History of the Barrow-In-Furness Shipyard

Barrow-In-Furness is a town in the county Cumbria, at the tip of the Furness Peninsula. It is so close to the Lake District that it is frequently called ‘The Gateway to the Lake District’, and is bordered by Morcambe Bay, the Duddon Estuary and the Irish Sea. The mining of iron ore in Furness and the arrival of railways pushed Barrow to become a powerful industrial influence on the world, with steelworks and shipyards causing Barrow to boom. Barrow-In-Furness thrives and survives on its shipbuilding industry, and it is vital to Barrow’s survival. Read on to find out more.

Cumbria is popular amongst engineers as it provides a significant amount of engineering jobs in the North West, such as Sellafield jobs and – of course – jobs at BAE Systems. With much of Cumbria also part of the Lake District, it is a popular place amongst tourists and often attracts residents from other areas of the UK who enjoy the beauty of the countryside. Although Barrow-In-Furness is not included in the Lake District, it is only around an hour’s drive away, and has many other benefits that outweigh the drawback of not actually being in the Lakes. Barrow is one of the most built-up areas in Cumbria, and boasts a range of supermarkets and shops – making it the go-to place for many residents of more rural areas. It also has a wide range of entertainment, making it the ideal compromise for those not quite committed to the idea of a quiet countryside life.

From the late 1800s until the present day, the Barrow-in-Furness shipyard has progressed, marked by change in ownership from the Barrow Shipbuilding Company, to Vickers, and now to BAE systems. In total, 373 merchant ships, 312 submarines and 148 naval surface ships have been built in Barrow-in-Furness for navies and companies across the world, including the majority of the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines. Barrow’s shipyard is considered a central provider of jobs in Cumbria, alongside other engineering jobs in Cumbria such as Sellafield jobs.

Barrow Shipbuilding Company

The possibility of building a shipyard at Barrow or Barrow Island had been considered throughout the 1860s as the availability of steel and Barrow’s location on the coast, bordered by the Irish Sea made it the ideal place for shipbuilding. No action was taken to build a shipyard, however, as no established businesses wanted to build in the area. This changed in 1871 when the Barrow Iron Shipbuilding Company was formed by the Furness Railway Company. The Iron Shipbuilding Company then became known as the Barrow Shipbuilding Company in 1872 when the company was registered, as it became apparent that there was already another company building iron ships. It then went on to trade in various vessels including barges, Navy vessels and steam yachts, with its first ever launched vessel being Aries, a steam yacht built for Sir James Ramsden, who had helped set up the company. Between the years of 1871 and 1897, the shipyard earned a reputation for building quality vessels, and joined the Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company in 1888, later renamed as the Naval Construction and Armaments Company.


Vickers was a steel foundry formed in Sheffield in 1828, starting out as Naylor Vickers and Company and becoming Vickers, Sons and Company in 1867. The Barrow Shipbuilding Company, which the Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company was still a part of, was bought by Vickers and Sons in 1897 due to its reputation for making quality vessels. It then became known as Vickers, Sons and Maxim, Limited and Barrow’s shipyard became the company’s Naval Construction Yard.

It was at Vickers Maxim shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness that the first submarine commissioned by the Royal Navy was built. Holland 1 was designed by John Phillip Holland and launched in 1901, in secret, as the Admiralty considered it an experiment. She was a successful experiment, helping give Britain its advantage in the sea in World War One, and contributing towards changes in sea warfare. During her time, Holland 1 was sent to attack the Russian fleet that sank numerous fishing boats by accident in 1904 – in what became known as the Dogger Bank incident, an event that almost led to war between Britain and Russia.

In 1911 the name of the company was changed to Vickers Ltd, and it also formed Vickers Ltd (Aviation Department) as it expanded into aircraft manufacture. When the First World War started in 1914, Barrow was considered a shipyard town, with 17,250 employees at Vickers Ltd. During the First World War, thousands of girls moved to Barrow to make munitions at Vickers, producing 6.8 million complete shells.

During the First World War, Barrow also contributed significantly with the building of 35 warships and 132 submarines. At Vickers Ltd., a number of battleships were built, such as HMS Emperor of India – named after King George V who was also Emperor of India – and HMS Erin. HMS Erin is probably best known for her possible involvement in the Ottoman Empire joining the war on the side of the Central Powers, since she was ordered by the Ottoman Empire but taken over by the Royal Navy. Vickers Ltd. also built a number of cruisers such as HMS Penelope and HMS Cassandra, and the British B-class of 11 submarines.

In 1927, Vickers Limited and Sir W G Armstrong Whitworth and Company merged to form Vickers-Armstrongs. The merging of these two companies meant that the company had a major yard on each coast of Britain – both the Naval Construction Yard (Vickers) in Barrow-In-Furness and the Naval Yard (Armstrong-Whitworth) on the River Tyne. Vickers-Armstrongs became one of the most important warship manufacturers in the world at this time. In 1955 the name of the shipbuilding division of the company became Vickers Armstrongs Shipbuilders, Ltd, and then Vickers Limited Shipbuilding Group in 1968.

During the Second World War, Barrow was once again a significant contributor to the cause, building ships such as HMS Pioneer (R76), destroyers such as HMS ‘Urchin and HMS ‘Urania, and numerous submarines. Barrow’s contribution was significant enough that it was bombed, along with various British cities, by the Luftwaffe targeting both Vickers and Barrow’s steelworks. Hitler’s Luftwaffe missed, however, and instead it was the civilians who suffered, injuring hundreds and causing damage to thousands of homes.

