Sunday 5 May 2024

John Galt - Steamboat tales

John Galt’s work “The Steam Boat” or as it was advertised – “The Steam Boat; or the Voyages and Travels of Thomas duffle, cloth-merchant in the Salt Market of Glasgow” was published in 1821.  It is a wonderful collection of short stories told by Galt's character, Thomas Duffle as he heard on his various travels by steamboat from Glasgow.  His fellow travellers provide him with fabulous stories of their own lives as they go down the River Clyde from Glasgow to various places on the steamboat’s route.

Port Glasgow former Town Buildings

Thomas Duffle himself narrates his own views on the various landmarks they pass and of special interest are his observations on Greenock and Port Glasgow and the perceived (or perhaps real) views of the differences between Portonians and Greenockians and what each thinks of the other.  Of course, Port Glasgow was where Britain's first commercial steamship "Comet" was built in 1812 at John Wood's Yard in the town which makes the stories even more interesting.

Dry Dock mural, Port Glasgow

At a stopover in Port Glasgow, Duffle narrates “I was thankful when the vessel reached the quay of Port Glasgow, where I went on shore to take my breakfast an an inn, being resolved to leave her there and travel by myself on to Greenock, which is situated about three miles to the westward.  This determination, as it proved, was most judicious on my part; for I found a comfortable house, and great civility in the attendance, facing the shipping in the harbour, with excellent warm rolls, piping hot from the baker’s, and fresh herring that would have been a treat at any time”. 

Comet passing Dumbarton Rock

Duffle then goes on a walk around the town – “The waiter, to be sure, as his wont doubtless is with all strangers, directed my attention to the steeple, telling me that it was higher than the Greenock one”.  The visitor then satisfies himself that the steeple is not, as was a derogatory comment doing the rounds at the time, crooked, but perfectly straight.  He continues – “I visited the dry-dock, a very useful place for maritime purposes of various sorts, especially for repairing vessels’ bottoms; and then I went to investigate that famous antiquity, the old castle”.

Newark Castle, Port Glasgow

He also has views on the local people - “I saw several of the inhabitants at their shop-doors, and some elderly characters standing forenent the inns, waiting for the London papers.  Upon the whole they appeared to be a hamely race …”.  So ends Duffel’s short stay in Port Glasgow as he then travels on by coach to Greenock. 

It is still possible to recognise several of the places named by Galt.  The steeple referred to is that of the former town buildings and now Port Glasgow's library.  In 1821 the only other comparable steeple in Greenock was that of the Mid Kirk in Cathcart Square.  Unfortunately the dry-dock is no more, but it used to be situated just at the back of the town buildings and it is possible to see what it would have looked like by examining the wonderful mural on the wall just to the east of the Health Centre car park.  “The old castle” – Newark Castle is fortunately still in existence.

 In January 1884 the Greenock Herald published extracts from the book.

Read more about John Galt and his Greenock connections - The Greenock Galts.  His friend and fellow Canadian explorer was William "Tiger" Dunlop - a fascinating man.  The Story of Bryce Gilliland is a fabulous sea-faring tale,

You can read more about the stories told to Thomas Duffel on the Steamboat on this blog – just click on links.

Buried Alive and a real life tale of experimental galvanism - Dead or Alive!  

The Coronation - a story about the Coronation of George IV - what a strange event!

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