented by the Company to the Scottish Railway Preservation Society and it is preserved at Bow’ness. 

The Vale of Clyde Tramways Act of 1871 provided for the passage of railway vehicles over the Tramway which at the that time ran from Tradeston  through Govan. After trial and error the Tramway set its track gauge at 4ft 7 3/4” to allow the coarser wheels of rail wagons with standard 4ft 8 1/2” to run on their flanges in the tram rails shallow grooves. This set the pattern for the track gauge throughout the rest of Glasgow’s tram network. 

Various types of rail wagon were used for shipyard traffic- mineral wagons for coal and scrap, bogie bolster wagons for long girders etc. And a range of wagons for carrying propellors, plates and boilers.

Plate carrying wagons could carry plates flat up to 8ft wide and up to 51ft long within the railway loading gauge. Some were fitted with trestles to transport loads up to 9ft 6ins wide at an angle. The largest of these – the Trestrol  – was a bogie well wagon with a trestle capable of carrying plates of up to 40 tons and 40ft long and over 13ft wide, often requiring special routing arrangements to avoid particular bridges and tunnels. These huge loads had to be specially loaded and measured for safety, and this was a common occurrence at the Motherwell railway yards for plates from Dalzell Steel Works and girders and channel from the Lanarkshire Works.

These were familiar sites in Govan over the past decades.

Before the days of efficient public street transport, the railway (here the Caledonian Railway Company) carried large numbers of shipyard workers into its station at Govan Cross.

The introduction of the electric tramcar and a city wide tram system had a disastrous effect on this railway traffic, and Govan Cross passenger station finally closed in 1905, though at least one of its platforms remained as a feature in the Goods Yard until the latter closed on 18th April 1966.

The tram car routes along Govan Road were the 4 and 27 from Renfrew to the Springburn area, also the 7 from Millerston which turned off onto a terminus in Craigton Road. At Holmfaud Road next to Stephens Yard,the tram tracks turned off into a spur where short workings and shipyard specials could wait for the shipyard workers’ shifts to end. All three tram services were withdrawn in 1958, and the 4 and 27 being replaced by motorbuses and the 7 by trolleybuses, which were themselves replaced by motorbuses in 1966.

Even after the demise of the trams, their rails were left in situ between Govan Cross and Fairfield’s until 1966 when the trolleybuses were withdrawn and Govan Goods Yard was closed (Shieldhall Goods also closed in the same month, April). Subsequently the shipyards were served only by road transport.

Workers at the Govan Yards could travel from the other side of the river by the Subway and by the Govan vehicular ferry between Water Row and Pointhouse, or the little passenger only ferry at this crossing point. Both types of ferry also crossed between Whiteinch and Linthouse, and a little passenger only ferry plied between Partick at Meadowside Street and McKechnie Street at Govan almost adjacent to Fairfield’s. These ferries all ceased operation after the Clyde Tunnel opened in 1963.