Sir Leonard Redshaw (1911-1989)

Sir Leonard Redshaw

Written by Les Shore

Occupation: Shipbuilder
Location: Barrow-in-Furness

‘One of the great and last British shipbuilders. A truly outstanding Barrovian, he was devoted to his industry and the Barrow Shipbuilding Works ’. Born in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, 15 April 1911, Leonard was one of four children of Joseph Stanley Redshaw, chief of the Ship Design Department, Vickers Limited, Barrow Works, and his wife Ada [1886-1962], daughter of Adginton Westhead of Fleetwood. His brother, Joseph Cyril [1909-1984], was a Vickers-Armstrongs engineer. His grandfather, Joseph Hay Redshaw [1849-1932], was a Barrow-based ship chandler. He was educated at Barrow Grammar School before entering a shipbuilding apprenticeship with Vickers at Barrow as a sixteen-year-old. In 1931, he won a Vickers-Armstrong Scholarship, competed for every three years by qualified technical candidates employed at British shipbuilding companies, to study Naval Architecture at Liverpool University. He graduated B Eng in 1934 with First Class honours, and MEng in 1936. He was awarded an 1851 Royal Commissioner’s Exhibition to pursue postgraduate research into the application of welding technology for shipbuilding. The universal practice in British shipyards then was to use rivets to join steel plates together to construct ships and submarines. Working as a welder in German shipyards during his studies prepared him for advocating a radical change in Britain’s shipbuilding practices.   

Three years after rejoining Vickers Barrow in 1936 as a shipyard junior manager, he married at Kingston upon Thames Joan [1910-1996], who was the daughter of William Henry White [b.1880], a foreman lighterman. During the Second World War, submarine construction gave him the opportunity to become a pioneer of welding in British shipbuilding. In 1943, he was appointed assistant yard manager and, in 1945, made assistant to the Shipbuilding Manager. He was delegated the task of modernizing Barrow shipyard, which involved considerable capital investment and was implemented over a period of years.

In 1949, Leonard Redshaw authored a notable technical paper, ‘Welding in Shipbuilding, with Particular Reference to Passenger Liners’.  The paper revealed the depth of technical and practical knowledge he had about the subject. His paper detailed the initial steps made at Barrow to lead the evolution from riveted to welded construction of the passenger liner. The Orient Steam Navigation Co. Ltd, who placed a series of orders for passenger liners with Vickers-Armstrongs after the Second World War, was supportive of ship design and construction innovation.

There was a crisis in 1950, shortly after the launching of the shipping company’s passenger liner Oronsay, a fire engulfed the ship. Due to his leadership, the fire was extinguished. Despite the misfortune of listing, she became the first ship ever in a British port to be righted, repaired and commissioned for operational use. His forceful personality and willingness to lead from the front was apparent during the crisis.

The Orient Company also became the owner during the 1950s of two ships having technical merits useful for marketing to attract passengers. In 1953, the world’s first all-welded passenger liner, Orsova, was launched at Barrow for the shipping company.

Then at Barrow in 1959, the ship Oriana was floated upon Walney Channel for the first time to become, and has remained so, the largest liner built at an English shipyard. The Oriana pioneered in the United Kingdom the use of welded aluminium to fabricate a passenger liner’s superstructure. The shipyard skilfully overcame the challenge of aluminium being a troublesome material to weld. His close involvement in the technical and practical measures taken to meet the challenge was evident in a technical paper he authored in 1961 about fabricating aluminium superstructures as part of ship construction. 

Redshaw’s promotion to Shipbuilding Manager at Barrow in 1950 was followed three years later by him being made a Special Director of the company. For a lengthy period after 1946 the shipyard delivered a series of ever growing in size oil tankers. The mainly all-welded Barrow built tanker World Unity was in 1951 the largest of its kind launched at a British shipyard. The next year the shipyard launched a replica tanker, World Concord, which in 1954 broke in half in during a severe Irish Sea storm. The Barrow shipbuilder was flown in an aircraft through turbulent conditions to inspect the floating halves of the tanker an event which was a major upset in his faith in welded structures. However, the parts of the tanker were salvaged, welded together, and the vessel served a long operational life.

As the 1950s closed, Barrow launched in 1957 the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, which served to lead the Falklands Task Force in 1982. 

