THE RISE AND FALL OF A
SCOTTISH SHIPBUILDING FIRM
S. G. E. LYTHE, M.A.
PROFESSOR OF ECONOMIC HISTORY
IN THE UNIVERSITY OF STRATHCLYDE
ABERTAY HISTORICAL SOCIETY PUBLICATION No. 10
GOURLAYS OF DUNDEE
I. THE DUNDEE FOUNDRYIn the 18th Century industrial Dundee was expanding in two main directions. Textile
works, needing abundant water, were stringing out along the lines of the burns, but
the miscellaneous industries, especially those with heavy materials, were attracted
to riverside sites, notably those to the east of the town. This eastern zone, a
roughly parallel strip averaging only sixty or seventy yards in depth, was bounded
to the North by Seagate and Blackscroft, and to the South by the river bank which
ran roughly on the line of the modern Dock Street. As the years passed it was
increasingly occupied by new enterprises: woodyards, whaling depots, shipyards,
foundries and the like, a development which ruined the residential amenities and
helped to drive the middle classes away from the traditional town houses.
Dundee Foundry - "East Foundry" as it was originally known - was established
in this new industrial zone in about 1790 and was a pioneer in heavy engineering
and machine making in Dundee. Within forty years there were others - Carmichaels,
Douglas Foundry and Lilybank Foundry - all, like Dundee Foundry, prepared to take
on almost any metal work from a simple casting to a complex piece of mill machinery
or a steam locomotive. Collectively they reflect the impact of the Industrial
Revolution and the growing employment of metal equipment in almost all branches of
production and transport.
Though the activities of the Foundry in the first 30 years of its life are
obscure, it is clear that by about 1820 it was turning its attentions towards the
increasingly popular steam engines: in 1821, for example, " Mr Straton of the
Dundee Foundry" supplied castings to Carmichaels for the engines of the ferry-boat
Union. It was on the threshold of national prestige, for in the next two decades it
was served by a group of distinguished engineers, their mentor and teacher being
James Stirling, famous in engineering history for his resolute attempts to perfect
the "air engine". The pioneers of heat engines in general had little theoretical
basis for their work, indeed Carnot's Reflexions sur la Puissance Motrice du Feu of
1824 represented the first attempt to consider the whole cycle of operations within
the engine, and Carnot clearly stimulated practising engineers to devise more
effective methods of utilising the heat transmitted to the engine from the fire-
box. Stirling's engine, designed and first patented in 1827, employed air instead
of the more usual steam as its working substance, and embodied a "regenerator", a
device whereby heat was alternately stored and released. Theoretically it
represented a great advance towards the engineer's concept of the perfect cycle,
and its actual efficiency in terms of the relationship between fuel used and power
produced was, by the standards of the time, highly satisfactory. At least two air
engines were installed in Dundee. One, of which little is known, drove machines in
Chapelshade Works. The other, a 50 horse-power model, drove all the moving
equipment in the Foundry itself for some years in the early 1840's. This engine was
the subject of a paper by Stirling to the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1845
and was seen by Wilhelm von Siemens who reported on it by letter to his brother
Werner.(1) "From this meagre communication," wrote Werner, "it transpired that this
machine was driven not by steam but by heated air. I found this idea exceptionally
interesting for it seemed to form the basis for a profitable reshaping of the whole
of machine technology." Its abandonment after a very few years of operation
resulted from the then insoluble metallurgical problems in the construction of a
durable heating chamber, but thirty years later eminent engineers still spoke of it
with respect as "the celebrated engine of the Dundee Foundry".(2)
The bread and butter of the Foundry came from the sale of a wide range of
engineering products to the local market, often in keen competition with
neighbouring firms. Thus in June, 1829, the Dundee, Perth and London Shipping
Company invited tenders for the engines and boilers for the tug William Wallace,
the firm's earliest venture into steam. They accepted an offer of 1,200 from the
Dundee Foundry, 60 lower than that from Carmichaels, but when new boilers where
needed in 1832 both Dundee Foundry and Carmichaels were out-priced by Peter
Borrie.(3) The spectacular growth of linen as a mechanised industry set up a great
local demand for all kinds of mill equipment, a demand the Foundry was able to
meet, and it is perhaps not without significance that Peter Carmichael, later to
become the technical backbone of Baxter Brothers, was on the Foundry staff in the
late 1820's. But unquestionably the Foundry made its most conspicuous contribution
in the building of locomotives for the Dundee and Newtyle and the Arbroath and
Forfar Railways. The former's Cash Book and Journal for 1834 records payments to
the Dundee Foundry in respect of the stationary engines at Hatton and Balbeuchly
Inclines and, on 31st October, the sum of 700 for the locomotives then called
"Engine No. 3". Four years later Stirling was building the first locomotive for the
Arbroath and Forfar. On the 10th December, 1838, according to the Arbroath and
Forfar's Letter Book, he undertook to effect delivery of the Victoria, on which the
Railway directors pinned great hopes, an attitude encouraged by Stirling who
"greatly boasts of her superiority".
