© Rutherglen Heritage Society
Researched by Carrick McDonald
From the script of 'Rutherglen Shipyard', a programme which features in CamGlen Radio’s ‘Halfway to Burgh’ local history series.
Researching the industrial heritage of the CamGlen Radio area, I was intrigued to find out that Rutherglen had its own shipyard, and that some of the ships built there sailed in locations all round the world. So I decided to find out more about the shipyard, and about the remarkable man who was the driving force behind it.
I’m standing on the Clyde Walkway, a short distance down river from the railway bridge over the Clyde at Dalmarnock. If you’ve ever looked out the train as you’re crossing that bridge, you might have noticed a boatyard with some yachts moored at a jetty and sometimes another vessel up on a slipway. This is the home of Rutherglen Cruising Club.
Where I am now is just a bit further down river from there, on the opposite bank of the Clyde. It’s hard to imagine it now, but back in Victorian times, there was a full-sized shipyard over there, just along from where Rutherglen Cruising Club's boatyard is. I always associate shipbuilding on the Clyde with names like Fairfield in Govan, John Brown in Clydebank, or Denny at Dumbarton. I’d never have thought there was any shipbuilding as far up river as Rutherglen, because the river looks too narrow up here, and I would think, too shallow.
Left, Rutherglen Cruising Club on the Clyde to the East of the site of Rutherglen shipyard
Looking across the river to where the shipyard was, there’s certainly no trace of it now. All I can see is a pretty steep bank, covered in thick trees, and at the top of the slope, there's a steel fence, behind which is Rutherglen Industrial Estate. There's a street in the estate called Seath Road, which, I've discovered, is named after the man who established the shipyard in the first place.
To the west of the shipyard was the ancient Rutherglen Quay.
Right, the location today of Rutherglen shipyard, on the Clyde near Rutherglen Industrial Estate. Rutherglen Quay lay just to the west.
From Rutherglen Lore
William Ross Shearer, 1922
At an inquiry held in 1841, some exceedingly curious
and highly interesting facts were ascertained on the
subject of the trade and shipping to and from Rutherglen about this time (1770).
Witnesses remembered the coal trade
of Rutherglen, and boats coming to Rutherglen Quay.
Some of the boats would carry 30 carts of coals of 12 cwts.
Boats then went up as high as Clyde Iron Works, to a
coal pit there called Smylie's Work, close upon the river
on the north side. The men on board were Highlanders,
and could speak little English...
It was a fine quay in those days. At a time when there
was a fresh on the river, and boats could not be laden,
as many as twenty could be seen lying off the Quay,
waiting for coals. On ordinary occasions, only two or
three boats would be waiting. In those days coals were
scarce, and it was a large pit which could put out sixty
carts a day; so that a vessel was obliged to lie sometimes
eight days for a cargo.
Highland fishing boats with fresh herrings came to the
Quay during the summer months; they were smaller than
the coal boats. The bellman generally was sent through
Rutherglen, announcing their arrival, and the populace
flocked to the Quay to purchase them.
The boats which came to Rutherglen were lighters,
fishing gabberts, or long flat-bottomed boats. There were
also masted vessels, carrying from twenty to forty tons
burden; the masts were so constructed as to admit
lowering them when passing through the old Bridge of
Glasgow. The boats usually went down the river with
the ebb tide, propelled by poles to keep them off the banks.
After Rutherglen Bridge was built ( 1775), the coal boats
ceased to ply, but the shipment of herring, timber, sand,
slates, iron, etc., continued for some considerable time
Above, photograph from Rutherglen Lore of Rutherglen Quay c. 1902. Clydeford Chemical Works owned by J & J White are seen in the background.
Above, 1860 Ordnance Survey map highlighting Seath's 'Boat Building Yard' and Rutherglen Quay.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.
Above, looking across to the site of Rutherglen Quay from the Clyde Walkway, October 2023..
Photo: Carrick McDonald
I came across a painting on the internet of Rutherglen shipyard by a Victorian artist called James Docharty. It's actually quite a good picture, and it depicts the exact spot I'm looking across to now. It shows the shipyard with four quite sizeable vessels, all under construction. You can almost hear the sounds of those vessels getting built.
One’s got all sorts of flags and pennants attached to its masts, suggesting that it's due to be launched quite soon. All the vessels are sitting at an angle with their sterns pointing downriver towards Glasgow.
In the painting, the area around the ships is completely clear of trees, unlike today, and you can quite clearly see in the background the unmistakable shape of the tower of Rutherglen Town Hall. Now that was built in 1862, so I assume that Docharty’s painting was done in the late-1860s, 1870s maybe? The original painting is in Hamilton Museum.
Above, painting of Rutherglen shipyard by James.Docharty, ARSA (1829-1878) Image © South Lanarkshire Council.
The starting point for this story is with the shipyard’s founder, Thomas Seath, without whom, there wouldn’t have been a shipyard at Rutherglen.
