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THE BALLAD OF THE BIG SHIPS - Thursday 28 December 21:00-22:00


The final programme in the 2006 Radio Ballads series examines the lives of shipbuilders from Tyne and Wear and the Clyde, two regions with a proud maritime history. Shipbuilding has been in the blood for generations on these rivers, although the heyday for both communities is well in the past. The men and women in The Ballad of the Big Ships talk about how building ships has driven their lives, their hopes, their humour and their culture.

Roy Fitzsimmons

Roy Fitzsimmons, artist and ex-shipyard worker, talks about shipyard humour.

The Ballad covers all aspects of shipbuilding, from the dirty jobs: plating, welding and riveting - known as the 'black trades' - to the finishing and launch. It’s brutal work, welding steel as icy winds blow in from the river; uncomfortable, uncertain and dangerous, yet these people's anecdotes reveal how humans look for the funny side of such an existence. Both sets of interviewees - Geordies and Glaswegians - share an unbreakable gift to see the funny side of life, however bleak it appears.


"The big ships are gone now, there's no more to tell, for the queen stole your heart love, when she waved her farewell ..."

Written from the interviews featured in the show, the songs come from Karine Polwart, observing how ships can be fixed but people can’t (You Can’t Weld a Body); from Newcastle songwriter Jez Lowe, who details everyday life in the shipyards (Setting on Men and Hammerhead Crane) and from Ballads musical director John Tams, who contributes Till The Spring Comes and the moving finale Only Remembered.
John Tams

"Hands grow colder, lives grow older, cruel winter seeps into the vein. Hear the clamour, raise the banner, for the living iron rises again."

Former Glasgow shipyard worker turned poet Brian Whittingham reads ‘The Apprentice’ about his memories of working as a young lad in the yards and ‘The Great Voltaire’ about the amateur turns who would entertain their colleagues with magic shows, tricks or singing. Among the horror stories of asbestosis and the terrible conditions under which shipworkers toil, it's the resilience and creativity of the men and women who contributed to The Ballad of the Big Ships which leaves a lasting emotional impression.


Detail of the container ship Lalandia.


Shipbuilding is a way of life for some and a distant memory for others. Do you or members of your family have personal stories to share? Send us your comments.

Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.

Read what others have said.

Terry McFaddon
The stories and anecdotal material used to document the passing of this once leviathan industry of shipbuilding were sensitively melded into a very moving hour. I thoroughly enjoyed the programme. My only regret is that the once great powerhouse of "cotton and twill" along with the “black diamonds” coal industry were not part of the series. I have some suspicion that "Lanky folk” were somehow kept out of the producers thoughts, also the idiom of the songs and those of the minstrels were very much east of the Pennines. May be the next series?

Andrew Cheal London
I was lucky enough to be lectured at college by Charles Parker (producer of the original Radio Ballads in the 1960s). Now, 30 years later, I feared the Radio Ballad as an art form had gone the way of the herring fishing, mining, steel, and ship-building industries. I am delighted that this series proves me wrong. As someone who works in commercial radio, I will defend the BBC to the death while it continues to make programmes like these.

Bob Thompson. Rye East Sussex
i remember having the day off school to go and see the launch of the esso northumbria. i was 12 at the time and still remember the rats running out if the drag chaines. and i know also that there was great pride in wallsend at the achievement of building this massive ship. alas we showed the japanese how to build them and they went off and built them cheaper...cruel world eh.

Christopher Parkin, Sunderland
Unfortunately It seems as thought the world still revolves around Tyneside! The Wear, as mentioned by Bryan Clark was the biggest shipbuilding town and I find it hard to believe that the producers ignored the fact. There are countless stories and tales, especially from during the war, when we were bombed quite heavy, because of the shipbuilding. I may suggest that the producers where lazy in there research and found it easy just to go to Newcastle (although Newcastle never had a shipbuilding history) and dig up a few tales and songs there, rather than come down the road and do some proper research into the subject. Overall I was disappointed by and episode that I was quite looking foward to, and I don't think that I would be the only one!

Andy Turner, Didcot, Oxon
Many thanks for commissioning this intelligent series. John Tams was the obvious choice, I suppose, to follow in Ewan MacColl's footsteps but in this case the obvious choice was also the right choice.

Bryan Clark Croydon
My second attempt to draw attention to the fact that,although an otherwise excellent programme,advertised as being about Tyne,Wear and Clyde,there was no mention of Sunderland on the Wear, the biggest shipbuilding town in the world in the fifties. Nor was there a single recognisable Sunderland voice in the programme. I speak as someone who worked in the Wear shipyards,as did my ,brothers,gr andfather,greatgrandfather and even great great grandfather. And once again,all ships' engineers were not Scottish,they came from all over the UK. Finally what about Belfast, the Tees, the Mersey,the Thames,the Humber the Solent and elsewhere where ships were built? No mention of these shipbuilding centres.

Patrick Bellew London
My father and grandfather were riviters and then welders on the Clyde. My first job when I left school in 1971 was in telecommunications installation (i.e. dry, indoor, safe work) I was utterly horrified when I first worked in the yards when I was eighteen, by the discomfort, the filth and worst of all the danger. I remember well how the whole workforce would walk out whenever anyone was killed at work.

Eddie Darke North Tyneside
I listen to the programme last night and I thought it was very good. The songs added to the programme. It was good to hear some of my old work colleagues telling their stories of life in the shipyards

Ian Bertram
I took some pictures of the last big tanker launch on the Tyne. I didn't know at the time it would be the last, and I didn't anticipate the scale and pace of change on the Tyne since then.


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