Book Review: ‘Jeanie Deans, Clydebuilt Pioneer of Paddle Steamer Preservation’

Iain MacLeod hails Fraser MacHaffie’s new book as ‘the definitive history of a beautiful and much-loved steamer’.

Fraser MacHaffie’s new hardback is handsomely produced and lavishly illustrated

This is a wonderful book. It is handsomely produced, copiously illustrated and engagingly written. It is a book for all who know and love the Clyde, whether or not their memories stretch back to the happy days of paddlers, turbines and passenger-only motor ships criss-crossing the Firth.

I never sailed on Jeanie Deans – but I remember vividly the last time I saw her. On Thursday 27 August 1964 the paddle steamer Caledonia sailed from Ayr and Troon to Brodick, where my family joined her, and on to Rothesay, arriving around 2.15. We had a good view of Queen Mary II as she made her way into the Kyles, but it was a paddle steamer approaching Rothesay pier from the Cowal coast just a few minutes behind us that demanded attention. This was Jeanie Deans, on her way Round Bute. As she came alongside, my father took out his ciné camera and recorded memorable footage of that stubbornly black paddle box. ‘Why?’ I asked him. ‘Well, she won’t be around for much longer,’ he replied. He was right: within a month Jeanie’s Clyde days were done.

The departure of Jeanie and Duchess of Montrose seemed very clearly to mark the end of an era: that it was a turning point was somehow accentuated by the remaining steamers’ appearance the following year in new colours to which many were never really reconciled.  But it was almost as if the departure of those two favourites also galvanised the Clyde River Steamer Club into action.  A new generation took the helm, young men whose interest in steamers past and present was sharpened by years as assistant pursers, and who were determined to spread the word.  So, CRSC embarked on a golden age of chartering big ships, each sailing accompanied by a meticulously researched booklet, and publishing the annual Review and magazine which for many remain a powerful reason for continuing to pay the Club’s annual subscription.

Fraser MacHaffie was one of those young men, and although his latest book – nearly 60 years on! – is not a CRSC publication, it builds strongly upon the traditions established all those years ago. It deserves to be read by every Club member. Buying and reading it will, after all, support the continued existence of the last of that breed of steamers which over the years has captivated so many of us.

In these days of AIS, Facebook and online forums, many CRSC members with no memory of ‘real’ steamers enjoy seeing on an almost daily basis how each ferry takes its place in a complex web of operations, especially when something happens to disturb the norm – a breakdown, an accident, the arrival of a new boat.

Two photos of Jeanie Deans leaving Dunoon in her final Clyde season make up the back cover of the book

That facility did not exist in the days of Jeanie Deans, but there was nevertheless a complex web of operations: this record of her career tells us in words and pictures not only what Jeanie was up to, year by year, but also how the network of which she was part kept changing as the 1930s came and went, wartime left its mark, nationalisation transformed the scene, modernisation marched ahead, day trip traffic fell away, preservationists tried and failed. 

Of particular interest, and with what I think are new insights, is the story of the LNER and its continuing battle to keep services going in the face of strong competition from across the Firth. It is a measure of how fast things were changing in the 1960s and 70s that Craigendoran pier survived Jeanie Deans by only eight years.  

Fraser MacHaffie makes clear his debt to Alan Brown, perhaps the North Bank’s most diligent historian: but there are other names in the book whose work amongst the archives or behind the camera also paved the way for the generation of enthusiasts who followed them. Dick Smith combined a remarkable recall of events long gone with an ability to describe persuasively a scene reconstructed by interrogating timetables and newspaper reports, and it is a delight to find his ‘Day on the Jeanie reproduced here. Graham Langmuir was the most generous of photographers, trustingly sharing his negatives with, I suspect, more than one teenage enthusiast. His record of Jeanie’s history around wartime is invaluable: quite how he managed to take the photographs in the conditions of the time remains a mystery.

Photographs: what a comprehensive collection we’re offered. Here is Jeanie the length and breadth of the Firth; in war and peace; at piers large and small, or under way; busy or less so; with funnels red, white and black, grey, buff or yellow; as built, as modified, as rebuilt; in winter or summer; on the Clyde or on the Thames.

Yes, the Thames: how could Jeanie’s new career have gone so badly wrong? Was too much taken on trust? Was naïveté at play, or over-confidence? Was money spent on the wrong things? The story is laid out clearly, for all to think over. There are people reading this who might be able to tell us whether they consciously learned lessons from the failure of Queen of the South when shaping their vision for Waverley in preservation.

Text and illustrations are beautifully balanced

Detail, detail, detail: dates, times, places, successes, failures, mishaps, catering arrangements, special days, routine days, decline, resurgence. It’s all here, assembled with a scholarly eye, but the trick is that the detail is not overwhelming or remotely tedious. This book is a mosaic of little pieces of information set against a wider background sweep, which together shape what is surely the definitive history of a beautiful and much-loved steamer.

Waverley is another beautiful and much-loved steamer and she will benefit significantly from the publication of this splendid tribute to her ‘big sister’ (or ‘older cousin’). Do buy it, drink in its pictures, read it, think back on or imagine with its help a Firth of Clyde now gone. Above all, enjoy the story of Jeanie Deans, and thank Fraser MacHaffie for his telling of it. 

Oh, and one other thing: please, please can someone prepare a companion volume about Caledonia, the steamer which I loved best and which took me to Rothesay that August afternoon in 1964 for my final view of Jeanie Deans?

Jeanie Deans: Clydebuilt Pioneer of Paddle Steamer Preservation’ by Fraser G. MacHaffie, published by Waverley Excursions Ltd. Hardback, 176 pages, £29 post-free. To secure your copy, click here. 100% of sales will go towards Waverley’s continued preservation.

Iain MacLeod was CRSC President in 1988-89 and 2008-09, and editor of Clyde Steamers from 1993 to 2007.

Published on 22 December 2021