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Muck and Brass:

Shipbreaking at Preston, Barrow and Morecambe

17 November 2001 - 14 April 2002

Please note that this exhibition has now closed

Muck & Brass tells the remarkable tale of Britain's first major recycling industry - shipbreaking.

The exhibition takes its title from the old saying, 'Where there's muck, there's brass', reflecting the once lucrative nature of the industry and its importance to local economies.

The hundreds of men working at Lancashire's shipbreaking yards risked life and limb to deconstruct imposing vessels, from paddle steamers and liners to submarines and 20,000 ton warships.

Thomas W Ward Ltd of Sheffield opened its ship dismantling department in 1894, with yards in Barrow, Preston and later in Morecambe. It became the first major supplier of scrap metal to the growing steel and industrial manufacturers.

Everything on board would be recycled to maximise profit. The process was extremely efficient with ferrous and non-ferrous metals sold separately. Fittings and equipment would be traded at Ward's showroom in Sheffield. Books, lamps, toilet bowls, surgical items, carpets were all dismantled - even the timber was turned into garden furniture by the yard's joiners!

The vessels were kept afloat for as long as possible while they were stripped of their engines and motors. As a ship became lighter it would be towed further inshore until the hull would be broken on the shore or river bed at low tide.

Breaking castings and forgings

Breaking castings and forgings

Far from being environmentally friendly, shipbreaking was extremely hazardous, causing explosions, smoke, intolerable noise and attracting vermin.

The workers' wages were low and conditions were appalling. In the early years, the task depended on heavy manual labour and explosives. Later, oxygen and acetylene cutters were introduced, which were less taxing physically but just as dangerous.

The lead-paint from the ships let off poisonous fumes causing stomach ulcers and many workers suffered from the 'shakes'. Milk and other ineffective liquid remedies were prescribed. Asbestos was another risk and respirators were introduced in 1965.

A burner working on ship with cutting torch and sledgehammer

A burner working on ship with cutting torch and sledgehammer

Limbs and fingers were often trapped or severed by machinery or heavy falling objects. Men fell from the quaysides, jetties and ships as they undertook awkward tasks. The weight of the ships' parts had been known to topple cranes, causing the death of one worker in Preston in the 1950s. Broken bones or the loss of an eye or limb were accepted as occupational hazards.

In Morecambe, residents objected to TW Ward's yard because it interfered with the 'beautification' of the waterfront and the aspiration to develop it as a tourist town.

However, the ships were always a source of interest to Morecambe's visitors and Ward's were extremely reluctant to withdraw from the resort. Between 1921 and 1928 more than 419,000 people paid to view the ships, generating an extra 10,000 and benefiting the local economy!

White Star liner Majestic at Morecambe beach

White Star liner Majestic at Morecambe beach

Ward's were great self-publicists and made the most of vessels with interesting features and histories to increase their visitor appeal.
These included:

  • Ernest Bazin, an experimental ship fitted with rollers to minimise seasickness. A complete failure, she was broken up four years after she was launched.
  • The White Star liner, Adriatic, whose sprung dance floor became a feature of Preston's Adriatic 'A-D' ballroom.
  • The cruiser, HMS Glasgow, known for its part in the destruction of Admiral von Spee's German raiding squadron in 1914.
  • Largs Bay, the ship hired for the filming of the 1958 Titanic disaster movie, 'A Night to Remember'.
  • The submarine HMS Explorer, designed to test the secret German hydrogen Peroxide fuel system in WWII. Her periscope later became a working exhibit in Barrow's Periscope pub.

Following a post-war boom period, in which many warships were destroyed, the shipping industry declined as foreign competition grew and the demand for scrap fell. Ward's shipbreaking operations in the North West finally ended in 1972.

Today, large-scale shipbreaking is undertaken in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Far East where the poor working conditions and environmental hazards remain.

The Muck and Brass exhibition consisted of text and photographic panels, plus a small number of artefacts, including an acetylene cutter which visitors could handle.

Muck and Brass was created by Lancaster Maritime Museum, The Dock Museum in Barrow-in-Furness and the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston. It was part grant-aided by North West Museum Service.