Centennial History of Wemyss Bay’s Station and Pier
by Donald Kelly, Muasdale, Kintyre, Argyll, and formerly of Skelmorlie. (2003).
Undoubtedly one of Britain’s finest architectural gems, Wemyss Bay’s railway station and pier complex was opened officially on Monday, December 7, 1903. Designed by James Miller, the Caledonian Railway company’s own architect, the glass-roofed complex, with its ‘Queen Anne’ styled half-timbered frontage finished with roughcast and red sandstone, is dominated by a four-sided sixty-foot high clock tower. A truly majestic building, it so captured the minds of a party of Japanese government officials, visiting Lord Inverclyde at nearby Castle Wemyss, that they requested copies of its plans in order that they could build an exact copy when they returned to Japan later in the following year. It would be interesting indeed to know if Wemyss Bay has a ‘Japanese twin’!
At the beginning of the 1860’s, the American Civil War in progress, the fastest of the Clyde steamers being sold as blockade-runners and the new Greenock and Wemyss Bay Railway Company begun building the new ten-mile section from Port Glasgow to Wemyss Bay via the Kip Valley in November 1862, McKellar and all the other private steamer operators found themselves obliged to adopt a more business-like approach to their dealings.
The original single-track line from Port Glasgow to Wemyss Bay opened on Monday, May 15, 1865 and it was built essentially both as an extension to the 1841 Glasgow to Greenock Railway and as part of a plan to build a line from Greenock to Largs. Double track was laid along the line from Port Glasgow to Upper Greenock and from Dunrod to Wemyss Bay in 1903 and, with land reclaimed from the shore and a new sea wall, Wemyss Bay’s station and pier termini completely rebuilt on the site of its predecessor.
In the original scheme for the Wemyss Bay Line, approval had been given to erect a new station within the grounds of “Clutha”, a large villa on the Wemyss Estate at the three-way junction of Wallace, Undercliff and Wemyss Bay Roads, and passengers would then walk the short distance to “Whiting Bay” pier, it built around the late 1840’s, but opposition from the Burns family, then rebuilding Castle Wemyss and its surrounding estate, forced the building of the station to their present site.
The change of plan was just as well for, at the end of 1865, on Hogmanay, the old Whiting Bay Pier, which had been repaired after a damaging gale in February 1856, was totally wrecked in another storm just months after the new Wemyss Bay line opened and, had the original plans gone ahead to build the station on the Wemyss Estate, steamer passengers would have had to walk or hire carriages to take them to Skelmorlie’s Pier at Meadow Place, which had opened in 1857. It closed at the end of the 1869 season as a consequence of the success of the new through rail-steamer connections at Wemyss Bay, the old Inverkip steamer ferry also disappearing with the opening of Inverkip’s railway station.
From its opening, on Monday, May 15, 1865, the line was operated by the Caledonian Railway Company, they taking over the line’s builders, the Greenock and Wemyss Bay Railway Company, in 1889, and then from May 1, 1890, running the trains into Glasgow’s Central Station, instead of Bridge Street.
The inaugural 1865 service provided four trains daily to the city, putting Wemyss Bay ‘within an hour of Glasgow and within seventeen minutes of Greenock’. All trains, these being up to eighteen carriages long, were advertised to include 1st class coaches and 3rd class with seats’, the older 3rd class carriages on the Greenock line being still only for standing passengers! 1st class return fares to Glasgow were 3/6d, and 3rd class 2/-.
Without powers to operate their own steamer services, the railway company formed the Wemyss Bay Steamboat Company and ordered three new steamers, the “Largs”, to compete directly on the Largs and Millport station against Donald McKellar’s now ageing Largs and Millport steamer fleet which had dominated the route from 1832 onwards, the “Kyles” and the “Bute” to open up a new route from Wemyss Bay, through the Kyles of Bute, to Ardrishaig, against MacBrayne’s year-old “Iona III” sailing from Glasgow.
Last to join the trio of new ships was the “Bute” she being built after the company had sold the original half-complete ship at a profit to American blockade runners and, shortly after the delivery of the new “Bute”, there came too the 1863-built “Victory”, purchased from Captain Duncan Stewart of Rothesay.
Until the coming of the railway, the steamer journey from Glasgow to Largs, calling at Renfrew, Cartsmouth, Erskine Ferry, Dumbarton, Greenock, Inverkip Ferry, Whiting (Wemyss) Bay, and Skelmorlie, took five hours and cost 7/6d cabin fare single. Now the new Wemyss Bay railway, for an all-in fare of 2/7d., reduced the journey time to around an hour and a half, a third of the time being spent on the steamer.
