Colour on the Clyde

I owe much of my interest in the steamers that sailed on the river and Firth of Clyde to a number of articles written by George Stromier that appeared in the Scottish Field in the 1960s.  Each article was accompanied by a coloured painting by the artist John Nicholson, and these attractive paintings caught my imagination.  What a difference from the black topped buff funnels of the Caledonian Steam Packet Co. and the occasional black topped red funnels of the MacBrayne steamers of the post world war two era.

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Map of the Firth of Clyde

Over the intervening years, I’ve collected old postcards, some of them in color, and they are the focus of this page.  Some of these postcards are quite common, others quite rare but overall they will allow me to give an account of the history of the Clyde steamers in their heyday just over a hundred years ago between 1900 and the beginning of the First World War.  I’m no expert of the history of the Clyde Steamers and I’m sure there will be mistakes in the text but I hope these will not impair the pictorial offerings .

If you find this of interest you might get a copy of Steamers of the Clyde by Stromier and Nicholson. The original 1967 edition is long out of print but it was reprinted and updated in 1992 accompanied by a companion Steamers of the Clyde and Western Isles five years later.  There are also two good collections of postcard material.  Ian McCrorie’s Clyde Pleasure Steamers of 1987 and Brian Patton’s Your Postcards: Steamers of the West of Scotland of 2012, are both excellent and duplicate some of the material that you will find here.

Iona Tignabruaich 990

Iona at Tignabruaich

By the time that postcards became popular around 1900, the Iona was a veteran, built in 1864 at J. & G. Thomson’s in Clydebank for the Hutcheson Company that later became MacBrayne’s.  The Iona had deck saloons with alleyways round them on the outside.  She was at one time the most important steamer on the Clyde, sailing every day but Sunday during the season between the Broomielaw and Ardrishaig by way of Rothesay and the Kyles of Bute and forming part of the Royal Route to the western isles and highlands.  The arrival of the first, Lord of the Isles, in 1877, sailing to Inveraray, provided keen competition to Loch Fyne and MacBrayne’s responded the following years with the magnificent Columba, relegating Iona to a secondary role.  She remained on the Ardrishaig route most of the time but no longer sailed in the important 7:10 a.m. morning sailing but later in the day.

Strathmore and Iona Broomielaw 932

In this postcard, Iona is seen at the Broomielaw, readying to return to Ardrishaig from where she arrived in the morning.  The Williamson steamer, Strathmore, is leaving on her afternoon return to Rothesay.

Columba Rothesay Bay 894


When Columba was built, she was the largest steamer on the Firth and maintained a level of luxurious service for MacBraynes for over fifty years.  With her saloons extending the full with of the hull, she incorporated a barber and a post office and was a most imposing steamer.  Like Iona, the Columba sailed only in the summer months and had a long career, lasting until 1936 when she and Iona were scrapped at Dalmuir.

Columba Kyles 895

This postcard shows Columba in the Kyles of Bute.  A magnificent sight in a magnificent setting.  Connections were made at Tarbert with steamers to Islay and at Ardrishaig from where Columba retraced her voyage back to Glasgow.

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Columba at Ardrishaig

At Ardrishaig, passengers transferred to the curious Linnet, built in 1866, to convey them and their luggage through the Crinan Canal.  Progress was moderate and it was possible to walk the distance to Crinan along the canal bank.

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Linnet at Cairnbaan

At Crinan the journey to Oban and the Western Isles continued by the Chevalier, like the Linnet, built in 1866.

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Chevalier at Crinan

 In 1880, Captain James Williamson introduced the Ivanhoe, a tourist steamer sailing from Helensburgh to Arran.  Like the Iona, she had narrow deck saloons with alleyways around them but the most novel aspect was that she was run on temperance principles, hoping to appeal to patrons who wanted to avoid the scenes of drunkenness quite common on many of the other steamers of the day.

Ivanhoe 812


She was a popular steamer and the drawback in her operation could be remedied by the purchase of an Ivanhoe flask of capacity for a full day’s sail.

Ivanhoe Menu734  Ivanhoe advert682

 By the mid 1890s, competition from the railway steamers had made the Ivanhoe less profitable and after spending a brief period off the Clyde, she returned to become part of the Caledonian Steam Packet Co.s fleet.

The North British Railway had owned steamers that connected with their terminus at Helensburgh since 1866.  In 1882, they opened a much more convenient railhead at Craigendoran where their fleet of steamers connected directly with the trains and sailed to Dunoon, Rothesay, and the Gareloch Piers.  the Ivanhoe moved her base of operations to Craigendoran after it opened for traffic.

