Drinking and hospitality on board Clyde ferries and steamers, c. 1840-1900

Matthew L. McDowell, University of Glasgow

Originally given at Food and drink history: their social, political and cultural histories, University of Central Lancashire, 16 June 2011

For the inaugural post on Scottish Leisure History, I’m beginning with a conference paper that I gave two years ago, on a topic related to my research than I never explored any further. I briefly mulled writing an article on it, but I figured that someone else who knew more about the history of food and drink could do a better job. Enjoy. 🙂

The land regions attached to the Firth of Clyde, on Scotland’s west coast, were some of Britain’s most attractive tourist destinations during the Victorian period.  They were especially important to Scotland, and locales such as the isles of Bute, Arran, Great Cumbrae and north Ayrshire coastal towns such as Largs and Saltcoats became a part of the seasonal urban Scottish experience.  By the 1840s many of these locales, originally known as spots for ‘health tourism’ and hydropathy, changed significantly due to cheaper and better transport options, in both the coming of the railways, and the proliferation of ferries and steamers originating from Glasgow.  The termini of such journeys, however, did not constitute the only destination; and, in fact, the journey was sometimes the point in and of itself.  ‘Travelling’ in nineteenth-century Scotland, had connotations far beyond mere movement, with the temperance lobby scoring major victories in restricting the sale of alcohol on Sundays.  For those who weren’t just interested in drinking, however, there was also first-class hospitality and cuisine.  This paper examines hospitality services provided on board Clyde ferries and steamers during the period 1840-1900, with emphasis on the latter half of the period.

In his most recent monograph, 2003’s Scotland for the Holidays, Alastair Durie examines Scotland’s tourist culture during the period 1780-1939.  It is telling that two whole chapters of the book are dedicated to the relationship between transport and tourism, and that much his third chapter on the seaside revolves around drink and notions of respectability.   In general, the 1840s, ’50 and ‘60s were the major growth period of the Scottish railway network.  Steamships also proliferated.  The majority of tourists stayed in the vicinity of the Clyde and Argyll coasts, while lines to locations further north in the Highlands, Islands and even St. Kilda also gained popularity. [1] From the 1820s onwards, technology allowed steamers to replace traditional ferries in many – if not all – crossings in Scotland, and often made the journeys faster and less treacherous.  This was the case not just for people, but also for animals and goods.  The steamboat Queen Margaret, purchased in 1821 to cross the River Forth at Queensferry, could transport up to one thousand cattle per day. [2] With steamships able to handle such a volume of people and goods with ease, their arrival had a profound impact on the culture and society of more isolated locales in Scotland.  Both seasonal migration and emigration were expedited from the Highlands during the early- to mid- nineteenth century, and a new exchange of goods and services was taking place.  Not coincidentally, this took place in a time of famine and clearances, and many of the earliest owners of steamers included principle landlords responsible for ‘improvement’.  Considerable pressure was applied on the native language, Gaelic, especially in any towns and villages where piers – and their attendant commerce – were located.  Donald Meek states that ‘by the 1880s, steamships all but controlled island life, its “essentials” and its corporate rhythms’. [3]

Steamships, however, weren’t just associated with the English language in such places.  Meek also states that:

From their earliest appearance in West Highland waters, steamships were associated with thick smoke and happy inebriation, and to a considerable extent they became the maritime equivalent of change-houses and inns on mainland roads, or… banqueting halls and ‘gin palaces’ for the great and the good. [4]

In islands such as Tiree, known as ‘dry’ locations, steamships encouraged the perceived necessity of public houses and licensed hotels. [5] This spur occurred at a time when the licensed trades in Scotland were at a highly-confused juncture.  In one sense, things had never been better.  In Glasgow during the 1840s, there were around 2,300 pubs within the city limits.  Drinking was a form of leisure, and it was massive business.  Temperance campaigners, however, were beginning to have a great influence on both municipal and parliamentary politics.  This culminated in the 1853 passing of the Forbes-Mackenzie Act, which banned the sale of alcohol in Scotland on Sundays.  Hotels, however, were exempt from these rules, and a new term – the ‘Sunday traveller’ – was coined. [6]

