Shipbuilding - Wartimes
War work had a major impact on Barrow in the first half of the twentieth century, from creating a hugely-inflated population of 85,000 in the First World War, vastly increased production and but also the lows of adjustment in the inter-war period.
By the time the First World War started, in 1914, Barrow was definitively a shipyard town and not a steel town. By 1914 there were 17,250 employees, greatly aided by the expansion in the Royal Navy. During this period warships built at Barrow included the Amphitrite, Vengeance, Mikasa (Japan), Hogue, Euryalus, King Alfred, Triumph, Dominion, Natal, Katori (Japan), Rurik (Russia), Sao Paolo (Brazil), Vanguard and Liverpool. But, as with most of the yard's history, the engineering side was more dominant as the "ships" personnel remained static at about 6,000 workers.Mary Smith during WWII
During the First World War thousands of girls came to Barrow to work at Vickers producing munitions. There was a severe housing shortage and shift work allowed lodgers to share rooms and beds. Eventually the Barrow works produced 6.8m shells and 8.7 million forgings and partly completed shells.
In addition to producing millions of shells, Barrow made a major contribution to the First World War building 35 warships, 132 submarines and 12 merchant ships converted to armed escorts.
But, as with the rest of the UK, Barrow suffered from a serious depression after the war. Thousands were laid off and it was said that "birds nested in the cranes”. However, their charismatic general manager, Charles Craven won some crucial contracts for the yard which kept it going. Again, it was a war that transformed the shipyard with Barrow's yard contributing during the Second World War: two aircraft carriers, two cruisers, an aircraft repair ship, 12 destroyers, 112 submarines and 35 transport vessels of various types. At the peak of building, a submarine was being completed every two weeks.
Women, once more, were brought into the workforce during the Second World War to help with production.
"We were thrown in and this young man who was hotting rivets on the fire he showed me how to do it. I was a bit conscientious with my job, I wanted to do the job properly, you know, which we all did. So if I worked hard I made money for the riveter. They called it piece work." Mary Smith (pictured right)
To read more about the Second World War in Barrow click on this link.
A New Direction
Being in the vanguard of experimentation after the Second World War period paid big dividends for the shipyard.
HMS Hermes at seaThere was no worldwide depression following the Second World War as with the First World War, instead increasing prosperity led the Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan to state that the country "had never had it so good.” The Barrow shipyard enjoyed a full order book in the 1950s with tankers, liners, destroyers and submarines being launched from the slipways. Dreadnought, keel laying, Prince Philip Even HMS Hermes, an aircraft carrier first laid down in 1944 and had languished on the stocks for years finally left for active service in 1959 (see left).
One of the turning points for Vickers Armstrongs was the Admiarlty's decision to select the Barrow shipyard as as the base for research and development into HTP (High Test Peroxide). When the US Navy announced its programme of nuclear propulsion using pressurised water reactors HTP was at once outdated.
However, the reputation built up by the Barrow works during the Explorer Class programme provided unique advantages to Vickers when the Admiralty decided to start an equivalent UK-based programme. In 1959 the keel of Britain’s first nuclear-powered submarine, Dreadnought, was laid (with the Duke of Edinburgh presiding over the ceremony, see right) and within a year Dreadnought had been launched by HM The Queen.
Good times at Vickers meant good times for local shops, healthier attendances at Barrow rugby and football clubs; difficult times muffled the buzz of the town centre. Perhaps the clearest sign of how much Barrow relied on the yard came when it shut down for the annual fortnight’s holiday. Many families left for seaside resorts or the Lake District, a few were beginning to venture overseas.