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Early Public and Private Transport in Scotland
by R. S. Rodger
Part 4: The Arrival of the Steamboats

CometFar 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.



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