It is not therefore surprising that the bright young men in this nursery of
railway engineering were eagerly sought after by the railway companies themselves.
James Gow left the Foundry in 1839 to become Resident Engineer and Superintendent
of Mechanics on the Arbroath and Forfar, but the real fame in this field rested
upon Patrick Stirling and Archibald Sturrock, both of whom served their
apprenticeships in the Dundee Foundry and rose to the very peak of their profession
as Locomotive Superintendents in great English railway companies. In the
engineering world of the 1830's and 1840's, "Dundee Foundry" was a name to conjure
On the departure of the Stirlings the Foundry, with this enormous fund of
goodwill, passed into the hands of new owners, Messrs Gourlay, Mudie and Company.
They were in business by April, 1846, when they successfully tendered for the
conversion of two Arbroath and Forfar locomotives to fit the "standard" gauge then
being introduced.(4) It was a time of intense activity in the engineering world,
with rapid mechanisation in both manufacturing and transport. But so far the
pressures of standardisation and mass production had not forced founders and
engineers to cluster together in few favoured locations: machines were still
normally "custom built" to suit individual requirements, and there was still scope
in every sizeable industrial region for a handful of adaptable engineering firms.
From time to time in earlier centuries, Scotland had buzzed with reports of
the doings of a Gourlay:(5) Robert Gourlay, who was forced to do penance in St.
Giles in 1574 for exporting grain contrary to the public weal; Oliver Gourlay, a
Fife agricultural improver who, in 1780, assured St. Andrews Town Council that by
constructing a road to his estate at their expense they would "eternize their
names"; his son, Robert Fleming Gourlay, who was known equally for his reform
agitation, his three-volume work on Canada, and his attempt to horsewhip Lord
Brougham in the Lobby of the House of Commons. There had been generations of
peaceable Gourlays in Dundee: maltsters, meal-makers, glovers, and - the epitome of
respectability - a Town Clerk. But the Gourlays who acquired part-ownership of the
Dundee Foundry in 1846 were not of the Dundee branch. They came from Edinburgh,
descending from a family which had contented itself with the modest livelihood
provided by medicine and similar learned professions.(6)
Four brothers were, at one time and another, involved in the creation of this
new Gourlay foothold in Dundee.(7) Of these, Alexander, who retired in 1864, and
William, who retired in 1874, left no very distinctive mark. Of the other two,
Gershom was clearly the business man and Henry the technician. Gershom, though a
lawyer by training, seems to have been the chief "Gourlay" element in the firm of
Gourlay, Mudie and Co., but when that firm was dissolved in 1853 his place at the
Foundry was taken over by his brothers Henry and Alexander, whilst he went back to
the law, joining D. S. Littlejohn in a legal partnership which lasted till 1864. By
that time the Gourlays had gone into shipbuilding, and Gershom rejoined the family
business in the place of his brother Alexander.
The reputation of the firm, both as engineers and shipbuilders, stemmed
largely from the ability of Henry Gourlay. Though a member of the Institution of
Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland and of the Institution of Naval Architects,
he never featured prominently in their proceedings, indeed apart from a paper to
the British Association in 1867 little is available for judgement of him except the
circumstantial evidence of the firm's expansion and the respect with which he was
treated by his contemporaries. These alone indicate that he was a great mid-
Victorian engineer. Under his technical direction the Dundee Foundry "became one of
the best-known marine engine works in the north-east of Scotland", and the impetus
which he gave in this development persisted throughout the 19th Century. When J. A.
Ewing wrote his article on steam power for the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia
Britannica (1887), he used designs for a Gourlay double-ended marine boiler to
illustrate the "most modern construction for high-pressure steam", and in some of
its best periods (e.g. 1891) the Dundee Foundry supplied engines for ships built by
In general, however, the Foundry became ancillary to Gourlay's own shipyard.
As a result its output reflected the instability of shipbuilding, with good phases,
when up to 15,000 H.P. a year might be built, varying with bad when annual output
might be only a few hundred horse-power.(8) It was in 1904, in one of these slumps,
that Gourlays made their last real effort to diversify the demands on the Foundry
by entering the expanding market for high speed engines for the generation of
electricity. But by then the firm was nearing its end, and modern engine building
is another of the "might have beens" in Dundee's economic history.
At their meeting on 1st May, 1854, the Harbour Trustees had before them a letter
from Gourlays requesting the use of a piece of land on which to build an "Iron
Vessel".(9) To the Trust's offer of a short let of up to six months, Gourlays
responded with a counter-proposal for a three year lease, and when this had been
effected in July, 1854, with a further proposal for five years. In brief, by the
summer of 1854, Gourlays had become shipbuilding tenants of the Harbour Trust,
occupying until 1870 a site at the east end of Marine Parade.