Within months of opening, both the new line and its connecting steamer services were in trouble, the single-track operation between Port Glasgow and Wemyss Bay delaying many scheduled train services and the steamers unable to catch up on sailings due to their general lack of speed. Barely a year old, both the “Kyles” and the “Bute” were sold south to London owners and the steamer company, rescheduling its sailings, now bought the more economic, also new 1866-built “Argyle” to replace them.
On Tuesday September 3, 1878, the ‘Kyles’‘. renamed “Princess Alice” by her London owners, was involved in Britain’s greatest ever river disaster when she was run down, by the screw-steamer ‘Bywell Castle’’ capsizing and sinking immediately with the loss of over 600 lives.
With 1866 came the building of the world-famous Skelmorlie Measured Mile, for ship speed trials, its northern-most markers behind Skelmorlie’s pier, below the site of the then building ‘Hydro’ Hotel. The official notice for the opening of the new facility is dated July 4, 1866.
In 1868, with passenger trade to the coastal resorts on the increase, the Wemyss Bay Railway directors came to an arrangement with up-river steamer operator Graham, Brymner & Co. to let their steamer “Lancelot`’ call daily on her Largs and Millport service. Though the unreliability of the year-old paddle-steamer led to the arrangement being quickly terminated, she was later bought by Gillies and Campbell for the Wemyss Bay service and ended her days in Constantinople, now Istanbul.
In 1869, still dogged by the single-track working of the line and then in financial trouble, the Wemyss Bay Steamboat Co. was put into liquidation.
Well understanding the persuasions of the river’s other steamer operators and their desire to have the Wemyss Bay railway closed, the railway company directors turned to Gillies and Campbell, the local father and son-in-law company, to take over the Wemyss Bay steamer services. With Captain James Gillies already having purchased McKellar’s two-funnelled 1852-built “Venus”, his son-in-law Alexander Campbell now took over the old Wemyss Bay Steamboat Company’s “Largs” and “Argyle”.
With the opening of the railway to Greenock’s Princes Pier in December 1869 and the appearance of Williamson’s record-breaking “Sultana” on the Greenock to Rothesay route, she still to this day holding the record of just 57 minutes for the Greenock Princes Pier to Rothesay run, the Wemyss Bay directors took notice and rescheduled their connections to cut the through time from Glasgow to Rothesay down to 80 minutes. The Wemyss Bay to Rothesay ‘gangway-off to gangway-on’ record is held by the 1903-built “Duchess of Fife”, she disembarking her passengers within 19 minutes of leaving Wemyss Bay
Gillies and Campbell went on to build four ships for the Wemyss Bay services. The 1872-built “Lady Gertrude” was wrecked at Toward Pier in 1876 when her engineer was unable to put her engine astern. Her machinery however was salvaged and fitted into the 1877-built “Adela”. Also in1877 Gillies and Campbell built the “Sheila”, she later bought by the North British Railway, after MacBrayne’s “Columba” rammed her at Innellan in September 1881 and renamed “Guy Mannering” and then sold on to Buchanan’s who renamed her again, as the “Isle of Bute”. Gillies and Campbell would also buy Hill’s “Anna” , built in 1867 as the “Dunoon Castle”, for their service runs.
In 1878 the new Inverary steamer “Lord of the Isles” and, in 1880, the new ‘tee-total’ Arran steamer “Ivanhoe” began calling daily at Wemyss Bay. Impressed by their style and appearance, Gillies and Campbell, who all too often abandoned their regular services to their older steamers and made excursion sailings to the Holy Loch, Arrochar, Round Bute and round Arran, built their own answer to the new excursion steamers, the “Victoria” the first Clyde steamer to have electric lighting, in 1886 and to add to her glory, she was presented with a flag from Queen Victoria.
The twenty year long relationship between the railway company and Gillies and Campbell was plagued by arguments about the proper apportionment of through rail-steamer ticket revenues, and about the steamer partnership’s practice of leaving its older ships to run the regular services while putting the new steamers on more lucrative excursion sailings.
In 1877, steamers left Millport at 7.20 and 10.40 am and at 4 pm, then leaving Largs at 7.55 and 11.10 am and 4.30 pm for Wemyss Bay. The return calls from Wemyss Bay arrived in Largs at 10.05 am, 12.20, 4.10 (Saturdays only) and 5.50 pm with Millport arrivals being at 10.30 am, 12.50, 4.40 (Saturdays only) and 6.20 pm, a second steamer operating the Rothesay service in similar fashion to connect with the Glasgow trains at Wemyss Bay and Gillies and Campbell’s other ships then free to do excursion work.
