The story of Helensburgh's piers

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A MASTERPLAN was proposed in 2012 for future development of the area around Helensburgh pier. It is an area which features heavily in the history of the burgh.

Around the time that Helensburgh came into being, there seem to have been several landing places in the vicinity, if not actually proper piers.

There was a ferry-house at the mouth of the Glennan Burn, one at Drumfork Ferry to the east, and yet another near the boundary to the west, at Neddy's Point, now Kidston Park. However, several sources imply that there was nothing on the site of the present pier at that time.

With the elevation of Helensburgh to burgh status in 1802, the matter of an adequate pier moved up the political and commercial agenda.

A feuing plan drawn up around this time depicts a massive harbour at the seafront, serving to remind that a map need not only show what exists on the ground, but may also represent something of a wish-list, since no such structure was there then, nor indeed subsequently.

According to a number of writers, there was indeed a plan at this formative stage to construct a good harbour, and there seems little doubt that it was in anticipation of this being brought about that the portrayal on the map arose.

A Government grant of £1,500 was available, although conditional upon the community raising a matching sum. But the total raised in this way fell short by £400, so the scheme fell through. However, the concept seems to have remained alive for many years afterwards, and as late as the 1830s a map was produced still depicting a similar harbour.

When Maligs Town was created in 1776, it was envisaged as a centre for trades and crafts such as bonnet-makers and weavers, so from a purely commercial viewpoint, provision of a suitable pier or harbour might have seemed to make economic sense.

The idea of a harbour, as opposed to a simple pier or jetty, might have particularly appealed, given the exposed nature of the seafront, especially to winds from the south or the west.

It may be significant that the 1812 advert announcing the start of sailings by Bell's pioneering steamship, the Comet, specified that the service would operate between the Broomielaw in Glasgow, and Greenock, although it does go on to state that sailing vessels would convey passengers from Greenock to Helensburgh Baths.

Since one of the motivating factors for Bell was the boosting of his business at the Baths Hotel, it is likely that had there been a decent quay or jetty in existence on Helensburgh seafront, then that would have been the destination for the Comet, rather than Greenock.

But as some of the anticipated down-river traffic was expected to be with Greenock and Port Glasgow, perhaps that could have been a consideration in setting out the advert.

According to the late Brian Osborne's book, “The Ingenious Mr Bell”, John Robertson, builder of the Comet's engine, said that at weekends, the Comet was taken over to Helensburgh.

Osborne suggests that this arrangement may have served both to avoid the paying of pier dues, and to allow for maintenance and repair.

Comet-at-old-pierIt seems possible that a pile of stones on the foreshore near the foot of Hanover Street could represent a landing place that served for this purpose.

An engraving by Joseph Swan, dating from the 1830s, shows a vessel moored at what appears to be a stone jetty, a little to the east of the Baths Hotel, and this could well coincide with the remains at Hanover Street.

One of the key features of the paddle steamer is its shallow draught, and for a small steamer like the Comet, it is possible that it could have berthed successfully at such a site, even if the stone jetty had not been there initially.

Certainly, in the case of the small sailing vessels then employed in the coastal trade, like gabberts and wherries, flat bottoms and shallow draughts permitted them to be beached easily at low tide.

Whether this was the case with the earliest paddle steamers is not clear, but it is a possibility, so long as the paddles and their boxes were safeguarded.

Many of the early steamers had a tender in tow, for the setting down and picking up of passengers where no suitable pier or jetty existed, and perhaps at Helensburgh, a mooring and tender were used initially.

Several sources give the date of building the first known structure on the site of the present pier as 1816. This was of very rudimentary design.

Gabriel MacLeod, whose family moved to Helensburgh in the early years of the 19th century, recalled that it consisted of a “rude stone quay of the most primitive description, with an area striking off from it to the east at a right angle, the whole contrivance being a frail ruckle of stones”. Some improvement works were carried out in 1822, but these appear to have been limited.

In the 1830s the pier was said to be in such a bad state that a large cart had to be used if passengers were to come ashore without wet feet. It was claimed that many travellers so disliked Helensburgh Pier that they preferred to take the steamer to Rhu Pier and then walk back to Helensburgh! It was even described as one of the most wretched in Scotland.

The 1865 second edition of Battrum's Guide to Helensburgh states that until 1834, the pier came under the control of a committee of subscribers. On that date, the then Provost, James Smith, through his “enterprise and liberality”, negotiated, on behalf of the Town Council, the purchase from a Henry Taylor of a piece of ground to the south-east of the pier.

The Guide goes on to explain that the original idea was to use this ground for the holding of a bazaar, or market, but that this concept was overtaken by an offer in 1834 on the part of Sir James Colquhoun, grandson of the town's founder.