This decisive step in the extension of the firm's activities showed a fine
sense of opportunity. The period was one in which British overseas trade was
expanding fast - in terms of shipping entered and cleared at British ports it rose
by two-thirds between 1847 and 1860 - and Britain was supplying at least 60% of the
entire world's modern merchant shipping. Demand for new ships was, in consequence,
highly encouraging to builders, whilst other factors enabled them to offer
remarkably steady prices. A shrewd engineer in a seaport could hardly fail to
recognise the economic attractions of shipbuilding. Similarly the traditional faith
of shipowners and builders in wood was beginning to yield in face of the claims of
iron. In 1850 only sixty-one iron ships were built in all the yards in the United
Kingdom: in 1854, when Gourlays decided to build their "Iron Vessel", the
corresponding figure was 188, and it is symbolic of their opportunism that Gourlays
concentrated all their efforts on iron from the start. Iron ships had been built on
the Tay before this time, but the pioneers either failed (for example, Borrie), or
abandoned shipbuilding (for example, Carmichaels), and from 1842 to 1854 wood alone
had been used by the Dundee shipyards.(10)
Similarly, Gourlays went straight into steam and screw propulsion. When they
first came to Dundee the country's annual production of steamships (as measured by
tonnage) was rarely more than one-tenth of that of sailing ships, but by about 1850
steam was gaining rapidly in favour, and by 1853-4 the ratio of new steamers to new
sailing ships had risen to the order of one to three. The other great dispute -
that between the merits of paddle and screw - had been subjected in 1845 by a
somewhat shame-faced Admiralty to one of the most hilarious experiments in British
marine history. Two vessels of equal tonnage and engine power, Alecto (paddle) and
Rattler (screw), had been tethered stern to stern by a massive cable. Alecto was
allowed to start first, but within minutes of both ships going "Full Ahead" she was
slipping backwards at 2 knots, her paddles threshing the water in futile rage.(11)
Before they turned to shipbuilding Gourlays were directly involved in these
important technical changes in the industry. They supplied the 70 H.P. engine for
Correo, a screw steamer built at Dundee by Browns, thus contributing to the
introduction of the screw Dundee shipbuilding and, no doubt, observing the results
with keen interest.
But whilst they came to the industry uninhibited by tradition they were able
to avail themselves of the pool of trained shipyard labour which their predecessors
had created. As technicians, Gourlays led a revival of initiative in Dundee
shipbuilding: as employers they stepped into the shoes of the old brigade -
Adamsons and the Calmans - who were either just out of business or were wasting
In the earliest years their ships were destined largely for the coasting
trade. The first, Pavo, plied between Arbroath and Newcastle, but it was as
builders for the Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Co. that they made their most
significant contribution to this branch of shipping. (12) D.P. and L. had used
paddle-steamers since 1834 but had looked principally to the Clyde, especially to
Napiers, for their ships. Hence the commissioning in 1856 of a screw steamer from
Gourlays was as much a departure for D.P.and L. as it was a triumph for the Dundee
shipyard and it inaugurated an association between the two firms in which
bargaining seems to have been reduced to the bare minimum required by business
etiquette. Thus in 1862 Gourlays' offer of a vessel on the stocks for 18,250 was
met by a counter-offer of 18,000, and when, four months later, Gourlays suggested
a sister ship for 18,250, D.P. and L. again accepted subject to the deduction of
the odd 250. As a result of such cordial negotiations, eight steamboats were added
to the D. P. and L. fleet between 1856 and 1868, and it was not until the 1870's
and 1880's that the Dundee yards began to compete seriously for D.P and L. favours.
London, the first of this series built for D.P. and L., was destined to add
further to the laurels of her builders. On 20th November, 1865, the Directors of
D.P. and L. received the alarming news that London had been hit amidships in
collision with the collier Harvest Queen and had sank in the river off Monifieth.
They immediately raised an action in the Admiralty Court against the owners of
Harvest Queen and entered into agreement with a Civil Engineer - a Mr Page - to
raise London from the river bed. But hopes where dashed when, by the middle of
1866, the Court held that both ships were responsible, Page withdrew from his
attempts at salvage, the Harbour Trust presented claims for lighting the wreck, and
the Admiralty threatened to blow it up as a hazard to navigation.
In this crisis the Manager of D.P. and L. pressed Henry Gourlay to attempt
salvage operations. Years later he wrote of his reactions: "I was very unwilling to
do so, as I had the management of both engineering and shipbuilding departments on
my shoulders, and I had no experience in lifting vessels. My firm had, however,
been under great obligations to the Company (i.e. D.P. and L.) and it was not easy
to refuse anything to so kindly a man as Mr Couper."(13) Accordingly on 20th
September, 1866, Henry Gourlay attended a meeting of the D.P. and L. Board and
agreed to try his hand on the understanding that he received half the value of the
ship if he succeeded, and met half the cost of the attempt if he failed. His
attempt and success made headline news. He hired Queen from the Company and adapted
her gearing so that the engines drove two huge centrifugal pumps capable of moving
6oo tons of water in less than an hour. After a series of frights and alarms, when
it looked as if they would finish with two wrecks on their hands instead of one,
the salvage went off beautifully with London rising from the river bed looking - in
Gourlay's words - "like some great monster we had fished up from the depths of the
sea". Two years later a payment of 900 was accepted from the owners of Harvest
Queen in full settlement. The reconditioned London went back into D.P. and L.
service and, renamed Hull in 1892, remained in their fleet till 1909.
