Two Days in August

Supporting the preservation and operation of paddle steamers Waverley and Kingswear Castle

Two Days in August

A few pictures of Waverley during an August day in 2009, courtesy of Richard Dennis:

One of the all too few summer days in August 2009, Waverley passing the Mirren Shore at Port Glasgow.

Above, Waverley passing off the Inverclyde shoreline, formerly the site of the East, Glen and Kingston shipyards operated at various times in the past two centuries by such shipbuilding firms as John Wood, John Reid, William Hamilton, Russell & Co and Lithgow’s. It was in Wood’s East shipyard that the first Clyde paddle steamer, and the first commercially operated steamship in Europe, the Comet, was built. She commenced sailing on the Clyde on another August day, almost two centuries earlier, in 1812. Waverley is a decendant of Comet, the first and the last Clyde paddle steamers. In the 197 years since 1812 there has been only one year (1974) in which no paddle steamers sailed on the Clyde. Comet’s engine was built by John Robertson of Neilston in Renfrewshire -it now resides in the Science Museum at South Kensington, London. The boiler for the Comet was built by the famous Dumbarton-born engineer David Napier, a great innovator who was an early pioneer in such items as water-tube boilers, double bottom hulls,etc. The significance of some of Napier’s developments is described in the classic text ‘A History of the Growth of the Steam Engine’ by Professor Robert H Thurston, AMCE, Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the Stevens Institute of Technology at Hoboken, New Jersey, a Member of the Institution of Engineers & Shipbuilders in Scotland, published in New York in 1878 and available on-line here As seen here Waverley was sailing from Glasgow to Greenock and Helensburgh, the route which was inaugerated in 1812 by Henry Bell, the Helensburgh hotelier and owner of the Comet.

The pictures above and below show the model of the Clyde paddle steamer Comet in the Engineering & Shipbuilding hall of the Science Museum in South Kensington, London. The upper picture shows Comet in her original form with two non-feathering paddle wheels on either side of the vessel. That arrangement was found to be unsatisfactory and the vessel was alterred to have only one paddle wheel on each side. The detail below shows the relative positions of Robertson’s engine and Napier’s boiler.

Below, the model of the first PS Comet at the Museum of Transport, Glasgow.

The following picture shows the engine of the Comet and its creator, John Robertson of Neilston

Below, an engraving of Comet’s engine as originally built (from the classic publication ‘The Steam Engine’ by the thermodynamics pioneer, Professor W J McQuorn Rankine of the University of Glasgow)

Below, David Napier, maker of Comet’s boiler

Following a disasterous explosion in one of his boilers, although he was judged to be free of any blame, Napier sold most of his Scottish based businesses to his cousin Robert Napier and moved to London where he operated a shipbuilding yard at Millwall. In 1854 he sold (some sources say ‘leased’) his shipyard to another Scottish ’emigrant’ to London, J Scott Russell. Russell, an early pioneer in steam powered road vehicles, had become Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh at the age of 24. Subsequently, Russell was the discoverer of the the Wave of Translation (In modern Fluid Dynamics the wave is now called a Russell solitary wave or soliton) moved to London becoming owner the adjacent Thames yard to that run by Napier and he combined both yards for the building of the largest ship in the world (by far and many many years in advance of others), the Great Eastern, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Subsequently, Napier’s sons revived the family’s Clydeside connection but David Napier remained in London until his death in 1869. His tomb can be found at Kensall Green Cemetary, alongside the last resting place of many other significant engineers and scientists such as I K Brunel and his father, Sir Marc Brunel, Charles Babbage (the inventor of computing) and Sir John Rennie, the Scottish civil engineer who build many of the prominent Thames bridges and other significant structures in London.

Below, John Wood, builder of PS Comet

The brothers John and Charles wood, sons of Port Glasgow shipbuilder John, Senior moved to Quebec to carry out shipbuilding in the early 19th Century However, they returned to Scotland after a period and opened a new shipyard at Dumbarton before taking over their father’s yard on his death in 1811. The following thumbnail image (from SCRAN) shows the Comet under construction in John Wood’s shipyard in Port Glasgow – its shows how bereft of machinery e.g. cranes, etc. were the early Clyde yards. The picture forms part of the Wotherspoon Collection, an unsurpassible record of Clyde history compiled by James Wotherspoon. Over many years Wotherspoon compiled his record, entitled ‘In the Track of the Comet’, as a labour of love. The 41 folio albums contain over 4000 illustrations. of ships, portraits of shipbuilders, engineers, ship owners and ship captains, drawings of flags and funnels, views of lighthouses, piers and railway stations. All had been meticulously captioned and inserted in sequence, from The Comet in 1812 to the building of the Empress of Britain in the 1930s. There is an alphabetical name index. The collection was acquired by the world’s largest municipal reference library, the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, soon after Wotherspoon’s death in 1937. To see the full image you must purchase a SCRAN subscription (well worth it if interested in a wide range of Scottish history).

