HE HAD a way with words, did Henry Bell, steamship pioneer and public baths owner who was born this month 254 years ago.

His advertisement in our sister newspaper The Glasgow Herald on August 14, 1812, beautifully captures the magic and romance of sailing down the Clyde on his fantastic new boat the PS Comet.

“The elegance, comfort, safety and speed of this Vessel requires only to be proved, to meet the approbation of the Public and the Proprietor is determined to do everything in his power to merit public encouragement,” the ad waxes lyrical.

Henry has, he says, “at much expense fitted up a handsome VESSEL to ply upon the RIVER CLYDE BETWEEN GLASGOW AND GREENOCK – to sail by the Power of Wind, Air and Steam…”

Comet Replica, Port Glasgow

Comet Replica, Port Glasgow

The Comet – named after the great comet of 1811 – would leave the Broomielaw on “Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays about mid-day, or such hour thereafter as may answer from the state of the tide, and to leave Greenock on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the morning to suit the tide” and the fare was “four shillings for the best cabin, and three shillings for the second.”

The PS Comet was Europe’s first commercial steamship, designed by a man who worked in Glasgow as a house-carpenter but dreamed of following in his ancestors’ footsteps to become a civil engineer.

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Henry Bell was born in Bathgate in April 1767, the son of a family well known as millwrights, builders and engineers, who had designed harbours, bridges and more across Scotland and beyond.

After completing his stonemason apprenticeship, Henry learned ship modelling and in 1787, pursued his interest in ship mechanics in Bell’s Hill with the engineer Mr James Inglis.

After a spell living and working in London he returned to Scotland and moved to Helensburgh where he and his wife Margaret ran the Baths Inn – now part of a block of apartments on East Clyde Street – and oversaw the running of the local public baths.

According to Grace’s Guide, in late October 1811 Henry worked with John Wood and Co, shipbuilders in Port Glasgow, to build a paddle steamer.

Henry Bell

Henry Bell

It was 42 feet long originally, but Henry had it lengthened by another 32 feet on Helensburgh beach in 1819. The engine was made by John Robertson of Glasgow, and the boiler by David Napier, Camlachlie – Grace’s Guide says: “A story has it that they were evolved from an experimental little steam engine which Bell installed to pump sea water into the Helensburgh Baths.”

The new boat was hugely successful, putting Helensburgh on the map as a tourist destination, and beginning the River Clyde’s long association as a mighty shipbuilding hub.

On August 6, 1812, with Bell and Robertson on board, the Comet made an initial voyage from Port Glasgow to the Broomielaw, then sailed from Glasgow 24 miles down to Greenock. The first voyage with fare-paying passengers was two days later.

Its success prompted much competition, with many more services springing up down the Firth of Clyde and the sea lochs to Largs, Rothesay, Campbeltown and Inveraray within four years.

The PS Comet went on to provide a service through the Crinan Canal to Fort William, calling at some of the islands on the way - the first steamship to provide such a service on these waters – but in 1820, en route back to Glasgow from Oban, it sadly met its end.

Coming into the Dorus Mor tides in Argyll the boat’s engine was not strong enough to cope with the wind and the tide and it washed ashore on Craignish Point, where it split in two, before sinking, fortunately with no loss of life. Henry was on board. The engine was rescued and is now in the Science Museum in London, while other salvaged parts are in the Riverside Museum in Glasgow. There was a Comet II but it was ill-fated, colliding with a steamer off Gourock in 1825 and resulting in the tragic loss of 62 passengers.