By the time of the raising of London, Gourlays had become the biggest of the
five effective shipbuilding firms at Dundee, employing about 300 men against 220 at
Stephens and 200 at Brown and Simpsons.(14) Their output from 1861 to 1867
approached 14,000 tons, all of iron, and only about one-sixth of it sail. By
comparison, Brown and Simpson's total of 5,000 tons was nearly all sail and at
least half wood; and of Stephen's 10,000 tons more than half was wooden whalers
with only auxilary steam engines. The other two yards were both very small and
built exclusively in wood and sail. But what is more important than mere
quantitative growth is the technical enterprise displayed by Gourlays in these
early years. Though no Tayside yard challenged Stephens in whaler construction, the
installation by Gourlays of an engine and screw propeller in the whaler Tay in 1858
was an historic innovation which Stephens were to copy with oustanding success.(15)
Similarly it was Henry Gourlay who, at the British Association in 1867, presented a
masterly assessment of the merits and defects of iron as a medium for whaler
construction. In their Dalhousie of 1858 Gourlays introduced the compound engine to
Tayside shipbuilding; they made remarkably early experiments of steel in ships; and
when, in the boom years of the 1860's, the jute manufacturers began to ship their
own raw material, it was Gourlays who built Dundee for Gilroy and Co.(16) Launched
in 1867, this Dundee of 1,295 tons was the biggest ship so far built on the Tay,
and an interesting commentary on the progress of Dundee shipbuilding over the
previous fifty years, for in 1817 Tay of 350 tons, launched from "Mr Calman's
dock", had represented the peak in size.(17)
III. CAMPERDOWN YARD
Meanwhile the Harbour Trust was reclaiming land down river from the existing
shipyard area and, after a series of frustrations, Camperdown Dock was finally
opened in 1865. East of this again lay new ground, a portion of which was offered
by public roup on 18th December, 1869, and let to Gourlays (the only bidders) at
430 19/- a year. This new site had the double merit of lying further down river
and of providing space for longer slipways than the original yard at Marine Parade,
and in view of the current trends in ship length and tonnage it is not surprising
that Gourlays seized this opportunity to make the short move to a more adaptable
site. Here the firm remained until its final dissolution, though contiuing to use
the old Dundee Foundry as its general engineering works.
As in 1854, the decision was splendidly timed. After two decades of generally
solid prosperity the British economy was on the eve of the great boom of the early
1870's in which, stimulated by the opening of the Suez Canal and by the expansion
of world trade, shipbuilding participated up to the hilt. Initially ship
construction costs rose with the swell of the boom, but ship-owners, sensitive to
the encouraging rise in freights, kept up a steady flow of orders for new vessels.
Hence by 1874 British yards as a whole were turning out 50% more tonnage than in
1871, and even in relatively slack years such as 1876 and 1879 their output was
comfortably above the average of the previous decade.
At Camperdown Yard Gourlays continued their own upward trend in both size of
ships and in overall tonnage. In 1871, the first full year there, five vessels were
launched, all of 1,000 tons or more,(18) and at the end of the year there was the
encouraging spectacle of four more on the stocks. Nevertheless, even locally their
continued growth was by no means uncontested. Their old loyal patrons, the D.P. and
L. Shipping Company, now normally invited competitive tenders, and on two
occasions, in 1873 and 1874, W.B. Thompson (the Caledon Yard) secured contracts for
which Gourlays had tendered, one of them for re-fitting a ship which Gourlays had
built.(19) It was, however, competition within an industry of healthy overall
growth, and though the national economic boom ended by 1874-5, Dundee's
shipbuilding output touched a new record level in 1876, seven of the twenty-three
launches coming from Gourlay's yard.
In the long run, however, shipbuiding mirrored the economic looks of the
nation, and by the turn of the decade the radiant health of the early 1870's gave
way to the furrows of uncertainty. A combination of technical changes, slack years
and personal decisions led to the final extinction of most of the "old guard" in
Dundee shipbuilding, the wood and sail men who had served their apprenticeship when
Victoria was a girl, and, apart from the brief appearance of Pearces, the Dundee
industry in the late 19th Century was dominated by Gourlays, Thompson and Stephens.
By now Stephen's yard at Dundee had virtually become a specialist branch of the
main activities on the Clyde; Thompson and Gourlays, both essentially general
merchant shipbuilders, moved closely in step in their exploitation of changing
techniques and materials.
Gourlays' share of the widely fluctuating Dundee total in the last two decades of
the 19th Century can be shown statistically (20):
In the twenty years here surveyed, of the 291,000 tons of shipping built at
Dundee, Gourlays were responsible for 136,000, but, as the figures show, their
proportion varied greatly year by year from this overall average of 47%.
