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The Clyde from the Source to the Sea
Chapter VI. River Traffic


The traffic on the Clyde gradually increased, and new ports of call were established, at first only accessible to the passengers by ferry-boats, but soon facilities in the way of stone and wooden piers were afforded. Primitive fashions existed where no pier had yet thrown its wooden or iron piles out across the sandy shore, and where at low tide, when the ferry-boat stuck on the sand, the ferrymen carried the passengers ashore on their backs. In regard to customs it is curious how the position from which we view certain matters affects our wonderment. Thus, the well-known practice of the quay porters on the Clyde in pointing their fingers at the passengers on board steamers arriving at the quays is little noticed by regular coasters. To strangers however it has an air of comicality; yet in a description by a Scotchman of a visit to London about fifty years ago, he says that the signal by the conductors of the street omnibuses to attract the prospective passengers attention is pointing with the finger.

Boats had all their peculiar characteristics, especially well known to the boys who had gone “ doon the water ” for the holidays. Green-painted boats ran to Helensburgh, of regal and imperial designations such as Sovereign, Queen, Emperor. Dumbarton boats for the Yale of Leven were neat little crafts, with blue paddle-boxes and broad white strips on their black funnels. The Rothesay boats, calling at Dunoon, Kirn, &c., belonged to the Castle Company, and had quarter-deck, two masts, and a tall funnel, with the well-known white strip. The Cardiff, Craignish, and Dunrobin Castles were famous in their day, the latter with her powerful steeple engine, fast but rather crank. There were Largs and Millport boats, from the martial Warrior and Victor to the Olympian Jupiterand Juno; Inveraray boats, from the old Dunoon, Duntroon, and Inverary Castles to the dashing Lord of the Isles, which now makes the long run from Glasgow to Inveraray and back in the summer season, so that it is no longer a “far cry to Loch Awe.” The West Highland boats stretch from the Comet through a series of big and little crafts to the Columba, which can carry 2000 passengers on a Fair Saturday without “feeling it.” Some of them, like the Cygnet, Plover, and Lapwing, were little dumpy things made specially to go through the Crinan Canal, so small that it is said the captain of one of them told a heavy drover that used to travel with him “ to keep away from the side and stand in the middle of the boat, or he would be upsetting it.” Eagles, Plovers, Merlins, Ospreys, Flamingoes, Petrels have from time to time flown across our waters; Pioneers and Pilots have shown the road; Spunkies and Kelpies have glanced through the waves; Vulcan and Neptune have tried to rule them; as also Sultans, Sultanas, and Viceroys. The Pioneer, Petrel, and Pilot came on as railway boats on the Rothesay route as far back as 1845. They connected at the old Greenock or Custom-house Quay with the Glasgow and Greenock Railway. In later years the Glasgow and South-Western Railway Company from Princes Pier made their connection, the smart Sultana being well known on the Rothesay route; the Weinyss Bay Railway Company from Wemyss Bay have also their well-known fleet of white-funnelled boats carrying many thousands of passengers from the busy city to the Largs and Rothesay shores. Fifty years ago only seven steamers plied between Glasgow and Rothesay, the horse-power of each varying from fifty to seventy, the speed being eleven miles per hour. The fares to or from Glasgow were—cabin, 2s.; steerage, Is.Gd. The first steamers which made the passage to Rothesay in 1814 had only a speed of six miles per hour. A large fleet of steamers now call at Rothesay during the height of the summer traffic, their horse-power varying from 1000 to 2000, and with speeds of 17 to 20 miles per hour.

Speaking of our Clyde steamers a writer in an American paper says: “ Although England has a greater fleet of ships, both of war and of peace, than all the rest of the world put together, she is just a little short of fine, roomy, piazza-surrounded cabins, such as can be found on almost any American river. The trouble with British rivers seems to be that almost as soon as they become navigable they empty into the sea, and so all steamers have to be built like ocean liners, where comfort has to give way to safety. However, the Clyde, the mother of the finest steam-ships in the world, shows that it is possible to combine comfort and elegance with great speed and safety. For years the Iona held the palm, but now she gives the first place to her more recent sister, the Columba. This steamboat does not present the three or four storey appearance of some of the American boats, nor has it their dazzling whiteness, nor the easy undulating walking-beam. Taking the Columba as the finest specimen of passenger craft afloat in Great Britain, I must say that as far as outside appearance is concerned she does not come up in beauty or picturesque effect to many of the boats of the New World. It will be hard to make a Glasgow man believe this; but if he doesn’t he should go over to America and see for himself. I haven’t the Columba before me as I write, but my remembrance of her is a long steamer with side wheels, a mast in front, two large rakish red funnels, a great length of cabin aft, and a fine promenade deck above it. She seems as steady and solid as a rock, very little motion being felt, and at full speed races easily along, like an express train. The cabin seems like a very much magnified Pullman car. There is a glow of crimson velvet from the seats, and a general sunset hue pervades the entire saloon, toned down by the milder splendour of the carpet and the richness of the hangings and wood-work. The cabin is surrounded by a continuous window of the clearest plate glass, and as the seats are ranged facing the front and rear as in a Pullman car the traveller can sit there, no matter what the amount of the outside rainfall is, and have a series of landscape scenes presented to him that would be hard to equal anywhere else in the world.” The Columba, built and engined by Messrs. J. & G. Thomson of Clydebank, measures 316 feet in length, and is built of steel with steel boilers. There are two oscillating engines, each cylinder being 53 inches in diameter, with a stroke of 5 feet 6 inches.