Wood was never quite happy with the general transition from wooden hulls to iron that became prominent in the 1860-70 period and only undertook certain contracts thereafter. The yard was managed by John Reid, the husband of Wood’s neice, who operated the adjacent shipyard.

Copyright Glasgow City Council. Licensor

Below, Henry Bell, owner and operator of the Comet.

Born at Torphichan near Linlithgow Bell spent some time as an engineer in Glasgow before moving to the small resort of Helensburgh where he and his wife ran the hotel and public baths. Although widely recognised now for his role in the founding years of the commercial steamship he was never given that recognition in his time and the venture probably left him significantly ‘out of pocket’. He died in Helensburgh on the 14th November 1830, aged 63, and was buried in the kirkyard at Rhu. He was much respected by Robert Napier, who erected a statue over his grave in 1851 and was a major contributor to the cost of building the Bell Monument on Helensburgh seafront in 1872. Another monument to Bell, dated 1838, was erected upriver at Douglas Castle Dunglass near Bowling.

Below, an engraving of the pioneering Comet of 1812.

Prior to Comet two other steamships had been operational in Scottish waters, the ‘Dalswinton Steamboat‘ which entered service on 14th November 1788 for Patrick Miller on Dalswinton Loch in south west Scotland and the Charlotte Dundas, named after the daughter of Lord Dundas, the Chairman of the Forth & Clyde Canal Company. Although the Charlotte Dundas was succesful in her intended role of towing sailing vessels on the Canal her career was ‘sabotaged’ by vested interests, owners of the horses that previously assisted. Both the Dalswinton Steamboat and the Charlotte Dundas were designed and built by William Symington of Leadhills in Lanarkshire, who, it could be argued, was the true inventor of the practical steamship but fate was not kind to Symington and he died a sadly deluded man, in abject poverty and dependant on the charity of friends.

For further information on the early steamboats and their builders the following publications are recommended.

David Napier, Engineer by David Dehane Napier, 1912 now available free on-line, courtesy of the University of Los Angeles, here. (My original copy cost ~£75!)

The Birth of the Steamboat by H Philip Spratt, 1958

John Robertson, Engineer by Martin Hughson, 1989

The Ingenious Mr Bell by Brian Osborne, 1995

The Comet & Her Creators by J Craig Osborne, 2007

In subsequent years the Comet was quickly superceded by more advanced vessels and expanded her field of operation to the River Forth and the West Highlands of Scotland. On December 13, 1820, PS Comet was returning to Glasgow from Inverness. Near Crinan, she was overcome by the infamous tidal flow in the Dorus Mhor and lifted on to the rocks at Craignish Point, quickly becoming a total wreck. Although the vessel was lost, her engine was salvaged and used to drive machinery at a brewery. In 1862, the engine was purchased by another famous Scottish engineer, Robert Napier, the Father of Clyde Shipbuilding, who presented it to the Science Museum in London, where it remains on display.

A replica vessel was built by George Thomson and Son of Buckie Shipyard (wooden hull) and fitted by the Lithgow apprentices at Port Glasgow. With a boiler fired by lignum vitae logs it made a commemorative sailing from Glasgow to Greenock and Helensurgh in 1962. The replica is now preserved onshore at a spot close to the building place of the original Comet of 1812. The Tesco superstore car park at Port Glasgow now covers the location of John Wood’s East shipyard. A description of the activities surrounding the events in 1962 can be found here. However, use the information with some caution, as far as I know there has never been a ‘Lord Lithgow’ as referred to in this article – presumably the reference is to Sir William Lithgow, descendant of Sir James Lithgow (see below).

Following the loss of the original Comet Henry Bell had a new larger vessel built at Lang’s shipyard in Dumbarton in 1822. However, only three years later she too was lost, this time in very tragic circumstances. While rounding Kempock Point off Gourock in darkness on 21st October 1825, she was almost sliced in two by the outward bound steamship Ayr. Tragically, about 70 souls, passengers and crew, were lost in the cold and dark Clyde waters. I have previously paraphrased accounts from Andrew McQueen’s classic textbook ‘Echoes of Old Clyde Paddle Wheels’ (published in 1923) and the Glasgow Courier of 22 November 1825 in the Clydebuilt Ship Database.

The final view by Richard was taken from his home at Gleddoch near the former home of industrialist Sir James Lithgow. Lithgow ran the family shipbuilding business including Lithgow’s at Port Glasgow and the Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Company at Govan. During WW1 he was appointed the Director of Merchant Shipping to co-ordinate vital shipping of troops and materials. He was also a prominent figure in inter-war British steel industry. During WW2 he was appointed again as Controller of Merchant Shipping and Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty by Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.

Other References

Henry Bell

Steam Navigation

Wikipedia – Charlotte_Dundas

Many thanks to Richard Dennis for the Waverley pictures.

[signature name=”Stuart Cameron”]