Certain of the peaks stand out in sharp relief. Their very high total for
1881 consisted of only three vessels, of which Merton Hall was the most striking.
Of well over 4,000 tons, she was built for Alexander and Radcliffe of Liverpool
(the "Hall Line") and, as was appropriate for the greatest ship so far launched on
the Tay, her christening by Henry Gourlay's daughter was accompanied by champagne
and mutual congratulations.(21) The next year saw her sister ship, Aston Hall, and
1883, a year of magnificent total output, Eden Hall and Peveril, both also for the
Then came a serious slump. Apart from two small contracts from London and one
from Australia. Gourlays were building from 1884 to 1888 entirely for local owners,
notably William Thomson, Bruce, Loch Line and D.P. and L., and few of these new
ships approached the size for which Gourlays' yard was equipped. The two years 1885
and 1886 rank among the worst ever experienced in Tayside shipbuilding. Gourlays
built only three ships, with an aggregate tonnage of little more than 4,000.
If quantity was lacking, quality was thoroughly maintained. Thus in 1883
Camperdown Yard produced for D.P. and L. the second Dundee. An all-steel vessel,
her saloon fittings included sofas "upholstered in blue Utrecht velvet" which
"would form excellent beds at a pinch", and a sumptuous ladies' cabin which
Ship Building Tonnage
% of Dundee total
Year (Average for 1881-85 = 100) Gourlay
1881 113 59
1882 119 35
1883 152 57
1884 72 56
1885 44 26
1886 21 60
1887 85 32
1888 67 40
1889 110 45
1890 147 47
1891 117 48
1892 132 41
1893 38 76
1894 54 9
1895 48 67
1896 38 67
1897 77 59
1898 87 46
1899 107 57
1900 129 32
"recognises the penchant of the sex for social intercourse."(22) Two years later
this was replaced by a third Dundee, so christened on 7th November, 1885, by Miss
Mary Jameson of Perth. Embodying all the most modern characteristics of
construction, this vessel had the added distinction of electric lighting
throughout, installed by Richard Miller of St. Enoch Square, Glasgow, under the
guidance of Alfred Ewing, recently returned from Tokyo to Dundee to become
Professor of Engineering in University College. Electric lighting was in its
infancy - the earliest use on ships had been made only six years earlier - and
though the early installations presented great problems in the maintaining of a
stable supply, the lights on Dundee "were very steady, and gave general
Valuable as these local orders were in holding together a nucleus of skilled
labour, it became increasingly clear as the years passed that even if all local
owners bought from Dundee yards there would not be enough orders to sustain an
industry of significant dimensions.Hence recovery at Gourlays from the slump of the
mid 1880's came with the resumption of "outside" orders; indeed from 1889 to the
end of their existence Gourlays built overwhelmingly and at times exclusively for
owners in England and overseas. Thus the fine total for 1890, 11,616 tons, was for
English, French and Australian owners. It included a new record, the first 5,000
tonner to be built at Dundee, and the biggest ship Gourlays built until their
Marwarri and Bengali of 1899-1900.
In this phase, therefore, Gourlays can be regarded as a producing unit in the
international ship market, in direct and open competition with the great yards of
the Clyde and the Tyne, but sharing with them in the periodic booms in British
shipbuilding as a whole. In some years, for example 1890, Gourlays had no contract
at all with a Scottish customer. Instead their orders came from South Africa, South
America, India, Russia, Australia, Finland, Turkey and from "a Greek Gentleman of
Marseilles, Monsieur Nicolas Couppas".
A firm so geared to the world market is exposed to the global winds of
economic change, and in the early 1890's crises in distant lands - Argentina, the
United States, the Mediterranean countries - cut the flow of foreign orders to
Gourlay's yard, and in these moments of slack Dundee and other Scottish owners came
to the rescue. A slack shipyard will offer favourable prices, a fact of which local
customers took advantage. So of the total of 8,685 tons launched by Gourlays in
1892, 3,343 was represented by Iona for William Thomson & Sons of Dundee, and 1,737
by another London for D.P. and L. This London was of steel construction, rigged as
a fore-and-aft schooner with 300 nominal horse-power of steam and capable of about
16 knots. Her passenger accommodation was up to the lavish standard for which
Gourlays were becoming famous: a music-room luxuriously embellished with scenes
from the works of Sir Walter Scott; an abundance of rosewood pilasters and gilded
cornices; and electric lighting by Messrs Lowden of Dundee. A further 1,201 tons in
the same year was represented by Dungeness for the partners who, the year
following, became the Clyde Shipping Company of Glasgow. It is testimony to the
stoutness of her construction that she remained in operation with Clyde Shipping
Company until 1926 and then, as Inebolou Stambul, served Turkish owners for another
nine years, finally foundering in a hurricane off Smyrna in November, 1935.
