TAMH: Source Material
Arbroath Harbour 1895-6 from Arbroath Year Book, 1896 - 1| 2| 3| 4| 5| 6| 7

Annual 1985

David G. Adams Reviews the Heyday of


Sights and Scenes of the Industry

Picture inset: The steam-powered vessel in the foreground the 'Atalanta' which was used locally as a tug, is obviously of much later vintage than the sailing craft to which this article refers, but the berthed schooner typifies the size of craft commonly handled at Arbroath Harbour until the latter portion of the 19th century and even later. Picture courtesy Signal Tower Museum

Anyone wishing to picture the busy scene of the mid-19th century need only take a look at the two boatyards active today, since the building methods with the exceptions of some power tools, and the materials are identical and only the larger barques and ships were larger than the present day fishing boats.

The vast bulk of vessels, such as sloops, schooners and brigs were only 50 to 80 feet long but less beamy or tub-like. The keel stem and stern-posts and the ribs were and are made of oak. the ribs are now cut with a bandsaw and finished with the adze, the distinctive shipcarpenter's tool with a history as old as the origins of wooden shipbuilding. These implements were once used with axes as almost the only tools for shaping the timbers.

The hull planking was and is of larch, caulked with oakum, an oiled hemp fibre, which is laboriously hammered into the seams and sealed with pitch, (nowadays a special underwater composition), the deck planking could be of teak or pine also caulked with oakum and pitch.

Alexander Stephen is credited with being the first to introduce steamdriven circular saws to cut planking, before that and into the later 19th century, logs had been cut into planks in sawpits which were six to eight feet long and about six feet deep. Men worked in pairs, one in the pit, one standing above, pulling and pushing huge ripsaws. The sawyers were often self-employed, taking on contracts with builders and moving when the contract was completed. They had to be great, brawny men with enormous stamina. Understandably, they liked to go on a drinking spree for a day or two on completion of a contract.

From the 1770's to the early 19th century, not only mariners but shipcarpenters, valued because of their skills, could be seized by the naval press gangs, although exemption certificates could be purchased.

Once in the 1830's. the press gang, having made a thorough search of Stephen's yard and having found no-one, moved on. Alexander Stephen then went over the steaming-box where his men had hidden and exclaimed: "Ye can come out now, lads!" and they emerged little the worse for wear.

Launchings always attracted large crowds. In 1852 the ship Elizabeth built by Stephen's for Crockat and Fisher of Dundee was, at about 500 tons and 168 feet long, by far the largest vessel built up to that time, twice the average of other vessels. It was inspected by 2000 people before being taken to Dundee for its maiden voyage. She was the first large passenger ship to leave Dundee with emigrants to Australia and carried 200 passengers and crew.

In 1856 when the largest vessel ever to be built in Arbroath, the ship Neville, of about 800 tons and 200 feet in length was launched, the scene was said to have been one of the grandest spectacles ever. Between 2 and 3 o'clock in the afternoon the crowds were described as having had the appearance of an ancient forum. A flute band was present and a dinner party and ball then took place on board until short of midnight, it being on a Saturday. Usually the schools 'skailed', as the dominies were as anxious as the children to see the launch. It was customary for boys to be allowed on deck with the builders' men to return a cheer to those on land when the vessel hit the water, but in 1863 the barque Elmgrove fell on her starboard side, wobbled and righted itself before capsizing with 30 men and boys aboard. All managed to scramble on top or swim to safety, only one boy slightly injured by a chain. The owner, Captain Cargill of Liverpool, had also been aboard. After this, boys were banned from vessels at launchings although, of course, a few managed to sneak aboard.

It was also customary for the shipcarpenters to treat the launch day and the day after as a holiday. So, many colourful waterside scenes and customs disappeared about 100 years ago, even boatbuilding seems to have ceased early this century only to recommence from 1955, reviving something of the skills, scenes and traditions of the heyday of Arbroath's Maritime past.