Reflections from British Shipbuilding management

In the 1990s, Anthony Slaven interviewed many shipyard managers, union leaders and local MPs about their experiences. The edited interview transcripts are included in a book called Crossing the Bar: An Oral History of the British Shipbuilding, Ship Repairing and Marine Engine Building in the Age of Decline 1956-1990. We have included some quotes here, to show that there were many different attitudes, even at management level. All the following quotes are published with permission of Professor Hugh Murphy, Series Editor, Research in Maritime History Series, Liverpool University Press.

M. F. Pyman, Managing Director of the Mercantile Dry Dock Company, Jarrow:

“I do not think that nationalisation was necessary for the ship repair in­dustry. I think that when the Labour Party Manifesto writers saw that there were some ship repair yards within shipbuilding yards, they would just chuck in the lot. If you nationalised the car industry, would you chuck in the repair garages? Under nationalisation, we continued as much as it had always done. It was a big change for me as a new boss came in immediately. I was made Mar­keting Director, which I was not all that good at, but I accepted it on the basis that if I did not do it, they would probably get someone else in who was even worse. There was quite a change round of senior personnel.

“Nationalisation gave the advantage of enormous buying power for raw materials we needed, and, theoretically, a great pool of expertise on any sub­ject you might mention. On the other hand, you had to pay for it in overheads. This was payment for often over elaborate structures and offices. The other disadvantage was that nationalisation was a bit of dead hand. You were al­lowed to travel first class everywhere, which was not in my view, necessary.”

Ken Douglas, who held various management positions including Managing Director of Austin & Pickersgill.

“There is no question in my mind that nationalisation was not neces­sary. The industry would have survived and would still be surviving with the cyclical nature of shipbuilding, because whilst we had those wage differentials, in time it would all have adjusted. Where nationalisation missed out was that it had to get into bed with the unions to formulate a policy which was acceptable to both sides and to government. In doing that, when things got rough, they went ahead with a no compulsory redundancy agreement; it had to be volun­tary redundancy. That meant that they played the numbers game. In my final year they came along and said they wanted 700 more redundancies when I had 2300 men. I got applications from 1000 so there was 700 names picked out of the hat, and they got their lump sum payoffs and were out. The other 400 men who remained in the yard were a cancer. They wanted redundancy so they were not working. This was a running sore in the yards. The one thing that British Shipbuilders did right was leave all the yards as limited companies. I think that they committed the cardinal sin of buying things they did not want with money they did not have.”

Eric Crowdy, Managing Director of Leslie Engineers, George Clark NEM and Doxford Engineering.

“I am a great believer in free enterprise. I think it is the one thing that the Tory Party [Conservatives] got right. For two to three years before nation­alisation all the shipyards were thinking of was the best deal they could make under what appeared to be the inevitable. Prior to that, I think it was necessary for some government support; otherwise the reduction of the industry would possibly have been too radical. I am uncertain as to how that should have been administered. Nationalisation, when it came, was a disaster. It could have been much better than it was.”