Though Gillies and Campbell had no objection to the Campbeltown Steamer Company’s weekly Monday morning call at around 8 am, from Campbeltown, Saddell, Carradale, Pirnmill and Lochranza, to connect with the Glasgow train, they protested strongly at the arrangements to allow the new 1878 Inverary steamer the “Lord of the Isles” and the new 1880 Arran steamer, the teetotal “Ivanhoe” to call daily at Wemyss Bay, arrangements which could potentially deprive them of lucrative excursion passengers and, in the winter of 1880/81, they had actually withdrawn their connecting railway service steamers in protest for a three month period to force a better deal for themselves from the railway company.
It too should be said that Gillies and Campbell had also lost revenue in the 1880’s when the The Glasgow and South West Railway line, from Ardrossan, reached Fairlie, in1880, though passengers continued to be ferried ashore there till Fairlie’s pier opened on 1 July 1882, Hill & Co’s steamer “Cumbrae” (ex- “Marquis of Lorne”), built in 1863 as the “Victory” and herself once owned by the old Wemyss Bay Steamboat Company, then too opening up a new service to Millport and the two-year-old pier at Kilchattan Bay which had opened on July 14, 1880 by Gillies and Campbell’s own steamers “Lancelot” and “Adela”.
The Ardrossan to Fairlie railway was extended to ‘Largs Bridge’ in 1885 and yet more traffic ‘diverted’ away from the Wemyss Bay steamers.
On Saturday, June 16, 1888, shortly after 1 pm, came the first major accident on Skelmorlie’s Measured Mile when the new Southampton and Isle of Wight Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’s paddle steamer “Princess of Wales” was cut in two, abaft of her engine room, by the new “Balmoral Castle” also on speed trials. Although Gillies and Campbell’s “Adela”, on her usual run from from Rothesay to Wemyss Bay, made a fruitless attempt to tow the forepart of the stricken paddle steamer ashore failed, everyone on board the run-down ship was brought safely ashore without loss.
Six years later, in January 1897, the “Meg Merrilees”, on her mid-day run to Largs, had a narrow escape when the new destroyer “Electra”, also on trial, ‘dashed up her wake’ and struck the Largs-bound steamer on the stern. Luckily, there were no casualties and the damage only slight.
Ten years later, in April 1890, the new Gourock railway open and taking away a large proportion of the Rothesay steamer traffic from Wemyss Bay, Gillies and Campbell, their steamer contract due for renewal in September, gave the railway but a week’s notice, instead of six months’, of their intention to again withdraw their service of steamers and force a better deal in their new contract.
The Caledonian Railway, who had bought out the Wemyss Bay Railway Company’s shareholders in August 1889, had however been anticipating events and had just taken delivery of the new “Marchioness of Bute” and “Marchioness of Breadalbane”, they now respectively being assigned to the Rothesay and Millport services, the latter ship then serving Largs, Millport and Kilchattan Bay until 1933, and Gillies and Campbell had no option but to sell off their fleet.
Of Gillies and Campbell’s old 1868-built Wemyss Bay steamer “Lancelot”, it is interesting to note that she, unlike her running-mates, did not disappear immediately from the Clyde after her owners’ demise but indeed, on August 14, 1890, became the first passenger steamer to sail up the newly dredged River Cart to Paisley for an inaugural cruise down-river to Dunoon, Largs, Millport and Rothesay. 76 years and nearly a month later, on September 17, 1966, the Caledonian Steam Packet Company’s “Maid of Argyll”, on a Clyde River Steamer Club charter, gave the last ever passenger sailing from Paisley, her master himself, Captain John Anderson, then coming from Skelmorlie, a strange coincidence of local connections.
Even before the opening of the new Caledonian Railway extension to Gourock, on June 1, 1889, the Caledonian Railway had had to acknowledge the popularity of the Wemyss Bay route amongst Innellan and Rothesay travellers, for, when the Upper Greenock tunnel on the single track line had collapsed, the Innellan and Rothesay passengers, despite being able to take a steamer directly from Greenock’s Princes Pier, had simply and loyally taken the train to the Greenock terminus and walked up the hill to Upper Greenock to join the Wemyss Bay train to catch their usual and purposefully delayed steamer connections.
