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George Brown

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George Brown (1860-1933) of George Brown and Co

Mr. George Brown was an apprentice of Alexander Stephen and Sons at Linthouse

1900 Founded his own firm at Greenock, building ships at berth number five of the yard previously used by Taylor and Mitchell.


George Brown: My Grandfather. George Brown (1860 – 1933), Founder of George Brown & Co, Shipbuilders, Greenock.[1]

My grandfather, George Brown, founded the shipbuilding company of George Brown & Co in Greenock in 1900.

He must have been a very busy man indeed for he built many ships – he built no fewer than sixty three in the first ten years of owning the yard! Some were small, many were not so small…

Let me tell you a little about my grandfather George. His parents were both born in Largs, Scotland – father (also named George) in 1822 and mother Elisabeth in 1823. He himself was born in 1860 in Birkenhead in England, where his father was a shipbuilding inspector in the UK working on behalf of the Hamburg based shipowners, Holman & Co.

His father’s job took him to many different shipyards, depending on where his employers required him to inspect the building of any new ships they had building in the UK.

The young George’s early days were spent in Birkenhead and Hull, and when he was 12 years old, the family moved to Govan, where Messrs Holman and Co were having several ships built by Messrs Alexander Stephen and Sons.

Two years later his father unfortunately caught a chill and died suddenly, aged just 52. This left a 14 year old George to be looked after by his widowed mother Elisabeth, who also had to bring up his three younger brothers.

How she managed to do this I just don’t know, but George left school in 1874, aged 14, and obtained a job as an office boy in the shipyard of Alexander Stephens. Young George did so well that he was allowed to start an apprenticeship as a Ship Draughtsman in the Drawing Office at Stephens.

There was no training scheme in Glasgow for draughtsmen at that time so he was enrolled for a correspondence course with the London Technical School (the Thames was, at that time, the centre of UK shipbuilding. It was only much later that the phrase “Clyde Built” became synonymous with excellent quality of design and construction.).

George excelled in the correspondence course and was awarded a silver medal by the London Technical School for the best Lines Plan of a ship which he had drawn, with considerable skill, on his mother’s kitchen table! This would be, I would guess, when he was about 17 or 18 years old!

The next news of his promise as an up and coming shipbuilder was, in 1879, when he passed, with a 1st Class Certificate, the stringent Naval Architecture examination held by no less than Queen Victoria’s Most Honourable Privy Council. His certificate has only recently come to light and shows that only 18 candidates out of 158 gained a 1st Class Certificate.

Shortly afterwards, in 1881 or so, the 21 year old George had the honour of being invited to become the first (and only) lecturer in evening classes in Naval Architecture in Scotland. These classes were conducted at Anderson’s College in George Street, Glasgow which, many years later, has become world famous as the University of Strathclyde and whose Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering Department has an excellent reputation.

His evening classes were attended by draughtsmen from many of the growing number of Clyde Shipyards, not only in Glasgow but also in Dumbarton, Renfrew, Port Glasgow, Greenock, Ardrossan and Ayr. His students were able to travel to his classes by train using services from these places which had only recently become available. I presume that in wintertime the classrooms were lit by gas as no electric lamps were then available.

It was about this time that he moved from Stephen’s Yard to Denny’s Shipyard in Dumbarton where he played a part in that firm’s rise to fame as builder of choice for fast, reliable cross channel mail steamers.

He rose quickly in that yard to become Chief Draughtsman then Shipyard General Manager, a status reflected in his Chairmanship on the 22nd December 1894 of the prestigious Gala Day celebrations to mark Denny’s 50 years in business as a very successful firm.

George Brown, at the age of 40, was still a man of ambition and when in 1900 Garvel Park Shipyard in Greenock became available he bought the business. The yard had been laid out in 1896 at Garvel Point in the orchard of Garvel House by a partnership of Taylor and Mitchell, but had failed after only 3 years, with only 4 ships completed. Garvel House later became the rather grand residence of the harbourmaster for the James Watt Dock and was demolished in 2004. .

He very quickly obtained his first order to build a small passenger and cargo steamer. This was numbered Ship No 5 and was named Princess Beara when launched on the 24th June 1901. She was built for the Bantry Bay Steamship Company’s service from Castletownbere to Bantry.

In the early days of his time in Greenock he remarked that he would like to build ships for some of the better owners. He certainly achieved that aim, and also had many overseas customers in Australia, Canada, Austria, France, Siam, Malaya, Chile, Colombia and numerous other countries.

He was President of the Clyde Shipbuilders Association, a Justice of the Peace for Renfrewshire, a member of the Clyde Lighthouses Trust and a Member of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland. Many years later I had the honour to serve on the Council of that Institution.

I never met my Grandfather George Brown as he died in 1933 and I was born in 1938. I do recall, as a four year old, being presented to my Grandmother, Sarah Brown, who was then aged 77. I found her to be a rather frightening figure (to me) but this was helped by her giving me a Saturday penny on each of the few occasions when we met! She died in 1943 and was survived by all of her 11 children (7 boys and 4 girls). Both my sets of grandparents left many grandchildren – as a result I had 22 cousins, most of them older than me.