This was to grant to the Town Council all the vacant land eastward to the Granary, on condition that it was kept clear for future improvement of the pier and accommodation of passengers.

The original subscribers, realising that they had no right of property in the pier, transferred their management to the Town Council in the hope of an improved and enlarged pier and harbour being erected.

In 1846 there was a plan to build a railway to Helensburgh. Had that plan come to fruition, the intention was to have the terminus at, or near the pier. On a copy of a town map dating from about 1838, someone has written and sketched in some further details in pencil.

These details include the naming of some streets, such as Edinburgh Street, but in the context of the railway plan of 1846, they show a line coming in towards the town centre from the east, and ending at the pier.

Despite the change in administration, the condition of the pier continued to leave much to be desired.

According to the well-known author, Hugh MacDonald, in his 1853 book “Days at the Coast”, the pier was “shabby and incommodious; in fact utterly unworthy of the locality, and an eyesore and an annoyance to every visitor.

“In certain states of the weather, it is positively dangerous, and it is to be hoped, for the credit alike of the feudal superior and of the local authorities, that it may soon be numbered among the things that were, and a structure adequate to the traffic be erected in its stead.”

However, not everyone saw the nature of the pier in the same unfavourable light. The anonymous work “The Story of Helensburgh” — actually penned in 1894 by the Town Clerk, George MacLachlan — tells us that, notwithstanding the perils that had to be endured by travellers in stumbling over the slippery cobble stones, “we remember that old pier as a haunt of boyhood at holiday times.

“There, juveniles gathered....and fished for poodlies and small flounders. In the many crevices of the dyke, there lay in ambush certain gigantic eels, which thrust out their heads from their holes, and snatched any tempting baits at the end of the boys' lines.

“Then the juvenile fisher was thrilled with sudden awe as the eel retreated with its prey, and gave a sudden jerk to the line, which returned to the owner minus hook and bait.”

Pressure was building for a major improvement of facilities. With the arrival of the railway in 1858, the population was growing rapidly, while in addition the heyday of the Clyde passenger steamer was approaching its zenith.

As well as the coming of the railway, there was an increase in the demand for steamer services, especially in the form of ferry provision, as commuting to work was now becoming a realistic option.

Helensburgh-old-pier-1848Work on a new quay began in 1859, and in January of the following year, the Dumbarton Herald was able to report that the new facility was a great advance on the previous, though some improvements were still required.

This measure of improvement is reflected in the description given in Battrum's Guide, as this refers to a “tolerable pier”, going on to state that the need for a harbour had diminished in the wake of the arrival of the railway.

This was an era of heavy usage of the pier. The Dumbarton Herald of June 1866 commented that there were sometimes no fewer than three steamers at Helensburgh at the same time.

The first steamer sailed at 8am from the pier, and these continued on an hourly basis until 7.30pm, with a daily total of eleven sailings each way.

The traffic was not confined to passenger use. Although by this period the boom years of the herring fishing industry seemed long gone, the shoals returned to the Clyde in huge numbers in 1868 and 1869.

By late September, 1869, the herring fishing on the Gareloch and the Firth had started, and the English buyers had begun arriving.

At first, with about 100 boats operating between Helensurgh and Cardross alone, the catches were not spectacular, with boats averaging around 500 fish, but once into October, catches had increased, and towards the end of that month, it was reported in the Dumbarton Herald that boats were being overloaded with herring, often to a dangerous degree.

As a result, up to 80 tons of herring a day were being landed at Helensburgh alone, where it was transfer to rail. At least one boat approaching the pier actually sank because of the weight of fish.

The boats numbered in their many hundreds, including vessels from the East Coast, using the Forth and Clyde Canal, and Belfast. But by the early 1870s the shoals had declined once again.

There was something of an Indian Summer for the Clyde herring fishery in 1934, when once again large shoals appeared, but although numbers were large, the size was small.

However, many boats converged on Helensburgh Pier, and there exist several classic photographs from this occasion, showing boats tied up and men repairing their nets.

In 1871, a new wooden landing-stage was installed at the end of the pier. As well as the structure itself, attention was now also turning to matters like the state of the streets, which could be very muddy at times, and in 1876, causewayed crossings were installed by the Town Council at various places, including those used by steamer passengers.

It was around this time too, that the North British Railway began to reveal plans for more integration between rail and steamer services.

This may well have been prompted in part by increasing customer expectations, but was almost certainly also the result of the rivalry with other providers, like the Caledonian Railway. These large companies now operated their own fleets of steamers.

