Friday 30 June 2023

The James Watt Tower

In 1856 Greenock's Watt Club (founded in 1813) proposed the building of this beautiful campanile in Greenock Cemetery as a memorial to the brilliant engineer, Greenock born James Watt (1736-1819).

The idea was put forward by Greenock Watt Club members - historian George Williamson (1813-1899) and John Gray (1797-1867), a local councillor and merchant.  The Club met on the anniversary of Watt's birth, 30 January, usually in the Tontine Hotel.  The proposal, written by George Williamson was:- 

at first to erect on this spot a vast structure of a lofty and imposing appearance, to be seen from every part of the surrounding neighbourhood; and that all the nations of the world should be invited to contribute the materials; that those materials should be simply blocks of stone more or less unchiselled, of every shape and colour and size, granite or marble, freestone or whinstone, piled aloft, and fastened with cement; each block to be inscribed with the name of the donor and the place or country whence it came”.

James Watt

The tower was designed by Robert Macintosh, the architect of Gabriel Wood Mariners Home.  A site at the top of the main pathway in Greenock Cemetery had been obtained, levelled and cleared for the foundations.  Donations of rock had been received from all over the world.

The memorial tower would have been a magnificent structure, standing 514 feet above sea level at the highest point in the Cemetery and would have stood:-  "forty feet square at the base rising to a height of 163 feet.  Surmounted by a turret or observatory for the further height of 52 feet making the total height 225 feet above the base line."

The upper turret would have contained an electric time-ball and could have been used for making nautical and astronomical observations.  “To make the structure useful to all engaged in the navigation of the noble estuary of the Clyde".  The inside rooms were to be 30 feet square connected by means of a circular staircase and open gallery.  Niches and recesses would have contained "statues, busts or other memorials commemorative of men eminent in science or philosophy."

Gifts of materials from every quarter of the globe, inasmuch as there is no portion of the civilised world which is not indebted to the genius of Watt."

James Watt cairn in Greenock Cemetery

Unfortunately it was not to be probably due to lack of funds and declining interest in the project.  Donations of stone continued to be sent to Greenock and eventually it was decided that using them to build a cairn would be the best way of commemorating James Watt.  

Watt family gravestones moved from Old West Kirk

When the Old West Kirk was removed to Greenock Esplanade, the remains of Watt's family and their gravestones were re interred beside the cairn.  The Watt Tower would have been a wonderful memorial to James Watt.

For more information about the Watt Cairn and the donated stones please read my previous post here.

Monday 19 June 2023

Albert Harbour and Esplanade - the beginning

At this time of year Greenock’s Esplanade is a busy place.  With its beautiful views over the River Clyde to the north and historically interesting buildings on its south side, it is a popular place for a stroll and is also well used by cyclists and joggers.  Robert Bruce Bell (1822-1883) was the engineer who designed this wonderful promenade.

Robert Bruce Bell was born in Edinburgh the eldest son in the large family of Robert Fitzroy Bell (1791-1862) merchant and Hanna Bruce.  He later moved to Glasgow where he served his apprenticeship as a civil engineer with Murdoch & Aitken he also worked at Lancefield Foundry and Engineering Works as a journeyman engineer under Robert Napier.  About 1850 He entered a partnership with Daniel Miller (1825-1888) under the name of Bell & Miller.  One of their works was the construction of a slip dock for Black of Kelvinhaugh.  In the 1850s they built graving dock in Glasgow for Tod & Macgregor at Meadowside

In the early 1860s they were commissioned by Greenock Harbour Trust to survey what led to the construction in 1862 of the Albert Harbour (now Greenock Ocean Terminal) and Esplanade.  The Esplanade, just over a mile long, was built up with the spoil from the Albert Harbour.  They also designed Princes Pier containing the railway link from Glasgow to the Harbour (Glasgow & South Western Railway Co).

The company also undertook harbour improvements at Port Glasgow and the Saltercroft Graving Dock in Glasgow.  Overseas they worked for Antonio Lopez & Co Spanish steamship owners.  They were also responsible for designing the Albert Bridge in Glasgow.

For two years Robert Bruce Bell was President of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland.  He died at Croyden in 1883.  Daniel Miller died at Craigburn (Cragburn?) House, Gourock in 1888.

