Paddle Steamer Comet Replica
During the PSPS AGM on Saturday 24th October, a brief discussion was held on the condition of the Paddle Steamer Comet replica displayed at Port Glasgow.
It was agreed that correspondence between Murray Paterson, Chairman of the PSPS Scottish Branch, and Inverclyde Council would be shared via this website.
The Original Comet
The PS Comet dates from 1812 and was built at John Wood’s shipyard in Port Glasgow for Helensburgh hotel and pool owner Henry Bell. Europe’s first ever commercial steam ship service began later that year with Comet sailing between Glasgow and Greenock. James Watt and Sir Walter Scott are amongst the passengers who sailed on her.
In 1819 a lengthened and re-engined Comet started sailing to Oban and Fort William via the Crinan Canal. The ship was wrecked the following year near Oban, fortunately with no loss of life. The engine from Comet is preserved at the Science Museum in London.
The Comet Replica
In 1962, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Comet’s maiden voyage a full-size, operational replica of Comet was built and launched from the same berth as the original vessel. During the celebrations the replica steamed from Port Glasgow to Helensburgh and back. Subsequently, the replica was lifted from the water for static display in Port Glasgow town centre. She underwent a year-long rebuild in 2010-2011 with the expectation of restoring her to sailing condition for the bicentennial of Comet’s maiden voyage however this proved not to be possible.
There has been growing concern in recent years at the condition of the replica which stands exposed to the elements. She has recently been declared beyond economic repair and earlier this month Inverclyde Council removed her funnel, fearful that it may collapse.
Recent Correspondence Between PSPS and Inverclyde Council
From: Murray Paterson (PSPS)
Sent: 01 March 2020 18:05
To: David Wilson (Inverclyde Council)
Subject: Replica of steamship Comet
I hope this finds you well.
My apologies for taking up your time and for swelling the mountain of mail you must have, however, I do so out of deep concern for the current sorry state of what is arguably Port Glasgow’s greatest landmark, the life size replica of Henry Bell’s paddle steamer Comet.
My visits to Tesco in PG are generally made by car but very recently while walking there from Prince’s St. I paused to have a close look at the vessel and was utterly stunned and appalled to note the sorry condition that she is now in.
Most parts of the hull seem to be suffering from advanced stages of rot with one large hole on the port (left hand) side, the bowsprit rotted and broken and other areas of the structure clearly very seriously in an advanced state of decay beneath the distorted paintwork.
Built originally for the 150th anniversary of the original vessel in 1962, It is only ten years since Comet was extensively renovated at Fergusons yard and I am as amazed as I am disappointed the such extensive deterioration has taken place subsequently.
Having spent all my working life of 46+ years at sea l do not claim any great expertise with regard to wooden vessels, however from what I can see from out-with the fence surrounding Comet, I fear for her future and very much doubt that her structure could be craned onto a lorry (as ten years ago) without it disintegrating. I also have concerns for the tall funnel which could fall beyond the fence.
While my concern is for the Comet and its continued preservation, I also have to ask which department of the Council is responsible for it since clearly we are in the current position due to utter neglect.
The first seagoing paddle steamer is something of great significance and the loss of its iconic replica would be nothing short of an embarrassment and a disaster.
I do not know what the future now holds for Comet but if it can be saved it should never again be left to the mercy of the elements or the neglect of those who should have cared for it.
In a time when Councils seem to be strapped for cash it perhaps a pipedream to see Comet restored and housed within a building with wider community uses — in Port Glasgow — but one way or another continuing to do nothing is not an option.
From: David Wilson (Inverclyde Council)
Sent: 02 March 2020 13:17
To: Murray Paterson (PSPS)
Cc: Graeme Brooks (Inverclyde Council)
Subject: RE: Replica of steamship Comet
Hi Murray. I could not agree with you more regarding the state of the Comet. Apparently people have been living in it and removing the tarpaulin !
I will ask the Chief Executive to reply to you as I understand from my Conservative colleague Councillor Brooks that he recollects setting aside monies in a Regeneration budget.
I have also heard fibreglass mentioned.
Good to hear from you.
From: Scott Allan (Inverclyde Council)
Sent: 06 March 2020 16:12
To: Murray Paterson (PSPS)
Cc: Stuart Jamieson; Lisa Mitchell; David Wilson (Inverclyde Council)
Subject: (Official) Replica of Comet
David Wilson has forwarded a copy of your e mail concerning the Comet .
I appreciate your concerns. Last year we carried out a full survey of the vessel. This followed a rapid deterioration. It was not initially apparent that the vessel was deteriorating to a significant extent or so quickly. The refurbishment of less than 10 years ago should have seen the vessel through many more years, even when exposed to the elements.
The survey has indicated a significant deterioration. We are currently assessing the report in detail and considering options for restoration. We hope to give a detailed report to the Port Glasgow Regeneration forum and also local members in the near future. Following that we will begin discussions on alternative actions. Budget will of course be a major issue and in developing alternatives we will look at potential costs in detail.
I can’t say at this time what the solution will be but I do appreciate the importance of this vessel to Port Glasgow and Inverclyde.
