Helensburgh's steamship tragedy

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ONE of the Clyde’s worst ever tragedies took place only yards away from Helensburgh pier on Monday March 21 1842, when 20 people died after the steamship Telegraph exploded.

Much of the detail about the tragedy was unearthed by a Bishopbriggs man, Craig Boyd, the great grandson of William Ewing, the Telegraph’s captain and one of the fatalities.

Mr Boyd was researching his family tree — they hailed from Loch Lomondside, farming between Arden and Luss — and when he got back to Captain Ewing he found out about the tragedy. He was able to find two separate newspaper accounts of the horrific event.

The Glasgow Herald’s edition of Friday March 25 1842 carried the headline “Explosion of the Telegraph Steamer and Melancholy Loss of Life”.

The report began: “On the afternoon and evening of Monday last, the most painful sensation was excited in this city by the news of the bursting of the boiler of the new steamer Telegraph, at the Quay at Helensburgh, and the consequent sacrifice of, it is believed, 20 lives, in addition to many who have been severely, if not dangerously, injured.”

A website entitled ‘Clyde Passenger Steamers 1812-1901’ includes the Telegraph and confirms that the vessel was built in 1841 for the Glasgow and Helensburgh route by Hedderwick and Ransome of Kelvinhaugh, with the owner named only as McIndoe and the captain as Ewan.

The ship was built in the autumn as a river boat, and was of light yacht-like build, 118.6 feet long and 14.9 feet wide, weighing 100 tons. Aiming for speed, she had a novel engine design consisting of a 50 horsepower locomotive engine of two cylinders and one boiler. The engine was built by John M.Rowan & Co. at the Atlas Works in Greenock.

Eminent engineers considered this new design of engine to be safe, and the ship reached a maximum of 16.5 knots (19 mph) between Helensburgh and Greenock.

On her fateful last day, she left the Broomielaw at 10am on her usual journey to Greenock, Helensburgh and Roseneath (then spelt with an extra ‘e’), then back to Glasgow. At Greenock some passengers were landed, and others taken on board.

All seemed well as the Telegraph reached Helensburgh pier, spectators noting that she was travelling at normal speeds. She berthed at the pier, and some passengers alighted and others boarded.

Among those on board were the builder, Mr Hedderwick, well known Clyde pilot Robert McAslan, eight painters on their way to paint the large steamship Precursor moored in the Gareloch, and a pastry baker from Paisley, William Laurie.

As the Telegraph began to back away from the pier, all should have been set fair for the short journey to Rosneath. But then disaster struck, and the scale of the horror is hard to imagine.

The Glasgow Herald reported: “Just as the vessel was backing out on her voyage up the Gareloch, and the paddles had performed two or three turns, the boiler exploded with a crashing sound, which was heard for miles around, and particularly at Greenock Quay, a distance of four miles, where the report fell with a startling effect of evil augury.

“Telescopes were immediately in requisition, and it was too soon and too sadly discovered that the Telegraph, which had recently left that port with a glad and lightsome company, had ceased to exist.

“The force of the explosion was so great that the boiler tubes and part of the machinery were dashed with instant violence to a considerable distance on shore, while some part was blown into the sea in a contrary direction.

“The scene is described as having been heartrending in the extreme, the masses of falling wreck being mixed with the mangled bodies of the dead, and the first wild roar of the explosion being succeeded by the screams and groans of the dead and dying.”

The newspaper called this “an unhappy catastrophe” and recorded that 20 persons were “hurried to their account”, including the builder, the captain, the Clyde pilot, and four of the eight painters. Many others were injured.

The dramatic account continues: “It is impossible adequately to describe the scene at the moment the explosion occurred. The vessel itself burst like a bombshell, and momentarily became a total wreck, so much so that not a single part of her above a few feet in size remained together afloat.

“In fact, one of our informants states that the appearance of the wreck of the Telegraph at this moment reminded him of nothing more than a frail box which had been blown up by a large charge of gunpowder. In every direction could be observed scattered about the mutilated limbs of the unfortunate passengers, and the water was literally tinged with their blood.”

The Greenock Advertiser the day after reported the grim news with the help of eye-witness accounts, mostly gathered after rescue ships returned to Greenock.

It reported: “The distance at which the sound of the explosion was heard will give the reader some idea of its loudness. Of its force we have no less decisive proofs.

“Not to speak of the number of individuals hurried by it into eternity in a moment, or injured to an extent from which they never recover, the engine and part of the boiler of the boat was propelled through the air and landed on the quay at a distance of a hundred feet from where the explosion took place.

“The boat was split from stem to stern and the deck timbers blown to fragments. The corpses of the dead and the larger proportion of the injured survivors were removed to the Tontine Inn (now the Imperial Hotel), Helensburgh, where Mr Liddell, the landlord, and his family did all in their power to alleviate the sufferings of those to whom their attentions could be of any avail.”

Several vessels, including two tugs, made their way to Helensburgh in the hope of rescuing survivors, and one returned to Greenock at 2pm with the news that 13 people had been killed on the spot and everyone else on board injured. Half an hour later another vessel left for Helensburgh with several doctors on board to help their burgh counterparts.

The Greenock newspaper report continued: “About 2.45 another steamer arrived from Helensburgh and the intelligence brought by her showed that in this instance, the first reports of the calamity, instead of, as is usually the case, giving an exaggerated account of the mischief done, had fallen considerably below the truth, for it was now ascertained that no fewer than 16 dead bodies had been found, while several persons, who were known to have been on board when the explosion took place, were nowhere to be seen, either dead or alive.”

At 4.30 the Royal Tar sailed to Greenock with some of the injured on board. Six were landed there and taken to the infirmary on stretchers organised by the Provost. Two survivors, and a couple slightly hurt while standing on the pier, were taken on to Glasgow.

The Sheriff and Sheriff Clerk at Dumbarton both visited the scene and took statements from survivors, and ultimately it was confirmed that 20 people, mostly from Greenock and Glasgow, had died.

A definitive cause of the accident was never established. The two main theories were that either the valves became overloaded, or that cold water from a feed pump might have come into contact with plates red hot because the boiler was too low — instantly generating a gas which exploded with huge force.

The terrible accident bore some similarity to one at Greenock Quay on Friday July 24 1835. The steamer Earl Grey had moored at the quay on her way from Dunoon to Glasgow, and her boiler also exploded. Six people died, and 15 more were severely injured.