It is fascinating to think of the work and effort that was involved in constructing the Esplanade, a beautiful asset to the town that has been enjoyed by generations.

Saturday 17 June 2023

Walter Ritchie's privateer ship Neptune

In early May 1805 there must have been some great excitement in Greenock as a great French East Indiaman, the Charles Maurice, was brought into the harbour.   The ship had been captured by the Neptune, belonging to the fleet of local merchants Walter Ritchie & Co. 

At this time Britain was on the alert over the threat of invasion by Napoleon Bonaparte.  Ports were especially concerned, and Greenock was no exception.  Some of the larger merchant companies in the town fitted out at least one of their ships with guns and cannon.  This was to protect merchant vessels who started sailing in convoys, but there was also the profitable side-line in capturing enemy ships, the proceeds from the sale of both the ship and cargo could be massive.  

These privately owned armed vessels were called privateers.  Many carried letters of marque which was a licence from the Government to attack and capture enemy ships.  

The Charles Maurice, returning from the East Indies, had been heading for Bordeaux with a valuable cargo before she was taken by the Neptune and brought into Greenock.  She also carried a packet of letters from Admiral Charles Linois (1761-1848) to Count HonoreJoseph Antoin Ganteaume (1755-1818) and French Vice Admiral Louis-Alexandre Berthier (1753-1815) Napoleon’s Chief of Staff.  These were passed to the Admiralty.  

The ship and cargo were taken to London and sold.  The French ship's cargo of exotic goods from the East Indies included – raw sugar, coffee, bales of galanga root, indigo, cotton, cinnamon, raw silk, gum copal, gum Madagascar, gum Arabic, mace, cardamom, pepper, saffron, cloves, sago, tamarinds, palm oil, incense as well as other spices and confections.  These were put up for sale at West’s Warehouses, Billiter Lane, London.The ship was put up for sale at Lloyd’s Coffee House, Cornhill, London – at the time the centre of shipbroking and marine insurance business.  This was the precursor of Lloyds as it is still known today.  In the advertisement for the sale the “good ship” Charles Maurice is described as “square stern, figure head, copper sheathed, measures about 500 tons, lofty ‘tween decks, a very fast sailer, well found, pierced for 18 guns, has a tier of beams for an orlop deck is a very handsome and good vessel, with warlike appearance … It was also stated that she was thought to have previously been the American sloop of war Trumbull (sold by the Americans in 1801), “built for Government service about five years since.”  The ship could be viewed at London Dock, Wapping.

London Docks

While Walter Ritchie & Co of Greenock would have made a lot of money from this prize ship, there were occasions when their ships were taken by French and American privateers.  

Friday 16 June 2023

Captain James George of the ship "Robust"

This is the final resting place of Port Glasgow mariner, Captain James George.  The family grave marker can be found in the kirkyard of Port Glasgow New Parish Church.  James George married Margaret Barr, daughter of John Barr, merchant in Port Glasgow in 1801.  They had two sons, James (born 1802) and John (born 1804) both born in Port Glasgow.  In 1805 the family were living in Ritchie's Land, Princes Street.

James George was captain of the ship Robust.  In 1799 the ship sailed to Grenada in the West Indies. 

In September 1801 there was an advertisement in the Caledonian Mercury which read:-

For Demerary
The Ship Herberts Wm Hamilton Master
Is expected in Clyde in a few weeks,
and will be ready to sail for Demerary a
running ship, by the 20th October.
For Carriacow & Grenada,
The Ship Margaret, Richard Brown Master.
For Grenada, (to deliver goods at Levira and
Grenville Bay)
The ship Robust, James George Master,
For St Vincent
The Ship Eglintoun, William Douglas Master,
These last three ships will be ready to sail by the 20th October, to join convoy at Cork.  For freight or passage apply to the respective Captains at Port Glasgow, or to
JOHN CAMPBELL, sen & CO, Glasgow, September 1 1801
N.B. Wanted to go to the West Indies, under Indentures for three years, Three House Carpenters, and two masons.  To those who can be well recommended good encouragement will be given.

John Campbell Senior & Co was a huge company trading with the West Indies and the owners of the ships mentioned in the advertisement.  Based in Glasgow, the company was founded by John Campbell senior (c.1735 - 1807) who had previously been connected with John Glassford & Co, tobacco merchants, after the American War of Independence they changed their priority to the importation of sugar.  John's brother, Thomas was a merchant in Grenada and ran that side of the business along with other family members.  

