John Brown & Company

From SpottingWorld, the Hub for the SpottingWorld network...
John Brown & Company
Former type Public
Industry Shipbuilding
Fate Acquired
Successor Shipyard sold to Marathon Oil, 1972
John Brown Engineering acquired by Trafalgar House, 1986
Founded 1851
Defunct 1986
Headquarters Clydebank, UK
Products Naval ships
Merchant ships
Marine engines
Parent John Brown & Company
Subsidiaries Coventry Ordnance Works
Markham & Co.

John Brown and Company of Clydebank, West Dunbartonshire, Scotland, was a pre-eminent marine engineering and shipbuilding firm, responsible for building many notable and world-famous ships, such as the RMS Lusitania, the HMS Hood, the HMS Repulse, the RMS Queen Mary, the RMS Queen Elizabeth, and the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 (often referred to as the QE2). At their height, from 1900 to the 1950s, they were one of the most highly regarded, and internationally famous, shipbuilding companies in the world.[1] However after that time, along with other UK shipbuilders, they found it increasingly difficult to compete with the emerging shipyards in Eastern Europe and the far East.

In 1968, they merged with other Clydeside shipyards to form the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders consortium, but that collapsed in 1971. John Brown and Company ceased its involvement with shipbuilding. The engineering wing of the company continued successfully and was eventually bought out by Trafalgar House in 1986. It continued to operate as a wholly owned subsidiary of Trafalgar House until 1996, when Trafalgar House was acquired by Kvaerner. The Clydebank shipyard was purchased initially by Marathon Oil, and subsequently in 1980 by UiE Scotland (part of the French Bouygues group), and was used for the construction of oil rig platforms for the North Sea oil industry until finally being closed down in 2001.



The shipyard

SS Bothnia, launched in 1874

The shipyard was founded by J&G Thomson, an engineering and shipbuilding company started by two brothers - James and George Thomson - who had worked for the famous engineer Robert Napier. The Thomson brothers established the "Clyde Bank Foundry" in Anderston in 1847. In 1851 they opened a shipyard - the Clyde Bank Iron Shipyard - at Cessnock, launching their first ship, the SS Jackal, in 1852. They quickly established a reputation in building prestigious passenger ships, building the SS Jura for Cunard in 1854 and the record breaking SS Russia in 1867.[2]

By the start of the 1870s, the original brothers had retired from the business, which was now being run by the sons of the elder brother, also called James and George Thomson. Faced with the compulsory purchase of their shipyard by the Clyde Navigation Trust (which was running out of space for commercial quays to handle the growing trade and industry in Glasgow), they set up a new "Clyde Bank Iron Shipyard" further down river at the Barns o' Clyde, near the village of Dalmuir, in 1871. This location at the confluence of the tributary River Cart with the River Clyde, at Newshot Island, allowed very large ships to be launched. Despite intermittent financial difficulties the company developed a reputation based on engineering quality and innovation. They soon moved their iron foundry and engineering works to the same location. The rapid expansion of the shipyard and its ancillary works, and the construction of housing for the workers, resulted in the formation of a new town which took its name from the name of the shipyard which had given birth to it - Clydebank.[2]

John Brown & Company, a Sheffield-based steel-manufacturer took over J&G Thomson's Clydebank yard in 1899.[2]

John Brown & Company

John Brown was born in Sheffield, in 1816, the son of a slater. At the age of 14, unwilling to follow his father's plans for him to become a draper, he obtained a position as an apprentice with Earle Horton & Co. The company subsequently entered the steel business, and at the age of 21, John Brown obtained a bank loan to enable him to become the company's sales agent. He was so successful, he made enough money to set up his own business, the Atlas Steel Works.[3]

In 1848, Brown developed and patented the conical spring buffer for trains carriages, which was extremely successful. With a growing reputation and fortune, he moved to a larger site in 1856. He began to manufacture his own iron from iron ore, rather than buying it in, and in 1858 adopted the Bessemer process for producing steel. These moves all proved successful and lucrative, and in 1861 he started supplying steel rails to the rapidly expanding railway industry.[3]

His next move was to examine the French "iron cladding" used on its warships. He decided that he could do better, and built a steel rolling mill which, in 1863, was the first to roll 12 inch armour plate for warships. By 1867, his iron cladding was being used on the majority of British warships. By then, his workforce had grown to over 4,000, and the annual turnover in the company was almost £1 million.[3]

