ONE of the highlights of the Bicentenary celebrations in Helensburgh is the Henry Bell and the Comet Exhibition, lovingly compiled in 2002 by Bell enthusiast Doris A.Gentles, BA, and revived and augmented for this occasion.
It is in the exhibition area upstairs at Helensburgh Library in West King Street until the end of October, and also on display are a number of relevant works of art lent by the local Anderson Trust Collection.
A fascinating presentation by Mrs Gentles is projected on to a wall at the west end of the building, and can also be seen on a large screen TV in the Trust’s Heritage Room, where there is a large scale model of the Comet. It tells the Bell story, including original plans of both the steamer and the hotel, which is also pictured as it was in its early days.
Many will not know that Bell, an early exponent of tourism, also ran a coach service from Glasgow to the hotel several times a week, driven by his brother, Tammas. It has been said that the length of time this journney took was one of the reasons Bell was determined to introduce steamship travel.
The presentation reveals that some people believed that the Comet’s funnel was made of brick, but of course it was metal. It contains well known images of the Comet, but also of two old lamps which testify to the high quality Bell wanted inside the vessel.
The sinking of both Comets are covered, and it is revealed that both a street and a ship were named after Henry Bell.
A large photo of John Bishop Murray accompanies an account of how he performed the official unveiling when the Comet flywheel and anvil was moved to the East Bay from Hermitage Park at the time of the burgh’s own bicentenary in 2002.
The enormous scale of the celebrations in 1912 and 1962 are described, together with the erection of the obelisk on West Clyde Street in 1872 at a cost of £800. Full marks must go to Argyll and Bute Council for their recent refurbishment of the obelisk and the area surrounding it, which is now looking immaculate.
A display of books includes early volumes about Bell, and others about Clyde steamship travel from his day to the present day. There are a number of display panels, like the one pictured (right). They contain a mass of information about the Bells, their descendants, the two Comets, and other key figures in the development of steamships and their engines.
Among the many copies of old documents are Bell’s birth and marriage certificates, and promissory notes he wrote to his suppliers.
There is also an account from the Glasgow Courier of October 22 1825, headed “Dreadful Accident!”, giving a dramatic account of the sinking of the second Comet off Kempock Point while on route from Fort William to Glasgow.
In “A Full and Authentic account of the Dreadful and Fatal Accident”, it states: “She was suddenly struck by the Steam Boat Ayr and instantly went down, by which melancholy circumstance, SEVENTY human beings were in a single moment precipitated into Eternity!!!”
The Comet II was salvaged and brought to the beach, and was later used as a sailing vessel. The first Comet was lost in a storm on Loch Craignish on December 13 1820, being swept on to the rocks. Although it was almost a mile and a half of rough terrain from the nearest road, parts of the engine and other items were salvaged.
It was recorded by the late J.Arnold Fleming that when the first Comet steamed down the Firth, “her tall funnel, pouring forth black smoke, was regarded by some as the work of the Devil.”
In fact it was the dawn of a new era of travel.