Similarly, the great bulk of the tonnage built in 1893 was taken up by the
3,838 ton Matin for R. A. Mudie & Sons of Dundee, though the engine-shops had a
rather better year with orders from London and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. But in spite of
this faint streak of sunshine, Gourlays were clearly in a deep slump, and 1894 was
far and away the leanest year they had known in their career as shipbuilders. Their
total output was only three small paddle-boats, one for the Dundee Pleasure Boat
Company and the other two for Joseph Constant of London, acting as agent for the
Turkish Government. The New Year brought no cheer: one vessel only was under
construction ( then labeled "No. 162" and eventually sold to Singapore as Juno )
and the order book was completely blank. When at full capacity, Gourlays employed
500 men and boys: there were weeks in this slump when not more than one-tenth of
these were taking a full pay packet from the shipyard.
The climb from the trough of 1893 was slow, both globally and in the
Camperdown Yard. Ship repairing and refitting helped to provide employment in both
the Yard and the Foundary, though as Gourlays had vigorously pointed out some years
earlier, the graving dock facilities were sadly deficient and a lot of this work
was lost to other ports.(24) In fact it was not until 1897 that new orders, the
real index of shipbuilding health, were again decisively rising. Gourlays'
participation in this revival revealed - perhaps indeed resulted from - a
willingness to accept orders for a wide range of ships. Thus in the three years
1898-1900 their products included a luxury passenger ship for Finnish owners,
reinforced for navigation in the ice-ridden waters of the Baltic; five trawlers,
the smallest of them only 128 tons; two monsters of over 5,000 tons each for
Brocklebanks; and a 195 ton pleasure boat for the owners of Morecambe Pier.
Though contracts were concluded with a wide range of customers, a significant
feature of Gourlay's order-book in the years about the turn of the Century is the
amount of building done for British railway companies. Of the thirty vessels built
between 1902 and 1908, nine were for the Great Eastern, the Great Central, and the
London and South-Western. This was a highly competitive market with exacting
engineering standards and rigid terms of contract. Thus in the early months of 1903
the Great Central considered eight tenders for a paddle-steamer for the ferry
service between Hull and New Holland. Having eliminated one tender on the grounds
that it did not completely satisfy the specifications, the Great Central's Board
placed the order with Gourlays, whose offer of 16,720 was over 1,000 lower than
the next most attractive, and 2,000 to 3,000 lower than offers from nationally-
known shipbuilders in the North of England and on the Clyde.
It is something of a paradox that though in their early days Gourlays were
among the Scottish pioneers in the use of the screw propeller, towards the end of
their career they achieved something of a reputation for small paddle-steamers of
this kind. Another example was Eagle, launched in 1898, and the twenty-eighth ship
built by them for the General Steam Navigation Company of London. Apart from D.P.
and L. in the early days, no other shipowner showed anything like this unswerving
loyalty. Certainly there were other occasional repeat orders, but in general
Gourlays relied on picking up orders where they could. Clearly the firm lived by
its versatility, its keenly trimmed prices, and its growing reputation in high
quality passenger accommodation. Possibly its peak achievement in this last respect
was in Brussels, launched in 1902 for the Great Eastern Railway for use on the
Harwich packet service. Boasting a state room "understood to be reserved for the
use of Royalty", she became (according to the Advertiser) "known to travellers as
one of the most sumptuously fitted steamers afloat".
IV. ".......AND COMPANY"
Gershom Gourlay, the last of the original group of brothers, withdrew from active
participation in the firm in1889, and moved to Edinburgh in 1892 and died there ten
years later. A man of retiring disposition, he had taken relatively little part in
the social or municipal life of Dundee, but for years he was the strong tower at
Gourlays, and when he died in 1902 the Dundee Advertiser did no more than justice
in saying that the town's status in shipbuilding owes more to him than to any other
individual. On his retirement, his two sons, Henry Garrett and Charles Gershom,
were joined by James Gordon Lyon, but the legal structures of the firm remained
unchanged until 1904. It was then converted into a private joint stock company
under the Companies Act of 1900 with the style of Gourlay Brothers and Company
Dundee).(25) The two Gourlay brothers, H. G., of 5 Whitehouse Gardens, Edinburgh,
C. G., of "Myrtlebank", Broughty Ferry, became the first directors. The capital was
divided into 4,000 5% 10 cumulative preference shares and 1,000 10 ordinary
shares,(26) and of these Charles Gershom Gourlay held 2,271 preference and 400
ordinary. His wife, two other Edinburgh Gourlays, and William Fyffe (the firm's
cashier) held single shares, and, apart from 500 unallocated preference shares, the
rest were held by H. G. Gourlay and J. G. Lyon.(27)
The Second Return of Allotments (for April, 1904 to April, 1905) shows that
these remaining 500 had been allocated to Thomas Millar of Cullercoats,
Northumberland, who, since the 1880's, had been with the firm of Sir W. G.
Armstrong, Whitworth & Co. in their shipyard at Walker-on-Tyne. In 1905 Millar
moved north to live at 5 Fintry Place, Broughty ferry, but his stay was brief. A
Circular Letter put out by the Company on 13th February, 1907, announced his
resignation as a managing director, and in the professional directories for that
year his address is given as 81 St. Vincent Street, Glasgow.