Corporate Director Environment, Regeneration & Resources
Chief Executive’s Office
Mr. Scott Allan,
Corporate Director Environment, Regeneration & Resource,
Chief Executive’s Office, Inverclyde Council,
Greenock. PA15 1LY
23rd October 2020
P.S. Comet replica
Dear Mr. Allan,
On March 2nd I wrote to Councillor Wilson regarding my personal concerns regarding the state of the Comet replica and he forwarded my letter to you.
I appreciated the prompt reply at that time though as we were soon in the worrying time of ‘Lockdown’ and furlough due to the ongoing Covid 19 Pandemic emergency I felt it inappropriate to respond further at that time.
More recently I reported to the regional branch of the P.S.P.S., of which I am the current Chairman, regarding the neglected state of the Comet and was mandated to write to you in order to express the Society’s deep concerns and hope for urgent remedial action to fully restore the vessel even at this eleventh hour.
As Chairman, a lifelong resident of Port Glasgow and someone who attended the launch of the Comet replica and took part in the associated celebrations during 1962, I now do so.
As with Gourock and Greenock, Port Glasgow was a Royal Burgh in its own right up until the creation of Inverclyde in 1972, at which time the Comet became the responsibility of the new authority.
The Comet replica was gifted to Port Glasgow by the Lithgow family and was the centrepiece of extensive celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the original vessel’s launch.
Although described as a replica it should be recognised that the current Comet was very much a seagoing vessel in its own right having been built on the east coast of Scotland by expert boat builders to the original plans and using the best of materials with the intention that she would be able to sail under her own steam powered by a locally built copy of the original engine.
This she did and the 1962 celebrations are unquestionably Port Glasgow’s most important civic event in living memory and the current Comet very much a tangible link to what is arguably the town’s greatest claim to fame.
It is to the eternal shame of Inverclyde Council that this treasure has been so neglected as to have fallen into such a state of dereliction through their neglect and utter incompetence that her future seems now to be in doubt.
The repairs required to the Comet in 2010 should have indicated to all concerned something that they should have already known, simply, that you simply cannot leave a wooden structure to the mercy of the elements for a decade without a regime of regular and very thorough inspections by someone who has the knowledge and competency to do so.
During my forty-six years of seagoing I had at times the responsibility for ensuring that the safety equipment in ships on which I served was maintained to the highest standard and in the early days that would include large wooden lifeboats. The possibility of of rot setting in was a known danger and regular and ongoing maintenance and monitoring of the structure, particularly around the keel, where water might gather and ensuring that the drain plug holes did not become blocked, was essential. This is very basic stuff and should have been understood by anyone having the responsibility for the Comet.
The reply to my earlier letter stated: ‘Last year (2019) we carried out a full survey of the vessel. This followed a rapid deterioration’.
From that we can conclude that ‘Full Inspections’ were not the norm and that only when the internal rot was affecting the hull planking and becoming clearly visible was one ordered.
I would suggest that the deterioration of Comet’s structure is unlikely to have been sudden but going on gradually and unchecked for some years and only seeming to be rapid as the result of the continuing neglect which resulted in the interior degeneration becoming visible externally. It is quite simply not feasible for the ship to have ended up in this sad and perilous condition had thorough and regular inspections been carried out by competent people.
No doubt the situation was not helped by the vandals who were known to be gaining access all too easily.
Despite the fact that unauthorised persons were known to be accessing the ship nothing was done to make the vessel more secure.
The report stemming from this belated inspection has cost the ratepayers of Inverclyde £5000 – presumably to pay for outside contractors who did know what they were doing, yet it seems that the public at large are not allowed to see the detail of the report ‘lest it complicate the elected and non- elected members of the Inverclyde Council making ‘an informed and impartial decision on Comet’s future’.
Members of the public could be forgiven for regarding this as a complete coverup to hide the truth and shield the guilty from any consequences.
Had this amount of money been spent annually to do appropriate inspections and targeted maintenance by qualified people, I suggest that we would not be in this desperate plight now.
Sadly, the Comet’s woes do not end here.
It has come to light that funds previously allocated for the building of a protective structure seem to have been syphoned off elsewhere and something which might have mitigated the ongoing neglect was never brought to reality.
On behalf of the Society I now request a copy of that report and for details of previous inspections.
We also learn in yesterdays Greenock Telegraph that the estimated cost of repairing Comet ins now estimated at a staggering £750,000.
Penny pinching has come at a high cost and while this is a horrendous figure the Council are surely morally bound to reinstate the Comet.
Due to past neglect and indifference this will indeed be costly but if the Council can afford to spend £500,000 on some speculative ‘sculpture’ – a figment of someone’s imagination – to be sited in Coronation Park, perhaps it could have the common decency to fund a full restoration of the Comet, hitherto failed by them, despite it being a very real and tangible monument to the reality of our industrial past and an important milestone in British maritime history.
Capt. J. Murray Paterson,
Paddle Steamer Preservation Society.
Registered Charity No. 298328 & SC037603
Recent Local Press Coverage
- 15th October: “Scramble to find a cut price solution to save Comet paddle steamer replica left to rot“
- 20th October: “Hopes of restoring iconic Comet paddle steamer replica have been SUNK“
- 23rd October: “Cost to replace the Comet paddle steamer replica put at £750,000“
- 24th October: “Comet paddle steamer proposal was scrapped on yard advice“