– a tale of Poppy Leaves and Paddle Steamers
Paddle Steamer Mary Jane at Tarbert Loch Fyne in 1856
Today, the 12th of August 2012, 200 years after the pioneer Clyde paddle steamer, the Comet, first churned up the still river waters, PS Waverley performs her one and only Sunday visit to Tarbert Loch Fyne of 2012 – it is also the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society Scottish Branch annual hospitality day and the Branch committee will be pleased to meet members, old and new, on board. the picture aboveshows an earlier call by a paddle steamer at Tarbert – the paddle steamer Mary Jane in the inner harbour, probably in 1856 (only 10-15 years after photography was invented). The Mary Jane was built by the early upper Clyde shipbuilding firm of Tod & McGregor in 1846 at their original shipyard at what later became Springfield Quay (just downstream of the Kingston Bridge on the south bank of the river). Mary Jane’s original owner was Sir James Matheson, one of the two Scottish founders of the great Hong Kong based trading company Jardine Matheson (still to the fore but now based in Singapore, I think)
Sir James Nicolas Sutherland Matheson, 1st Baronet
Matheson and his partner made their vast fortune conveying much sought after commodities from China to the UK. On the outward journeys they conveyed opium sourced from the Ottoman empire, which they sold to the Chinese
. Nowadays, they would be condemned as international drug dealers, opium (from the poppy fields of Afghanistan and elsewhere) being the source material of the multi-billion pound illegal global heroin trade – but in the 19th Century it was positively encouraged by the British Government as a means of addressing the country’s serious balance of trade deficit with China.
After William Jardine
died a bachelor in 1843, his nephews David and Andrew Jardine assisted James Matheson in running the Hong (Chinese name for a trading firm) as the Tai-Pan (the head of a Chinese trading company). However, Matheson retired as Tai-Pan soon thereafter and handed over to David Jardine, another nephew of Jardine. Matheson, who was born in the village of Shiness near Lairg in Sutherland (which, despite its name, is the second most northerly county in mainland Scotland), returned to Scotland and used some of his ‘ill-gotten gains’ to buy the island of Lewis in the outer Hebrides in 1844 and commissioned the paddle steamer Mary Jane, named after his wife, to provide a regular service, summer and winter, from Glasgow, round the Mull of Kintyre, up through the Hebrides and across the Minch to Stornoway, capital of Lewis. She set sail on her first voyage from Glasgow on 18th June 1846 He built Lews Castle
as his country seat and spent around £0.5m (a vast sum of money then), improving roads, farming methods and housing in Lewis and was regarded as a great benefactor there. Interestingly he tried to develop industry on the island, building a chemical works to try to utilise the island’s valuable indigenous minerals but this came to nothing for reasons that are not well researched. As a result of his actions during the Highland Potato Famine, Matheson was rewarded with a baronetcy in 1851. He was Member of Parliament (MP) for Ashburton from 1843 to 1852 and for Ross and Cromarty from 1852 to 1868. He died at the age of 82 in Menton, France on Hogmanay, 1878. Having no children, the baronetcy became extinct on his death.
(J B MacGeorge collection)
Matheson’s fleet of steamers was increased to two when in 1849 when he started to run the paddle steamer Marquis of Stafford (launched at J Reid & Son’s East Yard, Port Glasgow on 29th September, 1848), which he owned jointly with the Duke of Sutherland, on a mail service between the mainland terminal of Poolewe and Stornoway. This service had commenced in the late 1700s using sailing vessels. The mails were conveyed by foot between Poolewe and Dingwall . Matheson sold the Mary Jane to the Glasgow & Loch Fyne Steam Packet Company in 1851 and this picture is likely to date from the period in which she was in their ownership. She passed into the hands of David Hutghson & Co (precursor of MacBraynes) in 1857 and remained in the Loch Fyne trade until 1875 when she was substantially remodeled, lengthened, had her ‘fiddle-bow seen here replace with a ‘slanting bow’, and re-entered service with the name ‘Glencoe’. Though already almost 30 years old this remarkable little paddle steamer was destined to spend another 56 years on routes all over the exposed western seaboard of Scotland, from 1879 under Mr David MacBrayne who had been a junior partner to the Hutchesons since 1851. She spent a lot of time running the mail service between West Loch Tarbert pier (a couple of miles across the isthmus from the location of this picture) and Islay but was also to serve on the Oban-Gairloch (Wester Ross), Oban-Fort William-Corpach (connecting with the Caledonian Canal paddle steamers for Fort Augustus and Inverness) and the Mallaig-Kyle of Lochalsh-Portree mail services. During WWI she was chartered to the Glasgow & South Western Railway to run between Winton Pier in Ardrossan Harbour and Arran and later to the rival Caledonian Steam Paket Company for their services from Wemyss Bay while some of these members of these fleets were requisitioned into the Royal Navy as minesweepers. While MacBraynes’ prima donnas like the mighty PS Columba hibernated in Bowling Harbour during the winter month the humble little Glencoe was essentially an all year round steamer enduring tremendous buffetings particularly when running on the exposed route to Islay.
The current Caledonian Macbrayne Ferrt Finlaggan is 295 feet (89.8m) long and 53 feet (16.9m) on the beam. By comparison PS Glencoe was just 165 feet long and 20 feet wide (excluding her paddleboxes). Glencoe’s gross tonnage was 226, Finlaggan’s is 5209. All the more remarkable that although Glencoe was reboilered four times in her exceedingly long career, two her ‘new’ boilers were second hand – her original horizontal boiler was replaced by another of the same type in 1883. In 1901 it was replaced by a haystack boiler that was only 5 years newer than the one that it was replacing, having been installed in the new PS Fusilier at McIntyre’s yard in Paisley in 1888. Again in 1928, Glencoe received a ‘new’ second hand haystack boiler (originally dating from 1902) which had been salvaged from wreckage of the beautiful clipper bowed paddle steamer Grenadier , which had sunk at Oban North Pier in Sept 1927 after an overnight fire which claimed the lives of several of her crew including her long term master, Captain McArthur.
PS Glencoe at Ardrossan where she was scapped at the end of her remarkable 85 year career on the west coast of Scotland
The remarkable 85 year career of paddle steamer Mary Jane / Glencoe came to an end in 1931, by which time she shared the distinction of being the oldest operational steamer in the world with the paddle steamer Premier, built by Denny Brothers at Dumbarton in the same year for the local Dumbarton Steamboat Company’s service between Dumbarton, capital of the ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde ans the City of Glasgow. Prior to the opening of the north bank railway between Glasgow and Dumbarton, twenty years later the river paddleboat service was by far the quickest and most comfortable way to make the journey.
In fact the Premier lasted 7 years longer than the Mary Jane but her services were seasonal and in less arduous waters than her highland counterpart. However, both of these remarkable make our current day ‘old lady’ (PS Waverley) appear to be a relative youngster at ‘just’ 65 years. – a thought to Ponder while we forge our way, purposely round Ardlamont Point and onward across Loch Fyne to risk distubing the Sabbath peace of the good folk of Tarbert
PS Waverley at Tarbert, Loch Fyne
Stuart Cameron, 12th August 2012