Thomas Bollen Seath was born in Prestonpans in 1820. At the age of 8, he moved with his parents to Glasgow, apparently so that their son could obtain good medical attention following a spinal injury which was to trouble him all his life. He left school at 14, and served with his father on the steamer which plied between Glasgow and Liverpool, operated by Thomson & McConnell. Young Seath showed an aptitude for life at sea, and gained his masters ticket. Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History tells us that despite his youth, his employers showed great confidence in Seath, placing him, aged only 18, in charge of the steamer Vulcan. Later, Thomson & McConnell got him to oversee the amalgamation of their company with a rival business. But as Grace’s Guide puts it, ‘To be a trusted servant is good, but it is better to be your own master’. So it was that Thomas Seath began building iron ships at Meadowside in Partick in the early 1840s.
Here, he built his first ships: Nelson, Alma and Artizan. Built in 1856, Artizan seems to be the link between Seath’s shipbuilding activity at Meadowside, and the setting up of the shipyard at Rutherglen. This ship was built to run a passenger service between Rutherglen and Glasgow. In the mid-1850s, railways were still in their infancy, so it was thought that the quickest way to get from the Royal Burgh to the City was by steamship down the Clyde. Seath saw an opportunity, and set up his Upper Clyde Navigation Service. On Queen Victoria’s birthday, 24th. May, 1856, with 400 passengers on board and watched by thousands of spectators, Artizan started on her first trip to Glasgow. The ship plied the fifteen-minute journey between Rutherglen Quay and Hutchesontown Bridge in Glasgow, six times a day in each direction. The fares charged were 3d in the cabin and 2d steerage with a cabin return at 4d. So popular was this service, that in four months the little steamer had carried no fewer than 36,000 passengers.
The increasing focus on shipbuilding, which Seath transferred from Meadowside to Rutherglen in 1856, meant that he could no longer devote the time to the passenger service, and he reluctantly gave it up. If Rutherglen had lost its river service to Glasgow, it gained a new industry. Business at Seath’s little shipyard grew steadily. In the next 46 years, the yard produced no less than 325 ships. The location of the yard, immediately to the east of Rutherglen quay, was an advantageous site, as the bend in the river to the west of the yard provided room for the diagonal launching of his ships. We saw that when we were down at the river earlier. As the shallow, twisting non-tidal nature of the river made large-scale shipbuilding impractical, Seath concentrated on vessels less than 60m in length and with a very shallow draft.
The huge growth in the 19th century in the demand for ships for the overseas market, enabled him to break into the ‘knock-down’ market and here he developed an enviable expertise in building small vessels for delivery in package form or sometimes as deck cargo on larger ships to places as far afield as Burma and Australia.
In his book Ships and Shipbuilders: Pioneers of Design and Construction, the author Fred Walker considers this of Seath's:
‘Without question, their most famous hull was Ship No 258, the Clyde paddle steamer Lucy Ashton, built in 1888 for the North British Steam Packet Company, an arm of the North British Railway, later to become part of the LNER group. Throughout WW2 Lucy Ashton served year in and year out, round the clock, on passenger and mail services and on tendering troopships at the Tail of the Bank.’ (See photo of the Lucy Ashton at the end of this article.)
Seath's close connection with Clyde passenger shipping was not confined
to the lower reaches of the river. In 1884 he built the first six of new
small passenger ferries for the Clyde Trustees for their ‘Up and Down‘ service
between Stockwell Street Bridge and Whiteinch. These little ferries were
known as Cluthas and were numbered 1,2,3,4,5, and so on. In all there were 12 in
service, the other six being built at different yards. These vessels operated
a very successful service for nearly 20 years, carrying annually over 2.5
million passengers. The opening of the Underground in 1897 and the appearance
of the trams in 1901 reduced their viability and the ‘Up and Down‘ service was
withdrawn on 30th November 1903.
Other ships built at Rutherglen ended up in service far from the Clyde. For service on Windermere, Ullswater, Loch Maree, Loch Etive, and other inland lakes and lochs, Thomas Seath designed and built some handsome vessels, which were transported in parts and sections, then later re-built and launched at their final homes. This was the ‘knock-down’ concept we talked about earlier.
The current brochure for Ullswater Steamers tells us that their M.Y. Lady of the Lake launched on 26th June 1877, is believed to be the oldest working passenger vessel in the world. She was transported in three sections by rail to Penrith and thereafter by horse-drawn carts to the lakeside, where she was assembled. She was joined in 1889, by her sister ship MY. Raven, also built at Rutherglen. Raven is also part of Ullswater Steamers’ current fleet. This vessel is not to be confused with the SY Raven, also built by Seath, in 1871 for the Furness Railway, and currently in storage at the Windermere Jetty Museum.
The yard’s output included two royal yachts. In 1872 they built Fairy for the King of Burma and Little Eastern for the King of Siam, Other vessels ending up far from Rutherglen included the MV Nelcebee which served in the Australian coastal trade up until 1982.
Towards the end of 1902, Thomas Seath retired from business having built 275 vessels at the Rutherglen yard. He died in February 1903 and is buried in the Southern Necropolis. Shortly after his death, the yard was taken over by William Chalmers & Co who transferred their shipbuilding business from Govan to Rutherglen.
