|Far be it from me to contradict the
accepted wisdom, as people always say just before they proceed to do
just that, and I certainly don’t want to offend in any way our
American cousins, but I would like to say a few words about a gentleman
called Robert Fulton. It is generally accepted that Mr Fulton launched
the world’s first steamboat, which plied the Hudson River a good five
years before Henry Bell’s Comet first put in an appearance on the
Clyde in 1812. This is perfectly true. He did. What is almost always
overlooked, however, is that in 1802 one Robert Fulton of New York
visited Mr Symington in Falkirk, where he was shown a prototype
steamboat which Symington had built for Lord Dundas of the Forth &
Clyde Navigation Company, and which was capable of tugging vessels along
the new canal. Mr Fulton made notes and sketches of the Symington
experiment then returned to New York and invented the steamboat.
Symington, meanwhile, was forced to halt his work because of opposition
from local landowners and certain vested interests. I just thought I
would mention it.
But even Symington wasn’t the first.
Many inventors had made brave attempts throughout the late 18th
century to power vessels by the use of steam, and in 1785 Patrick Miller
of Dalswinton, Dumfriesshire, experimented with small craft of the
double keel variety, and had a good measure of success.
In 1808, Henry Bell, a former Glasgow
carpenter who had retired to Helensburgh, turned his attention to the
matter of powering boats by steam. After numerous difficulties, he
produced the Comet, a vessel forty feet in length, and with a ten-foot
six-inch beam. It was of 50 tons burden and three horse-power. The
paddles were located on either side. It began to ply between Glasgow and
Greenock in January 1812.
A second vessel, the Albion, was built
shortly afterwards, then much larger craft began to appear. When the
Duke of Wellington, plying between Glasgow and Dumbarton, wiped out the
land carrier business of Peter McKinlay, the directors of the steamship
company very generously made him the captain. No tickets or certificates
were needed in those days.
Very rapidly, the number of vessels
working the Clyde Estuary and the Irish Sea increased. By 1832 there
were well established sailings to Liverpool, Belfast, Dublin and
Londonderry, as well as all the Clyde ports and the Hebrides.
The main departure and arrival point by
now was the Broomielaw in Glasgow, and on the nearby hills in those days
could still be found clumps of the yellow broom plant which had given it
its name. Most vessels sailed twice a day, starting off early in the
morning and finishing late at night. Each carried normally around twenty
passengers, but in those days before rules and regulations were
seriously introduced, it was not uncommon during the Glasgow or Paisley
Fair holidays for up to two hundred to be crammed into the same space.
As with every other development, there
was a knock-on effect in the rise of steamboating. The demand for coal
rose dramatically and it has been calculated that the boats alone
accounted for 25,000 tons a year, not to mention the fuel increase
needed by associated industries.
Unlike the stagecoach and the canal
transport system, the coming of the railways did not damage the
steamboats. On the contrary, it was the railways that brought the
tourists in their hundreds instead of dozens, leading very rapidly to an
enormous growth in the holiday business in places like Rothesay and
Dunoon, as the steamers literally raced each other in their desire to
establish supremacy on the Clyde.
But tourism apart, the steamship now made
it possible for well-off businessmen to live in such places as Rothesay
and commute to Glasgow. This in turn led to an increase in the building
of large houses on Rothesay, which were sometimes occupied all year
round and sometimes only in the summer months. This, and much more, was
made possible by the inventor of the steamboat, whoever he was.