A 2 part article on Clyde Ferries at Glasgow by Michael Humphries C.B.A. member

Introduction to the history of Clyde Ferries at Glasgow

Early river crossings.

In ‘Ferries in Scotland’ (1988) Marie Weir suggested that prior to the seventeenth century there were fewer than two hundred river bridges in the whole of Scotland. Much of the following is taken from her book. In 1350, a new stone bridge was built over the Clyde in the centre of Glasgow, but general investment in bridge building did not begin seriously until the beginning of the 19th Century.  Before then, the only means of crossing rivers was by fording or using ferry boats. In the mid-eighteenth century, women known as ‘ford women’, transported passengers and goods on their backs after ‘tucking up their garments to an indecent height’ and wading from ferry boats to land.

The growth of Glasgow, which became a royal burgh in 1175 and acquired a cathedral in 1197, stimulated communications with the villages of Govan, Renfrew and Dumbarton resulting in the establishment of recognized crossings over the Clyde. Obviously it was safer to ford at points where shoals had accumulated. In deeper water, ferry crossings were established at various locations including Bowling, Old Kilpatrick, Renfrew, Yoker and Govan, as well as further downriver at Greenock, Cloch Point, Dunoon and Helensburgh. 

The shallowness of the river at Renfrew on the south side and Yoker on the north side allowed men and horses to wade across at the point which became known as the Marlin Ford. At high tide a floating raft was used for the deeper sections, and gradually through regular use and custom, a proper ferry came into being. In 1614 the right of ferry was included in the charter granted to the town of Renfrew by James VI. 

In the estuary, the most important crossing was between Dunoon and Cloch, and another important crossing was between Dunoon and Inverkip. In the 18th. Century the increasing cattle trade from the western Isles to the markets of Greenock, Gourock and Glasgow made this a very busy route. The ‘right to ferry’ is generally within the gift of the land owner, and the first record relating to the Dunoon to Cloch ferry is in a sasine dated 1618 in which Alexander Campbell was granted the lands of Dunoon, together with the right of ferry, by the Earl of Argyll. The right of ferry sometimes included a cottage which could be used as an inn and general ‘watering hole’ by the ferryman, and the ferrymen at Cloch were renowned for keeping the best small-still whiskey. At both sides of this passage, the boat had to beach on the shore. By 1767 the volume of traffic was demanding that something better was required in the way of boarding, and as the volume of traffic increased generally on the Firth, lights were erected to show the passage of the ferries at night. A lighthouse at Cloch was built in 1797 and was manned by a Greenock river pilot, Allan McLean. Even after the arrival of steam, rowing boats at first had to be used to convey passengers ashore. It took some time before a pier 130 yards long was built at Dunoon, allowing people, animals and vehicles to access the ferry directly. In 1820, the Dunoon to Cloch crossing was replaced by a Greenock/Dunoon route, although a smaller passenger service between Cloch and Dunoon continued.

Further up-river, there was the West Ferry from Erskine to Dumbarton, mainly for foot passengers, and the East Ferry (or Ferry of Erskine) near the village of Kilpatrick, which carried horses and vehicles as well as foot passengers. Trade in Glasgow by the late 18th. Century was expanding rapidly and the local council had employed the engineer John Golborne to deepen the bed of the Clyde to allow shipping to gain access to the heart of the city. In 1777 Lord Blantyre, who had succeeded the Earls of Mar as proprietor of the Erskine ferry, complained that this deepening of the channel was causing silting-up of the approaches to the ferry quays on both sides of the river. Blantyre demanded that several loads of stone be deposited to re-form the river bed which had been undermined by the excavations. In 1778 Glasgow Town Council paid Blantyre £40 compensation, and new quays were built at the ferry. The engineering improvements continued, as did the battles between Lord Blantyre (and his successor) and the Town Council (and its successor in the form of Clyde Navigation Trust). The Lords of Blantyre seem to have had a history of disputes of one sort or another. In 1867 the then Lord Blantyre was in dispute with Daniel Broadley, who had set up an illegal ferry service near West Ferry in competition with the Paton family, who had been tacksmen of the West Ferry for over 160 years. Broadley was found guilty of encroaching upon Lord Blantyre’s right of ferry and fined £16.11.2d.

In 1760 Alexander Spiers, a successful tobacco merchant, bought the lands of King’s Inch close to the Renfrew ferry landing place, and across which the ferry traffic continued to pass. Spiers built a splendid mansion, which was completed in 1782, the year of his death. Alexander’s son, Archibald, subsequently became so distressed at the increasing flow of traffic close to his home, that he proposed to Renfrew Town Council that they move the ferry half-a-mile to the west. In return, he would erect two new quays, a ferry house, new access roads and stabling for six horses. The Council accepted and contributed towards the purchase of a new ferry boat. The Reverend Thomas Burns noted in his Statistical Account ‘There is now a most complete ferry boat, built by subscription, purposely for carriages, in which, by means of a rope fixed upon each side of the river and running upon four rollers, two fixed at each end of the boat, one placed in a horizontal direction and the other perpendicular, any carriage with a pair of horses, can easily be boated and carried over by one man in five minutes.  

Into the 19th Century

The following is a summary of the information contained in the Scotcities website  www.scotcities.com/railways/ferries.htm to which I would refer readers since it contains some interesting historical images. 

By 1850 a total of 11 ferries are listed, three of them shown on a map of that year, adjacent to the area of Windmill croft, the site of the Kingston Dock. They are the York Street Ferry (York Street to West Street)

Clyde Street Ferry (Clyde Street, Anderston to Springfield Quay)

Hyde Park Ferry (Hydepark Street to Springfield Quay). 

