Wednesday 28 July 2021

The wreck of the Comet 2021

Comet in Port Glasgow has been reduced to a total wreck. 

This little ship, built in 1962 by shipbuilding apprentices in Port Glasgow, is an exact replica of Henry Bell's steamship Comet of 1812 which was built right here (almost on its present site) in Port Glasgow by John Wood, Shipbuilder.  Until recently it has been a proud reminded of the innovation, skill and workmanship of Port Glasgow's shipbuilders.  It has now been left to rot and decay.

Most shipwrecks take place at sea and are due to circumstances beyond the control of those in charge of the ship - whether it be by collision, weather conditions, navigation error or some sort of system failure.  This wreck occurred in plain sight - poor Comet has been allowed to fall into ruin over just a few years without any intervention by local authorities.  In fact it has only been about nine years since it was refurbished in time for the Comet bicentennial celebrations in 2012.  What a difference a few short years have made.

It has been said that the wreck of the Comet is going to be removed from this site entirely.  At least that will save face for some in authority - out of sight, out of mind.  Perhaps over the years people will forget what a fabulous and real reminder this Comet was of the importance of shipbuilding in this area.

I hope that there may be some last minute reprieve for this poor ship.  Surely it could be donated to some museum or other institution where it could perhaps be brought back to life and enjoyed by generation to come.  I know these things cost a lot of money and there are other priorities locally.  We here in Inverclyde have already lost so much of our shipbuilding heritage.  This one little ship could be a lasting reminder of the amazing contribution this part of Scotland made to shipbuilding both in Great Britain and worldwide.

Tuesday 27 July 2021

Provost John Black of Greenock

John Black was elected Provost of Greenock in 1899.  He was a well-loved and well respected Greenockian.  This photograph shows him, an imposing looking man, in his official Provost robes and with his chain of office.  He died in 1901 at his home, Copthorn, Eldon Street in Greenock.  He had lived most of his life in Greenock and had been active in a successful law practice first with his father, also called John Black and then with his son – George Hedger Black.  The story of the Black family of Greenock goes back much further.

Photo courtesy of Greenock Burns Club

There are two gravestones in the Inverkip Street Cemetery in Greenock in memory of members of the Black Family of Greenock.  One reads -

Erected by John Black, writer in memory of Archibald Black Harbour Master, and Isabel Douglas his spouse.  Elizabeth McPherson spouse of John Black Ship Master, Archibald Black their son.  John Black Ship Master died 26 January 1841 aged 74 years. 

This stone mentions three generations of the Black family.  The first of the Greenock Blacks was Archibald Black, Harbour Master of the town.  Archibald was married to Isabel Douglas and they lived at 3 Crawford Street in Greenock.  (Crawford Street ran parallel to West Blackhall Street and now just a short stretch remains beside the old Glebe Sugar House and Aldi.  Check out this old map to see where it used to be.)  As Harbour Master, Archibald Black would have had a demanding job controlling the arrivals and departures of ships coming from all over the world to the port of Greenock.  He would also have had responsibility for the upkeep of the quays and ensuring access for ships to discharge their cargoes. 

Also mentioned on the stone is Archibald and Isobel's son John Black.  He is described as a Ship Master.  He was born in 1767.  He married Elizabeth McPherson and they had two sons - Archibald (b1795) and John, born in 1797.  John Black, Ship Master died in 1841.  His wife Elizabeth and their son, Archibald are also mentioned on the stone.

The next generation of Blacks did not take to a seafaring life.  John Black (1797-1856) became a writer (lawyer) in Greenock.  In 1820 he married Jane MacNaughtan (1798-1876) who was the daughter of Peter MacNaughtan (clothier) and Amelia Buchanan.  The family lived at Shaw Place in Greenock, which would have been handy for John's legal office in Cathcart Street.  The couple had four sons - John (1821-1902), Patrick MacNaughton Black (1823-1883), Robert Stewart Black (1826-1842) and Andrew Inglis Black (1828-1868).  As well as being involved in public affairs John Black was a freemason and member of Lodge Greenock St John. 

