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Main The Fleet Ships of the Fleet Maid of Ashton History

In the early Fifties the British Transport Commission confronted bravely the new realities of Clyde passenger shipping in a rapidly changing postwar world. While a 1952 bid to close several piers on the Firth was largely reversed by popular outcry – the one at Largs is open to this day – there was widespread approval of Lord Hurcomb's announcement, in February 1951, of a £1,000,000 plan to modernise Clyde steamer services.

Actually, it scarcely involved steamers. The BTC had two separate plans: to build four motor-driven passenger ships for shuttle ferry services – each handling about 500 passengers and doing a brisk fifteen knots; and the construction of three “general purpose” ships to carry 500 passengers and cargo but in addition to be specially adapted for carrying cars, using electrically-driven hoists and side-ramps and allowing motorists to drive on from conventional piers at any state of tide. Those boats would whizz around at a still brisker sixteen knots.

Proposals for, at least, a purpose-built Gourock-Dunoon ferry had been around since the 1930s; one scheme was on the verge of execution when war broke out in September 1939. No one in 1951 – incredible as it may seem - though, expected more than bare hundreds of cars ever to be carried in a typical Clyde summer. The BTC's real concern was to eliminate as largely as possible the heavy losses of the existing Clyde passenger fleet – almost all coal-burning steamships – and the idea of creating a Clyde fleet consisting entirely of dedicated car-carrying vessels would have frankly astonished them. In 1993, of course, it came to pass with the sale of the KEPPEL – and she had been CalMac's sole Clyde passengers-only vessel since 1977.

Tenders were invited and orders for all seven ships were announced on 8th June 1951. In December 1952 it was made known that the BTC had abandoned plans for shuttle-ferry services and that the new passenger vessels would operate largely on existing routes. Details were also given out of their design. Certainly they were small – only 161 feet long – but promised to be most useful and economical.

There is no doubt the ordering of four practically identical vessels in one go saved costs; each cost only £145,000 to build. There was more public irritation at their nomenclature: the names (MAID OF ASHTON, MAID OF ARGYLL, MAID OF SKELMORLIE and MAID OF CUMBRAE were announced in January 1953) struck many as meaningless mouthfuls. After all, at least there really was a Duchess of Hamilton. Some purists, of course, gave thanks that great Clyde steamer names had not been disgraced by bestowal on internal-combustion upstarts.

The first of the new ships, MAID OF ASHTON, was launched on 17th February 1953 by Lady Benstead, wife of the BTC's deputy chairman. The 'Ashton' was the only 'Maid' to be built by Yarrow's of Scotstoun and in fact remains to this day the only vessel the yard (best known for its naval contracts) has ever built for the Clyde passenger service.

Like all her sisters, MAID OF ASHTON was a rather small but neat-looking boat, with attractively raked funnel and twin masts – though she bore only a foremast at launch, on top of the wheelhouse, until clarified lighting regulations dictated a mainmast just forward of her cargo space.

And the 1953 quartet bore features unseen on new Clyde ships for many years. The promenade deck was not continued to the bow and the lifeboats were hung low at the stern. There were short alleyways round the aft portion of the saloon and there was no bridge above promenade deck level, though – allowing for extremes of tide – MAID OF ASHTON and her sisters did have a landing platform above the wheelhouse and ticket office.

They had a low, sleek and distinctly purposeful appearance and in fact were a good deal more attractive than early plans had proposed: by that appalling outline, they were to have appeared without funnels and with their machinery aft; a very big saloon filling most of the main deck. In the event the engines were installed amidships and the galley aft.

All the 'Maids' boasted radar and were the first Clyde passenger ships to enter service so equipped. They all attained respectable speeds and, with twin screws and twin rudders, remarks Iain C MacArthur, “the manoeuvrability of these vessels was quite outstanding”; indeed, Graham Langmuir brings himself to note that they were even more manoeuvrable than paddlesteamers.

MAID OF ASHTON's twin screws were driven, like all her sisters, by two sets of British Polar diesel engines, fabricated in Glasgow and fitted by Rankin & Blackmore Ltd of Greenock. They endowed her with a splendid turn of speed which, coupled with that ease of turning and backing – and the ships' shallow draught – allowed all the 'Maids' to take and leave piers with considerable despatch and maintain the remarkably complicated Clyde schedules as well as any paddler. They were the only screwships ever regularly to use that awkward shoalwater pier on the “North Bank”, Craigendoran.

Forward, MAID OF ASHTON and her sisters had an observation lounge with somewhat basic bus-type seating. There was a tearoom aft, served by an adjacent – and rather tiny – kitchen-pantry; this could seat 52 people. Both facilities enjoyed large windows, allowing passengers splendid views of the Clyde scenery.

Accommodation for officers and crew was located abaft of the engines on the lower deck and was far superior to anything on the Clyde steamships – for instance, for the first time the crew enjoyed individual cabins. Forward of the engine room, on this lower deck, was another lounge; later in all the 'Maids'' career, this was converted to a bar.

There was a small open foredeck, reserved for rope-handling and to which passengers had no access; its enclosed bulwark neatly deflected any serious seas but significantly impeded the view forward from the observation lounge. The aft section of the main deck was open, and likewise denied to passengers; it reserved more mooring equipment and the two lifeboats. The square transom sterns – and cut-away after end – contrasted rather oddly with the sleek, flared lies of the bow and bridge superstructure, observes Iain MacArthur, and the “navigating bridge [was] situated forward on the promenade deck, and passengers are again denied a forward view.”