Craigendoran Marmion 2

Craigendoran Pier

The North British had some of the fastest steamers on the Clyde including the Jeanie Deans that maintained the Rothesay service.  She was built in 1884, and carried the new colour-scheme of the company with their red funnels, black-topped with a white band.

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Jeanie Deans at Rothesay

It was in 1885 that the Campbeltown and Glasgow Steam Packet Co. introduced a new vessel for their service to Campbeltown from Glasgow.  The Davaar was a sturdy screw steamer, able to withstand the rough weather of the outer Firth year round, and as originally built had two rather narrow funnels.  In 1903 she was re-boilered and fitted with a single funnel to the great improvement of her appearance.

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Davaar on the River Clyde 

In 1888, the North British introduced the Lucy Ashton, an unremarkable steamer of her day but destined for a very long life on the Clyde.

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Lucy Ashton at Roseneath

The other railway companies with interests in the Clyde traffic were the Glasgow & SouthWestern and the Caledonian.  Both of these had relied on the privately owned steamers but in 1888, the Caledonian opened a new railhead at Gourock and purchased a number of steamers from Captain Campbell of Kilmun.  Among these was the Madge Wildfire, dating from 1885, and quickly upgraded with a fore saloon. The steamers looked very smart and yacht like with their yellow funnels and deep navy blue hulls.

Madge Wildfire 940

Madge Wildfire

The opening of Gourock Pier route was also accompanied by the building of new steamers.  The first of these were the Caledonia and the Galatea in 1889.

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Madge Wildfire at Gourock Pier

 The Caledonia was a useful and economical steamer and spent her early career sailing to Rothesay and Millport.  She is seen here at Keppel Pier on her way to the latter destination.  In 1903, her bridge was moved forward of the funnel to provide better visibility to the seaman who was in charge of the wheel.

Caledonia at Keppel 835

Caledonia at Keppel

With her two rather widely spaced funnels, Galatea had a rather ungainly appearance for the flagship of the new company.  Her engine was considered too powerful for her hull.  She could not be considered a success and was sold in 1906.

Galatea leaving Gourock 955

Galatea leaving Gourock.

The following year, the Caledonian Steam Packet Co. added two more small steamers for ferry work similar to the Caledonia.  The Marchioness of Bute and Marchioness of Breadalbane were sisters and worked year-round on the busy traffic from the company’s piers at Gourock and Wemyss Bay.

 Marchioness of Breadalbane 810

Marchioness of Breadalbane in the Kyles of Bute

 The company also brought out one of the prettiest vessels that appeared on the Firth for the traffic from Ardrossan and Arran.  The Duchess of Hamilton had her promenade deck extended to the bow and was an immediate success.

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Duchess of Hamilton

Her internal appointments were on a par with those of the Columba.

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Dining Saloon and General Saloon of the Duchess of Hamilton

Although the Duchess of Hamilton sailed only during the summer season, on the open waters of the Firth, she could face stormy conditions but was a good sea boat.

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Duchess of Hamilton off Ardrossan

 The winter service to Arran was not provided by the Caledonian until 1891 when the Marchioness of Lorne arrived on the scene.  She differed from the other Marchionesses by having her promenade deck extended to the bow like a smaller version of the Duchess of Hamilton.  To deal with the stormy weather in the outer Firth in winter, her windows were boarded and small ports allowed light into the saloons.

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Marchioness of Lorne leaving Ardrossan in winter

In the summer, the Marchioness of Lorne carried on services to Rothesay, Dunoon and Millport and could also be found as a second steamer on the Arran run when required.

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Marchioness of Lorne

The tremendous investment by the Caledonian Company was not un-noticed by the other two railway companies that competed for the coast traffic.  The Glasgow and South Western Railway responded by taking over the fleet of Captain Alexander Williamson as well as the Chancellor from the Lochgoil and Lochlong Steamboat Company, and embarking on a vigorous building campaign of their own.  They also built an impressive new station facade on Princes Pier.  One of the Williamson steamers was the Viceroy, part of the former “Turkish Fleet” whose other members were the Sultan and Sultana.

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Viceroy at Princes Pier

A small steamer, Marquis of Bute, was also purchased.

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Marquis of Bute at Princes Pier with Windsor Castle

With their black-topped, red funnels and French grey hulls, the steamers of the Glasgow and South Western Company were pleasing on the eye.

