The Clyde’s Graving Docks



   Liverpool is credited with building the first dry dock in the UK in 1715 which cost £12,000, but it was not until 1762 that such a dock was built on the Clyde at Port Glasgow, and was the first in Scotland. Glasgow had built a wet dock at Port Glasgow, or Newark, as it was then called, which was under the jurisdiction and management of the Glasgow Town Council. It is recorded in the minutes of this Council that on April 27th, 1758 “the magistrates mentioned to the Council that a great many of the considerable traders in Glasgow had represented to them that a dry-dock at Port-Glasgow would be of great utility and advantage to the public, and to the trade of this place in particular, and that it would be right that if the Council would agree to lay out the charges of making the said dock from the common stock of the city, and for their repayment to be entitled to certain rent, tolls, or other duties from such vessels as had occasion to make use of the said dock. The  having considered the aforesaid proposal agreed that a dry-dock be made at Port-Glasgow and that the town shall defray the expenses and name the Magistrates, Dean of Guild, and the Deacon-Convener as a committee to meet with and to consult and take his advice as to the proper way and manner of making and building the dock and carrying the design into execution, and thereafter to proceed in the execution in such manner as they shall see proper, and to call such of the Council or traders in town as they shall think proper to meet with Mr Webb and them, and recommend to the Dean of Guild to call a meeting of the merchants’ house and to communicate the Council’s intention and have their opinion thereon.”

   Again, on September 29th, 1758 – “Approve of an agreement made by the Provost in August last with John Webb, ship carpenter in Irvine, as set down in a minute in writing now given in, and ordered the same to be entered in the  minute, which is as follows:- 1758, August: At a meeting with Mr Webb on affairs of the dry dock – present, the Provost, Baillie Speirs, Provost Cochrane, and Mr Colin Dunlop, it was concerted that Mr John Webb, ship carpenter in Irvine, should go to Liverpool and inform himself about the dry docks there and the dues payable by the shipping from thence to go to Wales and purchase a cargo of about a hundred tons of oak timber for the use of the dry-dock now building at Port-Glasgow, and to cause ship the same to Port-Glasgow. Mr Webb to be paid the cost, charges, and freight of the oak timber, and to be allowed for his expence and trouble in this affair thirty pounds sterling. Mr Webb to be agreed with to take the charge of the dry-dock at Port-Glasgow for seven years from its tome of its fitt to receive shipping, he being obliged to keep men to open the gates and attend the shipping when in the dock, to levy the dues and account for same, and to be allowed thirty five pounds yearly for his expence and trouble. Mr Webb refers to the Magistrates what gratuity he is to have for directing and overseeing the building of the proposed dry-dock; but the Council agree with this addition that Mr Webb be obliged to enter into contract with suritie for attendance on the docks and accounting to the Magistrates and for the produce or dues of the docks, in such manner as they shall think fitt to direct.”

   Contrary to various publications on the subject, there is no evidence that James Watt (1736-1819) advised on the construction of this dock. However, he did advise on improvements to Port Glasgow Harbour, west of the dry dock, in 1771, when he was 35. From May 15th to November 11th, 1761, the town council paid John Web £105 on account of the dry-dock, and advanced £400 to John Simpson, the builder. On October 5th, 1761, a committee of the of Glasgow magistrates met with John Webb, who stated that during the last three years he had been at a good deal of trouble and expence building the dock, amounting to £43, and thus it was agreed that he would accept 100 guineas as his recompense. 

   In 1762 the dock was opened, and was said to be fit to contain two vessels of 500 tons burthen each at one time. It was kept dry by means of a horse driven pump installed in April, 1768, by the engineer Robert McKell at a cost of £179 3/- “for his debursments and pains in erecting a horse engine, with two 10” pumps, for the dry dock at Port Glasgow, sinking a well, and driving a communication from said well to the dock, account dated 26th April, 1768.In September, 1770, John Smeaton was paid £5 5/- “for advice and direction in makeing a machine for emptying the dock at Port Glasgow of water.”

   In 1773 the Magistrates and Town Council of Glasgow agreed on the dues to be levied on vessels using the dock:- For each ship of 100 tons and under, for two tides to grave, the tide in and next tide out, £1 6s; for each ship 100 to 150 tons, £1 12s; 150 to 200 tons, £1 13s; for ships over 200 tons, £2 3s.

