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Vickers
(Shipbuilding)

A true giant in British Shipbuilding
Edward Vickers
When Edward Vickers combined forces with his father-in-law, George Naylor in 1828, he effectively joined a business which was later to bear his name for next 158 years.  Naylor had been a primary partner in Naylor & Sanderson Ltd, a steel foundry at Millsands, near Sheffield and where Edward’s brother also owned a steel rolling operation. 
 
Edward had made some very profitable investments in the developing railway industry and these profits allowed him to take control of the foundry, renaming it a Naylor, Vickers and Company. Under his leadership, they soon acquired a reputation for quality workmanship, producing church bells and bridgework. When in 1854, Vicker’s sons Thomas and Albert joined the business and the company saw huge rapid development.
 
Naylor, Vickers & Co Advertisement
 
During 1863, the company relocated to a site at Brightside in Sheffield alongside the River Don and by 1867 the company went public as Vickers, Sons and Company and began expanding its product capabilities into new areas such as marine shafts and gears. 
 
By 1872, Vickers, Sons & Company had also become the premier manufacturers of marine propellers and within the following 10 years it had set up a forging press which eventually allowed them to produce their first armour plate materials in 1888.  This was quickly followed by their first artillery product in 1890.
 
The company continued to diversify and during the 1890s they purchased The Barrow Shipbuilding Company, as well as its subsidiary Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company.  A new company was formed as Vickers, Sons and Maxim and this gave them a complete naval shipbuilding and armaments capability, something which they had lacked when competing for military orders against with the likes of Armstrongs.
Vickers, Sons and Maxim Barrow Works 1890 Vickers, Sons and Maxim Barrow Works 1890
The yard at Barrow became known as the ‘Naval Construction Yard’ and it was here that in 1901 they produced the Holland 1, the first submarine for the Royal Navy. 
 
Vickers, Sons and Maxim suffered a lack of skilled labour at Barrow just after the turn of the century which was said to be mainly due to a lack of suitable housing. Many workers were said to be living on the SS Alaska which was moored inside the docks and so the company acquired a large plot of land on the adjacent Walney Island to be known as Vickerstown.
 
The first 1,000 houses were completed in 1901 and tenant workers moved in.  Vickerstown still exists today and in 1988 it was declared a conservation area in order to protect the character of the buildings.
 
The rapid expansion continued and in 1902 they acquired a half-share in the Clyde shipyard of John Brown and Company, who were producing warships and merchant vessels, submarines and marine engines.
 
Additional diversification followed which rather strangely included the acquisition of the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company, mainly because it also incorporated the embryonic Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company along with the goodwill and rights of the Siddeley Car Company. The Wolseley business was already under the leadership of the now famous automotive designer Herbert Austin, who had spent his formative years studying engineering in Australia.  Austin left the company shortly after the acquisition by Vickers and went onto form the Austin Motor Company in 1905. It is an indication of the good-natured relationships in the industry at the time however that Herbert Austin still remained as Chairman of the Board of The Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company until 1933. 
 
Despite Austin’s leadership, the company floundered during the opening decades of the 20th century and although Vickers initially placed it into receivership it accepted an offer from William Morris Motors to buy the business.
 
Meanwhile within the shipbuilding industry, in 1911 Vickers took control of Portland Harbour-based Whitehead and Company who was the leading manufacturer of torpedos at the time.
 
1911 was also the year in which the company became Vickers Limited and expanded its operation into the world of aviation (see separate page for ‘Vickers Aviation’).
 
UK shipbuilding was at its peak with 61% of all new vessels being created in UK yards.  World famous ships were being launched almost weekly with the Titanic, Britannic and Olympic elevating the world of luxury crossings to a new high.  Meanwhile in military terms, Vickers were creating the likes of the Empress of India, an Iron-Duke Class battleship launched in November 1913.
 
Battleship (Iron Duke Class) HMS Emperor of India, built at Vickers, Barrow 1913 Battleship (Iron Duke Class) HMS Emperor of India, built at Vickers, Barrow 1913
 
By 1926, the company had become an industrial giant and a re-organisation and restructuring of the business led to the disposal of a number of the constituent companies such as The Metropolitan-Vickers Company (although it retained The Metropolitan Carriage Wagon and Finance Company), The British Lighting and Ignition Company (BLIC) and diesel engine manufacturer Vickers-Petters Limited, together with closing its overseas company known as Canadian Vickers.  It also divested its interests in aero-engine builder William Beardmore & Company, as well as the aforementioned Wolseley Motors.
 
In 1927, the refocused company merged with rival shipbuilder Armstrong Whitworth, a business who had developed along similar lines.  By early 1928 it had created Vickers-Armstrongs, Ltd. 
 
This union cemented the capabilities of the former companies and joined together the Barrow shipyard with the yard at High Walker on the River Tyne.  It also coupled with the Armaments Works at Barrow as with the munitions and military vehicle factory further along the river at Elswick.
Guns destined for HMS Shannon being made at Barrow Works 1905 Guns destined for HMS Shannon being made at Barrow Works 1905
 
The relationship between the Barrow and Newcastle Yards proved to be an uneasy one however, with the lion’s-share of the orders going to Barrow. High Walker was more suited to the building of large ships of up to 1,100 ft and with a scarcity of orders for this size of vessel it suffered a number of temporary closures during the formative years of the new company.
 
