Fairmile

In 1953 the future of the Berwick yard was secured when it was taken over by the Fairmile Construction Company Ltd. Between 1953 and 1972 shipbuilding at Berwick would become synonymous with the name ‘Fairmile’ for it was during this period that the yard would be run by Fairmile Construction Company Ltd. Under Fairmile ownership the shipyard would become one of the main employers in the town producing a wide variety of small craft the quality of which would help it 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 legendary 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. 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 Weatherhead’s 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. Throughout 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. Under Fairmile ownership 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 designed by Fairmile 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. 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 and tugs. Throughout the period 1957 -1961 the yard prospered thanks to a full order book. Government loans and grants to the fishing industry stimulated demand for steel-hulled fishing vessels. During this time 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 at the beginning of the sixties the yard had to diversify and look elsewhere for orders. In the first half of the decade luxury yachts replaced fishing vessels as a 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 fluctuating 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. In 1963 an empty order book raised fears for the yard’s 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 yard’s 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. In October 1970 at the launch of the tug Leven Cross owners Fairmile announced that the shipyard had secured orders that would keep the workforce 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. Only 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, after lying idle for a number of months, it was announced that the yard had been sold and that shipbuilding would shortly resume.
Fairmile Headquarters at Cobham (circa 1962/63).Photo: Courtesy of Mrs Kay Blackwood 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 throughout the world. Photo: © Berwick Advertiser 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). Early Fairmile builds included St. Peter, one of two of Game and Fisheries launches built for Uganda in 1954. Photo:© Ward-Philipson 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 Boston Sea Sprite - the final vessel to be built at Berwick while the yard was under Fairmile ownership. Photo:© Bill Todd 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 TOP

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