Patrick MacNaughtan Black and Andrew Inglis Black became brewers in Greenock and owned the Holmscroft Brewery in Captain Street taking over from David Buchanan.   

Patrick MacNaughtan Black started his working life in the office of James Fairrie & Co, sugar refiner.  He worked for them in Liverpool for a while.  He married (1869) Isabella Campbell, daughter of the Reverend George Campbell of Tarbat in Ross-shire.  The couple lived at Union Street in Greenock.  Brother Robert Stewart Black died aged just 16.  Andrew did not marry and died in 1868.  He is buried in Inverkip Street Cemetery.

John Black (who would later become Provost), the eldest son followed his father and studied law - serving his apprenticeship in his father's office.  He became a partner in 1842.  The company was named John Black & Son.  In 1856 John Black senior died at the age of 59.  He was buried in the Old West Kirk graveyard - a large number of townspeople followed his cortege (according to the local newspaper) - "The company which followed was large and included most of the clergy, magistrates, members of the Council, and other influential inhabitants of the town."  

His gravestone can still be seen in the grounds of the Old West Kirk in Greenock.  This church once stood at the very north end of Nicolson Street but was moved in the 1920s to a new site at the east end of Greenock Esplanade.  The bodies in the churchyard were removed and reburied at a site in Greenock Cemetery, South Street.  The gravestones no longer mark where there are burials.  Jane (MacNaughtan) Black was buried alongside her husband.  The stone reads –

John Black writer in Greenock, born 28 May 1797.  Died 31 Aug 1856.  A loving husband.  A fond father.  A generous friend.  Jane MacNaughtan, wife of John Black.  Born 8 April 1798.  Died 1 December 1876. 

After his father's death, John Black carried on business as a lawyer in Greenock.  In 1849 he had married Frances Hedger (1828-1888), daughter of George Hedger a London diamond merchant.  The couple had two sons and three daughters.  In 1884 his son George Hedger Black joined him as a partner in his legal practice.  He handed it over to George in 1892.  Baillie John Cameron joined the practice a couple of years later and it was known as Black & Cameron.  Frances (Hedger) Black died in 1888.

Provost John Black
John Black was very involved in local matters.  He was a member of the Parochial Board and became a member of the town council in 1887.  He was Chief Magistrate in Greenock became Provost in 1899. 

He died in 1901 at his home at Copthorn, 8 Eldon Street.  His elder son John Robert Black born in 1850 and who was a doctor in Greenock had died just a few months earlier and it was said that the shock of this had led to his decline. 

Provost Black was buried in Greenock Cemetery with full civic honours.  The service was held in Union Street United Free Church and a Masonic service was conducted at the graveside.  Like his father, John Black was an office bearer in Greenock St John's Lodge 175 and many of his fellow Masons attended in full dress.  All flags in the town and on ships in the harbours were flown at half-mast.  Many shopkeepers closed their shops from 1 till 3 as a mark of respect.  The town bell tolled at minute intervals.  The funeral cortege was led by the Volunteer Pipe Band.  The Greenock Telegraph reported that the cortege was so large that took nearly half an hour to pass the church door.  Provost Black left a widow, a son and two daughters as well as grandchildren to mourn his loss.  His home of Copthorn was sold not long after his death. 

As Provost, John Black had also been Chairman of the Greenock Harbour Trust, a position I'm sure his great-grandfather, Archibald Black, former Harbour Master would have approved.

My thanks to Greenock Burns Club for permission to use the photographs of members of the Black family.

