February 2012 Meeting – Duchess of Hamilton (1932 – 1970) : A Steamer Without Equal?

On 8 February 2012 the Club welcomed back Past President Iain MacLeod for a talk titled “Duchess of Hamilton (1932-1970): A Steamer Without Equal?”. Whether for the affection with which the Hamilton is remembered or the high regard in which Iain, now resident in Malvern, is held among ship enthusiasts (probably a combination of both), his talk drew the biggest audience since the CRSC moved its monthly meetings to Jurys Inn more than three years ago. It was ‘standing room only’.

Iain’s handsomely illustrated ‘biography’ of the LMS/CSP turbine traced the Hamilton’s career from her launch at Govan on 5 May 1932 to her last sailing, on 28 September 1970 to Campbeltown, and her demise at Troon four years later, after the failure of plans to convert her into a floating restaurant. We heard how she was built in response to the runaway success of her 1930 sister, the Duchess of Montrose, which had recouped 10 per cent of her purchase cost in her first season alone; how LMS directors had considered ordering ‘a 19 knot vessel if the latter is materially cheaper in cost and running’; and how she had been built by Harland & Wolff because that firm submitted the lowest tender – at £61,000, a good £10,000 less than expected.

The Duchess of Hamilton in the Clyde off Govan
after her launch on 5 May 1932

The Duchess of Hamilton came into being in the same year as the CRSC, whose members viewed her from the Jupiter during their inaugural Nominated Excursion to Ormidale on 6 August 1932

We were reminded that the Hamilton had been a special steamer for the CRSC: her history was entwined with ours. Quoting John Wood, the Club’s founder, Iain recalled that the Hamilton had taken up her role as Ayr excursion steamer on 28 June 1932, one day before the first full meeting of the Club, and that towards the end of her career we had chartered her for four memorable trips, two of which took her back to the Ayrshire ports she was built to serve.

The talk was liberally sprinkled with nuggets: in 1932 the Hamilton had a crew of 56, no fewer than 32 of whom were catering staff; one of her first firemen, Patrick McDermott, was still aboard, as a greaser, more than 20 years later; her Pursers included Joe Beattie, later kenspeckle piermaster at Dunoon, and Eddie Baker, subsequently CSP Traffic Manager; war service took her twice to Belfast, where her engines had been built; between 2 and 4 October 1947 she stood in for the Saint Columba on the Ardrishaig mail service; and on 8 June 1956 Captain Fergus Murdoch, the ship’s legendary postwar Master, decided to call at Govan, by then closed to regular traffic, to land a passenger who had been taken ill. One more fascinating detail: according to a well-respected Clyde skipper, a propeller shaft removed from the Hamilton in 1969 lay in the CSP’s Gourock workshop until 1982, when it was used to stiffen the Saturn’s tripod mainmast. As Iain wryly observed, “for all we know it’s still there, at Rosneath, as we sit here this evening.”

The Ayr excursion timetable of 1939

Captain Fergus Murdoch (right), legendary skipper of
the Duchess of 
the Hamilton from 1946 to 1967,
with his first postwar Mate, William 

During his talk it became clear that the Hamilton’s life-story had links with his own. His father, for example, had taken a season ticket from Ayr in 1939, the last year the steamer was based there, and Iain personalised his account with memories from the 1960s, ending with this encomium: “I remember heaving lines, ropes, gangways, telegraphs, tickets, whistles, brass, steam. I remember the bow cutting through the water and the wake tumbling away from the screws. I remember a seeming stillness and a smoothness. I remember the ever-changing beauties of the Firth – and perhaps above all I remember a wonderful sense of contentedness at being aboard, a contentedness I feel again now as I recall the Duchess of Hamilton, for me indeed a steamer without equal.”
The Duchess of Hamilton in 1967

Iain MacLeod (right) with his successor as CRSC magazine editor, Andrew Clark, who gave the vote of thanks  

Whether or not Iain convinced diehard devotees of the Duchess of Montrose that the Hamilton was the superior vessel, no one can have doubted that his thoroughly researched and engagingly delivered talk was one of the highlights of the Club’s recent history.