Minutes of an Ordinary Meeting of the Old Glasgow Club

Held at Adelaides, 209 Bath Street

On Thursday 9th January 2014 at 7.30pm



84 present



Ms Petrina Cairns (President)



Ms Cairns welcomed all members and visitors to the first Old Glasgow Club meeting of 2014 and said that it was going to be a big year for Glasgow. Ms Cairns also said that she hoped that everyone had a fun festive period.

Ms Cairns explained the fire drill procedures, housekeeping rules and requested that all mobile phones be switched to silent or off.



Margaret Houston, Gaynor MacKinnon and Margaret Thom



The minutes of the last ordinary meeting, held on 12th December 2013 were approved and proposed by Ian Frame and seconded by Joyce McNae. There were no amendments or matters arising.


President's Report

Ms Cairns said that she would like to thank Dr Paul Maloney for his talk on Scottish Pantomime at Decembers meeting and said that it had been the perfect time of year for the talk and hadn't the footage from the old shows been great.


Members Night - A Day In The Calton (February meeting)

"We have around 100 Magic Lantern slides digitised, showing unique scenes around Glasgow Green and the Calton area. These were taken by Mr Peter Ffyfe, a Sanitary Inspector who actually gave a talk to the club in 1917. The Directors would like to present these images to the members of the club before we let them loose on the wider public.


Summer Outing - Abbotsford, Melrose

The 2014 Club Summer outing is to the home of Sir Walter Scott, Abbotsford near Melrose on June 14th. The house reopened July 2013 after two years closure for its multi-million pound restoration. There is a new visitor centre with an exhibition featuring rarely seen items from the Abbotsford collections. There is also a coffee shop, restaurant and shop.

Details regarding cost of trip and High Tea will be confirmed at the Feb/March meeting but people interested can give their names from the February meeting.


Ms Cairns said that she didn't think that there would be a lot on at this time of year but says that she was wrong.........


St Mungo Festival 9th-18th January. Events are listed on peoplemakeglasgow.com

St Mungo Ecumenical Service will take place at Glasgow Cathedral on Sunday 12th January at 6.30pm. Attending will be Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, Civic and Church leaders and representatives of Trades House, Merchants and groups from across the city. The St Mungo Singers, Russkaya Cappella and the Salvation Army Choir.


Monte Carlo Classic Car Rally - The only UK starting point for the rally will leave at 6pm on January 23rd from Paisley Abbey. Paisley to Monte Carlo 1,670 mile (2,688km).


Events at the Mitchell Library - Square Mile of Murder workshop on Thursday 23rd January. Treasures and Tea. Burns Collection on Wednesday 29th January at 2.30pm. Events can be found on www.glasgowlife.org.uk/libraries/the-mitchell-library or you can call on 0141 287 2999. Booking is essential for these events.



Celtic Connections - 16th Jan- 2nd Feb. Glasgow's annual Winter music festival, featuring artists from around the world. More information can be found at www.celticconnections.com.




Glasgow Film Festival - 20th Feb - 2nd March. Tickets for Glasgow's annual film festival are now on sale. More information can be found on www.glasgowfilm.org/festival.


Aye Write - 4th-12th April at the Mitchell Library. The brochures will be available soon. You can also sign up for the newsletter or follow on Twitter and Facebook at www.ayewrite.com.


Ms Cairns congratulated Glasgow Women's Library who were awarded 460,000 from the Regeneration Capital Grant Fund to upgrade an historic building in Landressy Street, Bridgeton.


Secretary's Report -  Included in President's Report. Mrs McNae (Secretary) is standing in for Ms Thom (Treasurer) for this meeting.



Ms Cairns introduced Mr Burns Shearer, a member of the Nomads and giving his first talk to the Old Glasgow Club tonight. The talk is titled 'The Comet, the Clyde, the Commerce'.


It is my great pleasure to be here this evening. It feels as if I am coming home. I was involved in the development of  Adelaides when it was a dilapidated church. It was an imaginative project that reused the space to provide the facilities that are here today.

In the background I have several slides showing which I will explain at the end of my talk.

For those of you that watch the heavens and take stock there was an astonishing event taking place in the skies in March 1811. Honor Flaugergues spotted the Great Comet. It was the talking point of Europe. Clear skies allowed the comet to be visible in the northern sky. It had a tail 100,000 miles long and by October 2nd it was 12 times the diameter of the moon.

What would this mean by 1812 - Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and Henry Bell on the Clyde.