Monday 12 July 2021

William Simons, Shipbuilder, Greenock

William Simons a shipbuilder and his brother, Peter Simons (1785-1869) who was a sailmaker started shipbuilding in Greenock in 1810 under the name William Simons & Co.  In 1810 they built the brig Janet Dunlop (180 tons) which sailed to Quebec.  The ship was commissioned by James Dunlop - a Scot (from Glasgow) and who also had business with Alan Ker & Co of Greenock.  He was a rich merchant who had settled in Montreal and often travelled back to Glasgow where he had family. The ship was meant for trade between Scotland and Canada (via Jamaica).  On one of her return journeys to the Clyde she had a general cargo amongst which was flour, beef, tar, candles staves and hoops for barrel making.  It was probably through this contact with James Dunlop that the Simons brothers travelled to Canada in 1812 at the start of the British-American war.  (James Dunlop was also a major shipbuilder in Canada.) 

HMS Linnet - source

The Simons brothers went to Ile-Aux-Noix situated in the Richelieu River which was the site of a Royal Naval Shipyard and fortifications during the British War of 1812-1815.  It was in an important strategic position near the Canadian border and gave access to the interior.  The Americans were trying to gain territory from the British and had positioned warships in Lake Champlain.  As a reply to this threat, the British build a shipyard on the Island and started building warships and gunboats there.  William Simons built the warship HMS Linnet, originally called Niagara which was launched in 1814.  HMS Linnet was a 16-gun brig and was commanded by Commander Daniel Pring RN.  The ship was captured by the Americans in 1814 at the Battle of LakeChamplain (also called Battle of Plattsburgh).  Another of Simons’ ships HMS Confiance was also captured in the same battle with Admiral Sir George Prevost on board.  (After the war, the Canadian shipbuilder John Goudie sent his son James to Greenock as an apprentice to William Simons to learn about steamship construction.) 

Ile-Aux-Noix map - Library of Congress
William’s brother Peter Simons and his wife Margaret McNeil remained in Canada.  Peter’s son John opened a small general store at Lake Beauport, Quebec importing goods from Britain.  That business was continued by his son William and  grew into what is now a large department store business in Canada - La Maison Simons.

On his return from Canada, William Simons (?-d1839) married Margaret Denniston (1789-1852) in 1816 in Greenock.  The couple would go on to have five children who grew to adulthood – John (1817-1888), William (1821-1902), Mary (1823-1903), Margaret (1825-1907) and Peter (1827-1875).  As can be seen from the family gravestone in Inverkip Street Cemetery, Greenock, other children died in infancy.  In Greenock, the family lived at St Andrew’s Square – just across Rue End Street from where Simons’ shipbuilding yard was situated (just west of Robert Steele’s yard).  The shipbuilding yard later became part of the Victoria Harbour in Greenock.

The Victoria Harbour from St Andrew's Square, Greenock 2021

William Simons ran a busy and successful business, building a variety of ships for various merchants for trade all over the world.  In 1819 the ship Robert (316 tons) was launched in Greenock.  It was built for G & R Denniston & Co of Glasgow.  In 1825 the brig General Wolf was built at Greenock.  In 1826 the company started building steamships as well as wooden vessels.  One of the first was Fingal (290 tons) built for owners in Belfast.  The company also built yachts for private individuals.

William Simons died in Greenock in 1839 and was buried in Inverkip Street Cemetery.  On the death of their Mother Margaret in 1852, the family sold their extensive property in St Andrew’s Square and moved away from Greenock.

William Simons’ sons John and William successfully continued the shipbuilding business.  Their shipyard at St Andrew’s Square was required when the local authorities decided to build a large new harbour in the area.  The family business was moved to Whiteinch.  In 1860 the firm moved again to Renfrew – the LondonWorks.  William took on a new partner, AndrewBrown (1825-1907) of Renfrew.  They began to specialise in dredgers which were extensively used on the River Clyde and exported worldwide.  The firm were internationally know as innovators in all types of shipbuilding.  

William Simons retired from the business in 1880.  In 1862 he had married Margaret Montgomery Neilson the daughter of James Beaumont Neilson (inventor and engineer) and his wife Barbara Montgomery of Queenshill, Tongland in Kirkcudbright.  William and Margaret Simons lived for a while at Yoker Lodge before retiring to Tighnabruaich.  William Simons took an active interest in public affairs in Renfrew and was a member of the Town Council.  He died at Sherbrooke, Tighnabruaich in 1902 and was buried in Greenock Cemetery.  The company continued in various forms having been taken over by Andrew Brown (William’s father in law) and two of his sons – William and Walter.  In 1959 it merged with G & J Weir and then with Lobnitz & Co Ltd and became Simons-Lobnitz Ltd, Shipbuilders.  The company ceased trading in 1964.

