Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The History of Glasgow
Volume 3 - Chapter XLVIII - Kirkman Finlay, Henry Bell, and David Napier

ONE of the reasons for Glasgow's stronger feeling of confidence regarding the issue of the war with Napoleon may have arisen from the fact that the chief trade of the Glasgow merchants with the sugar colonies in the West Indies remained unhurt. Since the destruction of the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 18o5 and the capture of the Danish fleet after the bombardment of Copenhagen two years later, the British navy had kept the mastery of the seas. Not only was Napoleon's plan for the invasion of Britain made impossible, but all his efforts to interfere with British commerce were rendered futile. This was the snag upon which all Buonaparte's schemes of conquest finally came to grief. From west to east and from north to south he marched across the continent of Europe, defeating armies and destroying kingdoms; but all the time he knew that across the blue waters of the narrow Channel, behind the cliffs which could be seen from Calais, lay an enemy whom he could not reach, but who, sooner or later, might send across an army which would strike a vital blow, and bring to ruin all the schemes and conquests of his career. This was, of course, what actually happened in the end, when a British expeditionary army under Wellington brought his whole ambitious achievement to wreck on the battlefield of Waterloo.

The consciousness of that possibility, and perhaps the foreboding of that event, urged him to attempt the destruction of British resources by a boycott of British trade. The famous decree which he issued from Berlin in November, 18o6, declared the British islands to be in a state of blockade. All commerce with Britain was forbidden, all British goods found in France or the territories of her allies were subject to confiscation,-and the harbours of these countries were closed against all British vessels, or vessels which had touched at British ports. Napoleon, however, had no fleet with which to enforce these edicts, and as a matter of fact the countries of the continent could not very well, just then, get along without British manufactures. The Berlin decrees were made entirely ineffectual by a few daring British traders, who proceeded to set up a great contraband system for running British goods across the frontiers.

Among these contraband traders perhaps the most daring and successful was a Glasgow merchant. Kirkman Finlay was a member of a family which, like the Buchanans, a century earlier, came from the neighbourhood of Killearn. [A very full account of the Finlays and all their family connections is given in J. O. Mitchell's Old Glasgow Essays, p. 26.] His father, James Finlay, was the fourth son of John Finlay of The Moss, birthplace of the famous Latinist of Queen Mary's time, George Buchanan. Coming to Glasgow he founded the business of James Finlay & Co., in Bell's Wynd, now Bell Street, off Candleriggs. In the procession, already described, which beat up for recruits for the American war in 1778, he is said to have been the "gentleman playing on the bagpipes," and in the list of subscriptions the name of James Finlay & Co. is down for fifty guineas. [Glasgow Mercury, 29th Jan., 1778. Senex, Old Glasgow, p. 169.]

Kirkman was James Finlay's younger son, and carried on the family business. He got his somewhat curious Christian name from Alderman Kirkman, his father's London correspondent and friend. In 1793, three years after his father's death, he bought the cotton mills of Ballindalloch on the Endrick from his relatives, the Buchanans; in 1801 he bought the mills at Catrine in Ayrshire from David Dale and Alexander of BaIlochmyle; and in z8o8 he bought Deanston mills on the Teith from their Quaker owner, Benjamin Flounders. [Old Glasgow Essays, p. 33.] He was also, however, a merchant, and it was Napoleon's Berlin decree which gave him his great opportunity. Aware that a ready market awaited our manufactures if they could be smuggled into the Continent, he established depots in Heligoland and elsewhere at strategic points, and organized a great system of contraband in which, if the risks were great, the rewards were correspondingly high. In that bold game he must be held to have fairly beaten his powerful opponent, Napoleon himself. It is said that the Emperor's own troops were clad in overcoats made at Leeds, and marched in shoes made at Southampton. [Green, Short History, p. 823.] The result shewed the world that British commerce was beyond Napoleon's power to ruin, and the blow thus struck at the Emperor's prestige, with the service rendered to British industry, contributed not much less to the overthrow of the dictator than the defeat of his military forces by the Duke of Wellington.