In the new structure, therefore, Charles Gershom Gourlay was the dominant
financial member, and a Minute of Agreement of April, 1904, provided that no other
member of the firm might sell or transfer shares without his consent. Equally
clearly, Thomas Millar was brought from the Tyne to reorganise the technical side
of the business. The changes he effected can be summarised by this passage from the
Dundee Year Book for 1905: "Not only have many of the erections been entirely
reconstructed, but the yard is to be electrified. When the new machinery, much of
which will be made by the firm's own workmen, is introduced, Camperdown Shipyard
will be undoubtedly the most up-to-date establishment on the east coast of
Scotland. Messrs Gourlay have also taken out a licence to enable them to provide
new vessels with Parsons patent turbine." As we have seen the firm had, in the
previous twenty-five years, operated increasingly in the highly competitive field
of world shipbuilding. Dundee's only built-in asset was its labour supply, and
consequently any Dundee firm which sought to hold its place must bring its
technical efficiency to the highest possible level.
The record of the previous years proved the need for vigorous rejuvenation.
In 1904 Gourlay's yard had been virtually closed, its total output being the 364
ton Neptune for a Dundee owner and two minute tugs for the Great Central Railway.
Labour relations had been bad. In 1902-4 the Yard experienced a three week strike
by the joiners, demarcation disputes, a 14-week engineering strike, and innumerable
minor vexatious incidents.(28) Salvation from complete closure in the Autumn of
1904 came with contracts from the Lord Provost of Dundee for two 4,360 ton cargo
steamers for his firm, Charles Barrie and Son. These, together with four small
orders, brought the output for 1905 to the handsome total of nearly 12,000 tons,
providing a more cheerful environment in which Millar might effect his
The upward trend persisted into 1906 which, measured by output, was one of
the best in Gourlays' history. Over 12,600 tons of shipping was launched, all for
London or overseas customers, and the Minute Book of the Company gives no hint that
this was, indeed the swan song. Yet in 1907 output ominously sank back to 6,276,
almost all of it represented by the 5,700 ton Ulimaroa, and of the three vessels
built in 1908 two were finished under the supervision of the Liquidator.
Significantly, all three were for overseas owners.
At an Extraordinary General Meeting on 8th June, 1908, it was resolved that
"by reason of its liabilities" it was advisable to wind up the company. The next
morning both Dundee newspapers carried the formal statement, announcing "with
regret" that a circular had been issued calling a meeting of creditors, but adding
the cheering postscript that there were good hopes of reconstruction of the firm
and the continuance of the shipyard. Some sixty-five creditors met two days later
in Lamb's Hotel under the chairmanship of Thomas Bamforth, Manager of the Carron
Company, and set up a committee of five to co-operate with Richard Brown, an
Edinburgh C.A., who had been officially appointed as Liquidator.(29)
The inevitable question, "What had gone wrong?", can be answered in general
terms. To justify the cost of re-equipping the yard in 1905 a steady flow of orders
and a smooth flow of production were equally necessary. In both respects the year
1906 seemed to auger well and showed a good profit - though the high output was
achieved only by taking on a wide variety of jobs - but 1907 failed to fulfil the
promise on either count. Of the two ships launched, the first, Ulimaroa, ran into
trouble. Delays in fitting out proved "a source of considerable expense to the
builders", and on her trial she went aground off West Ferry and had to be taken to
the Tyne for dry-docking and survey. The next to leave the stocks, Baron Gautsch
(for Austrian Lloyd), became the subject of such sharp exchanges about delays in
delivery and shortcomings in engine performance that Gourlays were involved in the
heavy cost of modifying her engines in Trieste, her home port.(30) Titania, for a
Finnish owner, was on the stocks when the Liquidator took over, but the final
instalment on this ship was already assigned to two Dundee business men as security
for guarantees given by them to the British Linen Bank to cover Gourlays'
The Minutes of the Annual General Meeting of 26th September, 1907, provide a
summary of the company's troubles. The extensive alterations to the yard had eaten
into the resources and involved borrowing; reconstruction had dislocated the
smooth flow of production and had combined with the high prices of raw materials in
1906-7 to push up the cost of building above the estimated levels. Even so, the
continuance of a brisk demand for ships might have saved the firm, and in these
terms one could argue that Goulays sank in a slump in British shipbuilding at
large. In each of the three years 1905-7, British shipyards produced over a million
tons of new merchant shipping, "unprecedented activity" as the Economist Commercial
History for 1905 called it. With building on this scale demand was temporarily
satisfied, and by the end of 1907 shipbuilders' order books were emptier than they
had been for a decade. A fall in freights of the nature of 20% damned any prospect
of immediate revival, so "the three fat years in shipbuilding were followed by
three unusually lean ones".(32)
In 1854 and in 1869 the firm's courage had been justified by events: by
sustained spells of shipbuilding activity of the kind for which Gourlays were
specially adapted. By the early 1900's technical change in the industry forced them
to a third vital decision, but this time events moved against them. The "lean
years" proved fatal. The company was still burdened with the cost of re-equipping
the yard, its reputation was shaken, and orders dried up. So whilst he was
completing the outstanding contracts, the Liquidator tried in vain to find a
purchaser for the Yard and Foundary as going concerns. At the end of his
trusteeship he had about 21,000 in hand to meet the claims of the creditors. It
worked out at a fraction over d in the .(33) A month later, on 23rd June, 1910,
Lord Cullen's Interlocutor formally pronounced the dissolution of the Company and
authorised the Liquidator to destroy the books.