After the move to Renfrew in 1860, John Simons, eldest son of William Simons became involved with the Royal Renfrew Militia and began to take a back seat in the running of the company.  In 1861 he married Janet Crammond (daughter of Peter Crammond of Carnoustie).  They had two daughters Jessie and Joan.  John died at 7 Hunter Place, Monifieth Road, Broughty Ferry in 1888.  His brother, Peter, studied to be a Church of Scotland Minister but did not actually take up a charge.  He married Cecile Easton in 1865 at Meadowbank Place, Partick, Glasgow. (Cecile was the daughter of Dr William Easton of Glasgow and his wife Agnes Strang.)  They lived at Beechfield House, Bothwell Road, Hamilton with twins William Easton and Agnes Simons who were born in 1871 and Cecile born in 1872.  Peter Simons died in 1875 at Montgomerie Terrace, Cathcart. 

Of the two Simons daughters – Mary married the Rev Peter Richardson of the Free Church, Dailly in Ayrshire in 1854.  She died at Edinburgh in 1903.  Her sister Margaret did not marry and died at Dunoon in 1907. 

Gravestone of William Simons and his wife Margaret Denniston, Greenock
The Simons family were an important part of Greenock’s shipbuilding heritage.  It is such a shame that the gravestone of William and Margaret Simons in Inverkip Street Cemetery is in such a sad state of repair.

Tuesday 6 July 2021

Greenock's lucky horseshoe

This is the horseshoe which has traditionally been set in the centre of Cathcart Square in Greenock just in front of the Mid Kirk.  It has always been important to the people of Greenock as it is thought to bring good luck to the town.  When the stones in the square were being replaced in 1894, there was much discussion as to whether the horseshoe should be replaced, and it was agreed that it was an important part of Greenock's history.

A new horseshoe was generously supplied by William Wood, cartwright of Bogle Street in Greenock.  It was set in a stone engraved with the dates 1635 - the year in which Greenock was created a burgh of barony and 1894 - the date of the new stone.  It was formally set in place in the of Cathcart Square to the south of the Lyle Fountain by Bailie Black, Convener of the Streets Committee.  He was accompanied by several other town officials and a large crowd of local people.  At the end of the ceremony, Bailie Black said that he trusted that the horseshoe would bring good luck to the town of Greenock.  This was met with a large cheer form the crowd.  The contractor for the new causewaying was Aitkenhead & Sons, builders of Trafalgar Street in Greenock.

Over the centuries there have been various ledgents surrounding the horseshoe and why it was so important to Greenock.  Back in the old days horseshoes were often nailed on house doors as a guard against witchcraft.  It was hoped that this one would protect the town from dark forces.

Oak tree on flag of Scotts' Shipbuilders of Greenock Memorial 

Another legend says that the horseshoe marked the spot where an evergreen oak tree grew.  Many people linked the name of Greenock with oak trees, and the oak appears in many depictions of Greenock.  In fact our local shopping centre is called the Oak Mall!

Cathcart Square was the setting for many incidents in Greenock's history and some thought that the horseshoe represented the place where an unfortunate excise officer was attacked and killed by a band of smugglers who then took his body and hid it in a cave in woods behind the Square.  Another legend tells that it marked the spot where there was a fight between the press-gang and some local women who were trying to rescue a young man who had just returned from a long voyage from the West Indies.  Whatever the story, the Cathcart Square horseshoe was and still is an important part of Greenock's folk-lore.