Barrow was itself the subject to an intense bombing campaign in April 1941 when the Luftwaffe destroyed 10,000 houses (about 25% of the town) and whilst there were a number of direct hits on the shipyard, the damage was not sufficient to disrupt production.
 
Throughout the war and post-war era, UK shipbuilding was continuing at a pace with several aircraft carriers being built at the Barrow and Walker yards.  In total the company built 4 battleships, 3 armoured cruisers, 53 submarines, 3 auxiliary supply vessels and 61 barges.
HMS Astute HMS Astute (P447) Amphibian Class Submarine 1945
 
Barrow itself became the largest manufacturers of submarines in the UK whilst outside of their shipbuilding expertise Vickers Armstrong acquired businesses in the brewing and bottling industry (GJ Worssam & Sons) as well as lithographic printing machinery and office equipment (Roneo Vickers). Their portfolio of companies and premises expanded to such a point that they were employing
 
In 1950, the company name was revised to Vickers-Armstrongs (Shipbuilders) and despite steel shortages prolonging production times, they secured a number of orders for the production of large tankers such as the 71,000 tonne ‘Serenia’ which was the largest British-built tanker of the time.
 
The company also served the luxury cruise market with the building of the beautiful Ocean Monarch, a 13,000 GRT (Gross Registered Tonnes) - 414 passenger cruise liner for use on the New York- Bermuda route.
 
Her Mayesty Queen Elizabeth II launched HMS Dreadnought (S101) on Trafalgar Day (21st October) 1960 and heralded in intorduction of the first nuclear-powered submarine, built by Vickers Armstrongs, Barrow.
HMS Dreadnought Vickers Armstrong 1960 HMS Dreadnought built by Vickers Armstrong 1960
 
In 1968, the High Walker Yard was sold to Swann Hunter following government pressure after the Geddes Report although Vickers maintained an 18% interest in the facility.
Under the terms of the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act of 1977 saw the entire UK shipbuilding industry subsumed into a public corporation know as British Shipbuilders Corporation with its headquarters in Newcastle. 
 
By 1982 however, the grand plans had faltered and over half of the original shipyards had been closed.  A new act was then invoked (The British Shipbuilders Act 1983) which required the company to privatise those that remained and whilst the warship building sites were sold off, those involved in the production of merchant vessels were simply closed.
 
The yard at Barrow the first to return to private ownership and was sold to an employee led consortium who resurrected its relationship with the Vickers brand by naming the new company as Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Limited.  This also included the Cammel Laird subsidiary at Birkenhead on Merseyside.
 
High Walker meanwhile, returned to Swan Hunter although it was no longer building ships rather than operating as an outfitting centre and administrative offices.
 
During the late 1980s and early 1990s whilst under the VSEL banner, Barrow continued to build submarines and warships for both the Royal Navy and multiple navies around the world. 
 
In 1995, and after appraisal by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, VSEL was purchased by GEC and became part of its GEC – Marconi Marine and Marconi Electronic Systems business.
 
By 1988, GEC were facing considerable pressure to participate in a consolidation of the defence industry and when they put Marconi Electronic Systems up for sale it resulted in the company joining with British Aerospace to form BAE Systems on 30th November 1999.  It should be noted that at this poing Vickers Plc was acquired by Rolls-Royce who subsequently sold the defence arm to Alvis Plc (known as Alvis Vickers).  This remained until 2004 when Alvis Vickers was acqured by BAE Systems.
 
Meanwhile, and following the 1999 amaolgamation, the shipbuilding interest was initially known as BAE Systems Marine before splitting in 2003 into two companies: BAE Systems Submarines and BAE Systems Naval Ships. Whilst the next 15 years has bought a degree of stability to the shipyard operations, a number of name changes and mergers have occurred.
 
These started with the merger with VT Shipbuilding (formerly Vosper Thornycroft) in 2008, to become a BAE Systems / VT Group venture company known as BVT Surface Fleet. This merger included the shipyards at Govan and at Scotstoun on the River Clyde in Glasgow plus the VT Shipbuilding facilities with the various Royal Navy Dockyards.  BAE Systems subsequently acquired the VT Group shares in October 2009 and renamed the whole business as simply BAE Systems Surface Ships Ltd.
 
On 1st January 2011, BAE Systems Surface Ships was further re-integrated with BAE Systems Submarine Solutions to form 2 entities: BAE Systems Maritime – Naval Ships and BAE Systems Maritime - Maritime Services, under which titles today both continue to build the finest marine vessels above and below the surface of the water.
 

Genealogy

1828      Naylor, Vickers & Company                                              
1867 Vickers, Sons & Company
1897 Vickers, Sons & Maxim
1911 Vickers Limited Shipbuilding Group
1928 Vickers Armstongs Limited
1955 Vickers Armstrongs Shipbuilders
1968 BVT Surface Ships Limited
1977 British Shipbuilders Corporation
1986 Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Limited (V.S.E.L)
1995 GEC Marconi Marine
1999 BAE Systems Marine
2003 BAE Systems Submarines / BAE Systems Naval Ships
2011 BAE Systems Maritime

 

More information

National Maritime Museum - Greenwich, London www.nmmc.co.uk
National Maritime Museum - Falmouth, Cornwall www.nmmc.co.uk
National Museum of the Royal Navy - Portsmouth, Hampshire www.historicdockyard.org.uk