This is a very interesting obituary of a man who could have changed the fate of Britain's merchant marine, if his opinions were heeded.
Marshall Meek, who has died aged 88, was one of Britain’s leading naval architects during the final flowering of the British shipowning and merchant shipbuilding industries, and a percipient chronicler of their collapse.
As chief naval architect of the Liverpool-based Blue Funnel Line, Meek designed Britain’s first container ship, but was frustrated by the refusal of British shipyards to innovate, cooperate or learn from their competitors.
He blamed the demise of British shipbuilding firmly on the “ingrowing culture” of the yards. The chairman of one told him: “We taught the Japanese how to build ships, so what lessons could we learn from them?” Others — with managements as conservative as their unions — went out of business rather than change.
Marshall Meek was born at Auchtermuchty, Fife, on April 22 1925, the son of a monumental sculptor. The family were Exclusive Brethren, a fellowship which brought Marshall friendships worldwide and into which, in 1957, he married. He broke with the sect soon after; it had barred his mother and sister from the wedding, and was demanding that its adherents leave professional bodies they belonged to. But he continued to worship with more tolerant Brethren.
He left Bell Baxter Grammar School, Cupar, at 16 to become a drawing office apprentice at the Caledon shipyard in Dundee, then went to Dundee and Glasgow Universities to read Naval Architecture, graduating in 1946.
In 1949 Meek left Caledon for the British Shipbuilding Research Association (BSRA). Four years later he moved to Blue Funnel, whose “cargo liners” operated between Britain, Australia and the Far East. But it was only after 1961, when the line’s conservative chief architect Harry Flett died in harness and Meek succeeded him, that he could innovate.
The first ship he designed for Blue Funnel was Centaur, to carry passengers, livestock and cargo between Malaysia and Western Australia. Next came Priam, with everything possible cleared from the deck for ease of loading and unloading. For the first time Blue Funnel asked a Japanese yard to quote; Mitsubishi delivered two ships on time at the lowest price, and Vickers on Tyneside five up to a year late, the cost of compensation hastening the yard’s closure.
By then the container had arrived, and for it Meek designed Encounter Bay. The entire concept had to be worked up from scratch — even the standard size for a container had yet to be agreed. Five 27,835-ton ships were ordered from German yards, and delivered on time in 1969. One was placed with Fairfields, Glasgow; it arrived a year late. Dockers at Tilbury blacked the ships’ cargoes and they had to be handled at Rotterdam and Antwerp. But Encounter Bay stayed in service for 30 years.
Meek next designed the larger Liverpool Bay class — all five built in Germany — for the Far East run. They spent so much more of their time at sea with larger payloads that each replaced six conventional vessels, forcing redundancies among seamen.
After Blue Funnel merged with Elder Dempster in 1967 to form Ocean Fleets, Meek joined its board. The ordering of Japanese-built supertankers and bulk carriers just before the energy crisis of 1973 cost the company dear, and a ruinously tight contract for the French-built natural gas carrier Nestor crippled its finances.
The company was on the ropes when, in 1979, British Shipbuilders recruited Meek as its technical director. There was “still a feeling that something could be made of the industry”, but with 11 yards jealously defending their way of doing things, innovative design work failed to bring in orders. Except for Cammell Laird, they showed no interest in building a new generation of cruise liners. And when Scott Lithgow was invited to quote for a revolutionary gas carrier, it closed rather than submit a competitive price.
In 1984 Meek was appointed managing director of the National Maritime Institute, previously the ship division of the National Physical Laboratory. The DTI made one last bid to keep the industry competitive with an initiative for “the Efficient Ship”. Meek worked it up; this time it was the owners who showed no interest.
With shipyards closing, Meek tested submersibles for the North Sea and yacht designs for the America’s Cup. He was also caught up in the argument over whether “short, fat” warships would be superior to “long, thin” ones — firmly recommending the latter.
Under Meek the Institute merged with the BSRA, then, in 1985, was relaunched as British Maritime Technology. Though now a world leading consultancy, BMT had a shaky start, Meek quitting as deputy chairman in 1986 just before its sophisticated test centre was bulldozed.
Meek played a pivotal role in the belated investigation into the loss with all hands of the bulk carrier Derbyshire during a tropical storm in the Pacific in 1980. The ship was new and well-run, and it was widely believed a weak point in the hull had failed.
Meek insisted that the hull had been sound, and defects in its construction could not have caused such a failure. A second investigation after the wreckage was found concluded — again after evidence from Meek — that the destruction of deck fittings led to the flooding of the ship, and that the hull did not fail.
From 1995 to 2002 Meek chaired Argonautics Maritime Technologies, which developed a “cluster” of small and hi-tech marine industries on Tyneside. In 2003 he published a caustic memoir, There Go The Ships.
He was appointed CBE in 1989.
Marshall Meek married Elfrida Cox in 1957; they had three daughters.
Marshall Meek, born April 22 1925, died August 7 2013