In September 1900, a disastrous fire, taking four hours to get under control, damaged much of the upper part of Wemyss Bay’s pier. A much later fire, on March 1, 1977, would once again fairly seriously damage the covered walkway to the pier..
Exposed to the west and south, stormy weather often caused berthing difficulties at Wemyss Bay and on December 3, 1891, the new “Caledonia”, after eventually managing to berth and disembark her passengers, lost her mate, a Mr Muir, washed overboard as she left. A boat was lowered and manned by two passengers and, unable to find the mate’s body, only with great effort and risk were they themselves eventually able to land on the shore.
On another treacherous winter night, the decking on the end of the pier, icy and constantly sprayed by the seas, one of the piermen, Charlie Moodie, nearly lost his life when trying to catch the heaving line from one of the ‘ABC’ car ferries. Concentrating on catching the rope, he missed his footing on the icy planking and only by sheer luck managed to hold on to the edge of one of the main pier timbers as he slid off the pier. The car ferry skipper managed to clear safely away from the pier’s edge as somehow the lucky Charlie managed to pull himself back on to the icy pier where, non-plussed, he safely caught the car ferry ropes!
In the mid-1890’s the Caledonian Railway set to work planning improvements for the Wemyss Bay line and in 1899, replaced the small Drummond 0-6-0 and 4-4-0 locomotives with fifteen of J.F. McIntosh’s ‘812‘class 0-6-0 engines, fitted with the same boilers as in the 1896-built ‘Dunalastair’ class express locomotives and fitted with Westinghouse braking systems.
With land reclaimed from the shore and a new sea wall built at Wemyss Bay, an engine turntable, above the Wemyss Bay Hotel, was also incorporated into the new track layout at Wemyss Bay which, like Upper Greenock and Inverkip stations, could accommodate trains of up to eighteen carriages in length, and new bridges and tunnels built along the line so that double track could be laid from Port Glasgow to Upper Greenock, and from Dunrod to Wemyss Bay.
The pier was doubled in width and an additional seaward section, of near the original pier’s width, added, it, unlike some of the other Clyde piers which had 3-disc ’Allan’ signal boxes, having a tall mast with 5 railway-type signal arms and a small signal box at its outer end. The family of the designer of the ‘Allan’ Clyde pier signalling system, Charles Allan, third son of the the founder of the Allan Line, stayed for some time in ‘Ashcraig House’, near the southern end of Skelmorlie’s world-famous Measured Mile.
Probably the most well-known accident on Skelmorlie’s Measured Mile was the sinking of the Campbeltown Company’s beautiful yacht-like , uninsured “Kintyre”, on the morning of Wednesday, September 18, 1907, when she was run down by the 3,500 ton ”Maori”. With her crew picked up by the “Marchioness of Breadalbane”, Captain McKechnie and Chief Engineer William Lennox were seen together on the bridge of the stricken “Kintyre” as they tried to guide her inshore towards the beach. Though Captain Mckechnie was rescued by, then schoolboy, Ninian Bannatyne Stewart, the chief engineer of the “Kintyre” was never found.
As a consequence of the “Titanic” disaster in 1912, the demand for extra lifeboats soared and Skelmorlie joiner John Hunter became involved in the trade, his lifeboats hauled by horse downhill to the new railway goods yard, beside Wemyss Bay’s railway bridge, and then railed direct to Harland and Wolff and John Brown’s shipyards in Glasgow for both G. & J. Burns and Cunard Line ships.
In 1903, the first completed section of the double track railway opened on June 1, MacBrayne’s “Iona (III)” introduced a new twice daily sailing from Ardrishaig and Tarbert to Wemyss Bay and Greenock. The new turbine steamers “King Edward” and “QueenAlexandra (I)” were also calling daily at Wemyss Bay, the “Queen Alexandra (I)” on the Fairlie to Campbeltown service and the” King Edward” on a new service, via the Kyles of Bute to Tarbert and Ardrishaig, a route which would be extended to Inverary in 1904.
Too in 1903, after trials on Skelmorlie’s Measured Mile on June 5, came the beautiful little “Duchess of Fife”, she designed by Percy Hillhouse, son of the Caledonian Railway Company’s General Goods Manager.
The “Duchess of Fife”, later a Dunkirk veteran, would become the main Millport steamer service from 1937 until succeeded by the 1935-built “Marchioness of Lorne” in 1953. The “Marchioness of Lorne” had a secret, a Page 3 girl, worked out in a marquetry wood panel, hidden behind a sheet of simple plywood in her lower deck bar.. Perhaps this ‘work of art’ is still somewhere in Port Glasgow.