In 1873, there was a proposal for a railway pier at Drumfork, but this was successfully opposed by the Town Council and Sir James Colquhoun.

In 1877, there was another proposal by the North British, this time to extend the railway to the existing pier, which would be extensively re-developed. Once more, the idea was rejected, although opinion was divided. William Kidston was particularly active in opposing the scheme.

The railway company felt that a better outcome was essential to its ambitions, and by 1882, a solution had been found through the formation of Craigendoran Pier, which had the capacity to run trains on to the pierhead.

This development led to an appreciable decline in the relative importance of Helensburgh Pier, although steamers did continue to call there until the start of the 1950s.

Nevertheless, the pier did manage to continue as a significant part of the local landscape. In 1896, pier dues were abolished, and this is said to have resulted in a 'wine and cake' celebration in the burgh.

Although a welcome move for passengers, who no longer had to pay when landing or embarking, it did represent a significant drop in income for the recipients — in 1877, this had amounted to £1,250.

The right to collect dues was the result of an annual bidding process, or roup. All the Gareloch piers were privately owned, with pier dues payable.

There was a rather curious event in June 1898, which in the way it unfolded seemed an echo of events almost half-a-century earlier.

In August 1853, there had occurred the famous so-called “Battle of Garelochhead”. A steamer, the Emperor, which had already called at Helensburgh on Sunday August 21, steamed up the Gareloch to the village pier,and this was angrily opposed by those wishing to keep the Sabbath sacrosanct. Sir James Colquhoun even barricaded the pier to prevent passengers from landing.

Now, in this new situation at Helensburgh, a Sunday steamer was once more about to call, and an expectant crowd had gathered on the pier.

In anticipation, the Commissioners barricaded the structure to prevent the movement of people, while Superintendent Cameron was present with a number of police officers to help keep the peace. The crowd was asked to disperse, but declined to do so.

In the event, the steamer did not make the call, although it did so without resistance at Princes Pier at Greenock and Rothesay.

The Helensburgh and Gareloch Times of June 22 stated that the steamer had hundreds on board, and that where landings had been made, hotels and cafes had done a roaring trade.

Another article in the same issue deplored Sunday sailings, and expressed the fear that the Scottish Sabbath could come to be like the Continental Sunday, were such practices allowed to go unchecked.

It was also around this time that a handsome sandstone archway was constructed at the entranceway, to the design of Robert Wemyss, and it may be that the set of adjacent buildings, on the site of the present toilets, were also built at this time. Sadly, this fine archway was removed in 1965.

It was also around this time that the use of the pier and its surroundings for purely recreational purposes assumed a heightened importance. Old photographs from the period show large numbers of rowing boats, available for hire, although this had probably been the case for some time past.

New-Year-swimThe famous New Year's Day Swim at Helensburgh Pier goes back at least as far as 1910, and possibly further. Since the 1970s, however, this has been moved to Rhu Marina, for safety reasons.

According to the 2002 Helensburgh Heritage Trust book “200 Years of Helensburgh”, an annual swim from the training ship Empress, anchored off Rhu, to Helensburgh was instituted in 1912, and continued for many years.

Another legendary swim mentioned in the book was that staged annually between Craigendoran and Helensburgh Piers. It began in 1949, and seems to have been a victim of the closure of Craigendoran Pier in 1973.

Nearby, there were all sorts of other leisure pursuits to be enjoyed. Apart from walking or sitting by the promenade, there were sand-castle building competitions and donkey rides for the young, and paddling and swimming when hot weather arrived.

Custom-built facilities included the Bandstand (1902), the Putting Green (1925), and of course the outdoor Swimming Pool (1929).

As far as use for its original purpose is concerned, the life of the pier proved not to be so carefree. The writing had been on the wall ever since the opening of Craigendoran Pier, but some usage by steamers had continued, especially while the Gareloch service remained.

However, ever-improving roads and road transport were proving a deadly combination, compounded by the rising maintenance and overhead costs of running vessels like steamers. The onset of World War Two provided a further challenge, and as this went on, the Gareloch became virtually a no-go area for civilian traffic.

The steamer most associated with the Gareloch run, the Lucy Ashton (below left), did survive the various ups and downs to celebrate her diamond jubilee in 1948, but by the following year she had been sold off and was used for experiments with jet engines before being scrapped in 1951.

This effectively sounded the death knell for Helensburgh as a steamer call, with the pier being closed to steamers in 1952, partly because of falling passenger numbers and partly because of silting up, which still causes problems today.

However a lifeline was thrown out by smaller operators. Indeed, and quite possibly in anticipation of the eventual withdrawal of steamer services, plans were announced in 1947 for a Helensburgh-Greenock ferry service, suitable for use by vehicular traffic, but this never materialised.

