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History of the Town of Greenock


We now turn to the Quays—that one thing, above all others, which has made Greenock the important spot it is and it is from this alone that she can date, not only her origin, but also her gradual improvement. The bay of Greenock is called in the document, at page 56, ''Sir John's Little Bay;" and at the time this was penned, namely, in 1697, the site of our spacious harbours was a fine sandy shore, washed by the waves. ln 1686 and 1700, Sir John made application to the Scottish Parliament, for public aid to build a harbour at Greenock; but both his applications were unsuccessful. Though thus frustrated, the measure was of too much importance to be overlooked. At this time the only pier, or landing-place, was at Sir John's Quay, where his barge was stationed, and was of less importance than the pier at Gourock. Vessels arriving, discharged their cargoes at Cartsdyke breast, or were run upon the shore near Cross Shore-street. The inhabitants, however, saw the advantages which would result from having a commodious harbour; and they made a contract with the Superior, by which they agreed that an assessment of 1s. 4d. Sterling should be raised from every sack of malt brewed into ale within the limits of the town, the money so levied to be applied in liquidating the expense of building a proper pier, and forming the harbour. The work was begun at the period of the Union, in 1707, and a capacious harbour laid out, containing upwards of ten Scotch acres, by building a kind of circular pier, with a tongue, or what is called the Mid Quay, in the centre. Some idea may be formed of the place by looking at the Port-Glasgow harbours, which were built afterwards on the exact model. These were formidable works, and the greatest of the kind in Scotland; and incurred an expense of more than 100,000 merks Scots, which was equal to 5555 11s. 1d. These works were completed about 1710; and on the 16th September of same year, Greenock was established a Customhouse port, and a branch of Port-Glasgow. The debt contracted alarmed the inhabitants very much; but such were the facilities to trade created by this new erection, that in 1740 the population was more than trebled; and the sums advanced were paid up, leaving a clear surplus of 27,000 merks Scots, or 1500 Sterling. ln 1783 the whole harbour dues amounted to 111 8d ; in 1792, 812 6s. was collected. Of lateyears, the harbours may be said to have been entirely rebuilt, no vestiges of the old being seen all around and certainly their present complete state reflects great credit on those who superintended and executed these splendid works. The first Act of Parliament for regulating the affairs of the harbours was obtained in 1773; another act was obtained in 1789; a third act in 1801; a fourth in 1803; a fifth in 1810; and a sixth act in 1817.

The Harbours and New Dry Dock, including, as appertaining to the same estate, the lot of ground for warehouses at West Quay—the lot where the Dock Engine and Mr. Fish's Sail-loft stands—all the lots on the easternmost breast, used as Bonding Yards for mahogany, &c., with all the Sheds on the different Quays, have cost 119,000. This, it may be remarked, includes the sum of 10,064 11s. 8d., paid in following by the Trustees of the harbour to the Managers of the Town Proper. —In November 1806, for value of Sheds, as per report of Messrs. John Laird, Duncan M'Naught, and Thomas Ram say, 2286 14s. 5d. In March, 1807, for feu right to Shore Property, opposite to Mr. George Kerr and M. Gamunell's property at West Breast, &c., 4902 11s, 2d. Some misunderstanding occurred at this time as to the exact proportion of annual Feu Duty for which the harbour Trust became liable; and it was not until August, 1811, that the matter was finally arranged .—At that time a calculation of all the Feu Duties paid by the Town on account of the harbour from 1773 was made up, which, including interest, amounted to 2875 5s. 11d., which sum was then paid by the Harbour Trustees to the Town Managers. At the same time the sum of 37 13s. 2d., and double that sum every nineteenth year, was fixed upon as the proportion of annual Feu Duty payable by the Trustees of the harbour in relief of the Town; and this, of course, has been regularly accounted for ever since. After paying the Town for its harbour right, the Trustees went along eastward, buying up the seaward rights of M'Gilp's heirs, Thomas Elwin's heirs, M'Gow it's heirs, and of all others easyward to Delingburn— all of which have been settled.