Monday 5 July 2021

All the fun of the Fair

This weekend marked the start of the Greenock Fair – the traditional local two week holiday.  Back in the days of shipbuilding and sugar refining, all the local workers got their annual holidays at this time, so it was quite an event here in Greenock.  Nowadays it is very different.  It is an old custom, but every year a travelling funfair still visits Greenock at this time.  This year it is situated on some ground just to the east of the Beacon Theatre.  

By all accounts, the “Greenock Fair” of the mid 19th century was something completely different.  The fair used to be held in various open squares in the town such as Westburn  Square or St Andrew’s Square and generally spread out to the surrounding streets.  Crowds thronged to see the attractions – Wombwell’s Menagerie, Waxworks, side shows of magic, musicians, food sellers, hobby-horses, merry-go-round – all the fun of the fair.  

Every one saved up for a couple of months before the Fair so that they would have some money to spend at the “shows”.  Huge crowds would attend.  Of course there was a down side to all this merriment!  Gaming tables would be set up and prove popular with young men.  John Donald, writing about this in his book “Old Greenock Characters” (1920, Milne, Tannahill & Methven, Perth) says that the call would go out –  “Stake your money while the ball rolls.  Two to one on the black, four to one on red or blue, twelve to one on the yellow, the crown or Prince of Wales feathers.  Now then gentlemen, make your game; stake your money while the balls roll.”  He notes that “Such invitations were readily accepted, and many a silly lad … moved away from the table with a still lighter pocket and a heavier heart.”  

Every years after the fair or “Summer Saturnalia” - as some more uptight citizens called it, there would be calls for the abolition of the annual fair because of all the drunkenness and petty crime that accompanied the annual event.  Some people went as far as to say that the people travelling with the fair were bringing disease to the town and this should be stopped.  Local shopkeepers resented the itinerant traders who were taking up space in the streets and spoiling their trade.  

Gradually the fair was moved further away from the town centre to places like Ladyburn and Princes Pier.  Writing about Greenock Fair in 1871 Robert Hutcheson Bowman ("In and Around Greenock in 1871", ed Leslie Anne Hendra, ISBN-10:1477462260) writes that it was very wet that year, but that it did not prevent the crowds from visiting the fair.  He and some relatives went along and he describes the children’s delight – “Every buffoon and mountebank, strutting before their booths, seemed to them to be supernatural, and it was quite exciting … Of course every puppet show had to be visited, and I was thankful when at last we got clear away from it all.”  

The family did not escape unscathed from the crowd – “Then Aunt Aggie discovered that she had lost her purse, - stolen from her pocket.  Although it contained only about 30/- she felt piqued that she had been less astute that she thinks herself.” 

Despite the downside, these were probably the best years of the fair.  Once it moved to the outskirts of town, it became less popular.  Excursions by steamboat were becoming more and more popular.  Lots of families saved hard and enjoyed a trip across to Dunoon or Rothesay on the steamer.  

These trips across the Clyde are still continued today.  The Waverley paddle steamer was boarding passengers at Custom House Quay on this Fair Saturday 2021, just a few yards from where the funfair was still proving popular with youngsters.   Some things don’t change!

Thursday 1 July 2021

The Greenock Galts

John Galt is perhaps the most well-known of the inhabitants of Inverkip Street Cemetery.  He is buried alongside his family here.  The grave (now very overgrown and difficult to read) consists of three large flat stones.

The first stone marks the burial place of  John Galt (1750-1817) and his wife Jean Thomson (1746-1820).  John Galt (1779-1839), writer, explorer and founder of the city of Guelph in Canada is added on at the end - almost as an afterthought -

Here are deposited the remains of John Galt, formerly shipmaster, and afterwards merchant in Greenock.  He died 6th August 1817 in the 67th year of his age having uniformly enjoyed the esteem of all who knew him.  Also Jean Thomson his spouse who died 18th July 1826 in the 80th year of her age.  Also John Galt their son who died on the 11th April 1839 in his 60th year, author of The Annals of the Parish etc etc.

John Galt and Jean Thomson were married in Irvine in Ayrshire in 1776.  Their son John was born in 1779 at Irvine.  