This advert is in connection with their West Indies trade.  Manufactured and luxury goods for the planters as well as cheap clothing and salt fish for the workers would be shipped from Port Glasgow.  The ships would load with rum, sugar, cotton, indigo and coffee for the return journey to the Clyde.  The Captains could be assigned to various ships in the fleet.

The ship Herberts, Captain William Hamilton is described as a 'running ship'.  This is an armed ship which could sail without a convoy but in this case accompanied a convoy of merchant ships as protection from privateers.

The ship Margaret, Captain Richard Brown (probably the son of Robert Burns' friend) was heading for Grenada and Carriacow (Carriacou), north-east of Grenada where cotton was grown and there were many Scottish settlers.  Captain George's ship, Robust was also going to Grenada, to deliver goods at Levera and Grenville Bay. The Eglingtoun, Captain William Douglas was heading for St Vincent.

An interesting footnote to the advertisement is the notice that three house carpenters and two masons are required in the West Indies under indenture for three years, with good references, of course.  Indentured servants undertook a written contract to work for a certain amount of time, the employer would pay their passage and they would be provided with food, clothing and shelter.  This could be seen by many young Scots as a way to a new life abroad, or for some a way to escape their responsibilities at home.  Of course, the journey itself was often hazardous and once they had arrived, the heat and exposure to different diseases could prove fatal.

It is remarkable that Captain James George survived many journeys from the Clyde to the Caribbean.  He was just one of Port Glasgow's many intrepid mariners.

Sunday 11 June 2023

The Greenock Ripper!

Late on the 7th of March in 1903, a Saturday night, a woman made her way to Greenock Police Office in Dalrymple Street.  She was bleeding heavily and reported that she had been stabbed by a man while in a close in Dalrymple Street near an empty building.  Her name was Elizabeth (Lowden) O’Neill, forty-one years old and known to the police as a woman who frequented the shebeens and closes of that part of Greenock.  Her injuries, which the local press delicately described as being “to the lower part of her body” were severe, and she was rushed to Greenock Infirmary. 

Just an hour and a half later, at 1am, Bridget (Gordon) Baker appeared at the Police Office bleeding profusely, to report that she had been stabbed by a man in a close at 20 Vennel, just across from the side entrance of the public library.  She was 52 years old and also well known to the local police.  She had a seven-inch gash in her hip and had been cut by a knife.  She was also immediately rushed to the Infirmary to have her wound treated.

1. Dalrymple Street   2. Vennel   3. Public Library    4. Police Office

Both women described their attacker as between twenty and thirty years of age, tall and “respectably dressed”.  Needless to say, the attacks caused some commotion in the town with the attacks being likened to those attributed to “Jack the Ripper” in Whitechapel, London in the previous decade.  Just as in that case, no arrests were ever made in the “Greenock Ripper” case. 

Greenock Infirmary, Duncan Street

The women were discharged from the Infirmary a couple of weeks later having been successfully treated for their injuries.  One of the victims Bridget (Gordon) Baker was quite a character.  She had frequently been in trouble with the police and in 1877 had even been charged with theft of a petticoat from the local prison!  She died in the poorhouse at Smithston in 1911.  Elizabeth (Lowden) O’Neill was from Glasgow and seems to have left the town shortly after the assault. 

Greenock’s closes, or narrow lanes, which led down to the quays and harbours had a bad reputation and despite the recent improvements, there were still areas of the town that were known to be the haunt of prostitutes and crooks.  (Read more about Greenock's closes here.)  

@Greenock Burns Club

Interesting that the offences were carried out by someone described as "well dressed" and that they took place not in the heart of the Vennel, but on the edges, like Dalrymple Street and near the library (at Wallace Place).  Perhaps the perpetrator would have looked out of place in the deeper heart of the closes.  The young man could have been just passing through and perhaps left the town on one of the many ships that sailed the next morning.  Many places in Britain and abroad reported “copycat” assaults and murders in the wake of the sensational Whitechapel Murders.  Greenock was no exception!

Listen to the Greenock Ripper Podcast by the Greenockian.
Greenock Library, Wallace Place