Shipbuilding - Modern Days
To Maggie's Farm and Beyond
The 1980s were a period of expansion and modernisation but some could see that the one-product company would face hard times.
Link, DDH, The 1980s were a very different time for the Barrow shipyard: under firm direction from the government and the Admiralty, for the first time Barrow specialised in submarines to the exclusion of everything else. Vickers’ workforce grew from 9,500 in 1983 to a peak of 14,300 by the end of theDDH construction, 1980s decade. In an echo of times past, workers from the Clyde were invited to move south and join Vickers, an advert even offered "a job for life”. The Barrow yard had been nationalised along with the other UK shipyards in 1977 and modernisation of many of the shipyards in Britain was overdue. To accommodate the series of Trident submarines a new landmark arose in Barrow.
Devonshire Dock Hall was stated to be "the most advanced naval shipbuilding facility in the world”. The Link Supplement (left), an in-house publication of the shipyard, showed VSEL's planned facility. Much of Devonshire Dock was filled with 2,700,000 tonnes of sand pumped from Roosecote Sands (see right with the infill nearing completion). The hall measured 270 metres long by 70 metres wide. It could hold up to five submarines at the same time and its height of 50 metres allowed it to accommodate the superstructure of a Type 42 destroyer.
DDH opened in 1988 just two years after the nationalised shipyard was bought out by VSEL. In typical Barrow fashion, the Devonshire Dock Hall (or DDH) soon lost its formal title. It was the "Trident Shed” or, in acknowledgement of Mrs Thatcher’s promotion of the Trident programme and in homage to Bob Dylan, "Maggie’s Farm”.
However, it was not all happy families. A strike in 1988 gripped the town, for it involved about 60% of Barrow’s working population. A dispute over VSEL trying to return to the days of a fixed annual fortnight's holiday provoked the majority of shipyard workers to strike. There was real hardship and when work resumed the image of a joint venture between managers and workers was gone. In 1986, 82% of workers owned shares, by December 1988 this had fallen to 23%. Many workers had simply cashed-in, but there was also an opting-out of the idea of the VSEL "family”.
End of the Cold War
It wouldn't be the "end of boom and bust", but the Trident replacement programme would provide a long period of prosperity and stability for the Barrow shipyard.
The 1990s were difficult for the shipyard but also for the town. Throughout the 1980s a trade union lobby had warned of the need for VSEL to diversify, to look beyond Admiralty orders. Now Lord Chalfont, VSEL Chairman, predicted that "nuclear submarine building at Barrow is doomed.” He was wrong, but the "peace dividend” expected with the end of the Cold War was not in Barrow’s favour. By July 1992 the workforce at VSEL was given at 9,500, already a reduction of 5,000 in less than four years.
Fears were expressed that Barrow would become a ghost town. By the year 2000 the workforce numbered between 3,000 and 4,000, depending on immediate contract needs. Ten thousand jobs had gone in a decade, losses which should have grabbed the attention of the national media. The loss of jobs had far-reaching effects. VSEL were heavily criticised for the way redundancies were handled. The first some knew of their fate was to be escorted from their desk or machine and told to leave the works immediately. Many of the skills that left with the workers left for good, so that when new orders were received there was an immediate skills shortage.
The shipyard is now run by BAE Systems Maritime - Submarines and it remains the most important economy in Barrow. However, during the lean years Barrow did not become a "ghost town" and the population barely declined.
Current activity is centered on building and delivering the Royal Navy's 7,800 tonnne Astute Class nuclear submarines (HMS Ambush in 2012 pictured left, of the Astute Class). Modular construction has been taken to a new level with modules up to 320 tonnes being built, pre-tested and end-loaded into the submarine hull. Barrow is expecting more expansion with the Trident replacement programme. In 2008 the Government announced that the UK's four strategic nuclear deterrent subarmines were to be replaced from 2025 onwards. With the concept design to delivery extremely complex, work has started already on Project Successor.