Henry Bell the man

Henry Bell & Comet
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henry-bell-wWHAT is known about Henry Bell the man, rather than the steamship pioneer?

Henry was Helensburgh’s first Provost and builder and proprietor of the Baths, later Queen’s, Hotel on the east seafront, close to the original pier where the Comet berthed.

One of the best sources of information about the man himself is the 1883 book, A Nonogenarian’s Reminiscences of Garelochside and Helensburgh, written by Donald MacLeod and based on what he was told by his elderly uncle Gabriel MacLeod who knew Henry.

In a remarkable tribute the author states: “Helensburgh and Henry Bell can never be disassociated; the memory of the one is inseparably linked with the history of the other.”

Bell was born in Torphichen, Linlithgow, in 1776, but came to the burgh when he was about 30 and spent the rest of his adult life here.

From 1800 to his death in 1830 his mind and his life demanded constant restless activity, not only in shipbuilding but also as first Provost from 1807-10 and in housebuilding and other schemes.

Donald MacLeod writes: “Bell’s life is the old story of inventive genius struggling against difficulties with inadequate resources, and with — what was even harder to bear — the outspoken incredulity and disbelief of man.

“It is the old story of eager, unquenchable resolution, refusing to be turned aside by the sneer of ignorance or adverse verdict of public opinion, but having grasped a great truth, undauntedly striving to demonstrate it, and seeing it, after many a failure, crowned with triumphant success.”

Sharp-featured, with high cheek bones and clear grey eyes, he spoke quickly and did not suffer lethargic workers gladly.

In many years he would have up to 20 people working on his projects, and he irritated many of them by constantly experimenting.

He has been described as “a child in the matter of money”. He liked to have full pockets, but often did not, and as a result his wife Margaret, who managed the hotel, would find its funds raided.

He had elaborate plans for markets in the town, and he envisaged a reservoir in Glen Fruin to provide a water supply for Helensburgh. For his key staff he built houses opposite the hotel.

Considered by some to be erratic and boastful, he was quick-tempered but not easily provoked to anger, and he had great faith in himself and in his work. He liked nothing better than to pour out his ideas and visions at length to a willing listener.

The respect in which he was held was clear at his funeral on a wet and stormy Friday November 19 1830, which was attended by all the local dignitaries. All the town shops were shut, and vessels in the Clyde and Gareloch had their flags at half-mast.

A service was held at the hotel, and then the hearse and coaches proceeded to Rhu Churchyard for the burial.

Donald MacLeod concludes: “Wherever the grand roll of the names of benefactors of mankind shall be numbered up, Henry Bell’s shall occupy no mean position therein.”

The father of Scottish shipbuilding, Robert Napier, who lived in Shandon, paid for the impressive monument above the grave, and obelisks to his memory were erected at Dunglas, near Bowling, and in 1872 on the burgh seafront at the foot of James Street.

After his death his wife — a founder-member of the Seceeder’s Church in Helensburgh, which was the forerunner of St Columba Church — continued to manage the hotel until her death on April 30 1856, aged 85, and she is buried beside her husband.

She was extremely proud of her husband and very annoyed because she felt that he had not had the recognition he deserved for the contribution he had made to steam navigation.

But his status was acknowledged by contemporary engineers, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel wrote: “Bell did what we engineers failed in. He gave us the sea steamer; his scheming was Britain’s steaming.”

As a result there were major celebrations of the centenary in 1812 and the 150th anniversary in 1962. In 2012 it was time to celebrate again.

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