The physical dissolution of Gourlays was already under way. In May, 1909, the
equipment of both Yard and Foundary were sold by public auction, and within a few
years all vestiges of shipbuilding at Camperdown Yard were obliterated as the
harbour trust began the new works which ultimately became George V. Wharf. For a
few years the local press printed brief obituaries as the older members of the
Gourlay family died: Gershom's widow in 1913 and his son, Henry Gershom, in 1915.
As time passed it became necessary to remind readers of the Gourlay connection with
Dundee, for neither the shipyard nor the family had left any visible memorial. Yet
in their day their influence had ranged from Dundee to the ends of the earth.
Almost 230 ships went down the Tay from one or other of their yards. Like their
fellow shipbuilders, Stephens, they had provided employment for the menfolk of
Dundee for two generations, and, in consequence, had helped to balance and
diversify an otherwise lopsided local economy. The discord and confusion which
marked their end do not detract from their earlier reputations as masters of their
trade in an era when mastery in British shipbuilding meant mastery of the world.
"We cannot claim very much for what we have done in comparison with the great
firms on the Clyde, but we think that we have kept our position in Dundee, and we
have done something to make Dundee a successful shipbuiding port. That is all the
credit we claim." So spoke Henry Gourlay at the launch of Merton Hall in 1881. He
must have been a modest man.
1. Proceedings at the Institution of Civil Engineers, Vol. IV., 1845, pp, 351
ff, and W. Von Siemens, Lebenserinnerungen (1938 edit.) p. 36.
2. C. W. Cooke, in Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers,
1873, p. 64
3. Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company (hereafter cited as D.P. and L.)
Minutes, 22 June, 1829, and 10 April, 1832.
4. Arbroath and Forfar Railway Minutes, 16 April, 1846.
5. Rogers, The Scottish House of Gourlay, 1888, passim. Though financed by a
member of the Gourlay family, this book contains no references to the
members who form the subject of the present study.
6. Obituary of Gershom Gourlay in Dundee Advertiser, 28 Jan, 1902.
7. Jubilee of Dundee Shipbuilding Firm, in Dundee Year Book (hereinafter cited
as D.Y.B.), 1904, pp. 127-8.
8. All the output statistics of engines and ships are derived (except where
otherwise indicated) from the annual surveys of Dundee shipbuilding in the
Dundee Advertiser and the annual D.Y.B.
9. Minutes of Dundee Harbour Trust and of the Trust's Committee on Works.
10. The general background is described in my Shipbuilding at Dundee down to
1914 in Scottish Journal of Political Economy, Vol, IX., 1962, pp. 219-232.
11. E. C. Smith, Short History of Naval and Marine Engineering, 1938, p.73.
12. The material in this and the following two paragraphs is derived from the
D. P. and L. Minute Books.
13. Letter quoted in D.Y.B., 1904, p. 130.
14. H. Gourlay, The Shipbuilding of Dundee, in Reports of the Meeting of the
British Associations in Dundee, 1868, p. 26.
15. W. S. Thompson, Shipbuilding, in British Association Handbook, 1912, p.
16. D.Y.B. 1890, p. 107.
17. Lamb Collection (in Albert Institute, Dundee), 279(21).
18. Ibid. 245(7).
19. D. P. and L. Minutes, 9 April, 1873 and 18 June, 1874.
20. Calculated from the Annual Survey of Shipbuilding in D.Y.B. 1881-1900.
21. A full account of this appears in D.Y.B. 1881, pp. 85-7
22. D.Y.B. 1883, p. 117.
23. D.Y.B. 1885, pp. 63-4
24. Report to the Harbour Trustees, by Mr Cunningham, printed in D.Y.B. 1883,
25. The Certificate of Incorporation (No. 5550) and the subsequent official
documents are preserved in the Offices of the Registrar of Companies,
26. Memorandum of Association, Article V.
27. Return of Allotments, 31 March, 1904 to 25 April, 1904
28. Dundee Advertiser, passim.
29. The Courier and Argus, 12 June, 1908. It appears from the Carron Company's
records that the debt to them was only some 700.
30. Note for Mr Richard Brown, preserved in the papers relating to the
liquidation process in Court of Session Records (Record Office, Edinburgh).
32. J. H. Clapham, An Economic History of Modern Britain, Vol. III., 1938, p.
33. Reports by J. M. Graham, C.A., on the Liquidator's Account, preserved in
Court of Session Records.
Satuday 2 November 1996