The Town Proper reserved the exclusive right to the Anchorages, Dues on Coals, &c., coming to the harbours. The Revenue arising from this source is not pledged for any part of the Debt of the harbour; and it is plain that the extension of the Port has caused a great increase of the Anchorages, &c., and thereby given very efficient aid to the Revenue of the Town.

The works at the Harbour being finished, the Superior being paid grassum of the new Harbour, the Town and all Feuars having their shoreward rights bought up, at an outlay short of 120,000, the sum authorised by Parliament to be borrowed for extending the Harbours and constructing the Dock—the question follows, what is the Estate worth? The Revenue of the Harbours, including Shed Dues, Dock Dues, Rents of Lofts, Enclosures, &c., appertaining to the Trust, is upwards of Nine Thousand Pounds per annum, with every appearance of increase.

In 1750, the following letter was addressed by Sir John Schaw, (the liberal and enlightened gentleman who granted the charter in 1751,) on subject of the Harbours. Any thing which could come from his pen should be treasured up, as he was to Greenock its greatest benefactor :-

Greenock House, 8th October, 1750

Sir John Schaw, having considered the contents of the memorial from the Feuars and Sub-Feuars of the Town of Greenock, approves extremely of the scheme they propose of building a Breast of communication along the three Quays, with a row of Cellars on the land side, and will give his consent to Lord Cathcart's sub-feuing to them the ground to the North of the inside Quay, which they design to begin that work upon. As he continues to have the good of the Town at heart, as much as he has ever had, he is willing either to let them have a nineteen years' tack of the Anchorage of the harbour, at a rate which he thinks will be of assistance to the present funds of the Town, or to give them so much out of the yearly Anchorage, and to give them permission to build Cranes and Weigh-houses in such places as shall be judged necessary, with a full right to the Dues that will arise from them, which he expects, with the present funds, will be more than sufficient for the present and future cleansing of the Harbours and Quays, to which it ought to be immediately applied. He recommends to the Town to build the intended Breast and Cellars, (after the same manner as they propose to build the Church,) and as the Cellars in the Royal Closs yield ten per cent. interest for the money expended in building them, it is hoped it will not be difficult to find the sum necessary for that purpose, which in the course of years coming to be paid off, there will continue to arise a constant increase to the Town's Revenue.

"Sir John recommends to the Feuars, with the greatest earnestness, to consider with attention all possible means of increasing their funds, and of finding out others, that public works may be kept up with solidity when executed, and undertaken with expedition when found necessary, for the future; which they will find the most valuable advice can be given them.

Sir John expects that the Feuars will immediately renew the assessment on malt, for fifteen years after the expiration of the present contract, and that they will strengthen it with all the additions they possibly can.

(Signed) "JOHN SCHAW."

In connection with the Quays, a Dry Dock was built by a joint stock company in 1785, and cost 4000. In consequence of the trade of the port extending, and the old dock being found inconvenient to admit vessels of a large size, the following petition was presented to the harbour Trustees:-

To the Honourable the Magistrates and Town Council of Greenock.
" The humble Petition of the Subscribers, Merchants in Greenock,

Sheweth,

"That it is not necessary to use many words to convince any person concerned in, or at all observant of the trade of this growing sea-port, that two Graving Docks, and one of them altogether private property, are quite inadequate for the despatch of business. A Vessel may, and frequently does lie by the walls for weeks together, waiting the turn of admission, and it is obvious in this way, it must happen, that great inconvenience and positive loss is sustained by the Owners, and their projected voyages and plans frustrated and deranged irretrievably.

That to remedy this, the Trade beseech your Honours to give immediate directions for the formation of a new Dry Dock, in such part of the Harbours as may be judged most convenient; and little doubt can be entertained that the necessary expense of it would be very soon got subscribed in shares, in the same way as was (lone in the case of the Old Dock.

