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Stories about the lives we've made

module:Britain between the wars

The decline of the old industries and the rise of the consumer market

page:Other declining industries: Shipbuilding

UK shipbuilding

The scale of the problem

At the end of the nineteenth century British shipyards built over half of world shipping.

Towns grew enormously on the back of shipbuilding. But this domination collapsed in the interwar years. In 1933 production was seven percent of the pre 1914 figure. At the height of the world recession, unemployment in this industry was greater than in any of the other declining industries.

Efficiency of production and organisation

Rivetting a ship in dry dock, 1930s. picture zoom © Hulton Archive

As other countries sought to compete with British shipbuilding, they developed ways of making their own industries more efficient. They pioneered the use of covered docks so that production could carry on whatever the weather and they adopted technical change more readily and with more flexible use of labour.

Welding together sections of a boat, 19 September 1918. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

As foreign yards competed successfully, it became evident that the British industry was over capacity and governments sought to encourage greater competitiveness by closing down some of the yards and encouraging investment in a limited number of others. This was the task, for example, of the National Shipbuilders’ Security Ltd. By 1937 they had bought and closed 28 firms. But this reduction was often at enormous social cost.

It closed the yard at Jarrow, but this left 80 percent of the working population unemployed with little hope of alternative work. Jarrow became a symbol of the devastating effect of unemployment, and resulted in a famous protest ‘hunger march’ to London.

Jarrow marchers passing through Buckinghamshire, 26 October 1936. picture zoom © Daily Herald Archive/Science & Society Picture Library

Technological change

British yards were resistant to change and adapted to it slowly. One change was the shift from the traditional process of linking the sheets of metal with rivets to the far less laborious process of welding. Another was the use of covered yards.


Development of foreign industries in, for example, Germany, USA, Japan and Sweden had a devastating effect on British yards, which could no longer take for granted their virtual monopoly of shipbuilding.

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Have you completed the summary table as requested? If not please do so. Use the table below if you have not already.

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Table: Decline of the old industries
Cotton and textiles Iron and steel Shipbuilding
Scale of decline over time ... ... ...
Production and organisation ... ... ...
Technological changes ... ... ...
Markets ... ... ...


Resource Descriptions

Rivetting a ship in dry dock, 1930s.
Welding together sections of a boat, 19 September 1918.
Jarrow marchers passing through Buckinghamshire, 26 October 1936.
Clip from Shipyard, 1935.
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