William Beardmore's foray into shipbuilding was characterised by grandiose thinking, some very real achievements and a rather tragic end.
By the end of the 19th century, William Beardmore & Co was established at Parkhead in Glasgow, manufacturing steel forgings principally for the shipbuilding industry. William Beardmore, the driving force behind the business, was an energetic person who took a great interest in the possibilities that engineering offered. This he later summarised in a short film made of his company's products entitled The Romance of Engineering, a sentiment perhaps difficult to envisage today.
In the last decade of the 19th Century, Beardmore began the manufacture of armour plate and gun-making at his Parkhead works. This was followed in 1899, by his decision to add shipbuilding to his activities. In doing this, his motivation was similar to that of other steel producers, such as Vickers, John Brown and Armstrong, who saw shipbuilding, and naval shipbuilding in particular, as a natural extension of their business. Beardmore's timing was good, coinciding with the start of naval rivalry between Britain and Germany which added to the requirement for new warships. In 1900, Beardmore took over Robert Napier's old yard at Govan and began the construction of warships and merchant ships.
Although the Govan yard gave Beardmore an immediate start in shipbuilding, it was too small for his requirements. In 1900, he purchased a large tract of ground at Dalmuir to the immediate west of John Brown's Clydebank shipyard. Here, Beardmore laid out the most extensive and well-equipped private shipyard and marine engineering works in the UK. This was an ambitious development given Beardmore's modest track record in shipbuilding. Nevertheless, the Naval Construction Works, as the yard was named, opened with the launch of the battleship Agamemnon for the Royal Navy in June 1906.
The viability of the yard was quickly pulled into question during the 1907-1909 slump in shipbuilding when the firm was unable to attract sufficient orders. The gathering pace of naval orders from 1910 onwards brought a steady flow of work from the Admiralty. Nevertheless, the lack of firm relationships with shipping lines such as those enjoyed by other shipbuilders would remain a problem for the Dalmuir yard. The period before and during the First World War witnessed an explosion of activity at Dalmuir, almost certainly a reflection of William Beardmore's restless energy for new products as much as the requirements of a country at war. In addition to shipbuilding and marine engineering, Beardmore created new facilities for the construction of submarines, aircraft, airships and tanks as well as mines, guns and fuses for shells. These developments brought the Dalmuir work force to a total of 13,000. Elsewhere in Beardmore's West of Scotland industrial empire, the expansion of productive facilities during the War brought the total to 40,000 employed.
Beardmore's contribution to the Royal Navy included the battleships Conqueror, Benbow and Ramillies, as well as Argus, the world's first flush-deck aircraft carrier, and many cruisers, destroyers and submarines. Over 480 aircraft were constructed at Dalmuir as well as parts for two rigid airships although erection of these plus two others was concentrated at new Beardmore works at Inchinnan.
In 1921, in recognition of his major contribution to the war effort, Beardmore was raised to the peerage, becoming Lord Invernairn.
When the war ended in 1918, Beardmore was faced with the dilemma of how to keep his works occupied in the absence of war work. He likened this to a great wheel, the momentum of which had to be gradually stopped and then slowly turned in the opposite direction. Ships would be needed but he foresaw the development of aircraft and airships in a new era of travel. More realistically, part of the Dalmuir works were turned over to locomotive construction and repair while the shipyard and marine engine works were readied for what was thought to be a lengthy boom in rebuilding the war depleted merchant fleets of the world. To take advantage of this expected boom, Beardmore built new building berths and steel working facilities at the east end of the existing Dalmuir yard. His enterprise would not be rewarded. The new yard opened in 1921 just as the post-war boom in shipbuilding came to a rapid and unforeseen end.
Another set back came in 1922 with the signing of the Washington Naval Treaty. In this, the world's major powers agreed that no new battleships would be constructed for ten years, the very type of ship Dalmuir was best suited to build. From this period onward, Beardmore's yard struggled to maintain the necessary volume of work through its various departments.
These difficult years were not without some notable achievements however. In the early 1920s, three magnificently appointed intermediate liners, Conte Rosso, Conte Verde and Conte Biancamano were built for the Lloyd Sabaudo line of Genoa. Beardmore also carried out some innovatory work on the Beardmore-Tosi marine diesel engine, an important technology that many British shipbuilders had failed to develop. Of equal interest was Beardmore's desire to maintain an aircraft design office at Dalmuir through contracts secured from the Air Ministry to build novel, all-metal aircraft.
As the depressed years of the 1920s bit deeply into the British manufacturing base, Beardmore was unable to take the drastic steps needed to save his company, which, by the late 1920s, was in a state of financial collapse. At first, restructuring foresaw the retention of the Dalmuir works because of an expected resumption in naval work. However, the continued crisis in shipbuilding brought forward a company formed by shipbuilders themselves, National Shipbuilders Security Ltd, whose purpose was to eliminate ailing shipyards in the belief that remaining yards would have a better chance of survival. In 1930, the Dalmuir shipyard was among the first to be bought. After closure in 1931, its facilities were dismantled. Attempts to retain marine engineering were successful for only a few years thereafter and this remnant of William Beardmore's great vision for the Dalmuir Naval Construction Works closed in 1936.