Fleet Features Clyde
CLYDE TURBINE STEAMERS
Clyde and West Highland turbine steamers that survived into the 1960s and 1970s, here's a few points...
King Edward was in fact the first commercial turbine steamer in the world built 100 years ago in 1901 by Denny of Dumbarton for a specially formed company called The Turbine Steamer Syndicate which was consisted of Denny, the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company and John Williamson of the famous Clyde steamer family (his brother James was in charge of the Caley Railway steamers at Gourock and his other brother Alex was in charge of the rival Glasgow & South Western steamers at Princes Pier. King Edward's hull was allegedly based on the 1892 paddle steamer Duchess of Hamilton (Denny for the CSP
fleet) with provision for conversion to a paddle steamer if the turbine experiment failed. It didn't and KE sailed on the great Firth for half a century.
A further 10 turbine steamers were built for Clyde service as follows;
Queen Alexandra (1902) Denny for Turbine Steamers - she continued until 1911 but was badly damage by fire and replaced by another ship of the same name. However, the original ship was repaired and began a long and distinguished second life as one of the Canadian Pacific
Duchess of Argyll (1906) Denny for the CSP. She sailed on the Clyde until the fifties then became an Admiralty research establishment at Portland Harbour for over 20 years.
Atalanta (1906) John Brown for GSWR, their only turbine steamer. Her turbines were a scaled 'model’ of the Lusitania’s, which was built by Brown's the following year. Atalanta were down to Lancashire in the 1930s sailing from Blackpool, Fleetwood etc
Queen Alexandra (II) (1912) Denny for TS to replace fire damaged original. Served with TS/Williamson Buchanan until is dissolution in the 1930s. She was sold to MacBrayne who altered her and gave her a third (dummy) funnel, this being influenced by the great Cunarder 534 (Queen Mary) building at Clydebank. Her name changed to Saint Columba and she replaced the venerable and legendary paddle steamer Columba (1878, J & G Thomson) on the Glasgow to Tarbert and Ardrishaig mail service. SC served on this route until the late fifties (except for 1939-46 when she was a naval base at East India
Harbour) when she was replaced by the motor ship Lochfyne and consigned to the
scrap yard at Port Glasgow.
The Great War put paid to further turbine steamer building for over a decade until the arrival of the Glen Sannox (1925) Denny for the LMSR, she was the second of three remarkable vessels to bear the name and serve on the route from Ardrossan to Arran. She was scrapped in the 50s when replaced by a car ferry of the same name.
The revolutionary King George V (1926) Denny for TS introduced the partly enclosed promenade deck and the more efficient high pressure turbines - the latter were subsequently removed due to difficulties and fatalities associated with the boiler plant. KGV ran on the long distance routes to Inveraray and Campbeltown until the mid 30s when she accompanied Saint Columba into the MacBrayne fleet. She 'emigrated' to Oban where she became closely associated with the world famous sailing to Iona for the next 40 years - apart from the years of World War 2 when she had a very distinguished naval career wearing her battle honours (Normandy, 1944) for the rest of her long career. She made occasional returns to her old Clyde haunts including a memorable time in 1971 when she replaced the younger Queen Mary. She was my personal favourite of all the Clyde turbines and I'll always remember my youthful sailings on her - her incredible wood panelled interiors, her impeccable standards (ship and crew) and her unforgettable cuisine. She became a legend in her own time and it was with great sadness that I disembarked from her onto Oban Railway Pier at the end of her last ever sailing (to Loch Sunart) on Sunday 15th September 1974. She left Oban, where she was an institution, next day, never to return. I visited her 4 times in South Wales - 1976, 1981 just after the disastrous fire, 1983 when she lay a burnt out hulk in the Roath Dock in Cardiff and finally in1984 when she was being cut up on the shoreline of Tiger Bay opposite Lavernock Point.
The next Clyde turbine was the Duchess of Montrose (1930) Denny for CSP which was featured so well in the earlier posts. She was followed a couple of years later by a sister, the second Duchess of Hamilton (1932) Harland & Wolff, Govan - their only contribution to the Clyde steamer fleet, her turbines were built in Belfast. The two sisters graced the Clyde for over 3 decades sailing on the long routes from Gourock. One way of distinguishing the two is to count the number of small windows forward of the low level landing door on the main deck - the 'Montrose' had three, the 'Hamilton' had four. The Montrose had some legendary speed tussles with MacBraynes Saint Columba in the Kyles of Bute as they headed for Loch Fyne in the post war years. I remember the 'Hamilton' better and some Friday sailings to Ayr when she was commanded by the equally legendary master Capt Fergus B Murdoch MBE - 'Fergie' to his friends but not wee boys like me!
The 'Montrose' was first to go, consigned to Belgian ship breakers by the infamous Dr Beeching and his 'axe' in 1964. The axe also brought an end to the illustrious 'big sister' of our current Waverley - the far famed paddle steamer Jeanie Deans (1931, Fairfields). The 'Hamilton' survived until 1970 when 'Fergie' returned from retirement to ring down 'Finished with Engines' for the last time. Plans by the Reo Stakis Organisation to convert her to a licensed club in Glasgow came to nought and she was taken down to Troon for demolition, my last memory of her being the appalling sight of her two large yellow funnels, hacked from the deck and dumped unceremoniously on the quay. Soon she too was gone forever.
