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Scottish Maritime Museum’s New Exhibition Uncovers the Social Life of the Shipyard Worker

The Scottish Maritime Museum dives below the grit and grind of shipbuilding to reveal the social life which helped maintain morale in the shipyards in the Summer Exhibition which opens on Saturday 8 June.

‘Shipyard Social’, which goes on show in the Linthouse on Irvine Harbourside, explores the social side of life in the shipyards of Glasgow, Clydebank and Dumbarton between the 1930s and the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-in of 1971 – 1973.​

Looking close to home, the exhibition draws on the social life at two shipyards – Alexander Stephen & Sons of Govan and the world-famous William Denny & Sons.

Today, Alexander Stephen & Sons’ Linthouse Engine Shed houses the Museum in Irvine and the site of the former Denny shipyard is home to the Museum’s collection in Dumbarton.

Exhibition highlights drawn from the Museum’s recognised collection of shipbuilding artefacts include the ‘Denny Arkivz’.

Created by the Drawing Office staff at the Denny shipyard, this large scrapbook charts social events enjoyed by staff working there from 1889 to around 1950.

Launch day was a special day in the shipyard calendar. A special display of rare tickets, beautiful brochures and photographs, marks the centenary of the launch of one of the world’s most famous liners, RMS Queen Mary, at John Brown & Company.

The exhibition also showcases a collection of exquisite ‘night out’ dresses from the 1950s, generously loaned by Dalgarven Mill Museum of Country Life & Costume.

Eva Bukowska, Exhibitions and Events Officer at the Scottish Maritime Museum, says:

Much has been said about the tough, dangerous and sometimes uncertain working life in Scotland’s shipyards.

“With our new Summer Exhibition, we go further and explore both the light and shade of the shipyard. We uncover how, with the boom-bust cycle of the shipyards, community became an important safety net for those facing unemployment or underemployment.

“Shipyard workers bound together into close-knit communities and their social lives and that of their families were often intertwined. It became an important counter to the hardships of the working day.

“Visitors will enjoy seeing artefacts from our heritage collection, some of which are not usually on display, as well as guest pieces from Dalgarven Mill.

“We look forward to welcoming visitors of all ages to this fascinating exhibition.”

Social Life in the Shipyards

Social highlights in the shipyard calendar included launch day. Workers would often bring along their families to celebrate the completion of months to years of work and take pride in the financial success and renown brought to their yard and town.

Shipyard owners also saw group sports like football as good for team building and there was friendly rivalry between yards and companies.

Some yards, like Alexander Stephen & Sons, went further and set up an organised recreational club for staff in 1920. Acquiring ten acres at the nearby Coila Park for £12,000, the company created the ‘Stephen Recreation Club’ then handed it to staff club members to run.

Workers were encouraged to join the Club for a voluntary contribution of 3d per week. According to the Staff Handbook, they could choose from ‘two bowling greens, four tennis courts, two football pitches, a putting green, garage, spacious main hall and pavilion with licensed bar.’

When travelling ‘doon the watter’ became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some shipyards used organised trips to promote community within the yard. Denny Brothers often used their tugboat, the Snark, to take staff members out.

Shipyard workers were also often part of community groups outside of work. Many of the workers in Denny Brothers’ Drawing Office were members of the local Amateur Operatic Society, putting on a performance of The Mikado in Dumbarton Burgh Hall in 1894. The performance received positive reviews in the Lennox Herald.


Shipyard Social runs from Saturday 8 June to Sunday 13 October.
The Scottish Maritime Museum on Irvine Harbourside is open daily from 10am – 5pm.
The exhibition is included in Museum Admission. Up to three children go FREE with each Adult/Concession ticket.


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Issued on behalf of the Scottish Maritime Museum by
Joanna Harrison, Mobile: 07884 187 404

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