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The History of Clyde Shipbuilding: The 19th Century Cradle of Steam Navigation

Graduate in Economic and Social History from the University of Strathclyde and studied the history of the Clyde for my honours dissertation.

(photo by Dave Hamster at Flickr Creative Commons)

(photo by Dave Hamster at Flickr Creative Commons)

In the first half of the 19th century, the area of Glasgow and the River Clyde was not yet the world leader in shipbuilding. However the seeds were being sown, not only by the merchants and manufacturers of this growing industrialised city, but also the technologists.

The marine-engineers of Scotland through their remarkable inventions and innovations were propelling the Clyde forward in advancing the power and efficiency of the ships that were being built. These were the formative years in which a platform was being built for the astounding achievements of the shipyards later in the century.

Opening up the river

For many years the Clyde River was only accessible to smaller craft with shallow draughts and was entirely unsuitable for larger ships.

One commentator described it as an 'estuarine obstacle course' because of its shallow water and acres of mud and sandbanks. Further up the river some parts were only 2ft deep.

For the continued prosperity of Glasgow and its neighbouring towns the river had to be made navigable to larger ships to bring imports closer to the city.

Sandbanks on the Clyde

Sandbanks on the Clyde

The first practical suggestion for deepening the river was made by a Dr Wark in 1764 and it was simple in its ingenuity. His idea was to narrow the breadth of the river and thereby increase the rate of flow of the current. Then nature would take its course as the increased force of the water would erode the riverbed and increase the depth.

Although permission was granted for this venture it never came to fruition and it was not until the work of engineer John Golborne that serious efforts began to clear a channel all the way into Glasgow. From the 1770's onwards large-scale and long-term dredging operations were conducted on the river. It proceeded in 3 stages over the next 100 years, initially only small vessels could enter but by the 1840's the steam coastal and packet trade was expanding.

Finally, after 1840, with a spring tide depth of 18 feet, all world shipping of any size could sail right into the centre of the city. Glasgow now enjoyed all the advantages of a deep sea harbour in an urban heartland over 25 miles from open sea.

The Broomielaw in Glasgow in 1840

The Broomielaw in Glasgow in 1840

The big ships come to the Clyde

This provided enormous benefits to the city as it had become established as a major port as well as an important and influential industrial centre. With its docks situated less than a mile from the nearest factories and warehouses Glasgow gained a competitive advantage in the shipping and transfer of cargo from sea to land.

Previously, large ships had been compelled to offload their cargo at Greenock and Port Glasgow some 15-20 miles further up the river. In fact the town of Port Glasgow was specifically founded to serve the needs of the big city. Commodities were then transferred overland and before the introduction of the railways in the 1840's this was a slow and cumbersome process.

One of the most important commodities in the late 18th and early 19th century was imports of raw cotton from the USA and the West Indies to feed the textile mills. This cargo needed ships of larger dimensions because of the large-bulk, low-cost nature of the material.

A cotton plantation in Mississippi

A cotton plantation in Mississippi

Therefore improvements in the navigation of the river were absolutely imperative for the economic development of Glasgow. Not only were major ocean-going ships permitted to now enter the city, which was important for the Atlantic trade, but it also had a spin-off effect on shipbuilding. If larger ships could berth in the city then obviously larger ships could be built in the city. The shipyards on the Upper Clyde area began constructing and launching much bigger vessels.

However, although the improvement in the navigation of the river was crucial it was not the only positive outcome that worked in the favour of the region. Other technological advances gave the Clyde a lead over competitor shipyards in Britain and around the world. So successful was the Clyde becoming that shipyard owners in other cities were migrating to the river to build their ships. In 1851 Alexander Stephens moved from Dundee on the east coast to open an iron shipbuilding yard at Kelvinhaugh.

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Then much later in 1899 the John Brown shipyard relocated from Sheffield to Clydebank, Yarrows from the Thames to Scotstoun in 1906 and Harland and Wolff opened a yard in 1912 at Govan. A combined dynamic of concentration and expansion gave all these shipyards a lead in reducing costs and increasing profits on the River Clyde.

Aerial view of the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Govan, Glasgow in 1912.

Aerial view of the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Govan, Glasgow in 1912.

The Cradle of Steam Navigation

Above all other factors, two events stand out as prominent in this success.