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Chancellor at Princes Pier

 The North British meanwhile were also adding to their fleet.  In 1888, the company had taken over the steamship service on Loch Lomond and an important connection in the Loch Lomond tour is made at Arrochar, allowing passengers to disembark on the Loch at Tarbet and traverse the narrow isthmus to return to Glasgow by Loch Long and Craigendoran.  The Lady Rowena was added in 1891 to provide this connection.  Full width saloons provided excellent facilities to view the scenery.

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Lady Rowena at Arrochar

The other steamer produced for the North British was the Lady Clare.  Similar in many respects to Lucy Ashton, she was used for ferry duties to Greenock and the Gareloch.

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Lady Clare at Garelochhead

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Lady Clare at Row                                                                

The innovations introduced by these new steamers put pressure on the old Lord of the Isles, now looking dated with narrow deck saloons.  A new Lord of the Isles was introduced by the Glasgow and Inveraray Steamboat Co.  She had full width saloons and as originally built her promenade deck was short, ending at the end of the fore saloon, but was later extended to the bow.

Lord of the Isles Inveraray 866    Lord of the Isles Strachur 867

Lord of the Isles off Inveraray and at Strachur Pier

The new vessel was a fitting steamer for the important tourist route to Inveraray

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Disembarking at Inveraray

The Lord of the Isles was associated with the famous Loch Eck tour.  By leaving the steamer at Dunoon, passengers travelled to Loch Eck by coach where they joined the little steamer Fairy Queen for a trip to the head of the Loch.  A further coach trip took the passengers to Strachur where they could rejoin the steamer for the return to Glasgow.  The trip could also be carried out in reverse.  This allowed the passengers to experience some of the most picturesque scenery though the Kyles of Bute and along Loch Eck.

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Fairy Queen on Loch Eck

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The coach at the head of Loch Eck

There was an alternative route to Inveraray and Loch Fyne where passengers could join the Edinburgh Castle or the Windsor Castle of the Lochgoil and Lochlong Company and land at Lochgoilhead to enjoy a coach for the trip through Hell’s Glen to the ferry at St. Catherines, and cross Loch Fyne to Inveraray.  The Edinburgh Castle dated from 1879.

Edinburgh Castle 928    Edinburgh Castle Lochgoilhead 996

Edinburgh Castle                                                              Edinburgh Castle at Lochgoilhead

For the 1892 season, the first of the new steamers built for the Glasgow and South Western Railway joined the fleet.  Two powerful sister ships, Mercury and Neptune, were available for the service from Princes Pier, Greenock to Dunoon, Rothesay and the Kyles.  They were faster and larger than their Caledonian counterparts and attracted much of the coast traffic.

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Mercury off Greenock with Lady Clare in the background

While Mercury maintained connections with the Greenock and Rothesay route for most of her career, Neptune was altered to operate to Ayr and occasionally Stranraer.  The forward part of her saloon and the area forward of her sponsons were plated-in to withstand the heavier seas executed in the lower Firth.

Neptune off Dunoon 052     Neptune 069

Neptune off Dunoon                                                 Neptune off Greenock as altered

The third addition from the Glasgow and South Western that year was a magnificent product.  Aptly named Glen Sannox, she served on the route from Ardrossan to Arran in competition with the Caledonian Duchess of Hamilton.

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Glen Sannox

Captain Buchanan who operated “all the way” steamers from Glasgow to Dunoon and Rothesay, catering mainly to the working classes of the city also updated his fleet in 1892 with the addition of the Isle of Arran.  She was more modestly built than the new steamers built for the railway companies but was a substantial improvement on the older steamers in his fleet.

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Isle of Arran

 The following year, the Glasgow and South Western Railway added two more sister steamers, Glen Rosa, designed for the winter service to Arran but serving on ferry routes to Rothesay and Millport in the summer, and Minerva, both versatile and useful craft.  They were unusual in that they had their foredecks raised to the level of the rail.

Minerva Princes Pier 939    Glen Rosa at Millport 942

Minerva at princes Pier                                                Glen Rosa at Millport

 The success of Captain Buchanan’s Isle of Arran caused him to add a further steamer in 1894.  The Guy Mannering had been one of the fliers on the North British Craigendoran to Rothesay route but had lost some pace when deck saloons were added.  She was sold to Captain Buchanan and renamed Isle of Bute.