Henry Bell was born on 7th April 1777 at Linlithgow. In 1780 he was apprenticed to a local stonemason for 3 years. He decided this had limitations for advancement. From the age of 16-20 he worked with Glasgow engineer,  James Inglis at Bellshill. He then moved to London to work with the Scottish engineer, John Rennie. In 1790, now 23, he returned to Glasgow to take up work as a carpenter. His real interest was was in steam powered boats and he regularly corresponded with Robert Fulton, the American engineer who came to Britain to study art, ended up studying engineering and who later built the North River Steamboat.

He was influenced by the work of fellow Scotsman William Symington who had patented his improved atmospheric engine in 1787. Symington's boat the Charlotte Dundas, maiden voyage 1803 (named after Lord Dundas' daughter when he gave his approval for the boat), had a horizontal steam engine directly linked to operate paddles which was aimed at avoiding damage to the canal banks. Plans to introduce boats on Forth and Clyde Canal were thwarted by Lord Dundas when he said that it would ruin the walls of the canal.

Henry had a vision and was convinced that Symington's invention had merit and was very keen to understand his work. He was particularly interested in discovering how the Charlotte Dundas had worked, talking at length with those involved in her design and construction.

In 1800 Bell tried, without success to get the British Admiralty to support studies into the use of steam power in ships.

In 1803 his second attempt to persuade the Admiralty, was once again unsuccessful, although it Lord Nelson wrote to the Admiralty saying "My Lords, if you do not adopt Mr Bell's scheme, other nations will, and in the end vex every vein of this Empire. It will succeed and you should encourage Mr Bell".

Henry also explored the idea with James Watt, who was very pessimistic about the project, who thought that the power of steam would not be brought to navigation.

In 1807 Henry, and his wife, Margaret moved to Helensburgh, which had only been created a Burgh in 1802. They built the Baths Inn (later became the Queen's Hotel) to run as a spa. The water was drawn from the Clyde by a steam engine to fill the tubs. This was ran by Margaret, while Henry worked as an architect and engineer, while also pursuing his aim to build a steam powered boat. Henry was also the first Provost of Helensburgh from 1807-09.

In 1809 Bell made a smaller model boat to take an engine, 13 feet long with a 5 feet beam. It was successful in my view and by 1811 he thought he could make any vessel any size.

In 1811, Bell commissioned Port Glasgow shipbuilder, John Wood to build a paddle steamer, which was to be called the Comet, a fiery traveller in space and an apt name for a boat. It was 55 feet in length, 7ft 6" breadth for a cabin which could be divided into compartments and 12ft 6" for the engine and machinery. It had 2 paddle wheels on each side, driven by engines rated at 3hp.

The 2 engines were made by James Robertson of Glasgow, and the boiler by David Napier. Robertson and Bell had been in discussion regarding the engine wince 1807. There was 3lb per square inch in the engine and I wonder what kind of difficulty they had in loading the engine.

The Comet was prettily painted, a neat craft with a square sail and it sailed remarkably well.

Henry Bell had mortgaged the land, Inn and buildings, presumably to raise funding to build The Comet. Bell had a reputation and owed money. There is no record of the 14 balance being paid for the engine. Neither Robertson or Napier were paid in full, although Napier didn't seem to hold it against him.

August 1812 and the Comet was delivered to her home berth, 21 miles upriver at Broomielaw.

The Comet's maiden voyage was in August 1812 under it's Captain, William MacKenzie and 4 staff. The Comet, using steam and wind-power could sail from Port Glasgow to Broomielaw in 3 1/2 hours. It could make 5 miles an hour against a head-wind.

The first commercial voyage was around Thursday 13th or 15th August and was 4 shillings for the best cabin and 3 shillings for the second cabin. Captain MacKenzie said that he had no previous experience, he was in charge of making it a commercial success. It took 6 hours to do the same journey by coach and the coach didn't run during the Winter months.

The Clyde was a totally different river to the one we know now, it hadn't been widened when The Comet made her maiden voyage. Arrival and departure of The Comet drew large numbers of onlookers although sailors were still adverse to her. According to one eyewitness The Comet was referred to as the 'stinkpot'.

The Comet was the first commercially successful steamboat service in Europe.

What was the outcome for the Clyde - there was the dredging of the river and a surge in shipbuilding. The Comet awakened the mind to much quicker voyages. In 1815 steamboats made passage from Glasgow to London and you could now go to Inveraray and back the next day.

1880, some 68 years after the launch of the Comet there were 70 shipbuilding yards. The Clyde shipyards have built 30,000 ships in under 200 years since the time of the Comet.

The success of the service inspired competition and 39 steam boats were built (many of them by John Wood), with services down the Firth of Clyde and the sea lochs to Largs, Rothesay, Campbeltown and Inveraray. Within 4 years the Comet was outclassed by newer steamers.

