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Clyde Navigation
Broomielaw, Glasgow to Port Glasgow, Inverclyde, Scotland, UK
associated engineer
John Golborne
John Rennie snr
David Logan
James Deas
D. & C. Stevenson
date  1758 - 1936
era  Georgian  |  category  Canal/Navigation works  |  reference  NS557657
ICE reference number  HEW 2442
Navigation along the River Clyde was improved over many years by increasing the water depth and the channel width to enable shipping to gain access to Glasgow from the Firth of Clyde. Glasgow became the foremost ship building port and the consequent prosperity in the city over the period is evident from the increase in population, from about 12,000 people at the end of the 17th century to some 566,000 in 1871. The city's population is today around 593,000 people.
During the 17th century, Glasgow’s citizens were engaged chiefly in fishing, weaving and manufacturing, and traded mostly with Ireland and England. Ocean-going vessels sailing eastwards on the River Clyde had difficulty reaching the city because the river was shallow and the depth of water at the Broomielaw was often less than 1.2m at high tide.
In 1662, the magistrates of Glasgow purchased 5.3ha of land 29km downstream on the south bank of the river where there was deeper water, and here they built harbours at what would became Port Glasgow, east of Greenock. In 1688 they built a harbour with an area of about one hectare and a quayside extending for some 240m along the Clyde’s north bank at Broomielaw, costing £1,666. However, little was done about deepening the river.
Scotland’s first dry dock was built at Port Glasgow in 1758-62 to accommodate two vessels of 508 tonnes each. A flourishing trade with the American colonies developed, and in 1759 the first of many Acts of Parliament was passed. It gave Glasgow’s town councillors the powers “to cleanse, scour, straighten and improve” the River Clyde between Glasgow Bridge and the Dumbuck Ford near Dumbarton. Eminent engineers of the day were consulted, including John Golborne (1724-83) and John Smeaton (1724-92).
Golborne engineered the first large-scale measure, which consisted of building stone groynes or jetties out from the banks at regular intervals in order to constrict the channel width, causing the the water flow to scour the river bed. This was successful and from 1771-5 the river’s depth increased from 1.25m to over 2m, reaching 3.7m by 1781.
From 1799, John Rennie Snr (1761-1821) proposed various improvements. The number of groynes was increased from 50 to more than 500 and their lengths standardised, with rubble training walls joining the ends of some. On the advice of Thomas Telford (1757-1834), from 1806 some groynes were shortened and the river brought to a uniform width at various locations by completion of the parallel walls across their ends. Telford, who had used steam dredgers to good effect on the Caledonian Canal, seems to have played a part in their introduction on the Clyde in 1824. By 1830 a water depth of 4.6m had been achieved.
David Logan (c1786-1839) and later engineers continued the practice, and by 1871, under the direction of Clyde Navigation Trust Engineer in Chief, James Deas (1827-99), a minimum depth of 6.7m at high water was available between Greenock and the Broomielaw quays — a distance of some 35km. By then Glasgow was the Clyde’s greatest port and was the world’s largest centre for ship building. Between 1868-72 a total of 1,164 vessels of between 177,800 and 227,600 tonnes each were constructed here.
Regular dredging of the Clyde began in 1852 and increased annually to 758,750 cu m per year in 1872. Records show that between 1844 and 1872 a total of 11,170,350 cu m of material was removed from the river, and from 1872 until 1894 this almost doubled to 22,214,900 cu m. Spoil from the dredging was deposited in Loch Long 43km from Glasgow from 1862 until about 1895, thereafter a new offshore site 74km from the city near Garroch Head was used, with material being deposited from a fleet of hopper barges.
Between 1801 and 1872, the length of quays at Glasgow had increased from 349m to 5,124m and the area of harbour from 1.6ha to 30.6ha. In 1872, the minimum available depth below Glasgow at high water was around 7m, which had been increased to 8.4m by 1894 and the navigable channel widened. The maximum tidal range was 3.4m.
Meanwhile, in 1867 the 2.2ha Kingston Dock (NS581647) opened on the south bank, the first dock outside the river channel. Later major developments include Queen's Dock (NS567654) built 1872-80 on the north bank and the immense four-basin Cessnock Dock (NS565650) constructed 1886-97 to the south. All three were built under Deas' direction.
Queen's Dock had basins 569m, 502m and 305m long but has since been infilled and is now the site of the Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre. Cessnock Dock was renamed Prince's Dock in 1897 and its eastern half was infilled in the 1980s to make a site for the 1988 Garden Festival.
The three now-disused graving docks (NS561654) west of the entrance to Cessnock Dock were also built under Deas’s supervision in 1875, 1886 and 1897. The first of these dry docks is 167.9m long, 21.9m wide and 7m deep. The second is 175.3m long, 20.4m wide and also 7m deep, and the third is 268.2m long, 25.3m wide and 8.1m deep.
Deepening and widening of the river reached its zenith in 1936, by which time the maximum draft of general cargo vessels and liners visiting Glasgow had stabilised at about 9.8m. However, further dredging was required to accommodate the Cunard liner RMS Queen Mary on her inaugural passage downriver from Clydebank on 24th March 1936. Her keel was laid down in December 1930 at John Brown’s shipyard (NS495697) in Kilbowie. D. & C. Stevenson, Engineers to the Clyde Lighthouses Trust, directed the necessary deepening operations west of Port Glasgow, but despite these precautions she ran aground twice during the voyage.
The original River Improvement Trust was superceded by the Clyde Navigation Trust in 1858. This latter body was established to enable Glasgow’s shipbuilders, merchants and industrialists to work together in developing and managing the river and its trade. Port facilities on the river and in the Firth of Clyde have been the responsibility of Clydeport plc since 1992.
Architect: John Johnson
Contractor: Kelk Lucas & Co
Research: ECPK
"Progress of Improvement in the Navigation of the River Clyde" by Thomas Telford, in Life of Telford, Appendix N1, Vol.1, pp.492-501, London, January 1838
"The River Clyde" by James Deas, in Minutes of ICE Proceedings, Part 2, Vol.36, pp.124-171, London, January 1873
"Brief Notices of Works: The River Clyde" by Leveson Francis Vernon-Harcourt, in Minutes of ICE Proceedings, Part 3, Vol.121, pp.314-317, London, January 1895
reference sources   CEH SLB

Clyde Navigation