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Do you have Glasgow shipbuilding ancestors?

If you have traced your ancestors to the Glasgow area in the 19th century, then it is more likely that not that you will find some sort of shipbuilding connection in your family tree. The Clyde shipbuilding industry was the largest in the world. By the end of the 19th century, Britain was building 75% of all ships in the world, and two-thirds of those were built on the Clyde. So why was Glasgow such an important shipbuilding centre, and what records can you use to track your ancestors?

The Clyde as a Centre of Shipbuilding

The Shipbuilders of Port Glasgow statue, by John McKenna

Several factors came together in the 19th century which led to the boom in shipbuilding. Ships had been built on the Clyde for centuries, mostly further down the estuary at the towns of Greenock and Port Glasgow. When ships switched from sail to steam in the mid 19th century, Glasgow was perfectly placed to take advantage of the new technology. British engineers had the expertise to be able to make the best steam engines in the world, foundries produced the iron and steel needed to make the ships and engines, and dredging of the Clyde meant the river could cope with much bigger ships. Added to that, the growth in population caused by the industrial revolution and migration from both rural parts of Scotland and across the sea from Ireland provided a ready pool of labour for the shipyards.

Tracing Shipbuilding Ancestors

Apart from the standard genealogical records such as birth, death, marriage certificates or census, there are industry-specific records held in various archives and online archives in Scotland. Glasgow city archives holds records of many of the large shipbuilding companies, with others in Special Collections at Glasgow University. However, these are mainly “top level” records dealing with management of the company, orders and plans for ships rather than records about the workers. Another useful collection is held at the Trades Library in Glasgow, which holds the records of the Hammermen of Glasgow, the guild for those involved in shipbuilding and other industries. Shipbuilding provided regular – if not highly paid – work for many, but in the absence of a welfare state, Poor Law records may also feature ancestors who were out of work, or who couldn’t work through illness or accident.  

Glasgow Shipbuilding in General

There are also many resources online to give a flavour of the shipbuilding industry in general in Glasgow and these can provide useful background, even if individuals are not mentioned. Finding out what ships were being built at the time when your ancestor was working there tells you what they may have been working on, and gives an indication to the size of the operation. Maps are always useful for understanding how locations related to each other, and finally, newspapers regularly carried reports of ship launches and shipbuilding news. If you have shipbuilding ancestors which you need help to trace, please get in touch.


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