   In 1796 John Wood of Port Glasgow, who died in 1811, wrote to the Town Council advising that an engine should be erected to clear the dry dock of water. John Wood later proposed in February 20th, 1799 “for the accommodation of shipowners to cut a hole 5 or 6 inches diameter in the flood gate of the dry dock, and to insert a pipe into the said hole for the purpose of conveying water into the vessels in the dry dock after they are repaired in order to ascertain the sufficiency of repairs by trying wither the vessels will retain the water or not.” To which the Council granted Mr Wood permission. However, it was not until August, 1799, that the Glasgow magistrates agreed to fit a horse machine and pumps by William Aitken of Johnston for £132 10s, with the assistance of Captain Troop, manager of the dock at Port Glasgow.

   After reflooring the dock in 1805, the Glasgow magistrates were informed in 1807 that a further £700 would be required to make the dock efficient prompting the Glasgow magistrates to sell the dock and surrounding ground to Port Glasgow Town Council in 1808 for £2,700; what we may term today as a “Community buy-out.” Glasgow became a port of registry from 1809 onwards. The dock’s original dimensions were 256′ length of floor x 70′ wide at the top with 33′ wide gates and 10.5′ depth of water over the sill at spring tides. In 1834 a steam pump was installed by Watt and Boulton of Birmingham which enabled the dock to be pumped dry in about 6 hours after low water. In 1871 the dock was transferred to the Harbour Trust, who resolved to reconstruct the dock at a cost of £18,000. It was reopened in January, 1875, when the Burn’s steamer CAMEL, dressed overall, entered the dock amidst the cheers of hundreds of spectators. Bell & Miller designed the new dock and John Coghill were the contractors; the new dimensions becoming 325′ long x 45′ wide entrance x 15′ depth over the sill at spring tides. In 1898 new dock gates were fitted by S McKnight of Ayr costing £3645 2/9d and a further £1,000 was spent in 1900 when new boilers and Tangye pumps were fitted which permitted the dock to be pumped out in two hours.

   From 1888 the dock was leased to Russell & Co, then Anderson Rodger. In 1912 Russell & Co purchased the dock and Anderson Rodger and in 1916 lengthened the dock by 14 feet and fitted a travelling crane. Lithgows leased the dock from 1919 until 1935, when it was operated by James Lamont & Co., until it closed in 1966, when the last vessel, the TORCH, was docked.


   In 1783 a memorial was subscribed by the shipowners and merchants of Greenock to the Town Council asking that a dry dock was necessary and should be built. The council agreed to grant the subscribers a tack of the ground to the west of the mid-quay for 999 years or a feu right as memorialists should decide, at the same time stating that the money allocated by their Act of Parliament was not sufficient to meet the cost of building. Ultimately the feuars and inhabitants offered to pay the difference of cost to the extent of £584, and the scheme was proceeded with at an outlay of £4,000. The town advanced £200, and the Council took powers to take over the dock on payment of the money subscribed by the feuars. 

   The dock was opened in 1785, designed by James Watt and constructed by Hugh Kirkwood. The length inside the gates was 223’ 9” at coping level, 220 ft x 27 ft wide at floor level, 49’ 4” wide at coping level and 33’ 11” wide at entrance with a depth over the sill of 9’ 9”, dried at low water.

   About 1834 the Greenock Harbour Trust took over the dock from the proprietors, paying them £1200. During the Great War it was used for the construction of the 180′ x 31′ x 19′ concrete CRETEHUT in 1919.

   With the lease of the West Harbour to Harland & Wolff the harbour and dry dock were filled in commencing Oct 1922. The pumping machinery for emptying the dock now stands outside the McLean Museum.


   The first private dock to be built was constructed by John Scott, Greenock, who then occupied the shipyard at the West Burn, latterly Caird & Co and then Harland & Wolff’s yard in 1917. The dock was completed in September, 1802, measuring 270 ft long x 52 ft wide with a width at entrance of 36’ 0” and later owned by Caird & Co, situated next to the Westburn. 

   The opening was celebrated on Friday 10th September, when about 250 employees and guests sat down to a dinner at a single long table in the 200’ long spar shed. The entertainment was provided by the Paisley Volunteer Band. A 21 gun salute was given to the King, while the Queen and Royal Family had 9 guns and the other public toasts a gun each. After dinner, dancing commenced in the bottom of the dock, which was lit for the occasion and protected by an awning. Proceedings came to a close at 5am on Saturday morning.


