BBC News

Govan ferry's return steeped in history

By Magnus Bennett
BBC Scotland news website

image captionThe cluthas mainly transported workers commuting to shipyards and engineering workshops along the Clyde

The return this week of the Govan ferry after 45 years brings with it a reminder of the peak days of passenger services on the River Clyde.

The ferry will run across the river between Govan and the new Kelvin Harbour, close to the newly-opened Riverside transport museum.

Its return marks the first regular passenger service on that part of the river since the 1960s.

But ferries have a proud and long tradition on the Clyde.

Perhaps their greatest years were to be seen in the 19th Century, when water buses and longer-haul paddle steamers puffed their way 'doon the watter'.

In the mid-19th Century there were at least 10 ferry services running in the heart of the city, including routes between Yorkhill Quay and Princes Dock and Meadowside Street in Partick and Holm Street in Govan.

image captionGovan Ferry operated for hundreds of years before its final sailing in the 1960s

But few services were spared from the city's eventual industrial decline.

At the height of the ferry era, huge numbers of Glaswegians poured onto steamers plying their trade on the Clyde.

In 1897, nearly 2.8 million passengers used the up-and-down harbour passenger steamers known as "cluthas" (named after the Gaelic word for the Clyde). It brought in the princely sum of £11,648 in that year alone for their operators, the Clyde Navigation Trust.


The cluthas, introduced in 1884, steamed along the three-mile stretch between Victoria Bridge and Whiteinch Ferry at a penny a time. And such was their success, that their numbers doubled from six to 12 within a few years.

The ferries had a ladies' cabin (for an extra penny) and a smoking room for those few who could afford it.

Many of its passengers were workers commuting every day to shipyards and engineering workshops spread along the riverbank.

The ferries, it seems, presented some danger to those cramming their way on to the boats.

Emily Malcolm, curator of the Riverside Museum said: "There are various stories about the cluthas - they had quite a lethal gangway that would be pushed out and pulled away very quickly. There were stories of people getting their limbs trapped and mangled."

But it wasn't health and safety which put paid to their success.

Their downfall stemmed from the opening of Glasgow's subway system and the introduction of trams in the city at the end of the Victorian era. They made their final journey in 1903.

The history of ferries on the Clyde in the 19th Century can be divided up into three main periods, according to Mrs Malcolm.

She explained: "In the earlier part of the century, from the time of the paddle steamer Comet, it was all about making connections, with new piers springing up all round the Firth of Clyde.

"Later in the 19th Century, it became more about speed and competition. It is said that steamer captains were more interested in racing each other than whether passengers got on or off.

"Then towards the end of the century it was more about comfort."

image captionPassengers could buy a brass Clyde Navigation Ferry halfpenny token to cross the river

Mrs Malcolm said the Clyde/Firth of Clyde developed what was in effect an "integrated transport system" as the railway companies established railheads on the coast, such as the North British Railway at Helensburgh/Craigendoran and Glasgow and Southwestern at Greenock and Caledonian Railway at Gourock.

North British Railway and others established standalone companies to run steamer services from the railheads, prompting a need for speed to maintain links.

The 20th Century brought little respite for the ferries as giant infrastructure projects - bridges, roads, trams and tunnels - reduced their importance.

Hamish Munro, director of Clyde Cruises, which is operating the new Govan Ferry, said: "In the 1960s, 70s and especially in the 80s, there was no demand or need for ferries.

"When road use was on the increase, people didn't want to wait to cross. The ferries disappeared when the industry vanished.

"The ferries were there in the past for industrial reasons."

Pleasure cruises

But although ferries play a much less significant role in Glasgow, they have adapted to meet the needs of the modern era by tapping into the leisure market.

The regeneration of the Clyde waterfront has given Mr Munro's company an opportunity to serve the city.

He commented: "The river is regenerating itself and services are being put on by ourselves more for leisure. It is more of an experience - no traffic jams, no hold-ups and no traffic lights."

The Scottish Maritime Museum sees the ferries as playing a crucial role in Glasgow's development over the centuries.

Museum curator Linda Ross said: "Throughout the years, they have provided a lifeline to the citizens of Glasgow, initially getting them from A to B and then getting them on their two-week holidays down the water.

"There is still a connection there with the paddle steamer Waverley and the new Govan ferry and the lifeline ferries that still operate to the islands."

More on this story

  • Glasgow's £74m Riverside Museum opens to public

  • Clyde ferry reintroduced in Govan