Maritime Tales – Cammell Laird’s Finest

4 June 2007 by Stephen

illustration of a busy port scene

The Laird shipyard in around 1840

In the 1970s as a news reporter I, Stephen Guy, attended a ship naming ceremony at the Cammell Laird shipyard. What I remember most was the memorable meal that followed!

The Laird family of Birkenhead built their first iron ship – the paddle steamer Lady Lansdowne – in 1833, heralding a long and illustrious history of shipbuilding on the Wirral. Lairds – later Cammell Lairds – was one of the most famous names in British shipbuilding during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many innovative vessels were launched from its shipyard – originally in the Wallasey Pool but from 1857 at the Birkenhead site it occupied for the rest of its existence.

Scotsman John Laird (1805 – 1874), son of company founder William Laird, was described as “the Father of Birkenhead”. John retired in 1861 and became the first MP for Birkenhead. As chairman of the Birkenhead Improvement Commission, he was influential in the design of the town. John’s three sons William, John and Henry took over the business. Sailing vessels and steamships of all types continued to be built. Laird Brothers merged with Sheffield steel manufacturers Charles Cammell & Co in 1903. Under the new name of Cammell Laird & Co the shipyard continued to grow.

The two world wars brought unprecedented demand for new warships and repair work. Cammell Laird responded in exemplary fashion. In the Second World War an astonishing 106 warships – an average of one every 20 days – were built. More successes followed. In 1956 the 30,000-ton ore carrier Leader was the largest of her type in the world. Three years later the Auris was the first petroleum tanker powered by gas turbines. Also launched in 1959 was the Windsor Castle, at 36,277 tons the largest passenger liner built by the company.

These are just some of the firsts scored by this hugely-successful company which later became the victim of changing times. The last ship to be built at the yard was HMS Unicorn in 1993.

Displays at Merseyside Maritime Museum chronicle the remarkable story of Cammell Laird’s with photographs, ship models and exhibits. Its first iron ship Lady Lansdowne worked as a pleasure steamer on Lough Derg and the River Shannon in Ireland. She sank at her moorings and in 1967 the wreck was identified. On display is a porthole, glass bottle and a metal bar from the wreck. Other ship models include the seventh HMS Liverpool, a Type 42 destroyer built in 1980 and still in service. 

Wirral Archives holds many Cammel Laird related records. You can find out what they hold on our main site.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

  1. Brian J Goggin says:

    The Lady Lansdowne was not a pleasure steamer. She carried passengers and towed barges (called "lumber boats") between Killaloe, at the south end of Lough Derg on the River Shannon, and Portumna at the north end. That was one stage in the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company’s complex operation that carried agricultural produce from Kilrush, on the Shannon Estuary, to Liverpool, with the lumber boats towed

    – by steamer on the Shannon Estuary
    – by horse from Limerick to Killaloe
    – by steam again, with the tow passing to a smaller steamer between Portumna and Shannon Harbour
    – by horse on the Grand Canal to Dublin.

    There, the cargoes (including livestock) transferred to the Company’s cross-channel steamers and carried to Liverpool.


  2. Len Ellison says:

    The picture you show in your Blog of John Laird’s yard is on the Liverpool side of the Mersey looking over to the Wirral. The only connection Lairds had with Liverpool is Macgregor Laird had a small yard from 1832 which he closed when he travelled to Africa a few years later. This photo has been used by a number of authors in books on the Alabama, saying this is the shipyard were it was built by Lairds in Liverpool. Which we know is not correct. I am an ACW historian and I giving talks around the UK during this year as it is 150 year on 29/07/2012 when the Alabama had its maiden voyage. I believe the photo in your blog is William Miller & Sons who where a Liverpool ship yard. Can you confirm the photo is a Lairds Yard?

    Kind regards
    Len Ellison
    ACWRT (UK) Librarian

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