Barrow retained its worldwide reputation for building submarines. As the Holland Class, the first submarines commissioned by the Royal Navy (RN) were launched at Barrow in 1901. The class of submarine was constructed under licence from the United State’s Electric Boat Company. In the period late 1950s to early 1960s the latest design of RN diesel-electric submarines, as the Oberon Class, were not only being produced by Vickers at Barrow but also at Chatham Dockyard, Cammell Laird, and Scotts.

However, in 1957, when there were 32 shipyards in the UK, it was Vickers who was chosen to pioneer British nuclear submarine construction. The hull and combat system of the pioneering submarine was of a British design whereas the nuclear propulsion system was American. Electric Boat produced American nuclear submarines. The manner in which work was managed in Britain was specified by the leader of the American nuclear submarine building programme, Admiral Rickover, noted for bluntness, ruthlessness and drive. The admiral, wrote Harold Evans in 1978 in his book Vickers Against the Odds, ‘stressed the importance in a project of … undivided control and this helped put Leonard Redshaw in the driving seat within Vickers’. Redshaw took the initiative to apply welding methods at Barrow for building nuclear submarines some of which were adopted in the USA. Consequently, on Trafalgar Day 1960, a technical milestone in the history of British engineering occurred at Barrow. HM Queen Elizabeth II launched the United Kingdom’s first nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Dreadnought. The first-all British nuclear submarine, HMS Valiant, was launched at Barrow in 1963. 

Leonard Redshaw was appointed deputy Managing Director of Vickers-Armstrongs (Shipbuilders) in 1961.

On 21st December, 1962, a meeting held at Nassau, Bahamas, about Anglo-American defence policy, involved Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and President John F. Kennedy. An outcome of the meeting was the United Kingdom negotiated with the USA a sales agreement for the supply of Polaris, an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), for launching from a submarine. The submarines and the warheads were to be designed and made in Great Britain.

In 1963, due to the insistence of the Admiralty, which in 1964 became part of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), Leonard Redshaw was appointed Chief Polaris Executive. The MOD chose Vickers-Armstrongs Barrow as the ‘lead yard’ for building the Polaris nuclear-powered submarine, which would prove to be a seminal decision. His brief was to lead another technological advance in submarine construction and engineer the weapon systems for a contentious change in British defence policy.

Vickers was tasked by the MOD to work closely with General Dynamics Electric Boat. The Polaris submarine’s electronics were supplied by USA. A large department at Electric Boat was responsible for commissioning the Polaris navigation and weapon systems and Vickers was expected to create a similar department. After intense recruitment from the electronics industry, a Systems Department staff of 200 functioned at Barrow. Moreover, Vickers was awarded a contract to build the Royal Navy Polaris School (RNPS) on the Gareloch for training submariners.

Leonard Redshaw hounded managers to raise the quality and capability of Barrow’s technical staff. By 1964, the rounded technical strength at Barrow shipyard in areas such as naval architecture, marine, electrical, electronic, and systems engineering surpassed rival British shipbuilders. Four Polaris submarines were to be commissioned by the Royal Navy, with Cammell Laird & Co. (Shipbuilders and Engineers) Ltd, Birkenhead, building two follow boats. The Daily Express called Redshaw ‘Britain’s Mr Polaris’. 

In 1965, he was appointed Managing Director of Vickers Shipbuilding Group. That year, he welcomed HM Queen Elizabeth II to Barrow for her to launch for BP the British Admiral, the first 100,000 ton tanker delivered by a European shipyard. In 1966, he displayed an entrepreneur’s inclination by forming the Vickers Oceanics Group to create new businesses by using shipbuilding and submarine construction knowhow for innovation.

In September 1966, HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother launched HMS Resolution, the first British ‘Polaris Class’ submarine. On schedule and on budget, in less than four and a half years from contract award to commissioning, the successful test firing of a Polaris missile off Cape Kennedy took place in February 1968. 

In 1966, he was promoted Managing Director of Vickers Limited, which at the time was one of the largest groups of industrial companies in the United Kingdom. An early decision made by him was to form Vickers Barrow Shipbuilding and Engineering Works as a subsidiary of the Vickers Shipbuilding Group. Previously, the shipbuilding and engineering activities were managed as separate divisions. Also in 1968, he made the decision for Barrow to build a cruise liner in conjunction with a number of Danish entrepreneurs who believed a novel market could be created by attracting American customers. The development of the cruise liner venture was frustrated by financial factors outwith Vickers’ control. The delivered ship, launched at Barrow in 1972 as Copenhagen, was later sold to a shipping body of the USSR and renamed Odessa. His attempt to position the company as an early builder of cruise liners can now be recognised as farsighted since the cruising market later became a lucrative business growth sector of the global tourist industry.