Boats were also exempt from the rules, and it was not until 1882 when the passing of the Passenger Vessels Licenses (Scotland) Act that tight restrictions of on-board sales of alcohol took effect. [7] In the interim, the Forbes-Mackenzie Act applied to boats only in specific circumstances, mainly when these boats were too close to the land.  On 26 July 1860, the Glasgow Herald reported that Robert Young, captain of the steamer Hero, and the boat’s steward William Walker, appeared in River Bailie Court on charges of selling ale to two persons on their boat while still lying in harbour.  Walker was fined 10s. [8] From circumstances such as these, a whole new kind of traveller took hold, and specific boats and operators became most associated with the dreaded ‘Sunday trade’.  This included Henry Sharp and Duncan Dewar, both tarred by Kenneth Davies in his somewhat partisan book of 1980, The Clyde Passenger Steamers, as being heavily involved in perpetuating a dodgy business.  Davies, for example, notes the Kingstown, a vessel owned by Sharp and Dewar during 1882-83, as being maintained poorly by its operators, largely because they believed their drunken customers would not notice its condition. Dewar’s ships Victory, and Sharp’s Petrel and Loch Goil, are similarly criticised.  In the Petrel’s case, the boat admirably served on the Clyde Sunday trade after blockade running during the American Civil War. [9]

There were teetotal steamers as well, but their status as agents of temperance was sometimes short-lived.  The PS Ivanhoe, for instance, was built by D. & W. Henderson in 1888.  It started life in teetotal service, but when the Caledonian Steam Packet Co. purchased the ship in 1897, bars were immediately installed. [10] The money in the trade, then, was perceived to be considerable, especially for more reputable operators like Caledonian; but, if respectability became important, so too did the need for something more than alcohol.  Iain MacArthur, in his 1971 history of Caledonian, states that the arrival of competitor steamers from the south west of England in the latter quarter of the nineteenth century – ones fitted with dining saloons – made catering facilities a necessity. [11]

Yet the Caledonian Steam Packet Co., and their treatment of the issue of hospitality, is worth examining in its own right, for this was the premier company offering travel along the River and Firth of Clyde.  As Durie states, the railways and the steamship companies, by the late-nineteenth century were offering packages in connection with one another, especially along the busiest routes between Glasgow, Gourock and Oban. [12] By the 1880s, the Caledonian Railway Co.’s attempts to enter the steamer market were being thwarted by Parliament.  The company wished

for the power to build, purchase, hire, provide, chart, employ and maintain steam and other vessels of any description and to navigate, work and use the same, and to convey passengers, animals, goods and merchandise etc. therein, between the quay or pier at Gourock… then belonging to the Caledonian Railway Co. …

The rejection by a Parliamentary Committee to give Caledonian such power failed, and the first meeting of the Caledonian Steam Packet Co. – the resultant company split off from the railway – took place on 24 December 1888. [13] At the first meeting of the company, one of the first orders of business was the organisation of temporary arrangements for the Steward’s department of the company. [14]

The dining area of the Duchess of Hamilton, a Caledonian paddle steamer, was constructed by Dumbarton firm William Denny & Co. with a large saloon below decks.  First-class dining service seated 90 people, while the main deck saloon accommodated around a hundred.  There was also a smoking room upholstered in buffalo hide, with a special cabin for ladies. [15] Any primary sources on the Caledonian’s early steamers revel in the luxuriousness of their dining cars and the menu on board.  Behind me, you have the price list for food and drink on the Duchess of Hamilton, the Marchioness of Lorne, the Galatea and the Duchess of Rothesay. Note the difference in options for first- and second-class.  Cameron Somerville, in his 1962 memoir, Colour on the Clyde or Memories of the Clyde Steamers, states:

How lovely was the beautiful silver-plated tableware of these boats and of all there other first-class steamers, and how much there was of it – soup-tureens, corner-dishes, entrée-dishes, dish-covers of all sizes, sauce boats, cruet-stands and bottles, heavy teapots, cream-jugs, sugar-basins, forked tongue-plates, and all manner of cutlery, each article beautifully closed and adorned with the Company’s crest.  On the tables was an… abundance of sauces, pickles, relishes of all kind, cheeses, jam, jellies and marmalades, which did your heart good for you to have. [16]

