Caledonian Steam Packet Co.
Mrs Harris (wife to LMS Chief Marine Superintendent)
Reviving the name of the 1889 paddle-steamer which had been the very first ship built for James Williamson's new Caledonian Steam Packet Co.
Wm. Denny & Bros. Ltd, Dumbarton
Wm. Denny & Bros. Ltd, Dumbarton
Triple expansion diagional (TD), 3 cyl. 20”, 31 ½” & 50” x 60”. New boilers 1955
Hoist & Lifts:
Craigendoran - Round Bute / Arran Cruise (CSP)
Current, Last or Usual Route
A new CALEDONIA, reviving the name of the 1889 paddle-steamer which had been the very first ship built for James Williamson's new Caledonian Steam Packet Co. Ltd fleet, was launched for the LMS-owned CSP on 1 February 1934, by Mrs Harris, whose husband was the new LMS Chief Marine Superintendent.
CALEDONIA was the second in a pair of modern paddlers – the first, MERCURY, was named at Glasgow's Fairfield yard on 16th January – and the twins cost £46,000 apiece. MERCURY had been fitted out rather more quickly, but proved mildly disappointing on trials, attaining only a mean speed of 16.86 knots. CALEDONIA, put through her paces on 27th March 1934, proved a good deal more satisfactory, reaching a mean speed of 17.21 knots and in one, lengthy 2 ½ hour run about the Firth keeping an average speed of 16 ¾ knots. Four days later, on 31st March, CALEDONIA took the Saturday afternoon cruise to the Kyles of Bute.
CALEDONIA and MERCURY were the first Caley paddlers with the modern three-crank style of triple expansion machinery, similar to the engines which had proved such a success on the new and very fast LNER paddler JEANIE DEANS (1931). The CSP sisters, however, had traditional single-ended cylindrical Navy boilers, with each receiving a pair.
There was a twist, however, to annoy purists; though paddle propulsion was still in the 1930s preferred to turbine machinery for vessels of speed less than 18 knots and on routes with frequent calls, the new ships' architects seemed determined to disguise their wheels entirely. Their paddle boxes were fully enclosed under continuous sponson sides and only a white box platform above the deck suggested (to more than a casual glance) that these were not screw ships. Rather than the traditional fan-vents of a Clyde paddler the paddle boxes had only two small grills.
Indeed, like her sister, CALEDONIA was a thoroughly modern Millie. She had an almost utilitarian cruiser stern, large shelters with a spar deck above, two masts, a large elliptical funnel and a high flying bridge, carried well out to the sides. The saloons, too, were fitted with large observation windows. Altogether, recorded G E Langmuir dismally, “they had a most surprising appearance from the point of view of anyone who had known the traditional Clyde steamer.”
Nor was CALEDONIA a gracious summer butterfly for the tourist trade; she was as much a ferryboat for commuters to Clyde coast railheads – and, on occasion, even bore cars on her broad sponsons – as an excursion vessel. Certainly, like MERCURY, she was roomy, and her early certification for 1,300 passengers was soon upgraded to 1,730. There was a “cabin class” dining saloon aft on her main deck; forward of this lay a lounge and third-class restaurant. There was more passenger accommodation aft on the lower deck; a tea-room and a smoke bar. Various compartments forward on the lower deck housed crew and officer accommodation.
CALEDONIA and MERCURY were large and modern ships well suited for a long Clyde career. The Denny vessel was not, however – though it is still widely believed – an exact sister-ship of MERCURY. CALEDONIA's funnel was rather elliptical than that of MERCURY and was sited somewhat further aft. Deck-ventilators and the style and spacing of her saloon windows, too, differed markedly from those of the Fairfield boat.
“Late in March 1934...”wrote Richard N W Smith in 1971, “I saw a strange vessel coming along the Ayrshire coast ... Very soon I discovered the stranger was the new MERCURY which had been brought thus early into service, to assist with the programme of spring relief's. Nothing, of course, would satisfy me until I had contrived an opportunity to sail in her from Wemyss Bay to Millport and back. At first I was unfavourably impressed by the height of the new ships, the bluffness in the bows of CALEDONIA, and their cruiser sterns, not to speak of the concealed paddle boxes, which seemed the most unsatisfactory feature of all. I also noted the complete absence of the old style general saloon. The deck shelters, with sparred seats and basket chairs, and the two little alcoves at the entrance to the dining saloon, seemed a poor substitute. But I liked the line of the new MERCURY, the shape and size of her funnel, and the traditional arrangement of her saloon windows...
“My first sail in CALEDONIA came soon afterwards, when we went to Rothesay for our Easter holidays. During the spring the new CALEDONIA was assigned this year to the Gourock-Wemyss Bay-Rothesay route. MERCURY took up the Greenock-Gourock-Rothesay-Kyles of Bute run, the modern version of the roster so long undertaken by the old MERCURY, from which she had been displaced in 1926. In the summer CALEDONIA took the place formerly held by JUPITER. Afternoon cruises, however, became her regular employment from Mondays to Fridays.”
In fact, CALEDONIA was very quickly established as a success. She was spacious and extremely comfortable, with excellent sea-going qualities, ideally suited for short cruises and railway connection work.
