The term Clyde Puffer, or simply puffer, describes a small steamboat which was once used to transport cargo and supplies around the Scottish coast. Working mainly around the west coast, hence the Clyde prefix, these boats would also venture as far as the Hebrides. Their essential characteristics were flat bottoms and bluff bows, which allowed them to beach at low tide and operate in areas without piers or jetties. Cargoes varied from material such as coal, gravel, and building supplies, to farm produce and furniture, followed by munitions and fleet supplies when they saw service during both World Wars.
History and design
The puffer evolved from small, single masted sailing barges which operated on the coast during the mid-19th century, and featured a length of 66 feet or less, so they could operate within the locks of the Forth and Clyde, and Crinan Canals. Until 1870, they were powered by simple non-condensing steam engines which exhausted through the funnel and were responsible for the characteristic puffing sound which gave the boats their name. Even though later boats were fitted with condensers which eliminated the sound, or diesel engines, the name had become associated with the design and has remained in use.
The design of the puffer was innovative, and maximised both the the capacity of the boat and its versatility, since its operation had no need of a pier or jetty. The area within the bluff bow was utilised for crew accommodation, while the unobstructed mid section formed a large rectangular hold for easy cargo handling, assisted by a strong mast and derrick, with a steam winch mounted over the forecastle. Locating the engine as far aft as possible, with a vertically mounted boiler, also helped maximise the available cargo space. The design resulted in the funnel being located in front of the wheelhouse, which was built over the Master's cabin, and left open to the elements on the early boats, The stern-hung rudder could be turned through 90 degrees, which took two feet off of the overall length of the boat, and made it easier to clear canal locks.
Puffers which operated only on canals were referred to as inside boats, while those that ventured further out into the firths of the River Clyde and the River Forth were referred to as shorehead boats.
During World War I, puffers were used to service the fleet at Scapa Flow, and to carry cargo all round the country.
During World War II, the Admiralty was mindful of the puffers' contribution, and commissioned a similar craft to service the fleet with supplies from its victualling yards, and weapons from its munitions depots. These were known as Victualling Inshore Craft, or VIC boats. While they adhered to the overall puffer design, the original clipper stern was complex and hard to build, so the Admiralty developed a simpler hard chine design which also allowed more room for the Master's cabin.
Most of the VIC boats were built in England, with many coming from the Doncaster area. A number of boats were fitted with water tanks in lieu of a hold, and were used to carry fresh or distilled water to ships at anchor. In addition to their service at local British naval establishments, a number of these boats were shipped overseas as deck cargo, and operated in locations such as Malta and the Far East.
The Admiralty design produced a larger 88 foot boat, built for coastal, rather than canal or harbour work, with the longer hull allowing the wheelhouse to be located ahead of the funnel, and the crew accommodation in the forecastle to be raised to deck level. Some considered the revised design ugly.
A few VIC boats were built to government order, and handed over to private companies, but most remained in service.
After the war, most of the Admiralty's boats were sold off, a price then of £2,000 has been suggested, with a small number being retained to service the various Naval dockyard and service facilities around the country. A small number of new puffers are believed to have been built after the war, possibly from remaining stock parts.
Although there is no definitive account, over 400 puffers are believed to have been built, including 106 known VICS (listed below). Their decline can be seen in the falling fleet numbers over the years: by 1910, 130 remained; by 1950, 43; and by 1961, only 23 boats remained in the service of seven firms. The numbers continued to fall, and by the 1970s, only the diesel engined Spartan, and Lady Morven remained. Both had been built as VICs. Consequently, only a handful of VIC boats have survived to the present day, either from remaining in private service: such as Pibroch, formerly owned by Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd, which regularly sailed between the mainland and the distillery, bringing supplies and returning with mature whisky, until she retired in 1972; or by having remained in service with the Royal Navy, which was able to maintain the boats with little regard to cost until they were finally retired in the late 1970s.
VIC 32 appears in our picture, seen during a trip to Bute in 2007, where the Maryhill replica was built in 2004, at the island's Ardmeleish Boatyard.