(Signed)

In reply, the Petitioners were informed that the Trustees had no power to build a Dock on the principle proposed in the petition; but, having authority to construct a Dock connected with the Harbour Trust, their earliest attention would be given to the measure. Accordingly, soon thereafter, at a Meeting of Trustees, Mr. Rennie's plans for Docks in the New East Harbour were examined. By Mr. Rennie, two Docks were proposed, alongside of each other—the large one on the site of the present Dock, and the smaller one in shore of it. At the gates of the largest, it was intended to have sixteen feet of water at spring tides. Its estimated cost was 36,000. The expense of this Dock was considered by the Meeting as by far too heavy, and the depth of water unnecessarily great; and as, in constructing a building of this kind, the gates and works at the entrance are a serious part of the expense, it was suggested that, in place of two Docks, one containing as much length as the two together would be more advisable. This being approved of, the then Master of Work, Mr. Burnet, was directed to make out a plan of a Dock, (taking Mr. Rennie's plan for his guidance as to the inverted arch, mode of hanging gates, &c.,) to be 36 feet wide at the gates, to have 18 inches more water than at the Old Dock, and to be excavated inside of the inverted arch, so as to obtain two feet more height betwixt the floor of the Dock and the top of the blocks—afterwards altered to 2 feet at the gates, and 1 feet of excavation; thus making in all, 31 feet greater depth than the Old Dock.

In conformity to these instructions, the plan was executed, and sometime thereafter was laid before a Meeting of the Commissioners of the Harbours, when it it had their unanimous approval. A written consent in terms of the Act of Parliament was endorsed on it, and subscribed by the Meeting, being thirteen in number, with a request, on the part of the Commissioners, that the Trustees would get the building carried into effect as soon as the state of the funds would admit.

Nothing farther was done until the autumn of 1818, when the masonry of the Customhouse, an edifice of great public utility, and acknowledged ornament to the port, was finished. The builder thereof, Mr. Donald Mathieson, having given tile utmost satisfaction to the highly respectable architect who planned and superintended the progress of that work, and his upright conduct wherever he had been employed being well known, the Trustees were induced to apply to him to undertake the building of the Dock, in strict conformity to the plans and specifications provided by Mr. Gibb.

Mr. Mathieson died shortly after commencing operations; and in 1824 the whole was finished, under the direction of Mr. Wm. Aitken, at an expense of about 20,000. This is acknowledged to be a complete and elegant structure; while the ease and facility winch it gives to examining and repairing vessels, have brought many to the port. The Harbours, Docks, &c., as now completed, are allowed to be as commodious as any in the kingdom; and when the intended erection eastward is finished, they will be scarcely surpassed any where. Mr. Hamilton, Master of Works, has communicated the following measurements, which will at once show the extent of the Quays, and their accommodation.

At the head of the East India Quay, a fine arch, with gates, has been erected the deputation of Commissioners of Customs and Excise, who visited the port in 1815, stipulated that this should be done. The cost of this erection was paid entirely out of the Harbour Police Fund.

The management of the Harbours is vested in its Commissioners, (along with the Town Council,) who are elected annually; and every ship-owner, paying 12 per annum of harbour dues, is eligible to be elected, while the paying 3 per annum qualifies for giving a vote.

Opposite the Quays is an extensive sand bank, which stretches from Dumbarton to a little below the town. The channel, by this means, is much narrowed; and the place where vessels generally cast anchor to remain for dispatches, &c., is about a mile and a half down, and known as the Tail of the Bank. Here there is a sufficient supply of water for vessels of the largest class, while the space is capable of containing an immense fleet, and the anchorage is excellent. The navigation of the Clyde is altogether very easy; consequently strangers have no difficulty in making out their course without the aid of a pilot. It is this which has often alarmed the inhabitants, lest the enemy might come up and attack the town: but the wind is its greatest protection; for the same breeze which would lead a vessel triumphantly up, would keep her there, till she would probably be captured by the channel fleet, or till war-vessels arrived from Cork. In this way the Jason, Dutch frigate, was taken possession of at the Tail of the Bank; although, from the mutinous state of the crew, no injury was offered to the town or shipping.

