Wayfarer- The story of the man responsible for cruise ships

Wandering the hyways and byeways of Scotland looking for entertaining tales to tell I came across one which may be of interest.

You will all be aware of the large cruise ships which circumnavigate the world, in fact many of you may have had the pleasure of a trip on one.

If it had not been for the perseverance and ingenuity of Henry Bell they may not have existed. Can you imagine taking a cruise on a sailing ship, the heavily sloping decks in a wind or alternatively the wallowing in the smell without a wind would put most off.Naturally sailing ships took passengers but only those in need of getting from one place to another and the sooner they were back on dry land the better. However William Symington preceded Henry Bell by producing a steam launch called ‘Charlotte Dundas’ which pulled two 70 ton barges some nineteen miles along the Clyde Canal in 1801. He was stopped by the canal owners who complained that the paddles were damaging the canal banks, but this was thought to be a move against Symington and his backer by those who had the horse drawn barges. Although this stopped Symington it did not deter Henry Bell whose imagination was fired by James Watt’s steam engine. Henry Bell and his wife ran the Helensburgh baths a hydropathic establishment and he felt that some conveyance was needed to transfer people across and down the Clyde to the baths. Bell called in John Wood an enterprising boat builder to design the boat and then obtained a steam engine and boiler. She was named the Comet and on her trial run on 6th. August 1812 she chugged from Glasgow to Greenock in three and a half hours a journey which took the normal service boat between ten and twelve hours depending on wind and tide. This naturally meant that the days of sail were coming to an end with future sea travel more controllable by engine driven boats.

However on one wintry day in 1820 the Comet was hit by a rip tide and lifted on to rocks near Oban becoming a total wreck and putting Henry Bell out of business. No lives were lost and the engine was saved to be used for a time by a brewery before being donated to the Science Museum in London. Henry Bell was not the first to consider using steam driven boats but he was the visionary who refused to give up as others did. He retired from the scene in poor health and penniless but was saved by an annuity from the Clyde Navigation Trust of £100 per annum. See you next week.