Henry Robb's

Ship Yards





Frank Ferri

Newhaven, Edinburgh

Thank you to Frank Ferri who wrote:

Anecdotes and Memories

"A friend of mine, living in England, was talking to Ruth Patterson,  the granddaughter of a director of the former Henry Robbs ship yards.

She is trying to write a book about the Leith yard and would like some anecdotes and memories from former employees

Can anyone on your sit help?"

Frank Ferri, Newhaven, Edinburgh:  September 10, 2009

Can You Help?

If you think you may be able to help, please email me.

Peter Stubbs:  September 10, 2009

Thank You

Thank you to the following for offering to help the author of the Henry Robb book:

-  Andy Merrylees, British Columbia, Canada:  Henry Robb employee, early-1980s.

-  John Stevenson, Edinburgh: Henry Robb engineering apprentice, 1948-53.

-  Mel Third, Midlothian, Scotland:  Henry Robb:  Henry Robb apprentice in plumber's shop, 1972-76 + worker 1978-81.

Peter Stubbs:  September 10, 2009




Ruth Patterson

Norfolk, England

Ruth Patterson, whom Frank Ferri mentions above, has now contacted me.

Ruth writes:

Henry Robb Recollections

"I am actually Henry Robb's great granddaughter.

I would be very grateful if you could put your readers in touch with a blog ***  that I have started, to bring in information about the Henry Robb yard, for the book that I am writing.  Already I have established some good links through it.

Thank you, also, to the three people above who replied to Frank Ferri's message, offering to provide information to me.  I'll contact them.

Ruth Patterson:  June 7, 2010

***  Here is a link to Ruth's blog:  Henry Robb




John D Stevenson

Trinity, Edinburgh

After leaving Royal High School in 1948, John Stevenson started work at Henry Robb's shipyard at Leith, Edinburgh.

John remembers:


"My first job after leaving Royal High School in 1948 was with Henry Robb's shipyard.

Henry Robb's gave me three interviews, the first with my mother present, before offering me a 5-year apprenticeship.

I had to pay £40 to be given the apprenticeship, and had to sign an Agreement.  I was not allowed to work for any other shipyard during my apprenticeship.  However, I managed to earn some cash by working unofficially for Hepburn's yard some weekends, without being detected.

My First Day

I remember my first day at the age of 16.  I arrived wearing my boiler suit, covering my blue shirt and the dark blue pinstripe trousers from my father's demob suit that he had come home from war in on 5 May 1945 and never worn again.

I was an apprentice engineer, one of six apprentices who started that day:

-  2 engineers

-  2 electricians

-  2 plumbers.

Our work started immediately.  There was no induction, no health and safety briefing, and no guidance as to the layout of the work area, toilets, etc.

Working Hours

My working hours were:

-  8 am to 5.30 pm, Monday to Friday, in the summer.

-  8 am to 5 pm Monday to Friday and 8 am to noon, Saturday, in the winter.   This was a carry-over from the war years when the riveters and platers needed to have good light to work in and were not allowed floodlights.

Our holidays were:

-   one week in the summer.

-  New Year's Day.

-  Victoria Day (Vicki Day) in the spring. 

Christmas Day was a normal working day until 1951."

Machine Shop

After completing my Apprenticeship, I continued to pay my regular 2/- (2 shillings) to the Amalgamated Engineering Union and I worked in the Machine Shop under the gaffer, 'Smithy' (Mr Smith).

I had a basic wage of  22/- a week + 2/6d a week bonus for working the lathe.  I soon discovered that if I broke a drill bit, there would be no bonus that week.

There was no sick pay, but the workers rallied round when one of them was in difficulty.  Collections were held and generously supported - e.g. "Put your hands in your pockets for Doug!"

John D Stevenson, Trinity, Edinburgh:  November 20, 2012




Arthur Williams

Thank you to Arthur Williams for sending me his recollections of working for Henry Robb Ltd.  These were sent as part of Arthur's recollections of growing up in Leith from 1935 to 1950.

