The Enthusiast’s Tale

Richard Orr served for eight summers (1957-64) as Purser on the Clyde steamers, all of them single-funnelled. His first was Glen Sannox, from which he photographed Talisman negotiating the north-end berth at Fairlie on Monday 9 September 1957. This unusual juxtaposition happened every day that summer, Monday to Friday. When the schedule for Glen Sannox was constructed, it seems to have been forgotten that the 1315 sailing from Millport called at Fairlie. So, in 1957, both ships were at Fairlie around 1330. In 1958 the Fairlie call was removed from Talisman’s roster. She still left Millport at 1315 but just sat at Largs for half an hour instead of leaving earlier for Rothesay

As Purser on Marchioness of Graham and Queen Mary II in the late 1950s and 1960s, Richard Orr garnered enough experiences to fill at least two books. At Jurys Inn on 13 November, he managed to encapsulate most of those experiences in an hour of memory and nostalgia. The title of his talk, ‘The Enthusiast’s Tale — In Thrall’, suggested that, despite the passage of time, Richard still feels in thrall to the ships and personalities of his formative years. He certainly kept his audience enthralled, reports Andrew Clark.

In clogs on Rothesay prom in 1947

A boy wearing clogs is pictured walking purposefully along the prom at Rothesay in 1947. This is Richard Orr, aged eight and oozing a sense of purpose. The likelihood is that he is heading for the pier, where he will watch a succession of magnificent steamers gliding into the three berths, with funnels emitting plumes of black smoke and paddle wheels re-cycling bucket-loads of soapy seawater. The experience will burn itself into his consciousness, inform a lifetime’s enthusiasm and keep alive memories of the Clyde’s glory years.

Richard has always had something youthful about him, and the shape it took last Wednesday evening was a zest for what life offered on the Clyde coast in the postwar era. It suffused his commentary on a fascinating succession of photographs, mostly his own, which captured the buzz and halcyon aura of those years.

One of the steamers Richard encountered during that 1947 summer was Waverley — “immediately fascinating to me because she was in her first season”. May 1948, he recalled, saw Lucy Ashton celebrating her 60th anniversary, courtesy of a CRSC charter. Acquaintance with other veterans followed: the CSP’s winter-boarded Duchess of Fife at Craigendoran in March 1950; King Edward, the world’s first commercial turbine (“I knew her at Bridge Wharf and Govan”), showing “a plume of steam from her bows when berthing, just like the puffers”; and the equally venerable Duchess of Argyll, also withdrawn after the 1951 season.

14-day Season Ticket 1956

Richard was on Gourock pier to capture the debut of the car ferry Arran in January 1954. Later that year, this time from Kilchattan Bay, he witnessed the turbine Glen Sannox under tow to the breakers in Belgium — and, in 1955, MacBraynes’ Lochness on her way to Greece and the Ardrossan-Belfast turbine Lairds Isle in her dotage.

He and his father sailed on the MacBrayne cargo ship Loch Carron round the Mull of Kintyre on a trip to Tarbert (Harris) that included 26 calls and plenty of opportunities to take the wheel.

Season tickets on the Clyde familiarised him with Queen Mary II in her twin- and single-funnel guises (1956-57) and encouraged him to join CRSC. Still a schoolboy, he even organised his own school charter of paddle steamer Caledonia in the spring of 1957.

Life really began, however, on 27 June 1957. That was the day Richard started as an Assistant Purser — initially on the new Glen Sannox (“as a novice, that was hard-going”) before being sent for the main part of the season to Marchioness of Graham in her final summer on the Firth.

The joys of the job included getting up at 0530 for the Monday morning ‘death run’ from Whiting Bay, watching the steamer cant at Bridge Wharf on the Up-River Cruise from Largs, and observing how Captain Colin MacKay (“quiet and scary”) turned a blind eye when numbers went 300 or 400 above her complement.

But when Richard tried to take a photo from the bridge of Glen Sannox during a stormy crossing, Captain John Cameron did not turn a blind eye. “This is not a circus,” he snapped.

Marchioness of Graham looked well from the stern’

Richard liked Marchioness of Graham — “she looked very well from the stern, and there are few steamers you can say that of” — but the ‘Mary’, which he joined in 1958, has always been his first love, especially after his elevation to Junior Purser in 1959.