Kirkman Finlay also played a notable part in the overthrow of another monopoly. For two hundred years, since it received its charter from Queen Elizabeth, the East India Company had enjoyed a monopoly of all the trade of this country to the east beyond the Cape of Good Hope. From time to time the charter fell to be renewed. This had been done in 1749. and in 1780, largely by dint of immense loans to the Government. When the charter again approached expiration in 1812 Kirkman Finlay induced the Town Council of Glasgow to enquire into the conditions. [Burgh Records, 8th and 24th Jan., 20th March, 19th May, 9th June, 1812. Later, in 1830, the Town Council again made appeal to Parliament against renewal of the exclusive privileges of the East India Company.—Burgh Records, 26th Feb., 1830.] In the Indian and Pacific Oceans he saw vast possibilities for extending the commerce of Glasgow, and no sooner was the trade thrown open than he freighted the "Earl of Buckinghamshire" and sent it out to Bombay. That vessel, of 600 tons, which was despatched in 1816, was the first to sail direct from the Clyde to an eastern port. In the following year Kirkman Finlay sent out the "George Canning" the first Glasgow ship for Calcutta; and in 1834 he ventured still further, and despatched the "Kirkman Finlay," the first Glasgow ship for China. [Table of Dates in Old Glasgow Essays, pp. xlii and xliii.] Thus, by his courage and enterprise, he opened up the great trade with the Far East which has brought an endless stream of prosperous commerce to the Clyde.

Under its shrewd and far-seeing chief the firm of James Finlay & Co. carried on a vast business. In the course of a legal case it was shewn that the profits of the firm in twenty years amounted to more than a million sterling. For his Glasgow hrnise Kirkman Finlay bought the fine mansion of James Ritchie of Busby, the Virginia "tobacco lord," on the west side of Queen Street, [Depicted in Stuart's Views and Notices of Glasgow.] and on the Firth of Clyde he set a fashion by forming and planting a noble estate and building the mansion of Castle Toward. Personally he was of the finest type of Glasgow merchant, liberal and kindly, a generous master and a fair opponent, whose word was as good as his bond. [Old Glasgow Essays, p. 34.] In addition to his own business he took an active part in public affairs. He was Governor of the Forth and Clyde Navigation, President of the Chamber of Commerce, Lord Provost, Lord Rector of the University and Dean of Faculties thereof. In 1812, when he was elected Member of Parliament, the enthusiasm of the citizens passed all bounds. They paid his expenses and struck a medal in his honour, drank his health with cheers and applause in front of the Town Hall at the cross, and, unyoking his horses, dragged him in his carriage to his own house in Queen Street. Alas, however, for the fickleness of fame! three years later they paid him another visit. He had voted in parliament for Prosperity Robinson's Corn Bill, and, finding him from home, they attacked his house and smashed his windows, pelted with mud and stones the horse patrol which was turned out to disperse them, and were only brought to reason by the arrival of a detachment of the 71st Foot and by two troops of cavalry from Hamilton. That, however, is the way of the "profanum vulgus." When Kirkman Finlay died at Castle Toward he was buried with much honour in Blackfriars Aisle at the cathedral, and a statue of him, by Gibson, was set up in the vestibule of the Merchants House. [Ibid. pp. 34, 35. Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship, p. 207.]

