Town with a heritage trail but no future Even of the off-licence can't get enough trade

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IF YOU had followed the tourist board's heritage trail in Govan yesterday, you would have witnessed the end of an era. At site number 13 on the tour stood idle cranes as workers at the UK's biggest merchant shipyard contemplated its likely closure.

Where once a visitor would have been greeted by the deafening noise of riveters and blacksmiths, people were talking yesterday of never again hearing "the hammer's ding dong".

This is where for more than a century, at the sight of a red flag above the yard, schools on this western edge of Glasgow have emptied to see the launch of another great vessel on the Clyde. The children will be there again on Friday to watch the Crystal Ocean go down a slipway, but that could be the last big party.

Building ships has long been an inspiration for Govan people. At the turn of the century they could claim that the majority of ships on the high seas were Clyde built. More than 100,000 people were employed in 50 yards. Now there are a handful and if the Kvaerner shipyard goes, taking 1,200 jobs, the industry is dead.

It has been dying for a long time. The docks are derelict in places, filled with debris. Walk down the Govan Road from the yard and you pass TC Mini Market, Bargain Cabin and The Lyceum Cafe, all boarded up. Even the cheque-cashing shops are closing for lack of custom. A man from the Cheap and Cheerful Charity Shop joked yesterday about the most recent business failure. "It's a bad day in Govan," he said, "when an off licence shuts."

It was all very different before years of shipyard redundancies and natural wastage crippled the local economy. "Govan used to be great," recalled Marion Begley, 53, many of whose family have worked in the yard. "Everyone came to Govan to do their shopping. All the shops were here. There were three or four picture halls. Now there are none."

Govan itself remains in its faded grandeur a tribute to local ambition, with large stone-built civil buildings. The memory of John Elder, who developed the shipyard in 1864 out of Fairfield Farm, survives in the once elegant Elder Park and Elder public library. People miss the beautiful Victorian cottages that were demolished to make way for the subway from Glasgow. At Govan's heart still stands the Pearce Institute, built in 1902 from shipbuilding profits, and, with its vast vaulted concert hall, a match in its day for the new futuristic Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre standing just across the Clyde.

A large notice outside the institute, now essentially a community centre, still expresses the outward-looking spirit of shipbuilding towns, describing itself as "for the strangers of the world".

Govan's fate is not only central to the history of shipbuilding, it also marks a political turnaround. It was the Clydeside shipyards, led by the overt Communists Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie, which found the weaknesses in Edward Heath's brand of Conservatism. When Heath refused to bail out the loss-making yard in 1972, they staged a sit-in. "Everyone around here gave a pound or two to keep us going," recalled David Hunter, 64, a retired labourer at the yard, yesterday. "We even got money from Russia. There was no overtime, but we were making better basic wages than before."

Eventually, the Government agreed a rescue package. It is said that victory inspired the miners to take on the Government in 1973 and led to the Thatcherite takeover of the Tory party. Yet throughout nearly two decades of closures of steel mills at Ravenscraig and of a dozen Scottish pits, the shipyard at Govan stayed open. Even Michael Forsyth, the arch-Thatcherite, battled on behalf of Govan to secure defence contracts.

The great irony is that the yard survived Thatcherism but may be closed by the powerlessness of Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, the Scottish Industry minister, himself a marine fitter on Clydeside in the 1950s and took part in the early sit-ins.

It is tempting to think that this closure was always inevitable. You might think that younger people must have reconciled themselves to the fact that they would not follow their fathers and grandfathers into shipbuilding.

Yet chatting to young people around Govan yesterday, it was clear that many had still expected to work in the yard.

William Magee, 14, lives near the shipyard. In his Nike sweatshirt and trainers, he said: "My grandad worked there for 18 years. Everyone wanted to work there. If it stays open, I'm definitely going for an apprenticeship when I am 16." For him, the history of shipbuilding on Clydeside may be about to end too soon.