Atop the bridge was that landing platform for use very low tides, and abaft of this sat each 'Maid''s funnel, about amidships on the promenade deck and prefabricated in aluminium – this, of course, reduced topweight. For carrying light cargo the after end of this deck was railed off.

“The amount of open deck space available for passengers is necessarily limited,” writes Mr MacArthur, “but the high standard of enclosed accommodation more than compensates for this deficiency. Two companionways, one forward and one aft leading from the promenade deck to the main deck, greatly facilitate the circulation of over 600 passengers in these relatively small craft.”

MAID OF ASHTON ran her trials on 21st May 1953 and attained the gratifying speed of 15.54 knots. Several days later, on Monday 25th May, she entered service under the command of Captain William Smith, on the Gourock-Holy Loch route. She berthed overnight at Kilmun and every morning she visited Craigendoran; the main ports for Gourock, of course, were Kilcreggan, Blairmore and Kilmun. She was a good deal faster than the notoriously slow paddler MARCHIONESS OF LORNE, now displaced from the route – built only in 1935, the prematurely aged vessel was scrapped before her twentieth birthday – and the MAID OF ASHTON became distinctly popular for her comfort and immaculate time-keeping.

Her roster included calls at Hunter's Quay – another pier which was reopened after an attempt to close it down – but the pier at Strone, which belonged to the Forestry Commission and at which MAID OF ASHTON often called, was closed at the end of the 1956 season. Other historic calls on this Gourock-Holy Loch service – to piers at Cove and Ardnadam – had ceased with the outbreak of war and the new importance of the Holy Loch as a haven for fighting ships. (Post-war, of course, it became home to a huge US naval base.)

Perhaps carrying The Princess Margaret – whom MAID OF ASHTON bore on a short cruise from Glasgow's Bridge Wharf in April 1957 – was some compensation; indeed, the Queen's sister enjoyed it so much that the excursion was extended nearly twenty minutes longer than planned.

As the Fifties advanced, though, each 'Maid' lost identification with any individual route and served on a host of Clyde rail connection crossings, commuter runs, and short excursions as duty required. None, however – even the two that survived to the CalMac era – ever ventured beyond the Firth of Clyde and were really too lightly built to do so; even for Clyde services, the forward saloon-windows were routinely boarded up for braving the Firth in winter.

Though most reliable ships – indeed, the mechanical soundness of these seven 1953-4 diesel-driven vessels was an absolute deathblow for steam propulsion on the Clyde – they suffered increasingly in the 1960s from utterly unanticipated change. The demand for car ferry services exceeded all expectations – by 1960 the CSP was freighting thousands, rather than hundreds, of cars – and the public's appetite for such short excursions as “Morning Coffee” cruises rapidly dwindled.

In April 1965, MAID OF ASHTON became the first of the quartet to have the new Lion Rampant affixed to her funnel. She was also the first to quit Clyde service; there was less and less for such dedicated passenger ships to do and 1971 saw both the closure of the Holy Loch commuter-run and a wide-ranging review of all passenger-only services in the upper Firth. Most of the afternoon cruises were axed and a good many longer excursions were firmly deleted from the timetable too.

All this trimming of services – and the pressure to cut costs with the commissioning of so much new CSP car ferry tonnage in 1970-71 – resulted in the MAID OF ASHON's withdrawal. She was taken out of commission in May 1971 and laid up in Greenock's East India Harbour.

On 8th January 1973 MAID OF ASHTON was sold to the Yardarm Club of London and served as their club-house, lying on the Thames Embankment just astern of the old Humber paddler TATTERSHALL CASTLE. Painted and rarther modified to resemble some sort of greek luxury yacht, she rejoiced at first in the name of HISPANIOLA II and, later, the plain HISPANIOLA.

From a private dining-club, she became a public restaurant and she rather flourished in that role. Later she was moved down river, east of Hungerford Bridge to a berth close to an old Clyde consort, QUEEN MARY, In the spring of 2002, HISPANIOLA was sold to City Cruises by the Yardarm Club, and was towed to the George Prior yard at Ipswich for a hull inspection and a refit. She is back at her berth and back in business, under the shadow of the London Eye.

The 'Maids' were not granted long careers with the Company and were never quite swept to the bosom of the Clydeside public. MAID OF CUMBRAE admittedly, at the very end of her CalMac career, did become a popular ship for charter, but that may just have been because she was cheap. The MAID OF ASHTON, in her brief years on the Holy Loch runs, was the only 'Maid' to enjoy the experience of being loved, largely because her predecessor had all the speed of a bungalow.

The basic problem was that the 1953 ships had neither the charm of a steam ship or the universal usefulness of a car ferry. They were the nearest the Company has ever produced to a row of buses.

“Their Firth of Clyde careers were relatively short,” muses Colin J. Smith, “unspectacular and marked by steady and generally reliable service in all weathers. The travelling public have rarely regarded any ships with such ambivalence and the withdrawal of the 'Maid' vessels was not universally condemned.

Or,” he damningly adds, “even noticed.”

Text thanks to John MacLeod (C)


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