Lucy-Ashton-at-Hel-pierThe following year, another plan was revealed, this time for a non-vehicle ferry, but one that would operate between Helensburgh and Greenock on an hourly basis from 8am-10pm, seven days a week.

Although once more this does not appear to have materialised, what did succeed was an offer by Ritchie Brothers of Gourock to operate a passenger service that linked Helensburgh with the existing Gourock-Kilcreggan run already provided by them.

As from 1950, this triangular arrangement was in place, albeit with only a summer service to Helensburgh.

Using a number of smallish vessels, the Ritchie Brothers were able to berth at Helensburgh Pier under most conditions, although it was not a commuter-type frequency of service, in contrast to the Gourock-Kilcreggan run.

As well as being vulnerable to windy conditions, Helensburgh has always suffered from a tendency for silting up to occur.

Immensely experienced ferrymasters, the Ritchies, who had already been operating the Gourock-Kilcreggan ferry for some time, were able to maintain the Helensburgh run until the time of Roy Ritchie's death in 1979.

Many will remember with affection the use of vessels like the Granny Kempock and the Countess of Kempock, historic craft in their own right.

The successor to Roy Ritchie was Clyde Marine Motoring of Greenock, who continued to operate the Gourock-Kilcreggan-Helensburgh service until 2012.

Like their predecessors, they employed extremely experienced and competent crews, and like the Ritchies, they too employed a variety of historic vessels, like the Kenilworth and the Second Snark. Later they used a modern vessel, the Seabus, which had very generous seating capacity.

However in 2012 Strathclyde Passenger Transport awarded the Kilcreggan-Greenock contract to a new company, Clydelink, who then axed the Helensburgh service.

From time to time, other plans were revealed. In 1962, there was talk of a service linking Helensburgh, Clynder, and Rosneath Caravan Park, but this did fell through. In 1965, a hovercraft service was initiated, but problems soon emerged, both technical and with regard to suitable landing-places.

A key problem for those contemplating a service to and from Helensburgh is the lack of passengers. As far back as 1964, Roy Ritchie was revealing a big falling-off in the number of people using the service, a trend that continued until the service ceased.

On several occasions, plans were announced that, had they gone ahead, could have affected the pier to a greater or lesser extent. There have been calls on at least two occasions for a barrage to be built right across the Clyde Estuary, and it would not be at all surprising if this concept should again come up for discussion.

In September 1978 the paddle steamer Waverley made a call at Helensburgh, the first by such a vessel for many years.

This was made possible through the efforts of a conservation body, the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society, and since that historic occasion, the vessel has continued to make regular summer calls at the pier.

Shallow in draught like all paddle steamers, the large size of the vessel does nevertheless require dredging of the approaches, while the enormous running costs mean that her continuing survival necessitates generous grant aid and donations.

Just along the seafront from Helensburgh Pier, its previously dominant counterpart at Craigendoran had suffered a spectacular collapse in its fortunes. By the 1960's, it was becoming clear that the glory days were long gone.

As well as the relentless march towards the alternative of road transport, Craigendoran, which had always been fairly reliant on holiday traffic, saw this side steadily slip away in the wake of the growth of cheap Continental package holidays.

Deep cuts were made in services, but it was clear that this was not enough, and by 1973, all services were terminated. However, with the closure of the pier, it is doubtful if Helensburgh Pier derived much, if any, extra business as a result.

The existence and function of Helensburgh Pier has been overshadowed in recent years by ongoing controversy over use of adjacent areas. Here, there have been many changes in the built landscape.

General-Booth-at-pier-wIn 1968 a start was made to infilling a large area of the foreshore to the east of the pier to create a car park. Work on this was finally completed at the end of 1973.Three years later an indoor swimming pool was built close to the outdoor pool, the latter closing soon after.

The site of the outdoor pool was cleared in 1996, and a play area created in its place, which is now a skateboard facility.

Most of the today's controversy centres on development, or otherwise, of the large car park area.

While some envisage new buildings such as a supermarket, houses, and leisure facilities, others see things wish to maintain the present open vistas, with building work being perhaps restricted to a visitor and heritage centre and a replacement swimming pool.

There have also been plans for a highway to be built along Helensburgh seafront. In October 1971 the idea was floated in the context of road improvements on the main road between Dumbarton and Helensburgh.

It would certainly be a sad day if the survival of the pier itself were ever to be in doubt. What changes, and what comings and goings it has witnessed over the years — as well as all manner of people, including the high-born, like HRH Princess Louise, the famous, like General Booth of the Salvation Army (above right), and even the infamous, like Madeleine Smith.