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October 2018

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In 1953 the future of the Berwick yard was secured when it was taken over by the Fairmile Construction Company Ltd.

Fairmile LogoFor many locals Berwick Shipyard will always be synonymous with the name ‘Fairmile’ for it was the Fairmile Construction Company Ltd. that would run the Berwick yard between 1953 and 1972 a period when it would gain a national and international reputation for quality and workmanship.

The name ‘Fairmile’ was already well known in naval circles.  Founded by the British industrialist Noel Macklin, Fairmile Marine had achieved a reputation during the Second World War for the design of fast motor launches notably the famous Fairmile ‘B’ and Fairmile ‘D’ motor launches that had proved very successful in anti-submarine warfare. Noel (later Sir Noel) Macklin had been a naval reservist and commissioned officer during the Great War. He had first made his name as the designer and manufacturer of Railton and Invicta cars and between the wars had also been involved in a number of yachting projects. The company’s headquarters were based in Cobham, Surrey the home of Sir Noel’s country estate from which the firm took it’s name. 

Fairmile Headquarters at Fairfield, Green Lane, Cobham.
Fairmile Headquarters at Cobham (circa 1962/63)..
Photo: Courtesy of Mrs Kay Blackwood

During the Second World War Macklin persuaded the Admiralty to adopt the simple but brilliant idea of utilising inland small manufacturing units such as furniture and piano workshops to prefabricate sections of vessels.  These were then transported for assembly at various boatyards such as the one at Cockenzie where William Weatherhead and Sons had their premises.  The relationship between Weatherheads and Fairmile established during the war continued after the end of hostilities.  In 1953 when the former ran into difficulties, Fairmile Construction Ltd. stepped in to take over the running of the Berwick yard. 

During the 1950's and 60's the Fairmile Construction Company Ltd was run from the company's base at Fairfield, Green Lane, Cobham. The offices were located on the ground floor and served as the headquarters of Fairmile Marine during the Second World War from where a team of naval architects and designers developed the legendary Fairmile motor launches for the Royal Navy. After the war the same offices were put to civilian use and it was here that ships plans were drawn up and sent to Berwick. Fairmile operated another yard at Hayling Island where vessels were built in aluminium. This venture however, was shorter-lived than the Berwick operation where all vessels were of steel construction.

The drawing office at Cobham.
The Fairmile Construction Company Ltd. drawing office at Cobham, Surrey (circa 1962/63).. During the Second World War it was within these same offices that designs for the legendary Fairmile motor launches were drawn up. Photo: Courtesy of Mrs Kay Blackwood, Suffolk (widow of former Fairmile designer, Joseph Blackwood).

During the Fairmile era a wide variety of vessels were built at Berwick including barges, pontoons, fishing boats, tugboats, ferries, luxury yachts, launches and a range of military craft. Berwick-built vessels were to see service throughout the world including Europe , Africa, the West Indies, the Far East, central and south America, the United States and the South Pacific.

El Kabir
Finishing touches being applied by yard workers to the tug El Kabir constructed for the Port of Sudan in 1957. Note the riveted hull and elevated bridge. Fairmile designed vessels built at Berwick would see service througout the world. Photo: © Berwick Advertiser

The build list reveals how patterns of production at the yard changed over the years.  During the 1950’s Fairmile obtained orders from domestic and overseas customers including Crown Agents acting on behalf of Commonwealth administrations. Many of the vessels constructed at this time were small steel launches.

St Peter
Early Fairmile builds included St. Peter, one of two of Game and Fisheries launches built for Uganda in 1954.
Photo:© Ward-Philipson

The period between 1957 and 1961 was arguably one of the most productive in the yard’s history. Government loans and grants to the fishing industry stimulated demand for steel-

Craigmillar Builders Plate

hulled fishing vessels. During this period 21 fishing vessels were launched at Berwick the majority of which would join the Scottish fishing fleet. The withdrawal of state aid to the fishing industry however meant that the yard had to diversify and look elsewhere for orders.   In the first half of the decade luxury yachts replaced fishing vessels as the main source of work.  Seven of the nine luxury motor yachts built at Berwick in the post-war era were completed between the years 1962 – 1966.Shipbuilding, like many of the traditional industries in post-war Britain was subject to the vagaries of the market and exchange rates. The Berwick yard, like it’s counterparts elsewhere was no less prone to fluctuating market conditions.  Throughout the yard’s history the workforce was subject to pay-offs and lay-offs.  The yard also experienced it’s share of industrial relations problems that were a feature of British industry in the 60’s and 70’s.

A decline in orders for trawlers in the 1960's saw production switch to other types of vessel including ocean-going yachts such as Tavit pictured above.
A decline in orders for trawlers in the 1960's saw production switch to other types of vessel including ocean-going yachts such as Tavit pictured above. Photo: D. Redfearn Collection

In 1963 an empty order book raised fears for the future.  The situation was alleviated however when the yard secured orders for two tugs from the Corinth Canal Company.  In the ensuing years output varied.  New orders included ramped power lighters for the Ministry of  Defence, ferries for home and abroad (including Tanzania and Scotland), luxury motor yachts,  small river tugs, a dual purpose fishing vessel for Tonga and a dredger for Gambia.

The years 1968 – 1972 marked one of the busiest and most productive periods in the yards history.  At one point no less than five vessels were under construction at the same time.  These were two ‘Seal Class’ RAF long range recovery and support craft, a 93’ tug for the Tees Towing Company, a 73’ luxury yacht for an American businessman and an 80’ fishing vessel. The number of  ships under construction within the confined space of the Berwick site and the diversity of vessel types was indicative of both the versatility of the workforce and the reputation for quality and workmanship in the construction of small craft that the Fairmile company had acquired over the years. 

Seagull Launch   Boston Sea Sprite
Seagull, one of two 'Seal Class' long-range recovery vessels built for the MOD takes to the water for the first time on a snowy February day in 1970. Photo: © Iain Havery  
Boston Sea Sprite - the final vessel to be built at Berwick while the yard was under Fairmile ownership.
Photo:© Bill Todd

In October 1970 a t the launch of the tug Leven Cross owners Fairmile announced that the shipyard had a full order book that would keep the workers busy for the next two years. Few would have realised at the time however that this intensive spell of shipbuilding would never again be repeated.

Fairmile LogoOnly one further vessel, the stern trawler Boston Sea Sprite,would be built while the yard remained under Fairmile ownership. When it left the Tweed in August 1972 this would mark the end of an era.  Fairmile had decided to end their interest in shipbuilding at Berwick. With the exception of the yard manager and a handful of maintenance staff the workforce, which had numbered over 100 at it’s peak, was paid off and the yard fell silent.  Was this to be the end of shipbuilding at Berwick?  In April 1973 it was announced that the yard had been sold and that shipbuilding would shortly resume.

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