It was in the year in which this very notable Glasgow merchant was elected Member of Parliament that Henry Bell placed his " Comet " on the waters of the Clyde: - Hardly could a greater contrast be found than that between the humble projector of steam navigation in this country and Kirkman Finlay with his great schemes of commerce which played a part in destroying Napoleon and in opening the eastern world to Glasgow trade. Henry Bell was not, of course, the inventor of the steamboat. ` He was not even the first to put a practical and successful steamer on British waters. As early as the year 1543 Blasco ,de Gary is said to have launched a boat propelled by a jet of steam on the harbour at Barcelona. In 1707 Denis Papin, inventor of the atmospheric engine, placed a paddle-boat on the river Fulda at Cassel; and in 1736 Jonathan Hulls patented a form of paddle-steamer in England. After the improvement of the steam engine by James `Vatt, attempts, more or less successful, were made, in France by the Marquis de Jouffroy in 1783, and in America by James Rumsey in 1786 and by John Fitch in 1787. One of Fitch's boats attained a speed of seven miles an hour, and plied as a passenger steamer on the Delaware. In Scotland the first practical application of steam to the propulsion of vessels was made by Patrick Miller, the retired banker, on the little loch on his estate of Dalswinton, in Dumfriesshire, in 1788, in the presence of no less notable persons than Robert Burns, Nasmyth the painter, and the future Lord Brougham. The application of steam to the paddlewheels, with which Miller had been experimenting, was made on the suggestion of James Taylor, his family tutor, and the engine was constructed by William Symington, a native of Lead-hills. In the following year Miller had a more powerful vessel built at Carron Ironworks, which attained a speed of seven miles an hour on the Forth and Clyde Canal. Thirteen years later Symington was in the field again. Commissioned by Thomas, Lord Dundas, in 1802 he placed a stern-wheel steamer, the "Charlotte Dundas," on the canal. The vessel towed two laden barges of seventy tons each a distance of twenty miles against a strong head wind in seven hours, and must be considered "the first practically successful steamboat ever built." Her performance on the canal was only stopped because the wash of the paddles threatened to destroy the banks. Meanwhile the little ship had been inspected by two ingenious individuals, Robert Fulton and Henry Bell. The former, after experimenting with a steamboat on the Seine in 1803, launched on the Hudson in America in 1807 the steamer "Clermont," which was the progenitor of all the steamship enterprise of the New World. [Symington, Brief History of Steam Navigation.]

Henry Bell, who, five years later, played the same part in the steamship enterprise of this country, was a native of the little old-world village of Torphichen, near Linlithgow. He learned in succession the crafts of stone-mason, mill-wright, and shipbuilder, and was employed for a time in London by Rennie the celebrated civil engineer. In 1790 he set up in business in Glasgow as a wright or house carpenter. His brain, however, was full of ambitious projects in other fields, and in 1800 and 1803 he approached the Government with schemes of steamship construction. Lord Melville and James Watt both discouraged the idea, and, though Lord Nelson declared strongly in its favour, nothing came of the application. Bell does not appear to have made much of his business as a wright in Glasgow, and in 1807 his wife undertook the superintendence of the public baths at Helensburgh, then recently founded by Sir James Colquhoun at the mouth of the Gareloch. Beside the baths she carried on an inn, the Baths Hotel, and it was in the interest of this undertaking, and of the little burgh, of which he was provost from 1807 till 1809, that Bell at last turned his speculative ideas to practical account. - In 18rz he induced John Wood & Co. of Port-Glasgow to build a vessel for him. The engine was made by John Robertson & Co. and the boiler came from the foundry of David Napier in Glasgow. The "Comet," named from a celebrated comet which appeared in the heavens at that time, was launched with steam up on 18th January 1812, and proved its success by steaming at five miles an hour against a head wind. In August it was advertised to sail "by the power of air, wind, and steam," three times a week from Glasgow to Greenock and Helensburgh, and in September the voyage was extended to Oban and Fort William. [A full account of Henry Bell's undertaking and the rapid development of river steamer enterprise which followed will be found in Captain James Williamson's volume, The Clyde Passenger Steamer.]


For half a century the passenger steamer enterprise of the Clyde has been more or less a family affair, Williamsons, Campbells, Buchanans, MacKellars, and MacBraynes of successive generations having most of it in their hands. Nor has the modern advent of the railway companies' fleets made any change in this respect, for three of these fleets are managed by Williamsons at the present day.

The secretary and manager of the Caledonian Steam Packet Company, eldest of this family, was born at Millport, and educated at Rothesay and Hutton Hall, Dumfries. He began life as an apprentice in the Dock Engine Works of Messrs. William King & Co., Glasgow, with a view to practical acquaintance with the vital part of the steamers he was afterwards to command. At the end of his apprenticeship he joined his father, owner of the Sultan, Sultana, and Viceroy, otherwise known as the "Turkish Fleet" among the river steamers, and when placed in command of the Sultana he was probably the youngest captain who ever trod a bridge. One of his achievements in this position was to reduce the journey from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay and Millport by forty minutes. He became famous on the firth for his decision and daring in the handling of his craft, and many incidents are recorded of his outmanoeuvring his rivals.