Despite this success, however, Brown was finding it increasingly difficult working with the two partners and shareholders he took into the company in 1859. William Bragge was an engineer, and John Devonshire Ellis came from a family of successful brass founders in Birmingham. As well contributing a patented design for creating compound iron plate faced with steel, Ellis brought with him his expertise and ability in running a large company. Together, the three partners created John Brown & Company, a limited company. Brown resigned from the company in 1871. In the years that followed, he started several new business ventures, all of which failed, and he died, impoverished, in 1896, at the age of 80.[3]

The company he set up with his partners, however, John Brown & Company, continued steadily under the management of Ellis and his two sons (Charles Ellis and William Henry Ellis). In 1899 it bought the Clydebank shipyard from J & G Thomson, and embarked on a new phase in its history, as a shipbuilder.[3]

John Brown & Company, shipbuilders

In the early 1900s, the company innovated marine engineering technology through the development of the Brown-Curtis turbine, which had been originally developed and patented by the U.S. company International Curtis Marine Turbine Co. The performance of these engines impressed the Royal Navy which, as a consequence, placed orders for many of its major warships with John Brown. The first notable order was for the battlecruiser HMS Invincible, followed by the battlecruisers HMAS Australia, HMS Tiger and the battleship HMS Barham.

They also became the shipbuilders of choice for the Cunard Line, building their flagship liners: the RMS Lusitania and RMS Aquitania. The company also established the Coventry Ordnance Works joint venture with Yarrow Shipbuilders and others in 1905. In 1909, the company also bought a stake in Sociedad Española de Construcción Naval.

World War I

By the early 1900s the Clydebank works had expanded to cover 80 acres spread along Dumbarton Road, consisting of the East and West yards, which were separated by a fitting out basin, where once launched the hulls are fitted out using the services of two cranes each capable of lifting 150 tons. The east yard contained five building slips, each of which was capable of accommodating the construction of the largest battleship, with one slip capable of constructing a ship of over 900 ft. The west yard was used for the construction of smaller ships such as destroyers.

Associated with the shipyard was the engine works where the company built not only turbines and boilers for its own ships but also for other companies.

Except for a brief period in 1917 the works manager throughout the entire war period was Thomas Bell, who was knighted in 1918 for his efforts.[4] Despite being an essential industry the works had difficulty obtaining suitable workers to constrcut all the ships on their order books. In an attempt address this issue woman were employed in a number of areas, under a scheme called “dilution” whereby it was agreed with the unions that once the war ended the women would give their jobs. Throughout the war the company employed on average 10,000 workers at its Clydebank works divided between 7000 in the shipyard and 3000 in the engine works.[5] Of these in January 1918, 87 were woman.

To increase productively the company throughout the 1914-18 period continually invested in new facilities and tools. In 1915 it introduced pneumatic riveting which need only one riveter whereas previously two had been required.

During the war the company was almost exclusively occupied with the manufacture of warships which with the exception of the battlecruisers Repulse and Hood were concentrated on the building of destroyers. By the end of the war it had produced more destroyers than any other British shipyard and set records for their construction with HMS Simoon taking 7 months from keel laying to departure, HMS Scythe 6 months and HMS Scotsman 5.5 months.[6] The company estimated that during the entire war period it produced a total of 205,430 tons of shipping and 1,720,000 hp of machinery.[7]

Between the wars

File:Queen Elizabeth Construction.jpg
RMS Queen Elizabeth on the slipway at Clydebank, circa 1938.

The end of World War I, and the subsequent famine of naval orders hit British shipbuilding extremely hard, and John Brown only just survived. Three great ships saved the yard. They were the RMS Empress of Britain and the giant Cunard White Star Liners: the RMS Queen Mary and the RMS Queen Elizabeth.

World War II and after

HMS Indefatigable is launched, December 1942.

The yard made a valuable contribution to the war effort, building and repairing many battleships. The immediate post war period saw a severe reduction in warship orders which was balanced by a prolonged boom in merchant shipbuilding to replace tonnage lost during the war, the most notable vessels constructed during this period were the RMS Caronia and the royal yacht HMY Britannia. By the end of the 1950s, however, the rise of other shipbuilding nations in Europe, Korea and Japan, newly recapitalised and highly productive, using new methods such as Modular design, made many British yards, which had continued to use outmoded working practices and largely obsolete equipment, uncompetitive. At Clydebank, the management pursued a strategy of tendering for a series of break-even contracts, most notably the MS Kungsholm liner, in the hope of weathering the storm and maintaining production in anticipation of a new high-profile contract from Cunard for a new liner, but due to rising costs and inflationary pressures, the company suffered major and unsustainable losses as a result. By the mid 1960s, John Brown & Co's management, warned that its shipyard was uneconomic and potentially faced closure. The last order for the Royal Navy came in the form of the Fearless class landing platform dock, HMS Intrepid, which was launched in 1964 before undergoing trials and commissioning in 1967.