   In 1809 an application was made to the Treasury that “the trade of Greenock holds a very conspicuous place in the commerce of the country, and seems to keep pace with the increase which is found to mark the most growing seaports in the Empire. We are very sensible to the extreme delicacy in obtruding on Government pretension for aid, and alive to the imputations which are frequently and erroneously cast both on its motive and end. Conscious, however, of the purity of our intention, and acting in all our operations under an open and vigilant control, we cannot allow any dread of misinterpretation to keep back our present application, which we know will be treated with judgment and candour . . . We are ambitious there should be a graving dock of such dimensions as to admit a ship of war of the largest size, nor can the essential advantages of which it might prove to His Majesty’s Service escape your Lordship’s discernment, since there is no dock of such magnitude either in Scotland or Ireland, or nearer to this part of the kingdom, we conceive, than Plymouth.” 

   It was a year and a half later after the presentation of the memorial before the Lords of the Treasury expressed their regret that they were unable to comply with requests. The disappointment was accentuated by the fact that the Treasury was willing to grant Liverpool a loan for a similar purpose, but being good Scotsmen the Greenockians had not lost faith in themselves and continued to strive for ways and means to get what they wanted. During the next few years efforts were made to raise money to build the dock, but without success. 

   Eventually the money was found by loans from shipowners and merchants of the town and the East Graving Dock was begun in 1818, and completed in 1823 at a cost of £20,000. At the time of the opening of the dock a newspaper said “There can be little doubt that in the future progress of the town it will be regarded, along with our harbours and other public erections, as a splendid proof of the spirit and the judgment which have prepared the way for assuring to Greenock a primary rank in the commercial ports of the United Kingdom.” It was formally opened on 31st January, 1823, when the “City of Glasgow” and “Majestic” steam packets were towed in, and afterwards a number of gentlemen were entertained onboard the “City of Glasgow,” and drank prosperity to the dock. The “City of Glasgow” b1822 and “Majestic” b1821 were completed by John Scott.

   This dock was 360’ 7” long at coping level, 356 feet 6” long at floor level and 56’ 2” wide at coping level and 31’ 6” at floor level with a width of 38’ wide at the entrance and having 11’ 10” depth of water at high tide which was entered via the East India Harbour, built 1809.

   James Lamont built a second dock north of this one in 1966, with dimensions 370 feet overall x 55’ x 18’ over the sill, termed No 1 Dock. East India Harbour and the 1823 dry dock were purchased by James Lamont in May 1969. Both dry docks were filled in during 2012.


   About 1830 Robert Steele opened a dock at his Cartsburn yard. This yard closed in July 1883 and not re-opened until Nov 1890 after Scott & Co purchased the yard when the dry dock was deepened by 3’ 6” to 16’ over the blocks at spring tides. In September 1860 this dock was re-opened after having been lengthened from 300 ft to 352 ft x 58’ wide at the cope level and width at entrance enlarged from 38’ 9” to 47’ 6”. Trafalgar House bought the company in 1984 and closed it down in 1993.


   Garvel Park estate was acquired in 1867 at a cost of £89,000. The Garvel Dry Dock at Greenock was begun in 1870. The foundation stone was laid on 6th July, 1871 and opened 1st April, 1874, when the 189 ft long, 1245 ton, wooden sailing ship “Princess Royal” entered the dock. The original length of floor at 515 feet was increased to 635 feet in 1876, breadth of timber floor 41 feet, breadth of dock bottom 68 feet, later 70’; breadth at entrance 60’ 6”, depth of water over the sill at low water 10’; entrance widened in 1932 to 69’ 0”. The dock floor slopes lengthwise 1 in 400. The entire cost of the works was £61,047. The design was by Walter Kinipple and constructed by John Kirk of Woolwich. Originally fitted with Mr Kinipple’s patent floating caisson, built by Hanna, Donald & Wilson of Paisley but later changed to hinged gates after the accident in July, 1881, when the caisson lifted and one man was drowned and 30 others were injured.


This dock was formerly opened by The Princess Royal, Countess of Harewood on 10th November, 1964 and was 7 years in the building. The dock cost £4.25m, is 1,000 ft long [gate to head] by 145 ft wide at entrance, depth of water over the sill is 37 ft at high water, it takes 2½ hours to empty and 1½ hours to fill and holds about 180,000 tonnes of water. The dock was initially utilised on 15th September, 1964 when the DEVONIA entered into it. A notch was arranged at the head of the dock in order to accommodate the 1031 foot long QUEEN ELIZABETH undergoing a 4 month re-fit in December, 1965. In 1967 Scott-Lithgow acquired the dock until 1989 when Clydeport purchased the site. In 1994 Clydeports were privatised and merged in 1994, in a £184m deal to form part of Peel Holdings plc. The dock is now operated by Cammell Laird, Birkenhead, a subsidiary of Peel Ports. It was latterly used by AMEC in 2009 for the construction of a 42,000 tonne floating quay, costing £150m having dimensions of 220 x 28 x 10.8m deep, for the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines at Faslane in the Gareloch. The cranes serving the dock were demolished in 2017. 


