The Clyde produced one-third of all British shipyard production from the 1860s and its pre-eminence was widely accepted by 1900.

The rise of the Clyde as a great centre for shipbuilding was the result of a remarkable concentration of technical expertise and skilled labour. This grew around the work of pioneering shipbuilders and engineers, such as Henry Bell, John Barclay, and Robert Napier.

Henry Bell designed and commissioned the first commercially successful steamship, the Comet, a wooden paddle steamer, launched in 1812. Its engines and boiler were built in Glasgow and the hull at Port Glasgow.

Glasgow Times:

Glasgow Times:

The Comet was the first steam vessel to run commercially in Europe. It operated for eight years on the Clyde, then the Forth, and from September 1819 on a new Glasgow to Fort William service.

Others quickly followed this example and two years later nine steamboats were launched. These were at first for use on the sheltered waters of the Clyde, but by the 1820s larger vessels were being built for the coastal and Irish trades.

Sadly, PS Comet sank in December 1820 near Oban when dangerous weather and navigational error combined. It is now a scheduled monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act of 1979.

Glasgow Times:

Early experiments with steamboats such as the Charlotte Dundas and the Comet stimulated the development of some of the world’s greatest shipyards on the Clyde.

Robert Napier, born in Dumbarton, began his engineering career in Edinburgh. In 1828 he began to manufacture marine engines, establishing the Vulcan Foundry in Washington Street, Glasgow. In 1836 he leased his cousin David Napier’s Lancefield Engine Works.

Glasgow Times:

In 1841 Napier commenced building iron ships at a yard in Govan. Napier became known as “The Father of Clyde Shipbuilding.” He revolutionised the design and construction of steamships and trained many young men who went on to make the river Clyde the world’s greatest centre of shipbuilding.

John Barclay opened the first shipyard in Glasgow itself at Stobcross in 1818. Marine engineering was by then a significant feature of the industrial landscape.

His sons Thomas and Robert inherited the business. In 1844 Robert Curle and James Hamilton became partners with Robert in the firm, which became Robert Barclay & Curle. In 1855 they opened the Clydeholm Shipyard at Whiteinch and the Stobcross yard was sold to the Clyde Navigation Trust in 1874. The firm became Barclay, Curle & Co in 1863.

The Clyde’s early domination of iron ships in the yards established by Napier’s pupils and partners consolidated because the industry fitted in with the wider economic development of the area.

Glasgow Times:

Glasgow had developed as a port, meeting the demand for a wide variety of trading festivals and repair work. It also ensured that the river itself continually developed and local manufacturing industries adapted to supply the wide range of goods necessary for the equipping and furnishing of ships.

The Clyde is not a natural shipbuilding river, certainly not above Bowling. Yet both the Upper Clyde and Lower Clyde were important to the enterprise with their yards building some of the biggest ships.

There were also yards in the uncompromising waters of the river above Glasgow Harbour at Rutherglen and on the Cart at Paisley.

Many yards were extremely cramped for space because of lack of suitable or cheap land for expansion. This same disadvantage on the Thames drove a firm like Yarrows to the overcrowded Clyde in 1908.

Every kind of ship was built on the Clyde, from ocean-going liners to pontoons for reassembly on tropical rivers. The yards themselves did not specialise. The smaller yards on the Cart or at Rutherglen built smaller vessels, but the larger yards turned their skills to a range of vessels.

It was a matter of pride that their engineers and shipbuilders could meet any customer’s specifications and at the same time attempt to advance techniques of design and construction. Russell’s of Port Glasgow stands out as unusual in the production of a standard line of tramp sailing ships and steamers.

Glasgow’s reputation was built from the early 19th century when local and international shipping had provided a market for shipbuilders around the Clyde ports. The Clyde reached its peak in peacetime production by 1913.