The last passenger liner order eventually came from Cunard with RMS Queen Elizabeth 2, but in 1968 the yard merged into Upper Clyde Shipbuilders,[8] which collapsed in 1971.[9] The last true ship to be built at the yard, the bulk grain carrier, MV Alisa, was completed in 1972. The Clydebank shipyard continued to operate from 1972 under the ownership of Marathon Oil and then UiE Scotland (part of the French Bouygues group) from 1980 until 2001, constructing oil platforms in support of the North Sea oil fields.[10]

The commercially successful John Brown Engineering division of the company, which manufactured pipelines and industrial gas turbines and included other subsidiaries like Markham & Co., continued to trade independently until 1986, when it was acquired by Trafalgar House, who also owned the Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Company.[11]

In 1996 Trafalgar House itself was purchased by Kvaerner.[12] It later was split, with Kvaerner retaining some assets, which became Kvaerner Energy, and Yukos obtaining John Brown Hydrocarbons and Davy Process Technology, both based in London.[13] In 2000 Kvaerner Energy closed its gas turbine manufacturing in Clydebank with the loss of 200 jobs, finally ending the link between John Brown and Clydebank, with the site demolished in 2002. John Brown Hydrocarbons was sold to CB&I in 2003 and renamed CB&I John Brown, and later CB&I UK Limited.[14] A new Gas Turbine servicing and maintenance company formed by former management headed by Mr. Duncan Wilson and engineers from John Brown Engineering, named John Brown Engineering Gas Turbines Ltd has also been re-established in East Kilbride in 2001.

Regeneration of the Clydebank site

File:HMY Britannia.jpg
HMY Britannia at pierhead on the River Mersey, Liverpool.

A comprehensive regeneration plan for the site is currently being implemented by West Dunbartonshire Council and Scottish Enterprise. The masterplan is based around making the Clydebank waterfront more accessible to the public, and the plans include; restoration of the historic Titan Crane originally built by Sir William Arrol & Co. for the Clyde shipyard,[15] the construction of a new campus for Clydebank College which opened in August 8, improved infrastructure, modern offices and a light industrial estate, and new housing, retail and leisure facilities. It was hoped that the Queen Elizabeth 2 would have been brought back to the city and the river of her birth as part of the plan. On 18 June 2007 the Cunard Line announced that the ship would be sold to Dubai as a floating hotel.[16]

Ships built by John Brown & Company

See: List of ships built by John Brown & Company


  1. "John Brown and Company, Clydebank, Scotland UK". Ships and Harbours. Retrieved 7 February 2010. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Hood, John (1988). The History of Clydebank. The Parthenon Publishing Group Ltd. pp. 3–5. ISBN 1850701474. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 "JOHN BROWN PLC -- Company History". International Directory of Company Histories. Volume 1. St James Press. 1988. 
  4. Johnston. Page 116.
  5. Johnston. Page 97.
  6. Johnston. Page 111.
  7. Johnston. Page 111.
  8. Government's shipbuilding crisis BBC News, 1 January 2002
  9. Parliamentary debates Hansard, 4 June 1971
  10. Clyde Waterfront Heritage: John Brown Shipyard
  11. Trafalgar to buy John Brown New York Times, 8 May 1986
  12. Kvaerner buys Trafalgar for £904m deal The Independent, 5 March 1996
  13. The external investments of Yukos APS Review, 6 September 2004
  14. CB&I acquires John Brown Hydrocarbons Businesswire, 2 June 2003
  15. "History". Titan Clydebank. Retrieved 2010-03-21. 
  16. "QE2 Today". Chris' Cunard Page. 

Further reading

  • Johnston, Ian (2009). Jordan, John. ed. A Shipyard at war : John Brown & Co. Ltd, Clydebank, 1914-18. Warship 2009. London: Conway. pp. 96–116. ISBN 978-1-84486-089-0. 

See also

External links

Coordinates: 55°53′52″N 4°24′16″W / 55.897786°N 4.404423°W / 55.897786; -4.404423

de:John Brown & Company fr:John Brown & Company nl:John Brown & Company ja:ジョン・ブラウン・アンド・カンパニー