Footnotes:

1) In 1887 my grandfather married Sarah Steven (1865 -1943). Their marriage lasted for 46 years, during which they had 11 children. She was the eldest daughter of John Steven (1835 - 1926), a leading brassfounder and successful businessman (Steven and Struthers, Kelvinhaugh, Glasgow). He was a very able man who built up an extensive business, manufacturing large castings, e.g. bronze ship’s propellers, propeller shafts, church bells, lighthouse fog horns, ships’ whistles, etc, at a time when there was a huge demand for these worldwide.

Sarah had six siblings. The well off Steven family resided at Fernlea, West Kilbride, where the domestic staff included a coachman (with coach and stables). He later was replaced by a chauffeur when motor cars became available.

Naturally, Steven and Struthers were the automatic suppliers of propellers and tailshafts to Garvel Shipyard from Ship No5, Princess Beara, in 1900, right up until Ship No 277, Vasabha in 1962!

2) Letter from George Brown, aged 9, to his father dated 13th March 1900. The letter is addressed from “Kirklea”, Dumbarton to George Brown, Esq, Garvel Park Shipyard, Greenock and is postmarked 9.45pm, Mar 13th 1900.

My dear daddy,

I hope you like your new home. We are thinking about you tonight and Jack is just finishing his lessons. Mother is at the sewing machine.

We heard in school this afternoon that Blomfontein was taken and Mafakeing was relieved. So when we came home we put up our flags. We are glad the Bores are getting beat now.

There was quiet a scene in school this afternoon. Stanley Robertson disobeyed Miss Forbes & Miss Campbell and Mister Watson was sent for. He came down to the classroom and gave him a scolding for being rood and then four of the cane and on the fourth whak the cane split in two, one half jumping across the room. Mr Watson said he was very glad he had broken the cane over his hand. We all sat very quiet but Stanley said it was not sore.

After tea Jack and I had a run along the road with our hoops. It was a lovely night and we enjoyed it.

We hope you have got the yard into some order and engaged some new workmen and that you will soon have some work to do

With love from us all, your loving son Georgie

3) My Great Grandfather John Steven (1835 – 1926). For an excellent and detailed tribute to John Steven, Google search “John Steven – Graces Guide”.

4) For those wishing to obtain information on the George Brown & Co built ships:

Google www.clydemaritime.co.uk. On that site under REFERENCE go to “Clyde Built Ships Database”. Choose “Builder” then, in the drop down menu. SELECT Brown & Co, George, Greenock, for ships built before 1936

OR

Brown & Co (Marine) Ltd,George,Greenock, for all later ships. [The reason for this is that the firm became a limited company in 1936 and the computer requires a precise name!] Press SEARCH. You will now be offered a series of windows with vessels’ names. In the column headed Vessels Names SELECT any name to reveal full details of the ship, her career and in most cases several photos. These enlarge by hovering over the small image with your cursor. Good Luck!

5) For more information, in 2002 an interesting 60 page illustrated booklet was prepared by me titled “SOME NOTABLE SHIPS” (built by GB & Co). Reference copies are held by the Librarian at the Watt Institution, Greenock; the Librarian at the Scottish Maritime Museum, Irvine, and the Archivist at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow.

Additionally, on prior request, the Duty Archivist at the Mitchell Library will allow free access to further details of every ship built at the yard. Ask for File TD865.

6) Ship No 5 Princess Beara was, as mentioned above, the first ship built by George Brown. She sailed for many years with passengers and cargo on the often exposed waters of Bantry Bay until her owners sold her, in 1948, to Spanish buyers for further service! Her owners had, at the time, sent an enquiry to George Brown & Co (Marine) Ltd, asking for a price for a replacement vessel. The cost, unfortunately was too high for the struggling Bantry Bay Steamship Co who then ceased business as a result of bus and road transport competition.

Interestingly enough, a Garvel Shipyard built vessel now operates in Bantry Bay carrying cars and passengers from Castletownbere to Bear Island. She is Ship No 285 (the second last ship built), and was built in Greenock in 1982 as EiIean Bhearnaraigh for the ferry run to Bernera in the Outer Hebrides.

A resident of Castletownbere, Mr Hans Roberti, has recently constructed two excellent models – one of Ship No 5, Princess Beara, and one of Ship No 31,Lady Elsie; both vessels gave excellent service for many years for passengers and cargo in Bantry Bay!!

7) Just before George Brown left Denny’s in 1900 it is worthwhile noting that drawings were being prepared in that yard for the Sir Walter Scott (1899), still in existence on Loch Katrine, and the pioneer turbine steamer King Edward (1901).

King Edward’s design incorporated special strengthening of her sides amidships in order that sponsons could easily be added to convert her to paddle propulsion if the turbines were not a success. Her lines were similar to those of the successful PS Duchess of Hamilton built by Denny’s in 1890.

I think it is likely that George Brown had a hand in those three designs.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. Douglas Brown, January 2021. dmbrown6351@gmail.com