Famous Ships Built at the Cammell - Laird Shipyard in Birkenhead

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Famous ships built at the Cammell Laird shipyard Birkenhead, Ships built at the Cammell Laird shipyard Birkenhead, Birkenhead shipyard, facts about the Birkenhead Drill, HMS Birkenhead,

The Cammell Laird shipyard started life as a boiler making firm at the Birkenhead Ironworks, a company owned by Scotsman, William Laird (1780 - 1841) who moved to Birkenhead from his hometown of Greenock in Scotland in 1810, in order to set up a rope manufacturing business.

In 1922 William had become increasingly interested in engineering after having founded a steamship company with his partners William Hamilton and John Forsyth.

In 1829 his son, solicitor's clerk John (1805 - 1874) talked his father into manufacturing ships from iron, resulting in John Laird becoming a pioneer in the building of iron ships.

John Laird also became the M.P for Birkenhead from 1861 until his death in 1874. Throughout his life he was synonymous in the development of the town of Birkenhead, which was in those days just a village situated in the county of Cheshire. John Laird was instrumental in the building of a church, a hospital and an arts school, as well as several housing projects around the town and is remembered to this day by way of a variety of locations around the town that have been named in his honour.

The father and son's first shipyard of William Laird & Son was situated at Wallasey Pool, an arm of the River Mersey, just outside Birkenhead and their first ship was a 60 foot, prefabricated iron lighter, built for the Irish Inland Navigation Company, launched in 1829.

In 1857, 16 years after the death of his father William John Laird bought a new 20 acre shipyard complete with 5 dry docks at nearby Tranmere.

When John retired in 1861 to devote more time to his parliamentary work, the shipyard was taken over by his three sons, William, John and Henry Laird.

In 1903, 29 years after the death of John Laird, the company merged with the Sheffield steele making company Johnson Cammell & Co, owned by Charles Cammell (1810 - 1879). This merger resulted in the beginning of the world famous ship building company of Cammell - Laird, which continued to build hundreds of ships at Birkenhead until 1993, which were sold all over the world.

Several of these ships have become famous for various reasons and below is a list of some of the more eminent of these vessels.


                             John Laird 1805 - 1874


River Steamships

The company started life building river steamships, mainly for use on and around the lakes and rivers of Great Britain. The most famous of these steamships was the Ma Robert, built for African explorer, Dr David Livingstone (1813 - 1873) for use on his travels upon the Zambezi River.


                     The CSS Alabama


 Iron built warships were becoming big business in the latter part of the 19th century. The Laird & Sons shipyard began to make warships not only for the British Navy, but for foreign navies too.

Their list of warships include, HMS Scorpion, HMS Wivern, HMS Captain, HMS Liverpool D92 and the steam destroyer HMS Rattlesnake. But the most famous of them all was the CSS Alabama, built for the American Confederate Government in 1862.

The CSS Alabama terrorised international waters all over the world during its 7 expeditionary raids in which it sunk 63 ships over a two year period.

On the 11th of June 1864, CSS Alabama made her way to Cherbourg in France for a much needed and long awaited refit. As she entered the English Channel she was met by the Union Warship, the USS Kearsarge.

The two ships engaged in a battle (instigated by the CSS Alabama) in which the CSS Alabama was sunk and her survivors rescued by the enemy USS Kearsarge.


The shipyard was instrumental in the building of iron war ships, many of which were built for the home navy in Britain, these warships included the HMS Royal Oak, built in 1892, HMS Glory built in 1899, HMS Audacious built in 1901 and HMS Achilles built in 1932. But the most famous of these warships has to be the HMS Prince of Wales, which was instrumental in the sinking of the German Battleship the Bismarck in the north Atlantic in 1941.


                HMS Ark Royal (R09)

Aircraft Carriers

The shipyard at Birkenhead built several aircraft carriers for use by the British Navy, including HMS Venerable built in 1943 and the second and third ships to be given the name HMS Ark Royal, which went by the pennant numbers 91 and  R09 which were built in 1939 and in 1950.

The second Ark Royal (91) was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean Sea in 1941 by a German U Boat and the third Ark Royal (R09) became a T.V. star, after featuring in the British T.V. documentary series 'Sailor' in the 1970's.


Submarines were also built at the Birkenhead shipyard, including HMS Unicorn, HMS Reknown, HMS Revenge and the most famous of them all, HMS Conqueror, which sank the Argentinian warship the ARA General Belgrano in 1982 during the Falklands conflict, killing 323 of its crew.


The Mauritania 2

Cruise Liners

The shipyard at Birkenhead is probably more famous for the building of its cruise liners than any other ship, although it made considerably less of them than any other shipThe shipyard built liners for several of the larger cruise companies, including Cunard Line, which commissioned the building of The Cephalonia built in 1882, the Samaria built in 1920 and the 2nd ship to have the name, Mauritania built in 1939.

