Dockside Classic: 1947 Paddle Steamer Waverley – The Last Seagoing Paddle Steamer In The World

Cities need lungs. New York and London have their parks. The great cities of Northern England have the moors and dales of Yorkshire and Northumberland. But Glasgow is, as always, different. It has the estuary, known in Scotland as a Firth, of the Clyde.

The Firth of Clyde can be considered to start at the limit of tidal waters in Glasgow (which was also the lowest bridging point until the motorway age) to its mouth which is 26 miles wide between Stranraer on the east side of the Firth, approximately 85 road miles south west of Glasgow at the south wetern tip of Scotland, and Campbeltown on the Kintyre peninsula on the western side, 150 miles by road from Glasgow. It contains the deepest coastal waters in Britain, and several striking islands, not least Arran, the Isle of Bute and the pleasingly named Great and Little Cumbrae.

For a hundred years, until the advent of cheap flights to the Med in the 1970s, going ‘doon the watter’ was the favourite way for Glaswegians to spend a summer’s day. The first steamer on the Clyde was the Comet, just 45 feet long with an engine of no more than 4hp, which offered a ferry service from Glasgow to Greenock in 1812. This replica commemorates that achievement.

From these simple beginnings, a network of paddle steamers, both regular ferries and pleasure steamers, developed in the late nineteenth century. Actually, four networks – those of the Caledonian, Glasgow and South Western and North British Railways, and the independent MacBrayne company, which was formed in 1851 and also operated a large fleet of ferries in the Hebrides further north. By 1923, the Caledonian and GWSR fleets had merged as Caledonian Steam Packet, and in 1947 railway nationalisation brought the former North British (London and North Eastern from 1923) vessels into CSP. In 1971, CSP merged with MacBrayne as the publicly owned Caledonian MacBrayne, a name which survives to this day – usually abbreviated to CalMac.

Passengers were a mixture of business and leisure, with the Glaswegian excursion market supplemented by a year round trade in prosperous commuters from towns like Dunoon, Rothesay and Helensburgh to Glasgow.

The NBR steamer fleet had become that of the London and North Eastern Railway in 1923, but low water at the base at Craigendoran prevented the use of propellers in its fleet – paddles had to suffice. Not until 1933 did the first motor powered vessels appear in the Clyde. By 1960, they dominated, helped by the ability to carry cars as well as people. This is the Queen Mary, the first motor vessel in the Clyde fleets.

In 1947, the LNER acquired its last new vessel before its fleet was absorbed into CSP. That last vessel was the Waverley, a 693 ton, 239 feet long paddle steamer powered by a triple expansion steam engine. She was built on the Clyde, of course, by A&J Inglis of Glasgow, and intended for the LNER’s summer service between Helensburgh, a prestigious resort on the north side of the Clyde, and Arrochar, 35 miles further north at the head of Loch Long, one of the lochs which flows into the Firth. The name was a traditional one, last used for a vessel built in 1899 that was lost in the Dunkirk evacuations of 1940, and derived from the first novel by Sir Walter Scott.

She was virtually identical to the most recent LNER vessel, the Jeanie Deans of 1931 (seen above in post war CSP colours) – post war pressures and the need to replace vessels lost in wartime naval service prevented any significant redesign. Not that the formula needed it, to be honest.

Waverley’s hull is steel, and her power comes from a triple expansion steam engine, originally coal fired and now converted to oil. Triple expansion means the steam is used successively in three cylinders of increasing size as the pressure drops, to maximise the power from each shovelful of coal. Boilers and engine were Scottish, of course, from Cochran of Annan (near Dumfries, in the south west) and Rankin and Blackmore of Greenock respectively. Power output is 2,100 indicated horsepower, enough to propel her at 14 knots. Passenger capacity is 925 – reduced from her early days by improved safety standards.

From 1953, Waverley began to spread her wings, with service around the Isle of Arran. But time was running out for the Clyde paddle steamers, and by 1970 only Waverley was left. She was finally withdrawn by CalMac in 1973, with the expectation of being scrapped.

But this in Britain, where there is thankfully always someone determined to preserve the last of the past. A group was formed – the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society – which acquired Waverley from CalMac for £1. She was restored in LNER red, black and white livery, and has since operated leisure cruises all along the Clyde, and around the coast of Britain – she is a regular visitor to London.

Lucky passengers can get up close to the triple expansion engines, and watch them in action.

Or maybe you prefer the open deck, fresh air and Clyde scenery?

But now the Waverley needs your help. Her boilers, last renewed 20 years ago, are life expired, and if future generations are to be able to experience the simple pleasure of a trip doon the watter on a Clyde steamer on a sunny day, amid the dramatic scenery of the west coast, £2.3m needs to be raised by the end of 2019.

As of today, over £800,000 had been donated, and the Scottish Government has just announced a grant of £1m, and parts are beginning to be ordered – including new boilers, from Cochrans of Annan, naturally.

But it isn’t too late to help preserve something special, which is why the beautiful painting that opened this post now has an urgent new message.