The family moved to Greenock when John was 10 years old.  As a shipmaster, his father found it more convenient and probably more financially rewarding to sail from Greenock.  He was connected with trade to the West Indies .  John Galt (senior) built a house with a garden at the north west corner of Westburn Street and West Blackhall Street in Greenock.  There's a plaque on the wall where the house once stood.  At that time the area would have been much quieter, and not as built up as it was later to become.

John and Agnes Galt had three children - John, Agnes and Thomas.  John Galt described his parents - 

"My father was one of the best, as he was one of the handsomest men, but he was of an easy nature.  My mother was however a very singular person possessing a masculine strength of character with great natural humour ..."

I suppose his mother would have to have been a strong woman with her easy-going husband being away at sea for much of the time.  She had educated John at home when he was younger and they lived in Irvine.  He had many memories of those days which he wrote about in his autobiography.

John Galt was educated in Greenock and then went to work as a clerk in the Custom House.  He later moved to London where he had a variety of jobs and also had several of his novels published.  He married Elizabeth Tilloch (1781-1851) in 1813.  Elizabeth Tilloch was the daughter of Alexander Tilloch (1759-1825) a Scots born printer and writer whom Galt met in London.

Annals of the Parish, which is perhaps his best known work was published in 1821.  Well worth reading if you are interested in Scottish social history, it is mentioned on his grave stone.

He later became involved with the Canada Company set up to encourage the settlement of Crown Land there.  He travelled over much of Upper Canada and was the founder of the city of Guelph in 1827 along with a fellow Greenockian, Dr William (Tiger) Dunlop who was the son of Alexander Dunlop of Keppoch, whose family are also buried in Greenock's Inverkip Street Cemetery. 

After some time in Canada Galt returned to Greenock in ill health.  He lived with his wife and sister Agnes in the family home in Westburn Street.  He died there in 1839 and was buried with his parents in the Inverkip Street Cemetery.  His wife returned to Canada where their three sons lived.

The third gravestone marks the burying place of John Galt's sister Agnes Galt  (1781-1855).  

This stone is erected in affectionate remembrance by Agnes Galt, widow of Robert Andrew Macfie, late merchant in Greenock who died 28th October 1811 esteemed by those who knew him best.  Surviving all parents, brothers, husband and children, during a long pilgrimage throughout which upheld by Christian hope she bore with patience, much bodily suffering and sealously sought the kingdom of God on earth.  This old disciple finished her course in peace 30th April 1855 and was buried here.  Phil III, 20.21.

Agnes married Robert Andrew Macfie in Greenock in 1806.  Robert was a grocer and merchant in Greenock, son of Robert Macfie sugar refiner in Greenock and his wife Mary Andrew (he was one of 11 children) .  He died in 1811 and is buried here.  Agnes Galt Macfie died at 7 Brougham Street in Greenock in 1855.  She is buried here with her husband.  She had outlived all her family as the gravestone poignantly mentions.

The middle stone marks the burying place of the three children of Agnes and Robert Macfie.  Their son, Robert Andrew and daughters Mary and Jane Thomson died relatively young. 

Robert Andrew McFie, fell asleep in Jesus 28 October 1824 in the 17th year of his age and Mary, his sister 13th May 1826 having just copleted her 15th year.  Both died in faith with joyful hopes of a blessed immortality.  Also their sister Jane Thomson Macfie who departed this life with longing desire to be with Christ.  She died 5th September 1831 age 22 years.  The Saints in early life removed in sweeter accents sing and blessed the swiftness of the flight that bore them to their King.

That ends the story of the Galts of Greenock.  However John Galt's three sons  - John Galt (1814-1866), Thomas Galt (1815-1901) and Alexander Tilloch Galt (1817-1893) all played their part in the formation of Canada.  You can read an excellent article about them by the Guelph Historical Society here.  I'm sure their father would have been very proud of them.
I've uploaded a short presentation to YouTube about the Galt family graves in Inverkip Street Cemetery.  Check out my channel Greenockian for more short presentations.