For Andrew McQueen, the fares of the steamers were ‘a marvel of cheapness’, as he states in his 1923 book Clyde River Steamers of the Last Fifty Years regarding the Caley steamer Isle of Arran:  ‘the passengers could board the steamers at Glasgow at eleven in the forenoon, and sail continuously till eight o’clock, engaging a good dinner and plain tea, all for the payment of four shillings and sixpence’. [17] The employees within the saloon cars certainly looked the part as well.  First-class saloons in steamers were served by stewards wearing Eton jackets with brass buttons. [18]

On Caledonian’s end, such hospitality was one of the major orders of business listed in the company’s minute books from the outset.  Two months after the formation of the company, at the monthly meeting held on 26 February 1889 in Glasgow, Captain James Williamson, the manager of the company, enquired to the directors:  ‘Will I get Cutlery, Plate, Delf and Napery for Steamers?  Get samples and prices submitted’. [19] A year and a half later, this was still an important order of business, with Captain Williamson consulting the Marquis of Breadalbane, one of the company directors, for advice on the supply of cutlery and crockery for a new steamer. [20] There was considerable discussion of suppliers.  A January 1898 meeting discusses the procurement of whiskies from Messrs. J. Watson & Co. of Dundee, with no change being made in the present system of orders. [21]

Individual expenses, and cheques signed for food, were sometimes listed by the Steward’s department.  In April 1891, these included cheques to Glasgow butcher Allan McKechnie (a whopping £206), J.P. Cochrane for potatoes (£8.15.4), and the more well-known supplier Thomas J. Lipton for ham, eggs, and other provisions (£31.1.10). [22] Catering, however, was usually farmed out to individual firms at this point.  T.D. Latta of Helensburgh, for instance, was originally responsible for the catering on board Caledonian steamers. [23] Eventually the company formed its own catering company, and the minute books from April 1898 onward show an increasing interest in the nuts and bolts of the food and drink arrangements on board.  The 5 April 1898 meeting discussed keeping the Steward’s department of the company together, ‘but all wines, spirits, aerated waters, cigars, &c to be supplied by the Central Station Hotel’.  Ales, furthermore, were supplied by the hotel, but were brought down the Clyde to Caledonian’s Gourock base, where they were then bottled by the company, presumably with company branding.  Most important for the future business of the company was the awarding of individual contracts for provisions, with ‘all offers submitted to Committee at stated intervals’. [24]

Towards the end of the century, the bidding for contracts with the company took place in earnest (usually at the beginning and end of the calendar year), with the winners and their fees always being listed in the company minute books.  At the 29 November 1898 meeting, it was announced that the contract to supply milk and butter was accepted from the Sorn Dairy Company in Ayrshire, at the rate of 8 pence per gallon of milk, a halfpenny (ha’penny) per pound of butter, effective 1 January. [25]. Butcher meat offers were accepted from Edward Watson of Greenock and Allan McKechnie of Glasgow, at the rate of 8½ pence per pound overhead, and for the steamers Duchess of Hamilton, Duchess of Rothesay and Ivanhoe 9 pence per pound overhead between 1 May and 1 October, the heart of tourist season.  Why two suppliers?  Presumably, a different one for each side of the Clyde the boats were on, those that made the journey down the river; and, for where boats were based.  The firm kept Watson and McKechnie on as butchers through the turn of the century, but changed their dairy suppliers for 1901, going instead with the Glasgow Dairy Company, supplying milk at 10 pence per gallon, fresh butter at one penny per pound. [26]

Such bidding did not just take place on the food and drink.  There was also competition on the supply of everything involved with the saloon car and dining services.  Messrs. Balfour’s offer of £21 on new saloon curtains for the Duchess of Hamilton was accepted by the company on 8 February 1898. [27] For 1900, contracts to supply crystal and silver cutlery went to two Glasgow firms, A.R. Cochran (£38.6.6) and Walker & Hall (£156.0.15) respectively. [28] And the company had something which resembled quality control.  At the same November 1898 meeting where a dairy contract was first awarded, the company committee received a letter from a Mr. Lorimer regarding the analysis of milk and butter from the Central Station Hotel, and from the steamboat supply. [29] In February 1898, the committee refused outright to accept a letter from the Gourock Confectionary Company, presumably for sale of its products. [30]