Queen Mary (1933) Denny for Williamson Buchanan, now berthed at the Embankment next to Waterloo Bridge in London, was built ,for the daily run from Glasgow Bridge Wharf (South Side) 'doon the watter' to Rothesay, the Kyles, Round Bute and sometimes a bit further. However, more than most she was ‘Glasgow’s’ steamer. Originally named Queen Mary and bearing two slender white funnels (with black tops) she was to see a few changes over the years. Her name was changed to Queen Mary II to free her original title for the new Cunarder whose enormous hull she passed every day on her way to the coast. Her funnels changed to yellow and black when she entered ownership of the CSP. During the War she stayed at home to maintain a much restricted sailing programme, along with the veteran paddle steamer Lucy Ashton (1888, T B Seath, Rutherglen) and during that time she took troops to and from many liners engaged in the Battle of the Atlantic, at the safe anchorage of the Tail of the Bank inside the Dunoon – Cloch anti submarine boom. One of the regular visitors at that time was none other than the big Queen Mary for whom she had forsaken her rightful title.
After the war the Mary resumed sailings from Glasgow. She was reboilered at Barclay Curle’s Elderslie Dockyard (Yarrow’s Drydocks) in 1957 losing her two slender funnels in favour of a more modern elliptical stack; this provoking a 20 year debate on the relative merits of her two guises , She continued Glasgow sailings until 1969 when Bridge Wharf closed and the 150 year old tradition of going doon the watter ended – or so we thought at the time. Queen Mary II outlasted all of the other Clyde turbines and was supposed to outlast the paddle steamers too. But then a band of upstarts decided to save the last of the paddlers and sadly the writing was on the quay wall for the Mary. Waverley revived Glasgow sailings from 1975 and the Mary was returned to the Glasgow route (at weekends ) renamed Queen Mary in May 1976. A bit of a David and Goliath struggle resulted with David, the cash strapped Waverley, winning the day . Also the concept of a paddler (and the last seagoing one in the world from 1970) was easier to get over to the public who regarded them as ‘traditional’ – they were not quite sure what made the turbine special – the paddler had these obvious sticky-out bits on the side which caused a spectacular show at piers. And then there was the engines – the paddlers engine was a huge animate moving object - ‘the Dinosaur down below’ in one early Waverley marketing slogan! If you ever see the parts of a turbine moving its probably time you were not there. After 3 seasons the Mary was retired in favour of the car ferry Glen Sannox on cruising. Fine vessel though that Ailsa built ferry was, she was never going to take on the mantle while Waverley was there. The ‘Mary’ was bought by Glasgow council to form the centrepiece of the long awaited (still waiting) Clyde maritime heritage centre. However, this coincided with the arrival of a new Prime Minister in the form of one Margaret Thatcher who imposed massive cuts on local council budgets and the Mary and Clyde Heritage centre were dead in the water. Sold to Chinese restaurateurs she was towed to London, tied up in the forgotten docks and deteriorated until brewers Bass, having had a disastrous fire on the old favourite Clyde paddler Caledonia at the Embankment in 1981 managed to do the same to the glorious King George V while fitting her out at Cardiff as a replacement. So it was with considerable apprehension that we learned of their acquisition of the Mary for the same role. So far she has survived – at least in name. However, she is hardly the ship that we knew of old. Her single funnel of 1957 was replaced by two of similar appearance to the originals but not as well proportioned. They have had several – some rather garish - liveries. Externally one can almost imagine the old Clyde Steamer although each time that I pass her on my way over Waterloo Bridge I am shocked at the standard of upkeep of her paintwork - recently I noted an unplanned tree growing out of the wooden port side belting – what would Capt ‘Big Dave’ MacPherson or the far famed Capt Mick Brophy have thought of that! Internally, devastation! Whereas Caledonia had retained her form and character – tarted up a bit for the delicate London palate – the Mary’s internals have been gutted to make way for the fancy Admiral’s Suite (an Admiral on a Clyde steamer?), the Captain’s Quarters and the dubious Hornblower’s nightclub where according to the
website the atmosphere is ’horny’ (!?!?!?). I haven’t managed to check that out yet. Sometimes when I see her at the Embankment I have to shut my eyes and imagine the way she was sailing through the Kyles – until I nearly get run over by a London bus and come back to the reality of her Central London existence. I look down on her stern at the words ‘Queen Mary Glasgow’ and wonder if the
scrap yard might not have been a kinder demise.
The final Clyde turbine steamer was the Marchioness of Graham (1937) Fairfields for CSP – with Atalanta the only single funnelled Clyde turbines. She was a popular little ship serving Arran and the Ayr excursion trade on her short 20 year Clyde career. She went to Greece, was rebuilt out of recognition and eventually scrapped.
The first Clyde paddle steamer, Comet, was built in 1812 – 89 years before the first turbine. The last Clyde paddle steamer, Waverley, was built in 1947 – 11 years after the last turbine. In the 135 years between 1812 and 1947 there were 11 Clyde turbine steamers and several hundred paddlers. Perhaps that is why it is a paddler that is the ‘Sole Survivor’.
Text: Stuart Cameron
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