Bell had the Comet lengthened and the original 3hp engine was replaced by a 6hp engine. From 1819 the Comet ran a service to Oban and Fort William (via the Crinan Canal), a trip which took 4 days.

The original 3hp engine that had been removed from the Comet was taken to the Science Museum in London. The designer, John Robertson was invited to oversee the installation of the engine in the museum.

Tragedy struck the Comet around the 20th December 1820. The ship was caught by the tidal flow off Craignish Point, near Oban and was shipwrecked, with Bell onboard. No lives were lost.

Bell had a replacement vessel built in 1821, Comet II, but here the end was even worse. On an October evening in 1825 she collided with the steamer 'Ayr' off Kempock Point, Gourock. Comet II sank in a mere 3 minutes, killing 62 of the estimated 80 passengers on board. The crew of the Comet II were accused of abandoning the passengers. The Comet II having not been seen by the Captain of the Ayr did not stop and lend assistance. She turned round and headed to Greenock. After the loss of his second ship, Bell abandoned his work on steam navigation.

Bell reaped no personal advantage from the widespread adoption of steam powered ships. The lack of financial backing, mortgaged house and enormous expenses crippled Bell financially. Henry Bell, once Helensburgh's first Provost, and his wife, Margaret, lived in poverty in their later years. Touched by his plight a special fund was set up by Dr Cleland and other friends, such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel wrote "Bell did what we engineers failed in. He gave us the sea steamer: his scheming was Britain's steaming". The trustees on the River Clyde also granted him an annuity of 100, which was continued to his widow, Margaret on his death in November 1830.

Henry Bell is buried in Rhu Churchyard. The impressive monument above his grave was paid for by his good friend, Robert Napier.

Should The Comet be held in the same esteem as the Golden Hind and Cutty Sark ? I will leave that up to you to decide.


Q  I found that a very interesting talk, I have family connections with the Napiers. Can I correct you in that it was Robert

     Napier and his cousin David Napier who was the Napier in question and not the brother of Robert. Perhaps the  

     confusion could be because they were brothers-in-law.

Q  Did Henry Bell have any descendants.

A  Not to my knowledge. The Bath Inn passed on to other hands and became The Queen's Hotel. I'm not sure what

    happened when he died.

Q  Seeing as Napier was mentioned in your talk regarding his engines, as a railwayman it was Napier's train steam

     engine. Did you not consider him as your main topic.

A  When I was preparing my talk, I realised that Robert Napier had so much established information about him that I

    decided to stay with Henry Bell. I think Henry was an amazing man.

Q  The price of a ticked was 4 Shillings. What would the cost be in modern money and what type of passenger used

     the service.

A  4 Shillings was a significant amount of money. To put it in perspective, Irish labourers were paid 1 Shilling a week so

    I presume that only wealthy people would have used it. 2nd class was 3 Shillings. I think it was mainly Merchant

    classes using this service.


Vote of Thanks

Mr Brian D Henderson (past President) gave the vote of thanks.

"President Petrina, fellow members and friends of the Old Glasgow Club, ladies and gentlemen, join me now in a hearty vote of appreciation to our honoured guest speaker, Burns for the fascinating "journey through time" which we have enjoyed, with him, this evening. Back to...1811, and the "Talking Point of Europe" - with the comet of the sky; To 'The Flying Boats" - and his hilariously vivid account of the boat which went nowhere...because the anchor - was still in the water; To a "potted history" of Helensburgh - with Henry Bell as first provost; And to Henry Bell - and his "Marine Monster" steam ship "Comet"... which achieved 3.5 hours from Greenock to the Broomielaw.

A very single-minded pioneer with an unfortunate lack of business acumen, but who set the scene for the River Clyde as a ship-building centre, and for the remarkable growth of our City of Glasgow.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I hope you will agree that Burns has given us a real "Taste of Living History" this evening. Burns, on behalf of the Club, please accept this small token of our thanks. Thank you very much indeed."



John Cameron answered correctly that the Great Glasgow Storm was on 15th January 1968.


Mr Cameron said that the reason that he remembered the date so clearly was because it was his first night living in Glasgow, having just moved from Perth. He was staying in the top floor of an hotel and thought the roof was going to come off.





Next Directors Meeting - Thursday 6th February 2014

Next Ordinary Meeting  - Thursday 13th February 2014


Ms Cairns thanked everyone for coming and wished all a safe journey home.


                                                                                                                                              Shona Crozer

                                                                                                                                              Recording Secretary