Call of the Clyde

Pleasures of the Firth: Two Hundred Years of the Clyde Steamers, by Andrew Clark, Stenlake Publishing, RRP£40, 314 pages

Londoners made their summer pilgrimage to Southend, Margate and Brighton. Lancashire possessed Blackpool and Southport. The West Riding had Scarborough. Llandudno belonged to Liverpool and Stoke. By the end of the 19th century families in every stretch of industrial England had cemented a relationship with a seaside town or coastline that they could think of as their own and occupy for a week or two every year for the purposes of fresh air and fun.

None of these resorts, however, not even the isles of Wight and Man, could match the natural majesty, the sheer size and geographical intricacy of the Firth of Clyde. Half a dozen sea lochs, one or two of them as steep-sided as fjords; three populated islands; golden beaches, purple-heather mountains, lowland towns with comic singers and electric trams, Highland villages that smelled of peat fires; and all of it sheltered from the Atlantic by the long arm of Kintyre and irresistibly close to Glasgow and the mining villages and manufacturing towns of southwestern Scotland.

Summers on the Clyde appealed to every social class. Business magnates built holiday homes known as “marine villas”, where they might moor a steam yacht, while their workers made do with a boarding house and hired a rowing boat. The English resorts owed their origins to an expanding railway network and excursion trains, but it was steamboats rather than steam locomotives that first took crowds down the Clyde and turned remote little places such as Rothesay and Dunoon into sophisticated towns that boasted esplanades, gas lamps, bandstands and grand hydropathic hotels. With the possible exception of the Hudson valley in New York, the estuary felt the transforming effects of steam navigation earlier than anywhere else in the world.

As Andrew Clark shows in this richly illustrated history, an attachment grew almost instantly between holidaymakers and the ships that took them downriver, out of Glasgow’s smoke and squalor and into the beauty of a landscape that so easily touched the heart. Henry Bell set the revolution going when he launched the Comet, Europe’s first commerical sea-going steamer, in 1812. Three years later, the year of Waterloo, the Clyde steam fleet numbered 16. By 1820, it had even grown a literature – little books with titles such as The Steamboat Companion that listed the ships and described the places of interest to be seen from their decks. On land, the first steam-hauled passenger transport in the form of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was still 10 years away.

'Caledonia’, a steamer launched in 1889

Speed became the Clyde’s great adventure. Steamers from rival companies raced each other hazardously from pier to pier, and journeys that had taken a day and more by stagecoach and sailing packet could be knocked off in an afternoon. By the 1860s their speed and shallow draft brought them to the attention of the Confederacy in the American civil war, which bought several and converted them to blockade runners that could evade the Union’s navy and carry Europe-bound cotton to Nassau. Several records from that age have never been broken. Today the journey by train and ferry from Glasgow to the island of Arran takes at least two hours, but in the 1890s it could be achieved in 80 minutes, thanks to the superb Glen Sannox, which Clark describes as the fastest and most opulent paddle steamer ever to grace the Clyde.

The decades on either side of Queen Victoria’s death marked the firth’s most flamboyant, excessive and ruinously competitive era. To add to the older fleets that sailed all the way from the heart of Glasgow, the ships of three rival railway companies dashed out from newly built coastal railheads that were dignified by architecture ranging from Italianate to Elizabethan. The ships themselves were lovely in their different liveries, hulls in grey, black or dark blue, funnels in various combinations of yellow, red, white and black. In 1912 there were more than 40 of them. They made the Clyde distinctive. The boast ran – and there is no reason to disbelieve it – that no coast on any continent could offer a better service.

Irrevocable decline set in after the first world war, but as the steamers shrank in number, so the cult surrounding them grew. Clark is by no means the only historian of the Clyde steamer but his book is the probably the first to tell the whole story of this delightful transport’s rise and fall, and to give it a social as well as technical dimension. The illustrations are superb and make it hard to resist the thought that marine aesthetics, seaside as well as ships, reached their peak in the early years of the last century. Something beautiful had been created.

It should be said that the author is this newspaper’s classical music critic. Despite our common enthusiasm and its roots in a steamer-crazed boyhood, we have never met. I like to think of him going home after a hard day’s Stockhausen to sit in an easy chair and dream of the Jeanie Deans racing the Duchess of Hamilton across a blue sea.

Ian Jack is author of ‘The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain’ (Vintage)

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