In 1977, the aviation, shipbuilding and steel businesses within Vickers-Armstrong were nationalised under the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act, an Act of the UK’s Parliament that nationalised a significant amount of the UK’s aerospace and shipbuilding industries. This nationalisation created two corporations – British Aerospace and British Shipbuilders, and it was British Shipbuilders that Vickers Limited Shipbuilding Group was included in.

The company was nationalised for around seven years until July the 25th 1984, when the Conservative government – led by Margaret Thatcher – decided to sell off the most successful parts of British Shipbuilders, including the Vickers warship yard. During the selling process, Vickers Limited Shipbuilding Group was renamed Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Limited (VSEL) and was eventually sold to the employee-led VSEL Consortium, including its subsidiary Cammell Laird, in March 1986. The Barrow shipyard was the first of the groups within the British Shipbuilders to be privatised, and from 1983 to the end of the decade, the number of Vickers workers rose from 9,500 to 14,300.

This all changed, however, after the cold war when the reduction in defence spending meant that the workforce decreased again to 5000. The end of the Cold War hit Barrow hard as it relied on defence spending to support its submarine-building industry, and therefore both its employees and its economy.

Devonshire Dock Hall

Two years after VSEL bought out the shipyard, Devonshire Dock Hall (DDH) opened. The shipbuilding hall was opened to protect submarines and prevent satellites from taking pictures that might reveal secrets. It was built on land created by filling some of Devonshire Dock with 2.4 million tonnes of sand from Roosecote Sands. The building is the tallest in Cumbria at 51m and is 250m long, 58m wide and has an area of over 6 acres. DDH is the second largest indoor shipbuilding complex in Europe, and can be seen from Blackpool. The building is currently being redeveloped and extended for the controversial Trident successor submarines.

Within DDH, ships and submarines can be built without the difficulties associated with building on slipways. In order for this to be possible, a shiplift that can move 24,300 tonnes lowers completed ships and submarines into the water, and removes vessels from the water into the hall.

Within DDH, a number of submarines have been built and more are currently under construction. The Vanguard-class of submarines, comprised of Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant and vengeance, were the first to be built in DDH. The Vanguard-class is a class of nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines used by the Royal Navy. The class is part of the government’s nuclear weapons programme, and each submarine is armed with Trident II missiles.

Three of the Astute-class submarines – Astute, Ambush and Artful – were also built at DDH; two of which (Astute and Ambush) share their name with two other submarines previously built at Barrow’s shipyard for World War Two when it was called Vickers-Armstrong. The remaining Astute-class submarines – Audacious, Anson, Agamemnon and Ajax – are also either under construction or due for construction at Devonshire Dock Hall.


In 1994, both the General Electric Company (GEC) and British Aerospace made bids regarding takeover of VSEL. The GEC was a British-based industrial conglomerate that was a part of consumer and defence electronics, communications and engineering. British Aerospace was a British aircraft, munitions and defence-systems manufacturer. The Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC) assessed the bids and approved that of British Aerospace. It did not, however, approve the GEC’s bid as it felt that it was not in the public’s interest. Despite this, VSEL accepted GEC’s bid, and VSEL became Marconi Marine (VSEL) as part of the GEC-Marconi division.

When GEC-Marconi (Marconi Electronic Systems), the defence division of the GEC, merged with British Aerospace in 1999, BAE Systems was formed. Thus, Marconi Marine (VSEL) became part of BAE Systems Marine, the shipbuilding subsidiary of BAE Systems which manufactured all naval ships – nuclear submarines, frigates, destroyers and amphibious ships.

BAE Systems Marine then split in 2003 to form two separate subsidiaries, namely BAE Systems Submarines and BAE Systems Naval Ships. BAE Systems Submarines was later renamed BAE Systems Submarine Solutions in 2007 and then BAE Systems Maritime – Submarines in 2012.

BAE Systems Maritime – Submarines is the subsidiary of BAE Systems that is based in Barrow-In-Furness, which develops and makes submarines. This shipyard is one of the few in the world which can design and build nuclear submarines, making Britain one of seven navies to have nuclear submarines alongside the United States Navy, the Soviet/Russian Navy, the French Navy, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, the Indian Navy and the Brazilian Navy.

BAE Systems Maritime – Submarines has built almost all of the Royal Navy’s nuclear powered submarines, including the United Kingdom’s first nuclear powered submarine – HMS Dreadnought – which was built by Vickers Armstrong and laid down in 1959. The only nuclear powered submarines to not be built at Barrow-In-Furness are HMS Conqueror, HMS Renown and HMS Revenge, which were all built by Cammell Laird in Birkenhead.

Over the past couple of hundreds of years, Barrow has developed from a home farm owned by the Cistercian monks of Furness Abbey to become a powerful part of the United Kingdom’s defence system. With a population of over 50,000 and a strong working class identity, Barrow has become one of the best places for engineers across the UK to live and work and attracts people from across the UK and indeed the world. Without shipbuilding, jobs in Cumbria would decline rapidly. Whilst our Navy is still so important, however, there will always be engineering jobs in Barrow waiting for those ready to become a part of our country’s defence.

If you would like to be involved in Barrow’s history, or are simply interested in engineering jobs in the North West in general, then why not contact recruitment agencies in Cumbria? They can help you find the ideal job for your interests and needs and are at hand to provide help and advice on your road to employment.

For more information, or help finding the perfect engineering job for you, visit www.recruitmentcumbria.com today. They specialise in senior roles in Cumbria, and are there to help you continue your career.