The Columba is the largest of our river steamers, and is one of the large fleet of well-known red-funnelled West Highland boats owned by Mr. David MacBrayne. Amongst them is the Inverary Castle, built and engined by Tod & M'Gregor in 1839, and now the oldest steamer plying on the river.

In order that some comparison may be made between typical river steamers of our own and American waters, the following descriptions of American steamers are appended: The Mary Poivell, a famous Hudson River boat, measures 280 feet by 33˝ feet beam, with a draft of 6 feet; displacement, 757 tons. She is fitted with a beam-engine, working up to about 2000 horse power. The cylinder is 72 inches in diameter and 12 feet stroke. The paddle-wheels are 31 feet in diameter. The boilers are return tubular, having 154 square feet of grate surface, and 4700 feet of heating surface. The coal consumpt is at the rate of 40 lbs. per square foot of grate, with fan draught. Speed about 20 miles per hour. The steam is cut off at about half stroke, giving a mean effective pressure of about 24f lbs. per square inch. Professor Thurston says: “The performance of the Poivell has been such as to make her probably the most famous craft of the type in American waters.”

The Pilgrim, a newer and larger vessel, plies on Long Island Sound, from New York to the Fall River, is 374 feet long and 50 feet broad, or 884 feet over the guards; 3483 tons gross. The engine, single, of the usual beam type. The cylinder is 110 inches in diameter, with a stroke of 14 feet; diameter of paddle-wheels, 40 feet; steam power, 40 to 50 lbs.; speed about 18 miles per hour.

A Clyde river steamer is managed very quietly by the captain, who, with a slight motion of his hand indicates his wishes to the steersman at the wheel when approaching a quay. The signalling to the engineer has long been done by a very simple code of knocks through means of an iron rod passing from the paddle-box to the top of the engine-room. Tradition says that this system was introduced by an old captain, who, being lame, carried a stick, with which he used to rap on the engine-house. The more complete telegraph disc instrument, however, is now superseding the simple knocker—at least in the larger and smarter boats.

On the Thames the “call boy” still shouts his “Ease ’er;” “stop ’er;” “turn ahead slow at the wharf.” Possibly the latter, as a direction to the engineer, indicates the reason of the continuance of this system, the tide running so strong in the Thames upwards, and the flow of the river and ebb being so strong downwards, that a more extended intimation of what is necessary is demanded. Valentine Vox and Punch have both brought out in their own way the characteristics of the Southern Eiver, the various signals of transmission being somewhat in this fashion, as we find in an old volume of Punch: “‘Stand by!’ from the captain. ‘Stand by!’ repeated the midshipman of the engine hatchway. ‘A turn or two ahead!’ was the captain’s next ejaculation. ‘A turn or two ahead!’ promptly Issued from the lips of his diminutive echo. ‘Move on easy!’ ‘Move on e—e—easy!’ repeated the gallant youth. ‘Stop her!’ ‘Stop her!’ issued from the mouth of the youngster at the engine hatchway.” These were the signals in vogue in 1842 on board the “Phizgig, fresh-painted and new-engincd, with as powerful a boiler and as first-rate a cargo of Hotton’s, Wallsend, as ever were stowed under hatches; the awning as white as a pocket handkercheif, the seats as green as a First Lord of the Admiralty, and the binnacle polished like the steward’s stew-pans.” Punch by the way is rather hard on the 1842 Thames river boats. He says: “There arc about thirty stcam-boats running between London Bridge and Richmond, all of which have at different times run against the tide, while twenty-five have had the benefit of the wind on some occasions. Sixteen have run aground, and twelve have run into fourteen, while the remaining six have dashed against the bridges.”

The system of silent signalling by telegraph between the captain and the engineer seems to have been early introduced into the Atlantic steamers. Thus, in a description of the Atlantic, one of the Collins line, we read: “In the engine-room is a long box with five compartments, each communicating with a wire fastened like a bell-pull to the side of the paddle-box. These handles are marked respectively ‘ ahead,’ ‘ slow,’ ‘ fast,’ ‘ back,’ and ‘hook on,’ and whenever one is pulled a printed card, with the corresponding signal, appears in the box opposite the engineer, who has to act accordingly. There is thus no noise of human voices on board this ship. The helmsman steers by his pells, the engineer works by the telegraph, and the steward waits by the annunciator.”