The trade of Greenock consists of what is called Foreign and Coasting. Indeed, it may be said, that there is no place where British enterprise has opened a market, but Clyde vessels are to be found. The earliest vessel which crossed the Atlantic from Greenock was in July, 1684, and contained 22 persons, who were sentenced at Glasgow to be transported to Carolina, for their share in resisting the oppression of these cruel times. The captain's name was James Gibson, who was represented as being very cruel to the poor prisoners, while his officers and crew used them in a still harsher manner. In 1685, part of the forces of Archibald, Earl of Argyle, who had come over from Holland, landed at Greenock. Of this occurrence, Wodrow gives the following interesting relation :-

"Upon the first of May, the Earl and his friends left Holland with a very few ships, and a considerable number of arms. The money expended on these was mostly raised on the Earl's credit. The Duke of Monmouth, with the English gentlemen, had faithfully engaged not to stay above ten days after them in Holland; but it was a month before they landed in England. Whether this was done of design or necessarily, I do not determine. It was rumoured that this delay was advised, that the English forces might be poured down upon Scotland, and their game thus be easier in England. However, it is certain, the Duke of Monmouth was extremely concerned when the Earl's party was broke, and the Earl himself taken; and indeed his interest could not have met with a sorer dash. It is plain the English not keeping to the terms of agreement tended much to heighten the Earl's matheurs, and to the ruin of both.

"The Earl's intention was to have landed at Inverary. In this, however, he was stiffly opposed by some of the gentlemen. A council of war was called, and there, contrary to the Earl's sentiments, it was resolved to make an invasion upon the Lowlands. The Earl calmly submitted, but indeed this step was mightily to their loss. The forces were accordingly transported the best way they could to Cowal in Argyllshire, and Sir John Cochran, Colonel Elphinstoun, and Major Fullartoun, were sent to the Lowlands.

"By this time the coasts were guarded, and some English frigates come up, so that Sir John durst not land in the Largs, as was projected, but put in towards Greenock.

"When they came within musket shot of the land, there appeared a body of horse upon the shore. Sir John having the command, ordered Colonel Elphinstoun to essay landing with about twenty men, which was all they could land at once, for want of boats; but the thing being impracticable at that place, and the Colonel's orders being only to obey, in as far as reasonable, taking this to be just the losing of so many men, he flatly refused.

"Sir John prevailed upon Major Fullartoun, with about a dozen of men, to attempt to land in another place near by, which he did under the fire of the Militia, and got safe ashore and into a sort of ditch for shelter. The printed account bears, 'That the Militia, seeing them ashore, gave over firing, and the young laird of Houstoun and Crawfordsburn came up to the Major, and another with him, and had some conversation, and passed their mutual words of honour to use no hostilities till the parley was over. After they had asked some questions at the Major, to his great surprise they discharged their pistols at him, which happily missed him, and he returned his, and killed one of their horses and wounded another. By this time some men were landed to the Major's assistance, and these with the first party behaved so well, that the Militia retired to the face of a hill opposite to the ships, which fired some guns, which reached so near them that they retired, and some did not draw bridle till they came to Paisley.