Arthur wrote:


"I started in Henry Robb Ltd as an apprentice engineer.  We repaired a wide variety of   vehicles and machinery as well as ships auxiliary generators and engines. It was interesting and varied work as one hardly knew what one was going into every morning."

Henry Robb's Workers

"To a sixteen year old, the shipyards were very much of an eye opener. The cross section of humanity and skills which abounded was something one does not see in modern industry.
At the top of the echelon, were the ship designers  -  not just one person but a whole group on men, each involved in one aspect of the ship, and whose combined skills and expertise created the plans for this engineering marvel, something made of steel and a whole range of materials which actually floated and was capable of sailing thousands of miles.
In the middle, was a diverse array of trades all, in some degree, great or small, contributing to the finished product giving a tremendous sense of achievement and pride when the ship slid down the slipway into the water.
Never mind Archimedes' Law, when you see a ship sliding down the slipway and floating for the first time it really is a moving experience.
In those days, when full order books were the order of the day, within a week the slip would be prepared for the laying of the keel for the next vessel.
At the bottom of the scale were the 'Black Squad', the chippers and caulkers."

Professions and Trades

"The shipyard also employed:
-  draughtsmen, who produced the detail drawings which would be used to manufacture the hundreds of thousands parts that go into the making of the ship.
-   pattern makers
-   platers
-   riveters
-   blacksmiths
-   joiners and carpenters (and there is a difference)
 engineers, and
-  model makers who produced  magnificent models of every ship that was built in the yard.
There were also many ancillary jobs, some with wonderful names:
-  'a riveter's catch boy' .  He caught red hot rivets in a tin.
-  'a hole borer's hodder on'
-   and, amusingly, the so-called 'shitehouse clerk' whose function was to ensure that you did not spend more than about five minutes relieving your bowels."

Shipyard Toilets

"The shipyard toilets had to be seen to be believed.  They consisted of a thirty foot long trough, two foot wide by a foot deep. Along one edge was a polished wooden plank on which one sat.  Across the top of the trough at two foot intervals were partitions that projected about ten inches beyond the plank.
There were no doors which meant that one could conduct a conversation with ones neighbour whilst attending to ones bodily functions. At one end of the trough was a large cistern which discharged a large volume of water at regular intervals. This collected all the detritus and carried it along were it flowed out at the far end.
As apprentices we devised a devilish scheme which involved sitting, without lowering ones trousers, next to the cistern and just as it was about to flush we lit a crushed up newspaper and dropped it into the trough before beating a hasty retreat.
The resulting roars which emanated from the owners of singed backsides were likened to the foghorn on the Queen Mary."

Shipyard Humour

"The diversity of the workers sometimes resulted in humorous incidents:
-  One incident that sticks in my mind is when one of the office boys had been sent to buy a half pound of Foxes Mints by one of the directors.
He then came to me with them to put in the director’s car. I placed them in the front bench seat and took the car down to the office.
The director, whilst driving home, fancied a mint, but when he proceeded to stick one hand into the packet, he found his fingers embedded in a half pound of mince.
-  There was a camaraderie which at times resulted in a very strict code of justice.  In one instance an apprentice reported that a worker had tried to 'proposition' him.
The culprit was strung up on a chain block above an open hearth with a gas jet from a 6” pipe striking the brick wall beneath him and was nearly roasted alive.
Justice was swift and ruthless."

Arthur Williams:  December 17, 2013




John D Stevenson

Trinity, Edinburgh

Thank you top John D Stevenson who wrote

Henry Robb's

Victoria Shipyards


"Here is a  link to a piece in 'The Scotsman' about the Henry Robb, Victoria Shipyards, Leith.  The yards closed their doors in June 1984

I'm proud to say that I served an engineering apprenticeship there, from 1948 to 1953.  The Henry Robb yards employed over 1,450 men and women in their hey day

"Old" Henry Robb was an absolute gentleman: on his almost daily walks round the yard, he had a word for everybody.  He was sadly missed when he died!

John D Stevenson, Trinity, Edinburgh:  June 3, 2014


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