Mersey swansong as last boat sets sail

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A 165-YEAR HISTORY of shipbuilding on the Mersey came to an end yesterday as the last vessel sailed away to signal the closure of the Cammell Laird yard.

The remaining workforce of fewer than 400 was joined by former workers to watch the pounds 100m submarine HMS Unicorn handed over to the Royal Navy.

In a deliberately low-key ceremony, Rod Stewart's 'Sailing' was piped over speakers as tugs pulled Unicorn into the Mersey. A banner reading 'The End' was draped across the head of the dock as the submarine's crew gave three cheers for the workforce.

The VSEL-owned yard - which built the liner Mauretania, two Ark Royals, two Polaris submarines, and delivered a fighting ship to the Navy every 20 days during the Second World War - is now effectively closed. Most of the workforce will leave by the end of next week.

As the submarine left number five dock, the company's personnel director, David Foulis, blamed the Government for the closure of the yard, which once employed 20,000 people in Birkenhead. 'This was inevitable once Tom King, the then Defence Secretary, stood up in Parliament in July 1990 and announced the most devastating cuts in the history of the Navy,' he said. 'But because we were designated by British Shipbuilders as a warship yard we couldn't build other vessels. We could not compete because the Government would not let us.'

The designation as a warship yard meant Cammell Laird was denied access to the intervention fund available to its European competitors.

Ken Morris, chairman of the shop stewards, claimed the yard could have been sold 'three times over' with the help of the intervention fund. 'This yard is capable of building anything. But it needed the political will to keep us open and it wasn't there.'

Employees said the prospects of finding other work were grim. Steven Wood, 39, whose wife also worked at the yard, said: 'Both of us are on the scrapheap. It is going to be life on the dole.'

(Photographs omitted)