With the coming of ‘The Kaiser’s War’, an anti-submarine boom was put in place between Dunoon and the Cloch Light and all services to Innellan, Rothesay etc. focused on Wemyss Bay. The Campbeltown services were diverted to Ardrossan during July and August 1915 before too coming to Wemyss Bay. Though normal up-river sailings recommenced on April 1, 1919, many of the Clyde steamers, after war service, were unfit for the new season and the old “Benmore”, the last steamer not to have been fitted with deck saloons, was put on the Wemyss Bay to Rothesay service.
Almost at the end of WWI, on May 9, 1918, off Cherbourg, the second “Queen Alexandra”, she later sold to MacBraynes, given a third ‘dummy’ funnel and renamed “Saint Columba”, rammed and sank the German submarine “UB.78”.
In World War II, the anti-submarine boom was again put across the upper Clyde and lower firth services. Again focused on Wemyss Bay, the turbine steamer “Duchess of Montrose” on the Rothesay run and the “Lochfyne” on the Ardrishaig service.
In the same way as the summers of 1861, 1906 and 1935 brought record traffic to the Clyde coast, the wonderful summer of 1955 saw the nineteen ships of the Clyde carrying more than four million passengers and fifty-one thousand cars.
The Wemyss Bay to Rothesay car ferry service was opened on October 1, 1954 by the new “Cowal”, the first Clyde ship to be fitted with radar. Based at Rothesay, she gave Wemyss Bay a two-hourly service, seven days a week, lying overnight on Saturdays at Wemyss Bay. The Millport ‘steamer’, the diesel-electric paddler “Talisman”, passing her on Saturday evenings and taking the last ‘up-river’ run from Rothesay to Dunoon and Gourock, a practice which continued, after the withdrawal of the “Talisman”, in 1967, till the 1970s.
As cross-river traffic continued to build over the years, so too did the growth in foreign holidays and the last ‘proper’ year of the old Clyde steamer sailings and connections came to an end in the autumn of 1964 when the old “Duchess of Montrose” and the “Jeannie Deans” were withdrawn.
Interestingly, the “Jeannie Deans” and the majestic Canadian Pacific Railway Company liner “Empress of Scotland”, originally the “Empress of Japan”, had, like the 1903 “Duchess of Fife”, been designed by the same naval architect, Percy Hillhouse, the son of the old Caledonian Railway Company’s General Goods Manager.
A new drive-on linkspan was inaugurated at Wemyss Bay on May 20, 1977 by the former 1957-built Arran car ferry “Glen Sannox (III)”, the on-going pier work two years later shortening the main pier to about its original 1865 length and the 1903 signal mast being dismantled.
Though much of the glory of Wemyss Bay’s station and pier complex has been restored in recent years, it is impossible to recapture any sense of the hustle and bustle of the heyday of the steamers and the steam trains except on film, the old British Transport Commission’s film “Days at the Coast”, with a documentary by the late Bernard Braden, being still generally available and occasionally shown on Channel 4 television.
The Clyde is not the same without its steamers and the sight of the “Waverley” or the “Balmoral” solitarily passing up and down makes it hard to picture or imagine ‘the way we were’ and nostalgia hunters need to go further afield to find the fleet.
While both the old turbine steamer “Queen Mary” and the Maid-class “Maid of Ashton”, now the “Hispaniola”, are moored in London, near Hungerford Bridge, as restaurant-bar ships and the old “Glen Sannox”, now renamed, runs pilgrims across the Red Sea, there are two other Maid-class ships still in service in Italy, in the five-strong fleet of NLG.
The former “Maid of Cumbrae”, which was altered to carry cars on the Gourock – Dunoon service in March 1972, is now the “Capri Express” and had her car deck again enlarged and her passenger accommodation reduced in the winter of 1991/1992, and is almost exclusively on the summer only 1 hour 10 minute Sorrento – Naples run, making four round trips daily and only occasional trips on the Sorrento – Capri service, it taking around 50 minutes for the crossing. The other Maid, the former “Maid of Skelmorlie”, now called the “Ala”, was converted to a car ferry by her Italian buyers in 1973 and her car carrying capacity increased to fall in line with that of her sister, in the Spring of 2001. The “Ala” is now on charter to a firm called Di Maio of Procida and runs the 40 minute crossing from Procida to Poyguoli.