The passengers "precipitated into Eternity" when their steamship sank
THE NAME of Henry James Bell has its own special place in the annals of nautical history. The engineer, born in Torphichen, West Lothian, designed the world's first practical steamship, the Comet, and had it built in a shipyard in Port Glasgow. It was launched in 1812 and is one of Scotland's much-lauded inventions. Bell was a pioneer in his field in the early days of steamship transportation which were fraught with danger.
What few people know is that Bell commissioned the building of two Comets. The original vessel was carrying passengers from Fort William down the west cost to the Firth of Clyde in 1820 when strong winds drove it ashore on to rocks near the Argyll port of Crinan. All the passengers, including Bell, escaped, but the vessel was wrecked, an ignominious end for such a historic ship.
But the fate of the second vessel, Comet II, was to be far more disastrous. It shocked Bell to the core and forced him to end any further involvement in steamship design - only 13 years after his great invention.
In the early morning darkness of 21 October, 1825, the Comet was again on the West Highland run, carrying a boat-load of passengers from Inverness and Fort William to the Clyde. As the vessel rounded Kempock Point, between Gourock and the Cloch Lighthouse, she was struck by another steamboat, the Ayr. The collision was so violent that the Comet sank like a stone, killing 62 of the 80 passengers on board.The grim reporting of the time was evident in the following day's Glasgow Courier which wrote that "in rounding the point the vessels came in contact with each other with such force and violence that the Comet went down almost instantaneously, when above 70 persons were, in a moment, precipitated into the deep, into Eternity".
In equally woeful tones the newspaper noted that "there is too much reason to dread that the greater number of those who perished are persons in the superior ranks of life".
Most of those who died when the Comet sank were indeed wealthy, but then only the wealthy had the financial means to travel on a steamship in those days. By all accounts the men, women and children on board the vessel had been in high spirits as they approached the final stage of their journey from the Highlands to Glasgow.
Among those who died was Captain Sutherland of the 33rd Regiment. He and his wife had been married only five days. In her desperate bid to survive, Mrs Sutherland clung on to the only cabin passenger to survive, Colin Anderson. The waves were so high, however, that she lost her grip and drowned. Another woman, Janet Millar, survived when she was driven ashore between two tables. Her two-year old daughter Susan was lost.
The bodies washed ashore at Greenock included two ladies said to have been "genteelly dressed" as well as two black slaves, a sure sign that those on board were wealthy. It was not uncommon for the tobacco barons of Glasgow, who carried out a lot of their business in Virginia and the southern states of the US, to have Negro servants.
The master of the Comet, Duncan McInnes, and the ship's pilot, Peter McBride, both survived and were tried before the High Court for Admiralty accused of the culpable killing of those who had perished. The court alleged that the two men behaved in a reckless manner, neglected to cause a light to be affixed to the boat and continued to steer the vessel without a light.McInnes, who later helped found the Anchor shipping line, was found guilty and sentenced to three months in Greenock Prison. McBride was found not guilty.
For Henry Bell, the loss of his second boat, particularly in such tragic circumstances, was enough to make him give up his work in steam navigation. He moved on to other projects but had such a poor grasp of handling his finances that, when he died in 1830 at the Hydropathic Institute in Helensburgh, he was in a state of "virtual poverty".
The disaster caught the attention of a young Alfred, Lord Tennyson who penned a short work entitled, Collision of the Ayr and Comet Steamboats. Part of which reads:
"The hearts were glowing, the steps were light, the melody was free
That ushered in that Midnight jollity;
Sad was the shock and fearful was the doom
That quenched those happy hearts so suddenly;
And sad to see their kindred come in quest o' the dearest brow, with hushing
Oh; That those blessed days should ne'er return."
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