The Vital Spark
Inveraray born writer Neil Munro wrote a series of short stories about the master mariner Para Handy, and his boat, the Vital Spark. These were first published in the Glasgow Evening News in 1905, and appeared in the newspaper over twenty years, achieving widespread fame. The collection was issued in book form in 1931, and is still in print today. With the continuing popularity of these tales, the puffers became film stars in The Maggie, and Para Handy with his Vital Spark was the subject of three popular BBC television series dating from 1959 to 1995.
Basuto is a true Clyde Puffer, built in 1902 by W Jacks & Co, Port Dundas. Basuto worked for WM Jacks on the Forth & Clyde Canal until 1919 when she was bought by J Kelly & Co, Belfast, a coal merchant. Acquired by Cooper & Sons of Widnes in the 1920s, she was converted to a dumb barge to carry sand and gravel. Later bought by Manchester Dry Docks Ltd, she was returned to steam. Basuto was acquired by the Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port in 1981 where she is currently on display.
VIC 18 was renamed Spartan, and is now on display at the Scottish Maritime Museum at Irvine. Originally steam powered, her steam plant was removed in 1961 when she was converted to diesel. The museum is restoring and adapting the puffer, with plans to sail around Scotland, berthing in all the coastal communities where storytellers will relate her history. She starred as the puffer Golden Star in the last Para Handy TV Series.
VIC 27 was renamed Auld Reekie, and starred as the Vital Spark in the third BBC series of Para Handy. Once berthed at Crinan, and deteriorating due to lack of funds, she was purchased in 2006 by the owner of the Inveraray Maritime Museum and towed there in 2007 for the start of a complete refurbishment.
VIC 32 is the last surviving coal fired steam powered puffer, based at The Change House, Crinan. Steam sailings have been available to the public from 1979, latterly as cruises on the Caledonian Canal. Since 2004 she has been undergoing extensive refitting at Corpach Boatyard at the west end of the canal near Fort William, funded by donations and lottery funds, including a new boiler.
VIC 37 was renamed Lary Morven, and is preserved at Maryport.
VIC 56 is an 85 foot steam ship, built in 1945 as part of the wartime shipbuilding program, now preserved in working order by a small group of volunteers. She is moored at Chatham Historic Dockyard, on the River Medway in England, and operated in steam a number of times each year, often to the Thames estuary area.
VIC 72 was renamed Eilean Eisdeal, and continued to operate as the last of the true working puffers into the mid 1990s. In 2006 she was renamed as the Vital Spark of Glasgow, after Neil Munro's Para Handy stories. She is now accessible to the public, alongside the Arctic Penguin at the Inveraray Maritime Museum, and continues to make sailings.
VIC 96 is of the same design as VIC 56, but in substantially worse condition and static. Until recently, she has been preserved in Maryport with a display in her hold. However, along with a larger steam tug she was purchased by a group of volunteers who intend to restore her to working condition.
The Pibroch was a diesel engined boat, built at Bowling, Scotland, in 1957 for Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd. Since 2002, the Pibroch has been lying at Letterfrack, County Galway, Ireland, derelict and in need of restoration.
The Wee Spark is a small replica puffer which can be seen on the Forth and Clyde Canal. Built as a one third replica, since full size puffers can no longer negotiate the full length canal thanks to the addition of later bridges.
The Maryhill is a 42 foot (about two thirds full size) reproduction puffer, completed in 2004 by the Ardmaleish Boatyard on Bute, to carry tourist traffic on the Forth and Clyde Canal
- Basuto, a true Clyde Puffer
- National Register of Historic Vessels
- Spartan web site
- Fablevision, Spartan project
- VIC 27 at Inveraray
- VIC 32 site, Save the Puffer
- VIC 56
- VIC 72 at Inveraray
- The Wee Spark pictured on the Forth and Clyde
- Maryhill at Ardmaleish Boat Building Bute
- The PIBROCH Website
- List of VIC boats
- A puffer forum
- BBC, Scotland on Film, The Last of the Clyde Puffers, 1968/b&w/sound/
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