The original PS Comet
The original PS (Paddle Steamer) Comet was constructed for Henry Bell in 1811, by John Wood, a Port Glasgow shipbuilder, and completed on January 18, 1812. The first passenger vessel built in Europe, PS Comet was a wooden vessel of some 30 tons, about 40 feet in length, and 10 feet in beam, and originally fitted with four paddle wheels, arranged as two on each side, driven by an engine rated at three horsepower. The two sets of twin paddle wheels were later replaced by single wheel on each side, and the length has been reported as having been extended by 20 feet to increase her capacity. Two engines were fitted to the vessel (not at the same time), but the changeover date is unknown - perhaps the change was carried out when the number of paddles was reduced, and the hull lengthened. The completed boat was put into service on a 24 mile route between Greenock and Glasgow, departing Greenock on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, returning on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. A fare of four shillings (£0.20) was charged for the best cabin, and three shillings (£0.15) for second class. Although Bell was reported to have made heavy losses at the start of the venture, and some months passed before the craft was considered trustworthy by its passengers, it proved itself to be safe and secure transport on the route.
On December 13, 1820, PS Comet was returning to Glasgow from Inverness. While sailing near Oban, she was lifted on to the rocks at Craignish Point, and wrecked. Although the vessel was lost, the engine was later salvaged and used to drive machinery at a brewery. In 1862, the engine was purchased by another famous Scottish engineer, Robert Napier, who presented it to the Science Museum in London, where it remains on display.
Bell continued his work, and was responsible for the construction of several further boats, including Comet II, but this is was also lost when, on October 20, 1825, (more accurately, about 2 am on morning of October 21) she collided with the steamer Ayr off Kempock Point near Gourock, and sank rapidly with the loss of 62 of the 80 passengers she was carrying. Following this loss, Bell abandoned his work on steam navigation.
Henry Bell lived in Helensburgh at the time of his venture with the PS Comet, and both are commemorated by features on the town's esplanade; Bell by a memorial obelisk, and the PS Comet by an installation featuring its original flywheel. He died 1830, aged 63, and is buried in the churchyard near Helensburgh. His ventures lacked financial success, and he was a poor man, and suffered poor health in his latter years. His friend raised the sum of £500 as a testimonial, and the Clyde Navigation Trust granted him and annuity/pension, which continued after his death and supported his wife.
The illustration of the original craft comes from an 1878 publication on steam power by Robert H Thurston, a prominent engineer of the time.
The replica Comet
The Provost of Greenock came up with the idea of building a model of the Comet to celebrate the forthcoming 150th anniversary of her inaugural sailing. Despite the fact that she was built in Port Glasgow, then a separate burgh, he felt the links with James Watt and Greenock were worth celebrating. There was much discussion as to the scale the model should be built to, and where it would be displayed, until Lord Lithgow suggested building a full-sized replica. He canvassed support from other ship related businesses and offered the services of his own shipyard.
The hull was built by George Thomson and Son of Buckie, renowned for their building of heavy wooden boats for fishing and leisure use. On completion, the hull was transported by road to Lithgow Ltd of Port Glasgow to be fitted out.
While drawings of the hull still existed, no drawings remained of the engine. Fortunately, a similar engine contemporary to the period of the original was on display in a local museum, allowing representative drawings to be prepared, and a reproduction engine built. The occasion was further remembered with the issue of a special commemorative envelope designed by John Brown, an art teacher at Greenock Academy.
On August 25, 1962, The Greenock Telegraph looked forward to the forthcoming Comet Week which would commence with a service at Port Glasgow's Newark Parish Church on August 26. The celebrations were to include a memorial service at the grave of John Woods (builder of the 1812 Comet), a civic dinner, and a parade of floats accompanied by men from both the Royal Navy and the United States Navy prior to the sailing. Free music and dancing took place nightly at Coronation Park, and a final church service was held at the conclusion of the celebrations.
On Saturday, September 1, the replica Comet was launched from the same berth that the original boat was built on by Mrs Walter Lucas, and afloat in the fitting out basin to be finished off.
On Sunday, September 2, eleven invited dignitaries plus Lord Lithgow, all attired in period costume, and with two engineers as crew, assembled at the yard and boarded the Comet. The parade of floats arrived, and she cast off at 3.30 pm. Once out of the yard she was met by a large flotilla of canoes, sailing dinghies, yachts, and motor boats to escort her on her journey to Helensburgh. The boiler, fired by lignum vitae logs, worked well and the engine achieved the design speed of 5 knots.