The first was the change from wooden ship building to building ships with iron and the second was the Scots technological prowess in marine engineering. In other words, construction and propulsion were the driving forces behind the enormous success of Clyde shipbuilding in the latter half of the 19th century.

The Clyde River became the 'Cradle of Steam Navigation' and the US advantage in timber supplies was no longer important.

Ironically since Glasgow did not have a local tradition of building with wood it could more easily embrace the new generation of iron shipbuilding. Other yards found the change difficult simply because wood construction was ingrained in their industry and therefore it was harder to adapt to change. Also, Glasgow was conveniently located near to iron mineral deposits in Lanarkshire which provided cost advantages and ease of supply.

Nevertheless it was the improved reliability and performance in ship engines rather than hull design that determined orders for new ships. In this respect Glasgow had a lead in being an industrial port which became known as the 'Workshop of the British Empire' in the 19th century.

Steam technology was revolutionised by Scotsman James Watt who had the idea for the separate-condenser while working at Glasgow University in 1765. In 1812 Henry Bell's 'Comet' made its landmark maiden voyage becoming the first steamship in the world to make regular sailings in open waters and building on the success of the 'Claremont' which had sailed along the east coast of the USA in 1807.

Henry Bell's 'Comet' paddle-steam ship

Henry Bell's 'Comet' paddle-steam ship

This early lead in steam was temporarily lost on the Clyde due to the post-Napoleonic recession and the simplicity of construction then which allowed easy access into the industry by competitors. In the 1830's most steamers were still less than 100 tons.

Once the domination of the Clyde took hold there was no stopping its momentum supported by advancements in technology pioneered by the engineering profession. With the shipping companies emphasising the engine-room as the most influential part of the ship it was on the Clyde that they found the quality for which they were looking.

In fact, some engineering concerns made the conversion into building ships as well. The most famous were David and Robert Napier, two cousins, who from the 1820's onwards truly revolutionised the industry and became legendary figures in the history of Clyde shipbuilding. David Napier was unique in being the first industrialist to combine engineering and shipbuilding within the same company.

He also realised that the only way to capture the business of ocean-going ships was to improve the performance and economy of marine engines. In order to achieve this he developed economies of fuel through higher boiler pressures, improvements in the inner-mechanism of the engines and increased efficiency of ships paddles.

Robert Napier

Robert Napier

The Father of Clyde Shipbuilding

One of the most dramatic advances was the screw-propellor which replaced the paddle and introduced higher pressures. In the 1830's only 5-10 llbs per inch of pressure was possible but by the next decade this had increased to 40 llbs per square inch. In 1853 Randolph and Elder produced the compound steam engine which reduced coal consumption and allowed longer ocean routes as ships could sail far more mileage from their coal supplies across vast stretches of water.

An extra benefit of this was that less coal was required to be stored on board and thus allowed more valuable cargo to be carried. Between 1853 and 1867 the inventive John Elder took out 14 major patents in boiler and engine improvements resulting in a 30-40% reduction in the use of coal to fuel the ships. His father David Elder was also a famous marine engineer who worked with Robert Napier.

It was Robert Napier who will forever be remembered as the 'Father of Clyde Shipbuilding' for the historic and pivotal role he played in engineering and shipbuilding. A man of great drive, energy and tremendous initiative he was a pioneer but also provided the fertile ground for others to flourish with new ideas and innovations.

Initially a gifted designer himself he provided the training for others as many talented shipbuilders served their apprenticeships under his tutelage. He became the favoured engine builder of the Admiralty in the 1830's and opened his own shipyard in 1841 at a site in Govan. His golden touch continued when he utilised his wealth to enter into business with Samuel Cunard and others on the Atlantic passenger steamer trade.


Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on January 18, 2010:

Cheers CC

I enjoy reading books about it. My late father used to tell me how thriving the river was when he was young.

ralwus on January 16, 2010:

Well written history. You have worked hard on this I can tell. A lot of research went into it. Thanks, CC

Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on January 13, 2010:

Glad you found it interesting c.m. It's a part of our local history that has fascinated me, especially the part the USA played in its fortunes.

carolina muscle from Charlotte, North Carolina on January 13, 2010:

A very interesting treatment of this subject!!

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