The steam-boat service on the Clyde has been carried on with great immunity from serious accidents, especially when we consider the large fleet which on a summer’s-day plies from early morning till late at night, both 011 direct business and pleasure trips, including “moonlight” cruises away to the Highland lochs of the firth. It is now many years since a boiler explosion took place, and, indeed, only about three disasters due to this cause can be counted, viz.: those of the boilers of the Earl Grey at Greenock quay in 1835, the Telegnmk at Helensburgh in 1812, and the Plover at Glasgow some years later. Occasionally we hear of a water-tube of a haystack boiler giving way, with no worse result than the putting out of the fire, A crank-shaft, after having made thousands of revolutions daily for years, suddenly breaks and brings the vessel to a standstill for a time till assistance arrives.

The Clyde steamers are all weatherly boats, and can bear up against a stiff sou’-wester in the firth nobly; and, indeed, they would require to be able to do so, as the choppy sea raised in such gales, especially with an ebbtide, is like that of the “channel,” short and angry, and pitches the boat about in a wonderful manner. A graphic picture of the stormy nature of the outlying part of the firth is given in Sketches of Highland Character. A passenger goes on board the Arab lying at Greenock, ready to start for the West Highlands, and overhears the following colloquy:—

“‘Ye’ll think it’ll pe a plowy nicht?’ said a hairy-faced fellow, who had a plaid rolled tight round his neck, as if he had serious thoughts of doing himself a grievous injury.

“‘Ay will it,’ answered a short squat man in moleskins, all covered over with coal-dust. ‘Ye see the clouds, hoo they chase ane anither; that’s a gran’ sign o’ wind. We’ll hao a dance on the Moil the nicht, or I’m mista’en. There is plenty o’ that afore us, or the winter is ower.’

“‘No toot o’ that; but ye’re accustomed to it, and ’ill no mind it.’

“‘We wadna need, Dougald, for mony’s the awful nicht we had o’ it on the Mull of Cantyre.’

“‘It’ll pe sometimes washing ower the fesliel?’

“‘Washing ower the vesliel! ay, man, sometimes washing ower the funnel, and near puttin’ out the fire on us, and wad do sae if the smoke dinna keep it frae comiim doom’”

The wrecks, however, don’t count more than two or three altogether. The Mars, an old harms steamer, went ashore in a gale after her engine broke down; and the Lady Gertrude took the rocks at Toward Point, due to a like cause, her ribs remaining for loim, showing at low-water gaunt and grim; the Eclipse managed to run herself ashore on the Gantocks reef, off Uunoon. Collisions are also of rare occurrence, although occasionally at times such an accident occurs when two boats are trying to take a pier in a hurry. And as a good many accidents have nearly happened in like situations, due not only to the rivalry of the steamboat captains, but to the desire for speed and rapid transit on the part of the passengers, steps have been taken to erect proper signalling arrangements, somewhat after the railway system, under the charge of the piermaster, whose duty will be to signal which steamer has the right to approach the pier. This racing between rival boats has for long been indulged in, when opportunity offered; but as the danger from explosion may now be regarded as eliminated, due to improved materials and construction of boilers, and also to Board of Trade loaded safety-valves, the risks are very slight to the passengers. The boats being skilfully handled keep quite clear, unless when approaching a quay, when by coming too near each other they may rub some of their paint off, or get the side-planks of a paddle-box crushed in.

During an early competition for passengers on the river, and consequent low fares, a story is told of a fishwoman who intended travelling to Greenock by the Albion (which was a kind of luggage boat carrying passengers), shortly after the Earl Gray was blown upin 1S35. The would-be passenger asked the captain if it was true that he carried passengers for sixpence. He said, “Yes.” “But,” she replied, “is there nae fear o’ bein’ blawn up?” “Oh, no,” said the captain; “we canna afoard to blaw ye up for sixpence.”

Many of the Clyde river-steamers have wandered far from their early home, and found final resting-places on foreign shores and beneath the ocean waves. From the very earliest Clyde-built boats went off to England and France, to ply on the rivers there; this was only what might have been expected, from the fact of the Clyde being the birthplace of steamboat navigation. At certain times they departed, like some of the finny tribe, in shoals; thus about 1856 a number of our finest river steamers were sold for service on the Australian rivers, some of them coming to grief on the way. Again, during the American Civil War, blockade-runners were much in request amongst the smart steamers of the Clyde. Curiously enough an old Clyde steamer, after acting as a blockade-runner, has now managed to get to the great lakes of North America, plying between Toronto and Niagara, on Lake Ontario.

Unfortunately the splendid river service of steamers is accompanied by much troublesome smoke and falling soot. Possibly the “haystack” boiler commonly used accounts for this, as the heated gases from the furnace shoot quickly through the various uptakes to the funnel. The stoke-holes are also necessarily limited, and we can hardly expect the stoker to remain longer below than necessary, hence his tendency to shovel in a good quantity of coal at a time and then ascend to the deck for a smoke himself. In the old days it was considered the proper thing to have a long pennant of black smoke streaming from the high and narrow funnel. Possibly as the early steamers were called by some the “reek boats,” the association of smoke and the power within were closely identified.


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