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Clyde Pier Signalling System

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Kilcreggan pier showing tower and surviving signal boards in 1965, Fox
Kilcreggan pier showing tower and
surviving signal boards in 1965

The Clyde Pier Signalling System was introduced on March 29, 1889, and enforced by the Clyde Navigation Act 1887, to address the issue of overcrowding at steamer piers on the Firth of Clyde, as tens of thousands of Victorian factory workers descended on the area during the area's annual holiday, and the steamers competed for their custom.

Signalling system tender

Steamships, or steamers, enjoyed a massive surge in popularity during Victorian times, and the waters of Clyde became crowded with them, all carrying as many passengers as could be jammed on board, and all fighting for space at the at piers. Timetables were irrelevant as the skippers, especially owner-captains, raced to complete each journey in the minimum time and return for another load, and there was a real danger that the race for pier space would end in disaster one day. The local authority, The Clyde Pilot Board, recognised the danger and invited tenders for systems designed to address the situation.

The winning system was designed by Charles Allan, third son of Alexander Allan of The Allan Line, and resident of Ashcraig on the road to Largs. The Clyde Navigation Act of 1887 allowed the resulting system to be enforced, and the Pier Signalling System came into use on March 29, 1889.

System operation

Referring to the photograph of the signal located on the pier at Kilcreggan, the system can be seen to have comprised of a tower which supported an elevated signal box, triangular in plan view, carrying a horizontal row of three circular windows, repeated on the adjacent side so as to be visible from either approach to the pier. In operation, the signals behind each window controlled the relative approach of three steamers to the pier, and corresponded to an inshore, middle, and outer outer vessel, each controlled by the signal shown by its corresponding window. A black signal showed the pier was closed, while a white signal showed it was open. When more than one steamer was approaching, the horizontal position of the signal indicated which steamer had been granted permission to dock.

Signal boards and lens detail
Signal boards and lens detail

The signals were made by sliding boards, painted black and white, and controlled by cords, raised to show white, lowered to show black, and interlocked so that raising a white signal locked the others down and black, so preventing more than one approach to be open at any time. At night, a light shone through each signal, provided with a red glass centre on the black, and a white glass centre on the white. The zoomed image of the three windows shows how the border of was painted to black to define its outline. The sliding boards that formed the appearance of a black or white disk within the window can also be seen, with the white board in the centre window sagging slightly, revealing its straight upper edge. The image has been adjusted to to emphasise the appearance of the holes in the centre of the visible disk, through which the coloured lens would have provided a lighted signal for late night sailings.

Few of these towers survive, however the example pictured can still be found on the pier at Kilcreggan, and clearly shows all the main features of the system, including the triangular box which housed the system, and the circular windows on the two shorter sides, arranged to face the pier approaches.

Largs signal tower

A unique installation was provided at Largs, where the signals were mounted on a square tower, and occupied opposite, rather than adjoining faces. This meant the tower was built with its sides in line with, and parallel to the pier edge, unlike all the others, which were required to have a corner towards the edge, so that the signals on their adjacent faces could be seen. The Largs tower is long demolished, but photographs remain, showing its unique design.

Victorian holidays on the Firth of Clyde

Wealthy Victorians built their own villas to take advantage of the coast. However, for the thousands of factory workers who made the trip there was no such luxury, and they had to make the most of the few days they had while their employer's factories were closed for annual maintenance. This was generally carried out at the same time throughout the area, since factories could be dependent on one another for products and materials, and this became the Glasgow Fair which still takes place over the third and fourth weeks of July. Holidays were unpaid until 1939, when the the Holidays with Pay Convention of 1936 came into force and gave workers a minimum of six days annual holiday with pay - although the lost time still had to be made up by working harder prior to the break.

Huge numbers of factory workers left the city of Glasgow to make the most of the annual break, and spend a few days away from their labours in the dark, noisy and dangerous factories of the time. In the 1850s, those leaving the city on Fair Friday and Saturday numbered over 40,000, and by 1868 passed the 100,000 mark, all heading Doon the Watter.


Kilcreggan Pier, 2005
Kilcreggan Pier
© william craig
Kilcreggan ferry terminal shelter, 2007
Signal Tower on Kilcreggan Pier
© Mark Nightingale
Shelter On Kilcreggan Pier, 2008
Signal Tower on Kilcreggan Pier
© Lynn M Reid

Dunoon Pier, 1978
Dunoon Pier, 1978
© Dr Neil Clifton
Dunoon Pier, 1978
Dunoon Pier, 1978
© Dr Neil Clifton

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