The company also built ships for the Union Castle Line, of which the most famous of these was the Windsor Castle, built in 1960 as a mail ship for use in South Africa.

Mersey Ferries

Despite the Cammel Laird shipyard being based on the River Mersey, very few of the world famous Mersey ferries were actually built there.

It is not known just how many of them were actually home built but it has been assertained that the entire Birkenhead post World War I fleet was built at Cammel Laird, these were the ferries Bidston, Claughton, Hinderton, Thurstaston and Upton, all of which were built betwen 1925 and 1933.

The last ferry to be built by Cammel Laird was the Birkenhead ferry Overchurch, built in 1962.

Merchant Ships

 Several merchant ships were built at Birkenhead, particularly oil tankers.

The most famous of these oil tankers was the pioneering, Shell Tanker, Sepia built in 1956, which was the first gas turbine ship in the world.

Merchant ships that played a prominent part in WWII were, MV Brisbane Star and SS City of Pretoria.


 HMCS Windsor, the last vessel to be constructed at Cammell -  Laird, Birkenhead                        


Although the shipyard in Birkenhead officially ceased business in 1993, there are still quite a few of its ships sailing the seven seas to this day. These include the destroyers HMS Edinburgh and HMS Campbletown, the WWI Cruiser HMS Caroline and the submarines HMS Onyx and HMCS Windsor (formerly the HMS Unicorn) the last ship to be built at the Cammell - Laird Shipyard in Birkenhead, she was launched on the 16th of April 1992.


Several of the Birkenhead war horses have been preserved for prosperity around the world, including the Turret Ship Huascar built in 1865 for the Peruvian Navy which now takes pride of place in the Chilean Naval base at Talcahuano.

The Corvette, Antarctic explorer, the ARA Uruguay built in 1874, is now a museum ship in Buenos Aries, Argentina.

The training ship, the Presidente Sarmiento, built in 1897 is now a museum ship in Buenos Aries, Argentina.


Two former Birkenhead built ships have been found locally and are presently undergoing restoration at their home port in Birkenhead.

They are the former tug boat the Daniel Adamson built for use on the Manchester Ship canal in 1903 and the Isle of Man cruise steamer the TSS Manxman built in 1955.

For more information about ships built at Cammel Laird in Birkenhead, Wiki has an extensive list on their Cammel Laird page with links to pages of information about each ship. You may also find this invaluable website of interest -



                              HMS Birkenhead (1)                    HMS Birkenhead, (2) 

                                                               HMS BIRKENHEAD

Two ships at the Cammell - Laird shipyard were built bearing the name Birkenhead.

The first vessel was a steam frigate launched in 1845, originally under the name of HMS Vulcan.

In 1851 she was overhauled into a troopship and renamed HMS Birkenhead.

On the 25th of February 1852, with 643 men, women and children and nine horses aboard, she set sail from Simonstown in South Africa on the last leg of a journey bound for Algoa Bay on South Africa's east coast.

At 02.00 on the 26th of February she struck a concealed rock at a place called Danger Point off the coast of Gansbaal.

Her captain, Robert Salmond, ordered all the women and children into the ship's cutter and had the horses driven into the sea, in the hope that they would be able to swim to shore.

Ten minutes later, the ship struck the rock again, tearing the ship's bottom in half.

Captain Salmond immediately ordered those that could swim to abandon ship and swim for land, but the troops commander in chief, Colonel Seton, ordered his military personell to ' Stand Fast'  realising that letting the men jump overboard and knowing they would try and board the cutter, would endanger the lives of the women and children.

Colonel Seton's men did not move, even as the ship broke up and began to sink. 

Within 20 minutes the ship was submerged. Of the 643 passengers, 193 men survived, 8 of the nine horses managed to swim to shore and all the women and children survived.

This event led to the instigation of three things -  

1) The naval protocol of ' women and children first ' in the case of a ship going down.  

2) The act known as the Birkenhead Drill, a term first coined by Rudyard Kipling and applied to a heroic act of chivalry when faced with helpless circumstances.

3)  The building of the Danger Point lighthouse in 1895.

The second HMS Birkenhead was a light cruiser launched in 1915, which, along with her sister ship HMS Chester, was originally built for the Greek Navy, but was then bought by the British Navy.

The two ships were part of the Light Squadron of the Grand Fleet and both took part at the Battle of Jutland in June 1916.

HMS Birkenhead 2 was sold for scrap in 1921

Articles about ships built at Birkenhead by the same author -

RFA Bayleaf

The Story of the CSS Alabama


Ron Siojo
Posted on Apr 14, 2011
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Jerry Walch
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Guimo Pantuhan
Posted on Apr 13, 2011