Clyde Navigation Trust - Times Past

In partnership with the Glasgow Times, our archivists are exploring Glasgow's fascinating history. This week, Dr Irene O'Brien writes the River Clyde and the Clyde Navigation Trust​.

"The Clyde made Glasgow and Glasgow made the Clyde."

The success of the Clyde in the 17th and 18th centuries was generated by the location of Glasgow, facing the Americas. Glasgow’s merchants began to make commercial and trading links and the city was the international centre for the tobacco trade. However, the shallow Clyde was not navigable for the largest ocean-going ships and in 1662, Glasgow Council purchased land and built harbours at what would become Port Glasgow, where there was deeper water. This meant that cargo had to be transferred at Greenock or Port Glasgow to smaller ships to sail upstream into Glasgow itself.

There was mounting pressure to deepen the river so that large boats could reach the city. In 1759 the first of many Acts of Parliament was passed. It gave Glasgow’s town councillors the powers ‘to cleanse, scour, straighten and improve’ the River Clyde between Glasgow Bridge and Dumbuck Ford near Dumbarton.

The Council commissioned John Golborne and it was he who engineered the first large-scale measure, which consisted of building stone jetties out from the banks at regular intervals. Dumbuck remained a problem and in response Golborne built a stone wall joining up the jetties and forcing all the river’s water into the northern channel. Within a few months, despite the difficulties, about 730 metres were built and the wall – the Lang Dyke – was completed. Although there would soon be renewed demands to deepen the Clyde further as ships got larger, the Lang Dyke was the first major engineering project to begin to address the problem. In addition to his fee, Golborne was rewarded with a silver cup and £1500. His ground-breaking achievements were the first steps towards transforming the Clyde into the river which would become synonymous with shipbuilding on a global scale.

In 1858 the Clyde Navigation Trust was formed in succession to the River Improvement Trust, to manage the river, ensuring that the shipping channel was properly dredged and maintained, and that harbour, dock and other facilities were developed to keep pace with the demands of trade and local shipbuilding and other industries. The Trust widened membership, previously the exclusive preserve of Glasgow town councillors, to include river users – manufacturers and shipowners, representatives of the Merchant’s House.

In line with its responsibilities, the Trust opened Kingston Dock in 1867 on the south bank, the first dock outside the river channel. Later major developments included Queen’s Dock, built 1872-80 on the north bank, and the immense four-basin Cessnock Dock was constructed 1886-7 to the south.

Deepening and widening of the river reached its peak in 1936, by which time the maximum draught size of general cargo vessels and liners visiting Glasgow had stabilised at about 9.8m. However, further dredging was required to accommodate the Cunard liner RMS Queen Mary on her inaugural passage downriver from Clydebank on 24th March 1936.

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