The building of Steam Locomotives had been a flourishing industry in Glasgow since the 1830s but by the early 20th century the Glasgow locomotive builders were being challenged for orders in their traditional overseas markets by competition from Germany and the United States of America.
In order to combat this threat from abroad the three main locomotive companies in Glasgow: Sharp, Stewart & Co Ltd; Neilson, Reid & Co and Dubs & Co amalgamated in 1903 to form the North British Locomotive Company Ltd, making it the largest locomotive Company in Europe and the third biggest in the world. At their peak, the NBLC were manufacturing 400 engines annually for the home and world markets.
The Headquarters and main engineering works were based in the Springburn area of Glasgow while also retaining representation at the former Dubs site in Polmadie.
As part of the Company expansion plans, an impressive new NBLC administration building was opened, in 1909, by The Earl of Roseberry KG KT and a particularly striking feature upon entry at 110 Flemington Street was the cartouche above the main entrance comprising the front of a steam locomotive with chain blocks on either side of it and flanking the pediment SPEED with a flying cloak and SCIENCE with a globe and compass.
The arrival of 1914 saw the Company progressing on further expansion plans with the erection of two new buildings for specialised departments of the locomotive workshops, but the Great War was to change their emphasis.
The escalation of hostilities resulted in the decision being taken to utilise these buildings for the production of War material and one of them, allocated to the production of shells, was to be known as the "Mons" Shell Factory.
Part of the other building which was fitted with furnaces, hydraulic presses, electric plant, etc., was ultimately used for the production of shell forgings, to be machined in the "Marne" Factory.
The two factories were staffed mainly by women, and by October 1918, 1136 women and 405 men were employed in this type of work.
The women developed a very high and creditable standard of efficiency with 'rejections' being as low as one-tenth of one percent. The owners can also be very proud of the fact that there were no fatalities recorded during the entire period of munitions manufacture at the NBLC.
The factories were engaged initially to produce 8-in H.E. (High Explosive) shells of which 146,776 were realised, but by 1917 the production of this type of shell, in the factory, was stopped and a large number of the machines were altered to produce the 18-pdr.H.E. shell as well as the 6-in.H.E. of which 387,237 were produced.
The total number of shells of all sizes produced in the "Mons" factory was 864,551.
The "Marne" factory also produced a large number of sea mines and the output of the welded type of mine was 6,000 delivered at the rate of 700 per month.
A special and interesting feature of the War work carried out at the factory was the "Pill Box". The Hobbs Machine-Gun Casemate was a portable Pill Box, which could be brought forward and planted in position in the course of one night. It consisted of a cage let into the ground and had space enough to accommodate two men. The top of the cage, at ground level, was fitted with a revolving cover made of armour plate and flanged solid with its loophole protector.
As the War moved into 1918 the Company was directed to concentrate their efforts in the production of the Tank and 100 "Medium B" Tanks were requested, whereby the machines were built around pre-supplied engines.
The order was received to build 1040 of the "Mark VIII" type which was reputed to be the "Battleship of the War Tank Fleet" in relation to its dimensions, power of engine, weight and gun equipment to any of its predecessors. The engines were 300 horse-power, and the equipment included two 6-pdr. and seven machine guns. The manufacture of all parts, with the exception of the Petrol engines, was in this case, entirely under the Company's control.
Two experimental machines were constructed by the Company and put through a severe but thoroughly satisfactory series of trials on the Test-grounds adjoining the Works, in the presence of the Minister of Munitions, Winston Churchill, after which the 'go ahead' was given.
Various town names were given to a number of Tanks, which had been subscribed for during, what was known as, "War Weapon Week".
At a very early stage of the War the Directors of the Company were aware that current Hospital accommodation would not be adequate to deal with the large number of wounded expected from the various War fronts, so they decided to place the main portion of the administration building into the hands of the Scottish Branch of the Red Cross for the purpose of using it as a Hospital (the irony of this decision would not be lost on them).Thus on the 24 December 1914 Springburn Hospital was opened for the reception of service men wounded in the War.
The Hospital consisted of five large wards named after the factory works: Queens Park., Atlas., Hyde Park., Springburn and Victoria with a total capacity of 400 beds, plus an operating theatre, X-ray room, recreation, sitting and bedrooms, kitchen accommodation and store rooms.
The residential staff included the Medical Superintendent with five assistants, Matron, eight sisters, seventeen nurses, thirty V.A.Ds, various orderlies and kitchen staff.
The provision of this facility, naturally required considerable alterations to be undertaken to the existing structure of the building, in order to accommodate such a purpose, and all the work (which was extensive) and costs involved, were met by the North British Locomotive Company.