Several more paddlers of the new, almost apologetic design would be built; ironically, CALEDONIA would survive them all by many years. Her sister MERCURY was blasted by a Nazi mine on Christmas Day 1940, on Admiralty service; she sank while under tow by her sister, between Milford Haven and the Irish coast. The wee, slow MARCHIONESS OF LORNE appeared in 1935, and was such an inadequate ship she was the only Caley paddler the authorities didn't bother to requisition for the Second WORLD WAR. She was scrapped in 1955 after only nineteen years' service.
The handsome JUPITER (1936) and JUNO (1937) were twin-funnelled ships of attractive design but gloried in the same concealed paddle box affectation as the other Thirties steamers. JUNO was bombed and sunk on the Thames on 19th March 1941 (as HMS HELVELLYN) and, though JUPITER survived the wear – serving as HMS SCAWFELL – she was withdrawn by the CSP at the end of the 1957 season and was after much delay sold, being broken up in Dublin in 1961.
CALEDONIA herself survived the Second World War – serving as HMS GOATFELL, chiefly on minesweeping duties, though she also relieved Channel steamers for Dunkirk. She became an anti-aircraft vessel, in 1942, regularly escorting trawler fleets and convoys, and shot down several enemy planes.
CALEDONIA capped everything when she participated in the relief of Antwerp. Released in 1945 from Admiralty service, she resumed Clyde duty the following year, after reconditioning by her builders – taking on the Wemyss Bay-Rothesay service.
CALEDONIA would survive the advent of purpose-built car-ferries, and repeated, remorseless purging of the Clyde's traditional steam tonnage. In 1948 she acquired an enclosed wheelhouse. In the late Forties and Fifties she ran various services from Gourock or Wemyss Bay, and for a decade from 1954 – relieved from these railhead runs by the new hoist-loading car-ferries - she was based at Ayr, succeeding the turbine MARCHIONESS OF GRAHAM on the cruise-programme from that port (as well as Troon and Ardrossan) and helping her out on peak Arran sailings. In the winter of 1954-55 CALEDONIA was fitted with new oil-fired boilers. In fact, for almost her entire career, too, CALEDONIA was in operation for much of the winter, and could still be seen on unseasonable relief duties until 1965.
From that year the Denny paddler took the place of JEANIE DEANS at Craigendoran, partnering the 1947 WAVERLEY. CALEDONIA not merely undertook the usual Round Bute and Round Arran excursions from the Helensburgh port but also on occasion did doon the wa'er” runs from Bridge Wharf, Glasgow.
CALEDONIA, however, could survive only one season under Scottish Transport Group management; the STG's ramp-loading, drive-through vision of the future did not include a gaggle of elderly steamships, and CALEDONIA was the first casualty. Her last, 1969, season did have curious highlights. The tough old thing undertook MacBrayne's Tarbert mail service in April, during a breakdown of LOCHNEVIS – the first paddler to run that service since the demise of the famous COLUMBA in 1935 – and in her very last days of Clyde service, the 1934 vessel resumed the Tarbert mail run from 1st to 8th October, proudly flying her Caley pennant. Her withdrawal had already been announced; her five-year load-line certificate required renewal that winter, with an expensive quinquennial survey, and this was an outlay the STG would not tolerate – in 1969 the Clyde excursion fleet had lost a cool £160,000.
“The doomed vessel then paddled up river to Rothesay Dock at Clydebank to await offers from ship breakers,” mused Iain MacArthur, “Surprisingly she was purchased on 11th February 1970 for over £10,000 by W H Arnott, Young & Co. Ltd, with a view to selling her to operators in Britain or North America. On the day of her sale she was towed to her new owners' basin at Dalmuir and in April was renamed OLD CALEDONIA...” Her original name was to be conferred on a new Arran car-ferry, the Swedish re-tread STENA BALTICA.
OLD CALEDONIA was duly acquired by Bass Charrington Ltd, the brewery concern, in November 1971, and became a floating restaurant on the Thames Embankment.
In fact there were determined, finally unsuccessful manoeuvres to save CALEDONIA for active Clyde service and, but for a quirk of fate, she and not WAVERLEY might still be churning our coasts as the “last sea-going paddle steamer in the world.” Captain David Neill – later a celebrated skipper of the rescued WAVERLEY – was one of several individuals who toiled frantically to preserve CALEDONIA on her native Firth and, according to a future WAVERLEY Chief Engineer, Ian W Muir, the efforts to save the 1934 paddler saw “more than one large company bending over backwards to help... many though then, and some think still, that she would have been a very much better example for a one-ship enterprise to work with. She has two boilers; thus has the ability to keep in service, if at lower speed, in the event of one giving trouble. She has more covered accommodation to shelter passengers if the weather turns wet and, while it might tell against her at shallow water piers such as Helensburgh and Millport, her deeper draught would be generally beneficial, as it made her less affected by wild weather. She lacked a bit against WAVERLEY's best speed, though in a bit of a blow would be better able to keep time. All in all, there is no hiding the quality built into her by that most lamented of shipyards, Denny's of Dumbarton...”
Muir was writing early in 1980, when there was still just the faintest possibility that OLD CALEDONIA might one day be revived from static use. On 27th April that year, however, such talk was dashed when the 1934 favourite was ravaged by fire at her Embankment berth.
After inspection she was judged to be beyond economic repair, and OLD CALEDONIA was finally removed for breaking up at Sittingbourne, Kent.
Text thanks to John MacLeod