Continuing Downstream from east to west, the remaining 8 ferries listed are:

Stobcross Ferry (Finnieston Quay to Mavisbank Quay)

Finnieston Ferry (Finnieston Quay to Mavisbank Quay)

Kelvinhaugh Ferry(Yorkhill Quay to Princes Dock)

Govan Ferry (Ferry Road, Partick to Water Row, Govan)

Meadowside Ferry (Meadowside Street, Partick to Holm Street, Govan)

Whiteinch Ferry (James Street, Whiteinch to Holmfauld Road, Linthouse)

Renfrew Ferry (Yoker to Renfrew)

Erskine Ferry (Dunbartonshire to Renfrewshire)

Following a fatal accident involving the Clyde Street ferry on November 30th 1864, in which 19 lives were lost when the open boat capsized having been caught in the wash of a passing steamer, the public and the press were highly critical of the authorities responsible for the management of the crossings, and steam ferries were subsequently introduced.

Six steamers were built in 1884 to ply up-and-down river serving as ferries. These passenger steamers were known as ’Cluthas’ and by 1899 there were twelve plying between Victoria Bridge and Whiteinch Ferry. There were 11 landing stages on the route, alternately placed to suit both sides of the river. The full distance covered was about three miles, the whole journey took 45 minutes, and the charge was one penny. 

Also by 1899, all cross river ferries were by steam vessels, including two (at Finnieston and Govan) which were capable of carrying vehicles in addition to passengers. 

MH 2/1/15

Clyde Ferries Part 2

Into the 20th Century.

The massive expansion of the city population, and the industrial growth on which it was based during the 19th Century, was of course underpinned by the development of the docks and the management of the river during that period. The restricted navigation in the river meant that the growth of Greenock and Port Glasgow was essential for handling the increasing international trade. 

The increase in the city’s population which was generating more waste was contributing to the silting up in the river, so the long-standing and vexed question since the 18th Century, of the deepening of the channel was ever more regularly being discussed. The 1st Clyde Navigation Act received Royal Assent from George II in 1759. The implementation of such Acts was the responsibility of magistrates and local Councils who had to negotiate the minefield of the many vested interests of landowners, merchants, industrialists and the general population etc. In Part 1 of this article (Clydebuilt March 2015) I referred to Lord Blantyre’s disputes in 1777 with the local council regarding the Erskine Ferry. In 1854 his son continued the family tradition by complaining to the Clyde Navigation Trust (established by the Act of 1858 to replace the former River Improvement Trust which had been set up to co-ordinate the activities of the magistrates and councillors). 

The complaints were essentially to do with the insufficient regard being paid by the Trustees to the long established rights of the crossings, in particular with reference to damage to the slips of his Erskine Ferry. These arguments continued until 1866, when Lord Blantyre switched his attack to the operations of the dredgers. The accepted method of disposal of the spoil was at sea but Blantyre insisted that whatever was dredged from in front of his land should be returned to his land. After referral to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, and subsequently to the House of Lords, it was  eventually decided in favour of the Trustees.

Undaunted, Blantyre continued his attacks on the Trust, blaming them for ‘the wilderness of waters – a chaos – a negation of all engineering principles’ between Dalmuir and Bowling, as a result of the Trust concentrating their efforts on the upper reaches of the harbour. The disputes between the Trust and the 11th and 12th Lords Blantyre finally ended at the death in 1901 of the 12th baron, there not being a 13th to inherit the title.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, although provision for foot traffic was deemed to be satisfactory, the Trust was coming under increasing pressure to increase the provision for vehicular traffic, particularly in the harbour area. In 1878 the Trust was granted permission to operate a ferry at Finnieston capable of carrying vehicles, but its implementation was delayed by lengthy discussions about possible bridge alternatives. Finally, in 1890, a design was sought for a suitable boat which would address the issues of the tidal range, avoiding interference with quays, or obstructing the waterway with a chain, as at Govan. The innovative solution was provided by Wm. Simons & Co., utilising a platform suspended from high girders which could be raised or lowered (powered by steam winches) at all levels of the tide and capable of carrying up to 8 carts and 300 passengers. It was double-ended with twin screws at both bow and stern, thus avoiding the need to turn in the river. It was an immediate success, and in 1905 a second one was ordered for a new route at Whiteinch, followed in 1912 by a third to replace the chain ferry at Govan.

Having acquired the chain ferries at Erskine in 1904 and at Renfrew in 1911, the Trust became the owners of all 5 vehicular ferries.

The Trust also operated the Clutha (up and down) services to which I referred in Part 1 of this article. The proposal to run a service along the length of the harbour was first put forward in the 1870s as a commercially viable alternative to the horse-drawn buses which clearly had a substantial market of passengers. The Clutha service was begun in 1884 and by 1896 twelve vessels were employed on the three-and-a-half mile route between Stockwell Street Bridge and Whiteinch. The vessels were called Clutha No.1, No.2, No.3, etc. and by the mid 1890s they were being used by 2 to 3 million passengers per year. In 1898 the introduction of electric tramcars signalled the demise of the Cluthas, and they were discontinued in 1903. The Trustees retained Clutha No. 1 as a messenger boat for the harbour workshops’ staff and No. 4 as an inspection boat and a launch for visitors, renaming it the Comet. It was scrapped in 1946. 

Much of the foregoing, including the image of the ferry at Finnieston, was sourced from ‘The Clyde-the making of a river’ by John Riddell, 1979, first published as ‘Clyde Navigation’.