By the time the Hospital closed in 1918 a total of 8,211 soldiers had received treatment within its walls and it should be noted that the number of patient deaths recorded was less than one half of one percent (this may be due to the fact that the more serious cases would not have survived the journey so far north).
At the outbreak of war in 1914 the number of employees at the works was recorded as 8347 and the total number of men who enlisted for Active Service was 3020.
The employees who remained on essential War work were conscious of the sacrifice their work mates were making to the War effort and contributed largely to the National War Relief Funds and Red Cross.
As the full horrors of the War became apparent to them, they wanted to concentrate all their fund raising efforts to dealing directly with the claims of the families of their workshop comrades who were on active service. The bulk of the monies subsequently raised went, in the main, to pay the house rents of the soldier's dependants, and also on Gifts to the men serving at the Front.
By the end of hostilities they had contributed a total of £28,353/17s/3d.
The men of the North British Locomotive Company on active service, continued to distinguish themselves throughout the War.
An astonishing number honours were won by the men:
1 Victoria Cross., 1 Military Cross., 22 Military Medals., 8 Distinguished Conduct Medals., 2 Military Service Medals., 1 Croix de Guerre and 1 Medaille d'Honneur.
The Victoria Cross was won by Sergeant Robert Downie, 2nd Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
Robert was born in Glasgow in 1894 and upon leaving school moved into the locomotive works in Springburn where his father had been employed for most of his working life.
When Robert decided to 'join up' he chose to join an Irish regiment due to having strong family links with Ireland.
He was one of five brothers who were to fight in the Great War with two of them, unfortunately, not surviving the struggle.
Robert was to win the ultimate accolade on 23 October 1916 at Lesboeufs in France, when, defending recently captured gun-pits it became apparent to him that there were no officers left to command, whereby, he took it upon himself to take charge of the situation.
The citation, which was published in the London Gazette on 25th November 1916 more than adequately, describes the merits of the award:
"For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in attack.
When most of the officers had become casualties, this Non-Commissioned Officer, utterly regardless of personal danger moved about under heavy fire and reorganised the attack, which had been temporarily checked. At the critical moment he rushed forward alone, shouting, "Come on, the Dubs."
This stirring appeal met with immediate response, and the line rushed forward at his call.
Sergeant Downie accounted for several of the enemy, and in addition captured a machine gun, killing the team. Though wounded early in the fight, he remained with his company, and gave valuable assistance, while the position was being consolidated.
It was owing to Sergeant Downie's courage and initiative that this important position, which had resisted four or five previous attacks, was won."
Robert survived the War and by the time he was demobbed in March 1919 he had added a Military Medal to his Victoria Cross and had been 'mentioned in dispatches' twice.
The Great War reached its conclusion in November 1918, and after over four years of bloody conflict, 367 men of the North British Locomotive Company had been killed on active service.
Their names are recorded on a War Memorial Plaque by the inner stairway of the administration building, and their sacrifice is further commemorated by three quite magnificent, stained glass windows.
They back on to what is an open-air, but enclosed quadrangle, which was used during the Great War as an area of relaxation, by the recuperating soldiers from the Hospital. The windows originally used to face into the quadrangle but in 1997 they were removed, refurbished, re-leaded and repositioned to face inwards overlooking the grand staircase of the administration building.
The Memorial Windows were unveiled by HRH The Prince of Wales on the 9 March 1921 and incorporated, one on each window, are three large figures: a woman at a lathe; a man at an anvil and a Scottish Soldier.
Also depicted on the windows are the regiments and their heraldry, and above the crests, the number of employees who lost their lives while serving with that particular regiment.
Written across the middle window is the inscription:
In honour of those who served
In honour of those who fought
In honour of those who fell
and laced around the words are 'teardrops' adding to the poignancy of the sentiment.
Along the base of the middle window it states:
To commemorate the service of the 3020 men who joined the Colours, & of the employees, men and women who were engaged in the manufacture of munitions of War in the Works of the North British Locomotive Company.
The provision of the Memorial Windows is testament to the pride and regard, in which, all the employees were held, by the North British Locomotive Company.
After the War, the factory returned, in its full capacity, back to its original designation, building Locomotives.
Production continued at 'full steam ahead' until the late 1950s when the Company suffered financial difficulties and a drop in orders (possibly due to the advent of the Diesel Train) from which the NBLC would not recover. In 1961, the factory closed for the last time and 1962 saw the official liquidation of the Company.
The production of the Steam Locomotive in Glasgow was now at an end.
The administration building is now an educational institution: the Springburn Campus of the North Glasgow College. The building is listed as being of Architectural and Historical interest with access available to the general public during normal college hours.
To anyone with an interest in the Great War and to Memorial Windows in particular this is a location not to be overlooked.
For a direct link to the author of this article, email Ian Livingston
Copyright © Ian Livingston May, 2002
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