In 1879 Captain Williamson, with a few prominent shipowners, built the Ivanhoe as a temperance steamer, and under his command she was one of the most successful crafts on the firth. As part of her programme he initiated the evening trips and other attractions which have since become so popular. At the same time he joined in setting up the firm of Morton & Williamson, consulting engineers and marine surveyors, as a means of occupying his time in the "off" months. In 1885, on a visit to Melbourne, he saw room for enterprise in the steamer trips there, and in the following year sent out a crack steamer which revolutionised the running in colonial waters.

In 1888 the Caledonian Railway Company, on the eve of completing its extension to Gourock, invited proposals from the steamboat owners for the development of the coast traffic. Jealousy of the new venture made all the others hold back, but Captain Williamson formulated a plan, and the result was the formation of the Caledonian Steam Packet Company on the lines which he suggested, and his appointment as its Secretary and Manager. The success of the enterprise has justified his advice. Captain Williamson must be credited, not only with an immense share in the improvement of the Clyde steamer, but also with the marked raising of tone among the officers and crews.

In 1904 he published a highly interesting and valuable book, "The Clyde Passenger Steamer, its Rise and Progress during the Nineteenth Century, from the Comet of 1812 to the King Edward of 1901," which forms a complete compendium of its subject, and is likely to remain its vade mecum.

Bell himself made little of his enterprise. Some of his bills remained unpaid; but he was the pioneer of a great development for Glasgow and the Clyde. [During the ten years which followed the launch of the "Comet" no fewer than forty-eight steam vessels were constructed in shipbuilding yards on the Clyde.—Mackinnon, Social and Industrial History, p. 95.] In view of this, on his approaching old age a subscription was raised on his behalf, which realized a considerable sum, while the Clyde Trustees granted an annuity of 100, which was continued to his widow. After his death in 1830 an obelisk to his memory was built at Dunglass Castle on the riverside above Dunbarton, and in 1872 another was erected on the esplanade at Helensburgh. His dust rests in Rhu churchyard.

A man to whom Glasgow and the Clyde owe much more than they do to Henry Bell was David Napier, the maker of the boiler for the "Comet." Besides the workshop in Howard Street in which that boiler was made, Napier had a foundry at Camlachie, and he is said to have used the Camlachie Burn as an experimental tank for testing the comparative merits of the models of his ships. In this way he ascertained the best shape, the clipper bow, for ocean going steamers, and among his other inventions was the "steeple engine," which took the place of the old and awkward beam-engine on board ship. He placed steam carriages on the roads, and a fleet of river steamers on the Clyde; he placed the first steamers on Loch Lomond and Loch Eck, and he opened up the Loch Eck route to Inveraray. His cousin, Robert Napier of Shandon, who succeeded to his business when he went to London, enjoys most of the credit to-day; but David Napier was the actual pioneer of the modern shipbuilding industry of the Clyde. [David Napier, Engineer. The Clyde Passenger Steamer, pp. 52, 70.]

Presently iron was substituted for wood in the Clyde shipbuilding yards. The first boat made of iron in Scotland was the "Vulcan" which was built in 1817 at Faskine on the Monk-land Canal by Thomas Wilson, and which, two years later, began service as a passenger vessel on the Forth and Clyde Canal. The first iron steamer was the "Fairy Queen," built by Neilson at the Oakbank Foundry, Glasgow, carted to the Clyde, and launched at the Broomielaw in 1831. Since then the development of Glasgow's overseas trade and of Clyde-built ships and engines which ply on every ocean of the world, has been almost beyond belief, and the city does well to remember what it owes to the initiative of Kirkman Finlay, David Napier, and Henry Bell. [A highly interesting detailed account of the development of ship building on the Clyde is furnished by Professor Mackinnon in his Social and Industrial History of Scotland, p. 93.]

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus