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The Company was founded by Alexander Stephen who began shipbuilding at Burghead on the Moray Firth in 1750.

In 1793 William Stephen, a descendant of his, established a firm of shipbuilders at Footdee in Aberdeen.

In 1813 another member of the family, again called William, commenced shipbuilding at Arbroath.

Alexander Stephen, a member of the third generation of the family, merged the Aberdeen and Arbroath businesses in 1828 and then, after closing the Aberdeen yard in 1829, moved production to the Panmure yard in Dundee in 1842. In 1850 Alexander Stephen arranged a lease of the Kelvinhaugh yard in Glasgow from Robert Black for twenty years from May, 1851. The site of the Kelvinhaugh yard is now Yorkhill Quay. The Arbroath yard finally closed in 1857. Due to the restrictions in size of the Kelvinhaugh yard, as well as the impending expiry of the lease, in 1870 the Glasgow business moved to a new site at Linthouse. The Dundee shipyard was sold to the Dundee Shipbuilders' Company in 1893.

In a tragic disaster in 1883, the Daphne, a steamer, capsized after its launch from the Linthouse yard, and 124 workers lost their lives. In 1968, Stephens was incorporated into Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and was closed after the latter organisation collapsed in 1971. The engineering and ship repair elements of Alexander Stephen & Sons were not part of the UCS merger and continued until 1976, with the Company eventually wound up in 1982, when the shareholders were repaid.

The ship repair business was based at the Govan Graving Docks, which had been purchased from the Clyde Port Authority in 1967.

There is no knowledge of the earliest ships built, but the last 153 which were built on the East Coast are recorded. On the Clyde the firm built 697 ships, 147 at the Kelvinhaugh shipyard and the remainder at Linthouse.

It was at Stephens shipyard that Billy Connolly served his apprenticeship as a boilermaker.

Part of the site is now occupied by a Thales Optronics facility, with the former main office building converted into lettable office space by Govan Workspace. The A-listed former Engine Shop was salvaged by the Scottish Maritime Museum in 1991 and rebuilt at its site in Irvine.