The Clyde ships that made their mark on history

THE murky role of Glasgow in the American Civil War and a heroic mission following the sinking of the Titanic will feature in a new BBC Scotland series which begins this week.

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David Hayman hosts the new series
David Hayman hosts the new series

Presented by actor David Hayman, Clydebuilt: The Ships That Made the Commonwealth will chart the stories of four markedly different ships that all began life on the same river.

They include the CS Mackay-Bennett, a cable repair ship built in Govan whose crew was tasked with recovering the bodies of those who perished when the Titanic sank in 1912.

David, 66, travelled to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in a bid to unravel the mystery surrounding the discovery of child's body, a passenger on board the ill-fated liner, whose identity took almost 100 years to solve.

"They couldn't take everyone on board so the first class passengers were embalmed and put in coffins, the second class passengers tied up in sacks and the third class passengers dumped back into the ocean," he said. "The crew came across the body of a baby boy and these hardened seamen refused to put him back into the water.

"They laid him on a bed of rose petals, stood vigil overnight and paid for a plaque to be put in his coffin that said: 'our babe.'"

Another to capture David's imagination was the paddle steamer Robert E Lee, built on the Clyde in 1862.

"It is not a story of triumph," he said. "The Robert E Lee reveals Glasgow's involvement in the American Civil War and perpetuating slavery for two years longer than it needed be. We built ships at the rate of one a week, oceangoing paddle steamers that went to Bermuda and loaded up with arms and munitions, then shipped them through President Lincoln's blockade.

"After Gettysburg the South was more or less defeated and if it wasn't for our supply ships breaking through those cordons, the war would have been over," he added. "We were making a profit of something like £60,000 for each two week run. Today that would be worth £4 million."

According to David much of Glasgow's wealth came from the ill-gotten gains.

"If you go to Dunoon, Rothesay and down the Clyde Coast you will see buildings built from the proceeds of that filthy money called Dixie, Mississippi and Bermuda," he said.

"Jefferson Davis was the Confederate president and when the war was lost he was put in prison for two years.

"Where did he go on his holidays when it was all over? He came to Glasgow. He sat in the West End with his pals and felt completely at home in Hyndland."

The opening episode, to be shown on Monday, focuses on the famous Cutty Sark, built in 1869 for the Jock Willis shipping line. It is a tale peppered with adventure, mutiny and murder.

The Glasgow actor said that before making the series the Cutty Sark was only one that he had any real knowledge of.

"As a boy I found a painting of it in Paddy's Market and stuck it on my wall," he said. "It's such a beautiful ship and iconic image."

The final vessel featured in the four-part series is HMS Hood, built at John Brown & Company in Clydebank, which was the largest battlecruiser in the world until it was sunk by German warship Bismarck during the Second World War.

"They are all very different and each tell wonderful stories," he said. "They range from human interest stories with the Mackay-Bennett, political and moral stories with the Robert E Lee, romance on the seas with the Cutty Sark and stories of war with HMS Hood."

David, who was born in Bridgeton, credits his own fascination as stemming from his time as a teenage apprentice in a north Glasgow steelyard.

"Part of our work was shaping, cutting, boring and drilling bits of steel for shipbuilding," he said. "My uncles worked in John Brown's and Fairfield's.

"I remember once a week getting the ferry across to Govan to see my aunt and passing these rows of wonderful oceangoing ships.

"There was always a sense of romance about the Clyde."

IT IS his belief that this "extraordinary powerhouse of achievement, technology, talent and design" must be celebrated and never forgotten.

"It is important to tell the story of our shipbuilding culture," he said. "We only have one yard left on the Clyde and that unfortunately makes warships.

"At one point we were turning out 80% of the world's shipping. We were turning them out at the rate of one a week and employed something like 120,000 men at its peak.

"It is a major part of our engineering history in the west of Scotland."

l Clydebuilt: The Ships That Made the Commonwealth BBC 2, Monday, 9pm

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