Barrow shipyard sustained its place as the leading builder of British naval vessels. The MOD designated Barrow shipyard as the sole builder of nuclear submarines in 1969. That year the ‘Churchill’ Class (also referred to as ‘Improved Valiant’ Class) of nuclear submarine was being built and the design of its hunter-killer successor, the Swiftsure Class, underway.

In November 1968, the MOD ordered the first of the new Type 42 Seadart destroyer. Vickers were appointed lead yard for the class of vessel and produced drawings for later use by other shipbuilding yards. The MOD’s Type 42 Seadart destroyer contract with Vickers attracted interest in Argentina, then an ally of the United Kingdom. An order was won in 1970 for two Type 42 destroyers, one built at Barrow (launched in 1972), the ARA Hercules, and another made in Argentina, the ARA Santisma Trinidad. In 1971, HM the Queen launched in the first of class Type 42 Seadart destroyer HMS Sheffield.

Vickers also won other export contracts under his direction in part helped by Barrow’s Systems Department being able to engineer bespoke combat systems. In 1968, Iran ordered two frigates. Three Oberon class submarines were also ordered in 1970 by Brazil, the first of which was commissioned in 1973.  A contract was also received from Israel to supply three submarines and the first one was launched in 1975.

In 1973, Vickers was awarded the lead yard contract to carry out the detailed design and build of the first of class HMS Invincible, described as being a ‘through deck’ cruiser. The ship was launched in May 1977 by HM the Queen Elizabeth II.  

Managing the Barrow shipyard, in addition to his involvement in technical and commercial matters, such as tendering for new ship and submarine building contracts, also concerned dealing with onerous industrial relations issues. The industrial relations’ climate of the 1950s and 1960s was bedevilled by inter-union disputes over work demarcation. Leonard Redshaw was dogged in the pursuit of changes to craftsmen’s work practices with the aim of Vickers being a competitive producer of ships and submarines. By 1970, the Japanese held a 40 per cent share of the world’s shipbuilding market whereas the British shipbuilders share had fallen from a 53 per cent share in 1947 to a modest 9.1 per cent.  In 1968, a demarcation dispute between the Barrow shipyard plumbers and coppersmiths, over the testing of pipes, led to an Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers’ strike of seven months. The Government set up an inquiry, led by Sir Jack Scamp [1913-1977], into the strike. The Scamp report was acknowledged by Vickers as ‘a valuable and constructive examination of the issues involved’, and agreed ‘do their best to give effect to its recommendations’.

The 1972 The Queen’s Birthday Honours List announced the award of a knighthood to Leonard Redshaw for services to exports. By the beginning of the 1970s, under his direction, eVickers’ offshore and sub-sea activities had gathered momentum. A setback occurred in 1973 when a Pisces III submersible sank and its two-man crew became entrapped on the floor of the Irish Sea with their lives in great danger of being lost. Sir Leonard Redshaw took overall command of marshalling ships and equipment and the men were rescued alive. Several years later, one of the men saved, Roger Chapman (1945-2020) OBE, formed a company, Rumic, to provide a submariners’ rescue service. The designation of submersible craft developed by Rumic for rescue purposes was prefixed by ‘LR’ in acknowledgement of the Barrow shipbuilder’s action in 1973, which was the last public demonstration of him leading from the front.

Sir Leonard Redshaw retired as deputy Chairman of Vickers Limited in 1976. That year, Lord Robens, Chairman of Vickers Limited, remarked: ‘No executive can have served Vickers with greater distinction and dedication. Under his leadership Vickers shipbuilders have enhanced their already high international reputation and he has established himself as a leading personality in the British shipbuilding industry’.

In 1977, a Labour Government nationalised the shipbuilding industry. He was an opponent of nationalisation and he lived to see a Conservative Government privatise the shipbuilding industry. Formed in 1986, due to privatisation, was Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Limited (VSEL) based at Barrow-in-Furness. Subsequently, VSEL was acquired first by GEC Marconi, which through merger became BAE Systems. Nationalisation had caused Vickers Limited to relinquish not only its shipbuilding interests but also its aircraft business. The GEC Marconi - BAE Systems merger reunited Vickers’ shipbuilding and aircraft businesses.

