SS Ardenvohr was built in Denny’s to keep men in work.

The Hungry Thirties. Were they as tough as they are made out to be? How did these hard times impact on local people in West Dunbartonshire and South Argyll? Dr Ian MacPhail answers these two important questions in his book Dumbarton Through the Centuries.  The book, which was published by the Town Council as part of the celebrations of the 750th anniversary of Dumbarton as a Royal Burgh, states that by the 1930s the world depression was affecting Clydeside which was dependent on only one or two industries.  MacMillan’s shipyard – the site in Castle Street later became the Hiram Walker distillery – was closed down in 1930 by National Shipbuilders Security Limited.  This organisation was formed with the aim of reducing the excess capacity of the British shipbuilding industry.  In 1934, Paul’s engineering works at Woodyard Road, which runs down to Levengrove Park, and Dennystown Brassworks at Dalreoch Toll were both forced to close down.

Denny’s shipyard managed to keep going though, mainly because they were recognised as builders of fast passenger ships, especially for cross channel services, where replacement was essential from time to time.  In 1931, the year when work on the giant Cunarder Queen Mary was stopped at John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank, Denny’s launched three passenger steamers and one cargo ship, the Ardenvohr, which was built on speculation that the company would find a buyer.  The ship was eventually sold, but it came to a tragic end when on June 10, 1940, while en route from New York, Hampton Roads, Panama, Sydney and Melbourne carrying a cargo of 8,900 tons of general cargo, including munitions, tanks, guns and machinery, she was torpedoed by a German submarine and sunk. One crew member was lost. The master, 21 survivors and six Americans were picked up by the Flora and 31 survivors and three Americans by USS Edison and landed at Colon. The remaining eight American survivors were picked up by USS Barry.

The numbers of people out of work during that ‘Thirties decade continued to rise until at Christmastime – workers still worked on Christmas Day at that time – there were 3001 males and 441 females registered as unemployed at the Dumbarton Labour Exchange in College Street.  As National Insurance and registration were not then compulsory for all, these numbers were well under the true figures out of a population – Dumbarton only – of 22,000.  It is widely believed that half the male population of the Burgh over school age were unemployed at that time. Even in the professions – teaching, lawyering and so on – unemployment reached unheard of proportions.  At one time in 1936 there were 104 teachers, most of them university graduates, on the waiting list for work with the Dumbartonshire Education Authority. The years of trade depression in the 1930s were years of drabness in the town. Before the First World War competition had been brisk between private traders and the Co-op.  And later between both of these and multiple shop firms such as Lipton’s the grocer and Burton the tailors, which was managed by John Scullion.

Dumbarton High Street was a far busier place in days gone by.

Many of them barely survived in premises which they could afford neither to decorate or renovate, although the High Street may have looked better then than it does now with its For Sale signs and dirty dummy shop fronts. Then things began to change for the better.  Even so, in 1938, there were still almost 1,000 people registered unemployed.  New industries had begun to come into the town. In 1937 Hiram Walker and Sons, a Canadian company, acquired the MacMillan shipyard site and built there the largest and most modern distillery in Europe.  In the same year, Blackburn opened a factory on the road down to Dumbarton Castle for the manufacture of aircraft components. Dumbarton was on the pig’s back with its feet in both the shipbuilding and aircraft industries operating in the town. Dr MacPhail states that two enterprises which helped to add some brightness to the desperately dreich town were mostly the result of the efforts of the local Tax Inspector, TS Gorie. They were the Dumbarton Community Centre, housed in a building which had once been occupied by the Town’s Mission and the Philosophical and Literary Society, and the Scottish People’s Theatre, which staged some notable performances in what had formerly been a ship’s supplier’s store on Dumbarton Common.  The theatre was completely destroyed in a German air raid in 1941.  Meanwhile the outbreak of war was looming, trenches were being dug in Levengrove Park and gas masks were being distributed among the people.

Dumbarton High Street at the Cross where shops struggled in the 1930s. Op picture is the Women’s football team at Denny’s. Who do you know there?

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