But what was the price of being discerning?  Alan Paterson’s 1982 analysis of profitability during 1892 and 1893 on board the two Ardrossan-Arran steamers, the Meg Merrilies and the Duchess of Hamilton, shows, in the words of Paterson, the ‘unremunerative nature’ of the service, where eventually ‘the lavishness of the combined service is seen to be quite unjustifiable’.  The Duchess of Hamilton operated at a loss of an astronomical £6,984 in 1892, while losing £5,101 in 1893.  Similarly, the Meg Merrilies operated down £3,589 in 1892, while losing £2,688 the following year. [31] The minute books, similarly, are filled with expensive necessity for the upkeep of such services.  At 16 October 1900 meeting of Caledonian, the Carron Co. were billed £45.0.10 for their repair of cabin stoves, and D.B. Stewart of Greenock was similarly billed an unlisted price for repair of the stove funnels on board the steamers. [32] It was this sort of expense that would lead to boat transport being associated with a more no-nonsense approach in the future.  In the grander scheme of the region, the decline of the Clyde pleasure steamers was symptomatic of the region’s struggle to remain relevant in a changing tourist climate, one which would later have to compete with the proliferation of an even faster and more fashionable method of transport:  airlines.  This examination, nevertheless, is an attempt to shed light on some of the circumstances which led to this region’s rise to prominence as a premiere tourist destination within Britain during the nineteenth century.

[1] Alastair J. Durie, Scotland for the Holidays? Tourism in Scotland c. 1780-1939 (East Linton: Tuckwell, 2003) 150-70.

[2] Kenneth Veitch and Anne Gordon, ‘Traditional Ferries’, in Kenneth Veitch (ed.), Scottish Life and Society: A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology – Volume 8 – Transport and Communications (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2009), 217-220

[3] Donald E. Meek, ‘Steamships and Social Change in the Highlands and Hebrides, 1820-1955’, in Veitch (ed.), Transport and Communications (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2009), 227-73 [quote 260].

[4] Ibid., 260.

[5] Ibid., 262.

[6] W.H. Fraser, ‘Developments in Leisure’, in W.H. Fraser and R.J. Morris (eds.), People and Society in Scotland: Volume II, 1830-1914 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1995), 236-64.

[7] Durie, Scotland for the Holidays, 76-77.

[8] Glasgow Herald, 26 July 1860.

[9] Kenneth Davies, The Clyde Passenger Steamers (Ayr: Kyle Publications, 1980), 114, 145, 130, 146.

[10] Ibid., 180-81.

[11] Iain C. MacArthur, Caledonian Steam Packet Co. Ltd.: An Illustrated History (Clyde River Steamer Club, 1971), 17, 30

[12] Durie, Scotland for the Holidays, 157.

[13] National Records of Scotland (NRS) – BR/CSP/1/1: Caledonian Steam Packet Co. Minute Book 00, 24 December 1888.

[14] Ibid., Line 6.

[15] Alan J.S. Paterson, Classic Scottish Paddle Steamers (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1982), 76, 82-85.

[16] Cameron Somerville, Colour on the Clyde, or Memoirs of the Clyde Steamers (Rothesay: Bute Newspapers, 1970), 18.

[17] Andrew McQueen, Clyde River-Steamers of the Last Fifty Years (Glasgow: Gowans & Gray, 1923), 97.

[18] Somerville, Colour on the Clyde, 19.

[19] Minute Book 00, 26 February 1889, Line 212.

[20] Ibid., 3 October 1893, Line 423.

[21] Ibid., 25 January 1898, Line 749.

[22] Ibid., 7 April 1891, Line 237.

[23] MacArthur, Caledonian Steam Packet Co., 17.

[24] Minute Book 00, 5 April 1898, Line 787.

[25] NRS – BR/CSP/1/2 Caledonian Steam Packet Co. Minute Book 1, 1 January 1899, Line 842.

[26] Ibid., 11 December 1900, Line 1083.

[27] Minute Book 00, 8 February 1898, Line 761.

[28] Minute Book 1, 9 January 1900, Line 966.

[29] Ibid., 29 November 1898, Line 844.

[30] Minute Book 00, 8 February 1898, Line 766.

[31] Paterson, Classic Scottish Paddle Steamers, 191-93.

[32] Minute Book 1, 16 October 1900, Line 1054.

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