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Isle of Bute

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Isle of Bute heading “doon the watter”

 In 1895, the North British added the Redgauntlet and the Dandie Dinmont, replacing some of the older vessels such as Guy Mannering and Jeanie Deans.  The Redgauntlet was used on the Rothesay route but had large observation windows that made her suitable for cruises.  The Dandie Dinmont was originally intended for the Dunoon and Holy Loch service but was a versatile steamer and could be found on various routes, including the service to Rothesay.

Redgauntlet 828    Craigendoran Redgaultlet Lady Clare 107

Redgauntlet on the Firth                                                     Redgauntlet and Lady Clare at Craigendoran

   Dandie Dinmont 872

Dandie Dinmont

The Glasgow and South Western Railway’s new steamers had captured a significant amount of trade from the Caledonian and the latter company introduced Duchess of Rothesay, similar in appearance to the Duchess of Hamilton but with both fore and aft saloons the full width of the hull.  She was used in a variety of duties but became identified with the cruise to Arran through the Kyles of Bute, the route popularized by Ivanhoe.

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Duchess of Rothesay

The Caledonian company purchased Ivanhoe and used her on general services.  The first alteration made was the installation of a bar.  Outwardly she remained the same but her paddle boxes were painted white.

Caledonian Ivanhoe 966

Ivanhoe in Caledonian Colours

The Glasgow and Southwestern spent little time in responding to the Duchess of Rothesay.  The following year the introduced the Jupiter to compete on the Arran via the Kyles route.

Jupiter 920


Leaving Princes Pier in the morning, she sailed by Rothesay and the Kyles and called at the ferry at Corrie, Brodick and Lamlash Piers, and the ferries at Kings Cross and Whiting Bay until the latter was replaced by a pier.

Jupiter Princes Pier 982    Jupiter at Corrie 947

Jupiter leaving Princes Pier                                               Jupiter at Corrie Ferry 

The following year, John Williamson modernized his fleet with the Strathmore.  He had added a successful steamer Glenmore in 1895 but sold her for a good profit in 1896.  Strathmore sailed from Rothesay in the early morning hours of the morning and made her way by Dunoon and Greenock to the Broomielaw, retracing her sailing in the afternoon.  A sister ship, Kylemore was also built but was sold off the stocks to the South of England, returning to the Clyde at a later date.

Strathmore and Lady Clare Princes Pier 930

Strathmore leaving Princes Pier with Lady Clare berthed

Strathmore Grenadier Broomielaw 015

Strathmore leaving the Broomielaw with Grenadier of 1888 on the afternoon Ardrishaig sailing and a Clutha

It was also the turn of the North British to update their fleet in 1897 with the Talisman, designed for the fast service between Craigendoran, Dunoon and Rothesay.

Talisman 013


The success of Talisman prompted a near sister, Kenilworth, the following year.

Kenilworth 898


Caledonia and Kenilworth at Kirn 795    Kenilworth Rothesay 854

Kenilworth and Caledonia at Kirn                                                      Kenilworth at Rothesay

 Also that year, the Glasgow and South Western took advantage to purchase a steamer that had been ordered for the South Coast of England but whose purchasers were insolvent.  The steamer was built more sturdily than the usual steamers for the Clyde but the Juno, as she was called, was ideal for cruising in the Lower Firth, from Ayr, to Girvan and Stranraer.  When she arrived on the scene, this relieved the previous Ayr steamer, Neptune, to return to the upper Firth.

Juno 803    Neptune at Ayr 935

Juno                                                                        Neptune at Ayr

Juno Girvan 952

Juno at Girvan

There were no steamers added in 1900 and so the last steamer of the century was the North British product, Waverley.  Larger and faster than her predecessors in the fleet, she cut a striking figure and was soon a popular steamer on the north bank company’s services to Dunoon and Rothesay.

Waverley 948


Waverley Kilcreggan 022    Waverley 964

Waverley at Kilcreggan                                                 Waverley leaving Craigendoran

The new century brought a new monarch to the throne, and a revolution in propulsion to the Clyde in 1901.  The first turbine steamer in commercial service was ordered by a consortium that included Captain John Williamson, William Denny and Brothers, the shipbuilders and Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company.  The new steamer, King Edward, was based on the hull design of the paddle steamer Duchess of Hamilton and was ideally suited for long distance cruising but the turbine propulsion meant that she had some difficulties reversing and managing the berthing at piers.

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King Edward

King Edward‘s initial route from Greenock and Fairlie alternated between Campbeltown by Lochranza and the Loch Fyne destinations of Tarbert and Ardrishaig by the south end of Bute, where she challenged the established business of the Columba.