"Having communicated the above to a worthy gentleman, who was present at this little scuffle, he is pleased to acquaint me 'That the heritors of Renfrewshire, formed in a troop under the Lord Cochrane, at the council's appointment, were at this time keeping guard at Greenock. When Major Fullartoun landed near the kirk of Greenock, John Houstoun younger of that Ilk, lieutenant of the troop, and Thomas Crawford of Crawfordsburn, eldest quartermaster to it, with some gentlemen in company, rode down towards Mr. Fullartoun and his men, who had put up a signal for parley; and Houstoun having expostulated with the Major on their invasion, he answered—They were come to their native country for the preservation of the protestant religion, and liberties of their country, and it was a pity such brave gentlemen should appear against them in the service of a popish tyrant and usurper. Upon which Houstoun said he was a liar, and discharged his pistols amongst them, as did also the rest of the gentlemen with him, and the Major and his men returned their fire very briskly, but did no execution; only Hotistoun's horse, being of mettle, and unused with the fire, threw him, but he soon remounted and returned to the troop.'

"Upon their flight, Sir John with the rest came ashore, and entered the town of Greenock, and endeavoured to prevail with the inhabitants to join in defence of religion and liberty. He seized about forty bolls of meal for the use of the army, and then, upon a false alarm, went off in the night, and sailed back to Cowal, and then, too late, declared it was folly to attempt the Lowlands as yet, they being every where guarded with soldiers and militia."

The first vessel belonging to the port which crossed the Atlantic was in 1719, (part of the Darien expedition in 1697, having been fitted out from Cartsdyke,) but shortly afterwards the shipping increased rapidly. About this time the rising prosperity of the place excited the jealousy of London, Liverpool, and Bristol, to such an extent, that they falsely accused the merchants of Greenock and Port-Glasgow of fraud against the revenue, first to the Commissioners, and afterwards to the House of Commons. This was triumphantly refuted, and they were completely exonerated of all charges; and, in spite of every effort to crush its infant commerce, it went on amazingly. The first square-rigged vessel which was launched from our shores was in 1764, and was built by a Mr. M'Kirdy. The number and tonnage of vessels belonging to the port have been already given at page 43. The earliest trade seems to have been the Herring Fishing; and, in the reign of Charles II., and under the patronage of the Duke of York, a Society of "Herring Fishers" was established on the Clyde, with particular privileges. In 1676, they enclosed large piece of ground, which they called the Royal Closs. The Company was dissolved, and the buildings afterwards used as warehouses. The Herring Fishing has been continued by various individuals, and the quantity cured gives an average of about 19,000 brls. annually. An early branch of our commerce was in Tobacco, which was trans-shipped to the Continent, and, in return, other commodities were often taken in exchange. So far back as 1752, the Greenland Whale Fishing was carried on it was, however, soon given up, but revived again in 1786, at which time there were three large ships employed in the trade; and though revived again at a later date, may be now considered as abandoned—the last ship having been purchased by Captain Ross to accompany this enterprising individual in a voyage of discovery to the Pole. The most considerable trade which Greenock had, at an early period, was with America: this suffered a great depression when that Colony waged war with the mother Country; and it may be said to have gradually declined ever since. At present, however, Greenock has vessels trading to every part of the world and from the average amount of duties received from the Customs at this port, it will be observed that trade is, by no means, falling off. The West and East Indian, and North American trades, may be considered at present as the principal. Newfoundland and South America have also employed a considerable number of shipping. The Coasting trade has rather declined since the introduction of steam, in 1812, which facilitates the towing of small vessels to Glasgow, against wind and tide.

This was the first port in the kingdom to petition against the Renewal of the East India Company's Charter. The inhabitants were first called together to take the subject into consideration, in December, 1811. In 1812, a deputation was sent to London on this important business; and it is known that, in 1813, a partial participation in the trade was conceded to the ontports. In Spring, 1816, the first ship from Scotland, for the East Indies, sailed from Greenock. This vessel, the Earl of Buckinghamshire, Captain Christian, of 600 tons register, was soon followed by others, and the tonnage now embarked in the trade is very considerable thus affording employment to ships when it was difficult to be found elsewhere; and, from the the duration and healthiness of the voyage, forming an admirable nursery for seamen. It is to be hoped, that, ere long, the trade to China will also be thrown open to the country at large; petitions to the legislature, to this effect, having lately flowed from every corner of the kingdom.


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