‘Only most modern yards will survive’ (1960)

Dr Denis Rebbeck, deputy managing director of Harland and Wolff, said during this week in September 1960, that only the most modern shipbuilding yards with the most economical means of “production, enlightened and progressive labour force” would survive in the years that lay ahead.

Tuesday, 5th October 2021, 4:38 pm
The Duke of Edinburgh visiting Harland and Wolff during the Jubilee visit in July 1977. Picture: Pacemaker Press
The Duke of Edinburgh visiting Harland and Wolff during the Jubilee visit in July 1977. Picture: Pacemaker Press

He was speaking at the annual dinner in Belfast Castle of the Northern Ireland Society of Incorporated Secretaries, of which he was president, said that if all this was to be achieved the Belfast shipyard must go forth to meet the “shadowy shipbuilding future” without fear and with a manly heart.

It was a long step from a century previously when the Queen’s Island built an occasional iron ship to the present when there stood on and around that “island” a ship factory which in 1960 had already launched 162,000 gross tonnes, equal to two “Queens”.

“And there are still more ships to be launched before the end of the year,” he said.

“This is a tremendous potential for good, as the government is well aware,” said Dr Rebbeck, “but what a disaster for all if the machine ran really slow or even stopped. I saw it stopped in the 1930s when every slip was empty, and I really think it was more frightening in its own way than the blitz on the yard in 1941.”

He asked: “But what can we do about this serious? Since the war we have spent large sums of money to bring our yard up-to-date and today final staged of that huge modernisation scheme are in hand with large travelling cranes and prefabricating shops all on a most ambitious scale.”

But was this in itself enough? Was heavy capital expenditure on the provision of better and more efficient physical means of production necessarily the end of the story? “I think so,” he said.

Dr Rebbeck went on: “We can, I believe, learn something from our Continental competitors, particularly in regard to the organisation of labour and its general attitude to innovation and change. We live in new and challenging times when our future is becoming increasingly dependent upon an enlightened, progressi ve and enthusiastic approach to the daily task.”

He said it was essential that prudent capital expenditure backed by far-seeing and progressive management was reinforced by a rank and file which appreciated the vital importance of modern techniques and the necessity of more economical methods of production.

“I have sufficient faith in the innate good sense of our Ulster workpeople to believe that they will see that our common future is at stake and that any problems which arise will be disposed of with a sense of realism and responsibility,” he said.

Dr Rebbeck said the root of the trouble was that the world shipbuilding capacity had expanded so rapidly that it could replace all shipping in the whole world every 10 years. It followed that a closer balance would have to be struck between the demand for ships and the facilities to build them.

In proposing the toast to the Northern Ireland government, Dr Rebbeck said it was very hard to be original on that theme because he had already offered that sentiment on four different occasions in that very room.

He said that it was even more difficult to be original considering he was involved in 14 launches a year.

Mr W J Morgan, Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Commerce, who responded, said the government were satisfied that a considerable amount had been achieved in bringing new industries to the province, but that a great deal more was necessary to raise Northern Ireland up to the same level of industrial activity as the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr F H J Wileman, secretary, the Corporation of Secretaries, who proposed the toast of the city and county borough of Belfast, said he believed that one of the problems of the day was that 
administration had not keep up with technological advances.