Outside work, Redshaw’s main pastime was gliding. He encouraged advances in glider design and construction with a notable achievement of pioneering the manufacture of the first large span carbon fibre wing in the world, and he flew the prototype. Many family holidays were planned around gliding competitions. Due to astute strategic thinking before being taking up into the skies by an aeroplane, and exercising shrewd tactics in flight, he was a formidable competitor. In 1960, he was the overall winner at the National Gliding Week hosted by Coventry Gliding Club at Edge Hill. As the owner of many acres of ground around his home at Ireleth, he laboured in retirement to develop an impressive garden and farmed on a small-scale. 

The foundation for Sir Leonard Redshaw’s being a commercially successful shipbuilder-industrialist was his infatuation with ship and submarine design, engineering technology and material science. The engineering profession recognised his achievements. He was president of the Institute of Welding (later known as The Welding Institute and afterwards as the TWI) for two periods, 1963-1964, and 1977-1978, being made an Honorary Fellow in 1982. In 1976, he accepted the Duke of Edinburgh’s invitation to become a founder member of The Fellowship of Engineering (today the Royal Academy of Engineering). The Council of Engineering Institution awarded him the John Smeaton Medal in 1977 for ‘exceptional leadership and initiative in the development of welded ship construction’. In 1978, the Royal Institution of Naval Architects, of which he was a Fellow member, presented him with the William Froude Medal for ‘outstanding’ contributions to ‘naval architecture and shipbuilding’. That year, he was also made an Honorary Freeman of the Borough of Barrow-in-Furness. Just over a decade later, it was revealed he had for five years been a member of a ‘suicide squad’ of eminent scientists and engineers committed to giving a hands-on problem solving service in the event of nuclear incidents.  

Sir Leonard Redshaw died on 29 April 1989, aged seventy-eight, at his home at Ireleth, which offered fine views to the west over Duddon Sands. His ashes were scattered from a glider flying over the Duddon estuary. He left his widow, Joan, and one son, Peter Raymond [1944-2014] and one daughter, Jill Mary [b.1942], who both graduated from Liverpool University in Mechanical Engineering. Peter Redshaw, a professional engineer founded FETL, which provided engineering services, while his sister was a teacher of mathematics. Sir Leonard secured his place as one of the great British shipbuilders by the courageous pursuit of his shipbuilding ambitions and crucially, by accepting innovation involved the taking of risk. The technical competency of Barrow Vickers’ senior management and staff ranked as the best in the British shipbuilding industry. He possessed foresight and although a solitary thinker for decision-making, his information gathering process saw him make direct approaches to technical specialists regardless of their status in the company’s hierarchy. The highly skilled workforce at Barrow shipyard took pride in the ships and submarines they produced. Although an autocrat, a man of few words and confident in his knowledge and ability, he was effective at delegation. His senior management were capable men with some of them of the highest calibre. None the less, he ‘drove others as sternly as he drove himself. He pursued what he believed in with a dedication that often made many of his colleagues wince’.

The impact of his leadership remained apparent at least a quarter of a century after his retirement from Vickers. Only three major British shipbuilding groups survived compared with the 32 operating when Vickers won the Dreadnought nuclear submarine contract. A full order book at BAE Systems Submarines offers employment prospects for at least the first two decades of the twenty-first century. The training and development of a cadre of future British professional engineers and craftsmen was also catered for at Barrow’s shipbuilding works. Sir Leonard Redshaw offers a fine exemplar for entrants into engineering and shipbuilding to emulate.


  • Leslie M. Shore, Vickers Master Shipbuilder Sir Leonard Redshaw. (Black Dwarf Publications, 2011
  • David Andrews, review of Leslie M. Shore, Vickers’ Master Shipbuilder Sir Leonard Redshaw in Mariner’s Mirror, August 2013.
  •  L. Redshaw, ‘Welding in shipbuilding with particular reference to passenger liner construction. (British Welding Research Association) Welding Research, vol.15, no.2, April 1949.
  • L. Redshaw, ‘Application of Welding to Ship Construction: with Particular Reference to the Aluminium Superstructure of the Passenger Liner TSS Oriana. Welding in Shipbuilding, A Symposium, (Institute of Welding, 1961).
  • Harold Evans, Vickers Against the Odds 1956-1977. (Hodder and Stoughton, 1978).
  • Sir Leonard Redshaw’ obit, The Daily Telegraph, 1 May 1989.
  • Births, Deaths and Marriages and other details from the Redshaw family archive.