In all Richard spent eight summers as a Purser, never straying from single-funnel ships. Like other enthusiasts at the time, he had a huge admiration for Captain John Macleod, who “handled Glen Sannox like a toy”, and for Captain Mick Brophy on the ‘Mary’, who never shirked the chance to sweep past Caledonia. If Second Engineer ‘Bluey’ MacAuslan was “the secret of Queen Mary II’s great performance”, the esteemed Jimmy Gibson was responsible for much of the banter in the Purser’s Office.

Although the 1964 summer was Richard’s last on the boats before taking up a ‘real’ job as a teacher in Hyndland, he kept a watchful eye on the Firth, noting the “absurdly small” lions on Queen Mary II’s funnel in 1965 and the horribly foreshortened masts on the ‘Mary’ and ‘Hamilton’ in 1969. Released from his summer pursering duties, he began to spread his wings — visiting the North Company’s venerable St Magnus in Aberdeen, sailing on Burns Laird’s Lairds Loch from Derry, giving talks to CRSC (and serving twice as President), and eventually having a family.

Richard left the impression that, in retrospect, the rot began in the 1970s, when a tougher economic climate swept through Clyde shipping services (as elsewhere) and the Scottish Transport Group began to focus on short ferry crossings. “The glory days were numbered,” he said. “What would the future hold for me?”

Well, nearly 50 years later, Richard is still in thrall to the glory days — and still contributing richly to CRSC.

WSN Chairman Derek Peters (left) receives CRSC’s £5,000 cheque for the Waverley Boiler Refit Appeal from Roy Paterson

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At the start of the meeting CRSC President Roy Paterson presented a cheque for £5,000 to Waverley Steam Navigation Company Chairman Derek Peters.

This brings to £6,000 the total given by the Club this year to the paddler’s Boiler Refit Appeal.

In his reply, Derek (a CRSC Past President) thanked the Club and said the appeal total had now reached £2.2m. The result of an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund was still awaited, and fundraising would continue even after Waverley’s expected return to service next summer. The boiler room had already been stripped of insulation, “and the real work begins in January.”

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Roy also offered a special welcome to Les Brown, son of the late J. T. A. (Ian) Brown, and presented him with a copy of Clyde Steamers in Colour, CRSC’s top-selling DVD, which comprises selections from the cine films Ian Brown took in the 1960s and 1970s. It was thanks to Les that the films were made available to the Club. The DVD can be bought here.

CRSC stalwarts on King Edward in 1951, her 50th anniversary. Graham Langmuir stands sixth from the left. Geoffrey Grimshaw peers from under the deck shelter sixth from right

Holiday memory from 1956: Queen Mary II, still with twin funnels, leaves Rothesay Bay as a car ferry approaches the pier

On 22 May 1957 Richard captured Queen Mary II at Bridge Wharf — her debut there in single-funnel state

Pursers of the ‘Mary’: Duncan Graham and Richard Orr relaxing with ‘mivvis’ at Tighnabruaich in August 1959

Captain Mick Brophy and Mate Duncan McTavish on the bridge of Queen Mary II on 7 September 1958

Richard and his father sailed to the Hebrides on the MacBrayne cargo ship Loch Carron, which had space for four passengers

Richard Orr in the Purser’s Office of Queen Mary II in August 1964

View of the bearded Purser from the monkey island of Glen Sannox on 15 April 1963

Arran sweeps out of Rothesay Bay on 27 July 1958

Deck crew of Queen Mary II relaxing aft off Toward on 12 September 1964

Queen Mary II at Dunoon on 28 September 1964 — Richard Orr’s last day as a Purser

Richard Orr (centre) at Jurys Inn after his CRSC talk, with Aberdeen-based Club member Donald Thomas (right) and Les Brown (left). Thanks to Les, CRSC was able to put together the DVD Clyde Steamers in Colour, comprising excerpts from vintage cine-films made by his father J. T. A. (Ian) Brown. It can be bought in the Club’s online Shop

Richard Orr’s books Aboard Queen Mary II and The Marchioness of Graham: A Purser’s Log can be bought here from the CRSC Shop.

Published on 17 November 2019