Alexander (Sandy) Stephen: 1927-2022

We are sorry to announce that Alexander (Sandy) Stephen has passed away. The following obituary is courtesy of his family.

Alexander (Sandy) Stephen died peacefully at his home in Balfron at the age of 95 on 5th October. He was the seventh generation and last survivor of the Shipbuilding Dynasty that ran Alexander Stephen and sons for over 200 years, from 1870 onwards they were based at Linthouse on the Clyde.

As managing director, he experienced the trauma of the decline of Shipbuilding and was determined to preserve its history for posterity. Always seeing the positives in life, he faced both business and personal tragedy with outstanding fortitude and resilience.

In his book, Stephen of Linthouse, written in 2015 he charted the decline of the yard with candour and humour. He appeared on many television programmes such as All our Working Days, the Men Who Built the Liners and Scotland’s Story and gave insightful lectures on the Shipbuilding Industry.

Alexander Moncrieff Mitchell was born in Glasgow on 5th March 1927, second son of Sir Murray and Stephen and his wife Kathrene Paton Mitchell. The family moved to Cleughearn in Lanarkshire in 1930 which he described as “a child’s paradise” He was educated at Cargilfield and Rugby.

In 1945, three weeks before the end of the Second World War, Sandy was called up to the Royal Navy and served on HMS Triumph, an Aircraft Carrier in the Mediterranean Fleet, to escort HMS Vanguard with the Royal Family on board while voyaging home after their well-documented visit to South Africa.

Following demobilisation in 1948, Sandy followed in his elder brother’s footsteps and went to Trinity Hall Cambridge where he studied for Mechanical Sciences Tripos Degree graduating with a second class honours degree in 1951. Being very social and an all-round sportsman he thoroughly enjoyed his time at Trinity Hall playing hockey for the college and the Wanderers (in those days the 2nd XI).

He also made full use of the long vacations, once driving round Europe as part owner of a 1923 London Taxi.

As a second son Sandy had a choice of career and his father warned him that a shipbuilder’s life would be fraught with trouble, but shipbuilding was in Sandy’s blood and nothing would stop him. After gaining experience in other yards Sandy joined Alexander Stephen and Sons of Linthouse as Junior manager in 1953.

In 1750 Sandy’s forebears had begun building boats at Burghead then started yards at Aberdeen, Arbroath, and Dundee. They moved to Glasgow in 1850. Initially to Kelvinhaugh, then Sandy’s Great Grandfather oversaw the move to Linthouse in 1870 and set out the yard with meticulous planning and foresight. By the 1880s it was one of the most productive yards on the Clyde.

The fortunes of the yard ebbed and flowed and when Sandy joined it was a medium sized company and his father had engineered a post war recovery; it had an excellent reputation for its pioneering methods of building ships and the Engine Shop was famous. However, storm clouds were looming on the Industry.

As Sales director Sandy tried to find sales in a shrinking market. Air travel was expanding and the company was facing fierce competition from abroad. The directors considered their options but their attempts at modernisation caused crippling labour disputes among the many Trade Union Bodies involved and, post war, the cost of materials was rising.

Sandy’s brother, Jim, had taken over from his father as Chairman and Sandy became Managing Director in 1967. The Directors had to face the devastating reality that the yard could not continue and in 1968 it was incorporated into Upper Clyde Shipbuilders which went into liquidation three years later. The engineering and ship repair business continued to 1978.

These were hard times for anyone involved with Shipbuilding and Sandy, deeply concerned about the effects of the yard’s closure on its employees supported the creation of the Preshal trust, providing aid and activities for people in need in the Govan and Linthouse areas.

Sandy retained a connection with his shipbuilding Heritage. He was actively involved with Institute of Engineers and Shipbuilders and served as president in 1983-5. He became a Trustee of the Scottish Maritime Museum at Irvine from 1990 to 2002 and was instrumental in creating a lasting monument to Clyde Shipbuilding by transporting and re-erecting the Engine Shop in Irvine.

He took great pride in all surviving Stephen built ships and was Patron of the HMS Vesper Association. A ship which had survived both World Wars and all her veterans held regular reunions.

After 1968 Sandy took on other business interests. In 1972 he started Polymer Scotland, a small engineering company which he continued to run successfully until he retired 1992. Meanwhile he held other Directorships including Murray Income Trusts and Scottish Widows.

Sandy was a gifted sportsman, but it is his skill as a yachtsman that he will be most remembered. In the design Dragon Class, he came 5th in the Olympic Trials in 1968. As a recognition of his contribution to sailing he was elected a member of the Mudhook Yacht Club in 1965 eventually becoming Admiral during 1984-9 and was Rear commodore of the Royal Northern Yacht Club.

Sandy had many interests and supported diverse charities. His love of music developed while playing the trumpet in the Rugby School Orchestra and he was for many years a Patron of Scottish Opera.  He was also Governor of the Glasgow School of Art, Honorary Treasurer of the West and Central Region of the Riding for the Disabled Association, raised funds for the RNLI and was Preces of the Sons of the Rock in Stirling from 1987 -8. Following in the family tradition he was Deacon of the Incorporation of Hammerman in 1977 -78 in the Trades house of Glasgow.

After living in Renfrewshire for 22 years, Sandy moved his family to Stirlingshire in 1976 and, bought a huge house in Balfron. He used his DIY and Naval Architect skills and knocked down 25 rooms and created a manageable house in a beautiful garden and grounds which he used to raise funds for Scotland’s Garden Scheme. Records over 30 years show that he and his wife had welcomed approximately 12,000 visitors to their home.

Sandy’s ability to cope with adversity was extraordinary.  He married Sue Thomson in 1954 and together, on separate occasions spanning four decades, personal tragedy hit hard with the unexpected deaths of three beloved daughters.

Then in 1998 Sandy underwent major cancer surgery and was not expected to live more than five years but, refusing to be daunted, he actively outlived the prognosis by more than two decades. In old age he made no complaint about his ill health or bereavements always insisting that plenty of people were far worse off than him.

A man of immense personal charm he was very popular with all generations. Sandy leaves not only a unique perspective on Clyde shipbuilding but a lasting testament on how to weather relentless storms of life and seize each God given day.

He is survived by Sue, their son, three Granddaughters and a great grandson.