Boom and bust, as seen from Holt Hill: The closure of Cammell Laird at Birkenhead spells the end of a tradition going back 164 years. Scyld Berry reports

FOLLOWING the announcement that Cammell Laird shipyard is to close after 164 years, two sources of comfort can be found in Birkenhead, if only two.

One is that the Cammell Laird workers have seen a long-standing joke come to fruition. For the six years since Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering took them over, they have said about their owners, and about a non-interventionist government: 'Give 'em an inch and they'll take the yard.' And last week they did.

The second is that the news of Cammell Laird's closure next July has led to widespread reproduction of one of the greatest of British photographs: that of a schoolboy walking down a street in Birkenhead towards the shipyard, where the shining hull of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal is resting, like a great white whale upon the rooftops.

Various dates were given last week for the photograph, most of them wrong, as was that given by the photographer himself, E Chambre Hardman. But then Hardman was an eccentric by the time he died in 1988, aged 89. An obsessive hoarder, he left behind in his Georgian house in Liverpool - in Rodney Street where Gladstone was born - a mass of ephemera and early wirelesses, along with 70,000 casually strewn negatives.

Like some other English eccentrics, Hardman was not English at all, but born outside Dublin, the son of a land agent. After serving in the 8th Gurkha Rifles, he set up a photography business in Liverpool with another officer he had met in India, Kenneth Burrell. Hardman was doubtful about their prospects, until he had Lord Derby sit for him; followed by a slightly dishevelled, exceedingly dishy Ivor Novello ('Does not like his left profile taken,' Hardman noted).

Like Constable, however, Hardman did portraits for commercial reasons, while his delight lay in landscapes. According to Vivienne Tyler of the E Chambre Hardman Trust, he was a 'Victorian pictorialist', specialising in rural scenes of Scotland, North Wales and France, not a social realist at all. His aim in the famous photograph was to illustrate the grandeur of the Ark Royal, not the harsh existence of those who had built it.

Hardman took at least 20 trial shots before he found the right place, on Holt Hill, Birkenhead, and the right time, when the boy was the sole figure and a hand- cart lay at the bottom of the street. Years later he noted about the Ark Royal: 'She had just been given a white undercoat prior to her launch by the Queen Mother,' and dated it to 1947. But research has shown that it must have been April 1950.

After the photograph was finally taken, using a Graflex and long lens, Hardman worked on the print to darken the cream-coloured wall of the house half-way down the hill on the left (since cleared away), so it would not compete with the Ark Royal for lustre. Some rubbish was swept away too, and Hardman even pulled the boy's socks up for him, so that his white flesh would not distract the eye.

Today the gas-lamp has gone, but the semis are all too similar and the advertisement hoardings remain, although at a different angle and promoting Vauxhall and Bacardi, not Tizer or Craven A. But the biggest change, and no less dominating than the Ark Royal, is the Construction Hall, 150m by 180m, the biggest in Europe, wherein military vessels could be built covertly. It will soon be useless.

At the bottom of Holt Hill is a pub, the Old House At Home, recently chosen by Camra as Real Ale Pub of the Year. Inside, imminently redundant workers have scant faith in the protests being made by local MPs, seeing them as a mere formality. They repeat another of their jokes: 'What do choirboys and Cammell Laird have in common? They are both screwed by Vickers.'

At one time 40,000 men swarmed to and from the factory gates, building merchant and naval ships, oil rigs and submarines (the first vessels as long ago as 1828). The current workforce, below 1,000, has only to fit out the oil supply vessel Fort Victoria, the biggest ship in the yard since the Windsor Castle (Union Castle's flagship liner) in 1960, and complete the Unicorn sub. The rest of the blackened sheds, the wet and dry basins, even the Construction Hall, lie inert; as no doubt will, soon, some of the 600 firms which supply Cammell Laird.

(Photographs omitted)