On arrival at Helensburgh, the dignitaries disembarked and were taken by a horse-drawn carriage to a ceremony held at Henry Bell's memorial, and then on to a marquee for refreshments.
Refreshments for the dignitaries on the journey over to Helensburgh had been provided in a liberal supply of malt whisky. This proved to be too great a temptation for the two engineers who had been left on board, and by the time the party returned, they were rather the worse for wear, and were unable to stand - let alone operate machinery.
With insufficient steam in the boiler for the return trip, Lord Lithgow rolled up his sleeves and began to feed logs into the fire. Comet set off well enough, but his inexperience in stoking led to frequent drops in steam pressure and cessation of progress. He refused the offer of a tow and the group eventually made it back to the Greenock yard at 10:00 pm, several hours late.
Since the proprietor of the Greenock Telegraph was one of the dignitaries aboard, it is of interest to see how the paper covered the return journey. It stated that by this time it had started raining and as there was insufficient room in the small aft cabin for all the dignitaries some stayed on deck and sheltered under an umbrella although from time to time one had to leave this shelter to operate the bilge pump. Interestingly, the earlier description of the hull had included the fact that Comet had 2 cabins. It is assumed that the other contained the inebriated engineers. The paper goes on to say that she made her way back at 2½ knots, which might have been something of an exaggeration.
The fate of the crew remains unrecorded, so we can only speculate as to whether or not they kept their jobs.
After the commemorative trip, a collection was taken and more than 1,000 members of the pubic paid to go aboard the vessel. The intention had then been to use the money to set up a Comet Museum in Port Glasgow, to house the boat. However, this did not materialise, despite the availability of a redundant building at the shipyard which had been earmarked for this purpose, and there appears to be no record of what happened to the collection.
The replica Comet was taken out of the water and installed over a pond near the town centre in Port Glasgow. The pond was in the middle of a car park, and was eventually drained. Since then, the boat has been refurbished and returned to an upgraded display area, fenced and floodlit on a raised plinth next to the pond, also upgraded in 2006.
A more extensive restoration was carried out immediately prior to 2012, which was the bicentenary of the first sailing of the original PS Comet. There had been hopes that this would have been extensive enough to have allowed the replica Comet to brought into steam again, and sail on the Clyde as part of 200-year anniversary events, but this proved impossible, although the work which was carried out made good all the damage done during the years the replica stood outside, and will ensure it can spend many more years on display.
The replica is owned by Inverclyde District Council.
- Hull: Wood. Built by George Thomson & Son, Buckie.
- Carvel, 1½ inch larch on 3 inch oak frames. Fore and aft cabins. Tiller steering.
- Length overall: 45 feet. Load waterline length, 42 feet 6 inches. Beam, 15 feet 10 inches. Breadth, 11 feet 3 inches. Draft, 3 feet 9 inches. Displacement, 21½ tons.
- Boiler: Wagon type, externally fired, natural draught. Built by Rankin & Blackmore Ltd, Greenock, 1962.
- Pressure: 7 psi.
- Funnel: 12 inch diameter, 25 feet in height, also serves as mast for square sail.
- Engine: Single cylinder, 12½" x 16". Built by John Kincaid & Co Ltd, Greenock, 1962.
- Return connecting rod, crank throw 7½ inches, 70 rpm. Reduction gear to paddle shafts.
- Propulsion: Paddle wheels.
- Four on two shafts, 5 inch diameter, 41 rpm.
2012 marked the bicentenary of the original 1912 PS Comet's inaugural sailing, and provided an opportunity for celebrations and event to be held to mark the event.
While part of this celebration had intended to have the replica Comet refurbished and returned to steam, the work which would have been required to restore the long idle engines was deemed to to great, and it the work consisted of a complete refurbishment of the remainder of the vessel. Unfortunately, this meant the little paddle steamer would not be able to take to water and actually be seen sailing as part of the event.
However, the vessel was removed from its display area in Port Glasgow in 2010, and restored in the nearby Ferguson's shipyard before being returned to the site.
A new Comet web site was launched to coincide with the bicentenary.
- 1812 Comet data
- 1822 Comet data
- 1962 Comet data
- PS Comet described
- 1912 centenary celebrations
- Original PS Comet and engine described
- Story about the replica Comet
- Steamboat Association entry
- Loss of Comet II, October 26, 1825, Scotsman Digital Archive
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