    This dock was completed by the James Lang, shipbuilder in June, 1820, with dimensions 250’ x 34’ x 7 to 10 feet depth. February 1836 the dry dock & shipyard was leased to Charles Wood. In July 1846 it was sold to Arch McMillan who enlarged it post 1860 to 300’ x 41’ entrance with 13’ water at spring tides and was able to accommodate William Denny’s ARCOT b1870 with dimensions 300′ x 33′ x 16′ 10 draught in 1884 for re-fitting. This was the last vessel to be docked before it was filled-in in 1894.


   It was not until 1858 that a dry dock was constructed on the upper reaches by Todd & McGregor at their yard at Meadowside, where the River Kelvin spills into the Clyde. The site is on the orchard of the Old Bishop’s Castle, which stood nearby. The dock was opened 28th January, 1856, at 500’ overall length x 46’ 6” extreme breadth with 18” over the sill, inclination 1 in 341. It was acquired in 1872 by the ship-owners Handyside & Henderson who set up a separate operating company D&W Henderson & Co., Shipbuilders & Marine Engineers. In 1922 the lower alters were removed and the dock width increased to 54’ 6” and later to 61 ft. In 1928 floor was dropped 12” to form a well at the centre. The shipyard closed in 1935 but the dry dock continued to operate until 1962 and was then filled-in.


   In 1868 the Clyde Trust got a bill granting them power to construct dry docks. These were built at what was then the old village of Govan. The first dock, having dimensions of 551’/570’oa x 72’ x 22’ 10” depth over the sill at HW was opened on 11th December; the second at 575’ x 57’ x 22’ 10” depth completed in 1886, their respective costs being £134,800 and £108,200. The third dock, costing £214,000 to construct, was 880’ x 83’ x 26’ 6” depth over the sill with a mid length division was opened 27th April, 1898. The caissons for all of these docks were constructed by Hanna, Donald & Wilson at their Atlas Works in Paisley. The docks were sold to Alexander Stephen, Shipbuilder, about 1960. In April, 1977 they were re-sold to Clydedock Engineering Ltd which closed in 1987. Remarkable, these docks have not yet been filled-in.


   This dock was constructed by John Shearer, shipbuilder, known as No 1 Dock, and inaugurated in May 1904 when the PS JUNO was dry docked, length at top of cope 524’ 9”, 53’ wide dock floor (68’ at top of cope) with 6” camber, depth of water over sill 20’, inclination 1 in 400. Barclay, Curle & Co. purchased this dock in 1912. Early in the morning of the 8th February, 1913 during a storm, the dock caisson lifted, flooding the dock in 10 minutes and drowning 11 men working on the ss PASCAL which had some shell plates off for repair. The second dock [No 2], to the south and east, was commenced 5th October, 1931, and completed 16th January, 1933 at a cost of £450,000: length 627’ ft, 85’ wide and 28’ depth of water over the sill, inaugurated by the ss ULYSSES in March, 1933. The third dock, to the north and west of No 1 dock, was opened in April, 1965 and cost about £1.6M, length 680’, width 95’ and depth of water over the sill of 245. Yarrow Shipbuilders Ltd. purchased the 3 docks in 1974 and they are now owned by BAe Systems].               


This dry dock was constructed within the wet harbour about 1845 to the design of Mr Moffat CE at 260’ long x 35’ wide entrance and depth over the sill of 14’ 6”. In 1912 the dry dock was enlarged to 310’ x 38’ x 14’ 6” over the sill and again in 1919 to 341’ x 47’ with a depth over the sill of 17’. The Dockyard closed in 1964.


The Duke of Portland built the first dry dock at the south east corner of the outer harbour which was completed on 9th September, 1813, at 220’ x 24’ having a depth over the sill of 8’ 6” to 11’ 6” at spring tides. The second dry dock at 250’ x 36’ 9” with 13’ over the sill at spring tides was completed by 24th October, 1817. This dock was later lengthened to 295’ and referred to as No 1 Dock. This dry dock has now been abandoned. The first dock was filled in during 1897 and No 2 dry dock was completed adjacent to it by 29th June, 1899 at 374’ x 48’ 0” width of entrance with 17’ 0” depth over sill. The wet and dry docks are now owned by Associated British Ports. The larger No 2 Dry Dock was refurbished in 2002 and is now operated by Garvel Clyde Ltd. while No 1 dock has been abandoned.

[Craig Osborne 3-1-2018]