Maritime Tales - Cammell Laird’s Finest

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illustration of a busy port scene

The Laird shipyard in around 1840

In the 1970s as a news reporter I, Stephen Guy, attended a ship naming ceremony at the Cammell Laird shipyard. What I remember most was the memorable meal that followed!

The Laird family of Birkenhead built their first iron ship – the paddle steamer Lady Lansdowne – in 1833, heralding a long and illustrious history of shipbuilding on the Wirral. Lairds - later Cammell Lairds - was one of the most famous names in British shipbuilding during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many innovative vessels were launched from its shipyard - originally in the Wallasey Pool but from 1857 at the Birkenhead site it occupied for the rest of its existence.

Scotsman John Laird (1805 – 1874), son of company founder William Laird, was described as “the Father of Birkenhead”. John retired in 1861 and became the first MP for Birkenhead. As chairman of the Birkenhead Improvement Commission, he was influential in the design of the town. John’s three sons William, John and Henry took over the business. Sailing vessels and steamships of all types continued to be built. Laird Brothers merged with Sheffield steel manufacturers Charles Cammell & Co in 1903. Under the new name of Cammell Laird & Co the shipyard continued to grow.

The two world wars brought unprecedented demand for new warships and repair work. Cammell Laird responded in exemplary fashion. In the Second World War an astonishing 106 warships – an average of one every 20 days – were built. More successes followed. In 1956 the 30,000-ton ore carrier Leader was the largest of her type in the world. Three years later the Auris was the first petroleum tanker powered by gas turbines. Also launched in 1959 was the Windsor Castle, at 36,277 tons the largest passenger liner built by the company.

These are just some of the firsts scored by this hugely-successful company which later became the victim of changing times. The last ship to be built at the yard was HMS Unicorn in 1993.

Displays at Merseyside Maritime Museum chronicle the remarkable story of Cammell Laird’s with photographs, ship models and exhibits. Its first iron ship Lady Lansdowne worked as a pleasure steamer on Lough Derg and the River Shannon in Ireland. She sank at her moorings and in 1967 the wreck was identified. On display is a porthole, glass bottle and a metal bar from the wreck. Other ship models include the seventh HMS Liverpool, a Type 42 destroyer built in 1980 and still in service. 

Wirral Archives holds many Cammel Laird related records. You can find out what they hold on our main site.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.