King Edwadrd 002    King Edward Ardrishaig 072

King Edward off Tarbert                                          King Edward leaving Ardrishaig

The King Edward was an immediate success and a second steamer, Queen Alexandra, was ordered in 1902.  She was mainly used to Campbeltown while King Edward, after discussions with the MacBrayne company, switched her Loch Fyne destination to Inveraray.  The Queen Alexandra had a larger shelter deck that proved popular and King Edward was also altered in this fashion.

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Queen Alexandra

Queen Alexandra 830

Queen Alexandra approaching Campbeltown

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King Edward at Inveraray

Both the Caledonian and the Glasgow and South Western built new steamers in 1902, both choosing to stick with the traditional paddle steamer.  Both steamers came from the same yard and had in common, unusually small paddle boxes.  The Caledonian’s Duchess of Montrose was similar to Duchess of Rothesay and was originally used in services from Ayr but was used extensively from Gourock and Wemyss Bay.

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Duchess of Montrose on the Rothesay berth at Wemyss Bay

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Duchess of Montrose at Gourock

The Southwestern steamer was the Mars.  She was a useful steamer that replaced the Chancellor which was sold.

Mars 965


The Duchess of Fife joined the Caledonian fleet in 1903.  A most successful ship, popular on the sailings from Gourock and Wemyss Bay to the Clyde resorts of Rothesay and Millport.

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Duchess of Fife

 Duchess of Fife at Gourock 823

Duchess of Fife at Gourock

The Glasgow and Southwestern countered the following year by purchasing the steamer, Britannia.  The Britannia had originally been built for John Williamson as Kylemore but had been sold off the river when new.  Now she returned as Vulcan, taking over the Millport and Rothesay connections from Fairlie in place of the Marquis of Bute.

Vulcan off Fairlie B 855

Vulcan off Fairlie

Another old steamer, the former North British, Jeanie Deans, also returned to the Firth.  Captain Buchanan purchased her in 1904 and renamed her Isle of Cumbrae.  The upper river at the time had been heavily polluted but new sewage treatment had begun to have a positive effect.  The “all the way traffic” from the Broomielaw was having a resurgence at a time when competition involving the railway steamers had reached its peak.

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Isle of Cumbrae

Isle of Cumbrae Broomielaw 931

Isle of Cumbrae off “doon the watter”

In 1906, all three of the railway companies added new tonnage.  The Caledonian and Glasgow and South Western both entered new territory with turbine steamers, Duchess of Argyll and Atalanta respectively.  They were designed for the Arran sailing from Ardrossan.  The Duchess of Argyll was a Caledonian copy of the Queen Alexandra and like her stablemates, she was not initially plated to the bow.

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Duchess of Argyll off Ardrossan

The Atalanta was a beamier and more utilitarian product and did not have the speed of the Duchess of Argyll.  Ultimately, however, she was a most successful and versatile craft and became very popular on the Arran route later in her life.

Atalanta 804


 The North British steamer was the a paddle steamer as the approach to Craigendoran was too shallow for a turbine.  The Marmion replaced the Lady Rowena, sold two years earlier, on the important Arrochar connection of the Loch Lomond tour.

Marmion 869


Mars and Lady Rowena at Arrochar 794

Mars and Marmion at Arrochar

Princess May Tarbet 114    Princess May Tarbet 113

Princess May at Tarbet on Loch Lomond                                        Princess May leaving Tarbet

After 1906, consolidation was the order of the day for the railway companies.  Steamers were sold or transferred.  There was, however a resurgence in the traffic from the Broomielaw.  The Vulcan was purchased by John Williamson and reverted to her original name, Kylemore, and Buchanan had the Eagle III built in 1910.  Initially she was very tender and would list when she had even a modest crowd aboard, but in 1911, she reappeared with her problems fixed.

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Eagle III

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Eagle III

John Williamson added Queen Empress (not illustrated) in 1912 and the Ivanhoe fell into private hands again, as did Madge Wildfire, becoming Buchanan’s Isle of Skye, both sailing from the Broomielaw.  A new Queen Alexandra appeared after the first Queen Alexandra was damaged by fire.  In 1912 also, as a result of the Titanic disaster, the steamers on the Clyde added extra lifeboats.  This brief history will finish at this point as World War I approaches.

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Ivanhoe leaving the Broomielaw with Eagle III

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Duchess of Fife at Millport with her extra “Titanic” lifeboat