Chalmers & Co continued at Rutherglen, producing over 100 vessels until 1919 when they were succeeded by Rennie, Richie &
Newport. The yard finally closed in 1923. Looking at the lists of ships built by these two later firms, it’s clear that the shipyard’s heyday was in definitely in Seath’s time.
Seath had an influence on shipbuilding far beyond that of many yards with greater output; and despite being one of the smallest of the fifty or so, shipyards on the Clyde, the company led in specialist and knock-down tonnage and exported small vessels of the highest quality to all corners of the globe.
Right, Clutha No. 5 passing the mouth of the River Kelvin. Image credit: The Glasgow Story
Artizan was a remarkable vessel operating with a draft of only 27 inches and with the main engine controls operated from the bridge – arguably a maritime first. Artizan was sold for service on the Lakes of Killarney, and its replacement, Royal Burgh, was sold in turn for service on the Rhine in Germany. Royal Burgh’s replacement on the Glasgow service, Royal Reefer, was itself sold for service on the River Neva in Imperial Russia. This all suggests that the reputation of the quality of these ships was spreading internationally. It’s said that Seath’s experience at sea as a young man gave him a strong awareness of the right way to build ships, leading to a solid emphasis on build quality and the handling capabilities of the vessels he produced.
Right, drawing from Rutherglen Lore of Royal Burgh on its way to Rutherglen, c. 1857.
After launching, the vessels were towed downstream to have engines fitted, at either Partick or Port Glasgow, as minimum draught was required to pass over the old weir which was not removed until 1879.
A number of Seath’s vessels were to become well known on the
Clyde services: Windsor Castle (1875), Benmore (1876), Vale of Doon (1866), and Isle of Arran (1892), the last paddle-steamer
built at Rutherglen. Of these vessels the Windsor Castle differed
from all other vessels on the Clyde at the time, by having her
bridge placed forward of her funnel rather than astern of it as was the custom.
Right, Vale of Doon, 1866
From Rutherglen Lore by W. Ross Shearer, 1922
'For sea-worthiness Rutherglen boats had a world-wide reputation, and on one occasion only in the history of the firm was it found necessary to prove their stability before a court of law. That was in the case of a boat which, through some unknown cause, had foundered in the Bay of Biscay. This boat had passed its final tests and was en route for its sailing quarters abroad. The case was taken to London, but on the evidence of Mr. John Reid, the foreman of the shipyard, the firm was absolved from all blame.'
And what do we make of the man himself? Well, there's an old sepia photograph which is thought to be of Seath and his wife. The photo is typical of its time: a posed studio portrait of a successful Victorian ‘Mr. and Mrs.’ in their prime.
The lady in the picture is Helen Young, who Seath married in 1848. She is seated rather stiffly, and dressed in her finery, draped in a large paisley shawl, wearing leather gloves and a rather fetching hat. Seath, also dressed in his best, is standing behind his wife, leaning over a studio prop wall, holding a bowler hat and a walking cane. He’s got a beard, but no moustache. Unlike his wife who is unsmiling, as was the custom in Victorian portrait photos, Seath has a slight, but unmistakeable smile.
From the book Captains of Industry by William S. Murphy published in 1901, we’re told that Seath was:
‘Gifted with a sense of humour, he sees the better side of life, and makes no secret of his pleasure in the measure of success which industry has brought him, while at the same time deprecating any high credit to himself.’
That’s definitely what comes across to me when I look at that photograph of Thomas Seath, Rutherglen’s shipbuilding king.
Left, studio portrait of Thomas Seath and his wife Helen.
The steam yacht Gitana, built by Seath in 1881 to sail on Loch Rannoch, had an unfortunate history. Sunk in a storm the year after her launch, she was raised and lovingly restored nearly a century later, only for disaster to strike again! Below is an audio clip featuring local historian David Jackson (right) who has a personal recollection of the Gitana.
Below left, Gitana on Loch Rannoch, 1882. Below right, Gitana during restoration, 1981.
Above, street sign leading into Rutherglen Industrial Estate, indicating roads named after Rutherglen Quay which was located there, and Thomas Seath, owner of the shipyard, which lay to the east of the quay. Ashton Road is presumably named after the paddle steamer Lucy Ashton which was built at the shipyard..
Above, PS Lucy Ashton, built by Seath in 1888 for the North British Steam Packet Company. The vessel was named after the heroine of Sir Walter Scott's novel The Bride of Lammermoor. Read more about the Lucy Ashton in the main feature above. Image credit: dalamadan.com
From George Parsonage MBE, Consultant, Glasgow Humane Society
'Great story about Seath's boatyard.
Couple of points that might interest you:
The river is still tidal to Bogleshole Ford, Cambuslang.
The St. Andrews Suspension Bridge built 1854/6 is the lowest bridge on the river. So as far as I have been told, ships built at Rutherglen not only had to have a shallow draft, but no superstructure so they could pass under he bridge.
The boats were brought downriver at high tide, moored above the St. Andrews Bridge until low tide, brought under the bridge (plenty of water depth here) then down to the weir, moored again until high tide. There was a wooden pier on the north bank between the west boathouse and the weir.
Hope this helps and hope you do not mind me trying to add a little knowledge.
Keep up the good work
28th. July 2020
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