THE SAGA OF HENRY BELL
First Provost of Helensburgh and Inventor of the Steamship
In the year of eighteen hundred and twelve, when Napoleon stood at Moscow,
The ‘Comet’ paddled up the Clyde from Helensburgh to Glasgow.
Her builder’s name was Henry Bell, a man with burning dream
To harness Watt’s technology and power a ship by steam.
To sail a ship head into wind was impossible to do,
But the power of steam could change all that — and that’s what Henry knew.
He’d sought the Navy’s interest back in eighteen hundred and three
But the Admiralty’s eyes were shut — Nelson, alone, could see.
A boiler and a piston with a crankshaft made of steel,
Had the power of several horses and could drive a paddle wheel.
William Symington’s steam-powered tug had already shown the way
On the new-built Forth and Clyde canal where the horse had had its day,
And, over in New York City, in eighteen hundred and seven,
Fulton launched a ferry boat which also was ‘steam driven’.
Henry, first Provost of Helensburgh, had built the Baths Hotel
And knew a steamship service had commercial use as well.
A horse-drawn coach from Glasgow town took six long hours and more,
Whilst two hours ‘doon the watter’ had guests knocking at his door.
This was a revolution! The steamship age was born.
And Henry soon had COMET sailing to the Firth of Lorne
A mighty industry sprang up, building steamships on the Clyde,
And ‘Clyde built’ set a standard that was recognised worldwide.
But, in eighteen twenty, disaster struck — off Craignish Point near Cuan.
The ‘Comet’ hit the rocks and sank, and Henry Bell faced ruin.
Despite his creative genius and entrepreneurial thrust,
Other men made fortunes while Henry Bell went bust.
And so, Helensburgh’s first Provost, respected by so many,
Creator of the steamship, sadly died without a penny.
The steamship age has come and gone — but not here on the Clyde.
Here, steam powered nuclear submarines are now the Navy’s pride.
This poem was specially composed by former Commodore Clyde and local councillor Eric Thompson MBE on May 17 2012, and he gave a reading of it at the official opening of the Henry Bell and the Comet Exhibition — compiled by Doris Gentles — in Helensburgh Library in West King Street at the opening ceremony on Friday August 3. It is reproduced with his permission.