Williamson & McQueen: a battle for supremacy on the Rothesay route

‘The rake of mast and funnel, and the sweeping curve of her paddle box, conveyed to the beholder an impression of speed which her performances did not fail to bear out’: Captain Alexander Williamson’s Sultana, holder of the record for the run from Princes Pier to Rothesay (57 minutes), leaves Dunoon on her way down-firth. She is seen here in her late 1880s condition, after the addition of a short saloon on the after deck

In the second part of his series comparing the writings of James Williamson and Andrew McQueen, Graeme Hogg examines their descriptions of the two best-known Rothesay steamers of the late 1870s.

The main route to Rothesay for well over a century has been via Wemyss Bay, and the town is amply served today by Bute and Argyle. The situation in the 1870s was quite different. The traditional route had been by ‘all the way’ steamer from Glasgow, but since the 1840s the railway companies had progressively made inroads into this traffic — first by dabbling unsuccessfully in steamer operations themselves, and then relying on private operators to provide steamer connections.

Crew of Sultana

The two competing routes to Rothesay at this time were via Greenock and Wemyss Bay. The Greenock and Ayrshire Railway, soon to be absorbed into the Glasgow & South Western Railway, ran trains from St Enoch Station in Glasgow to Princes Pier at Greenock, where connection was made with the steamers of Captain Alexander Williamson. The Greenock & Wemyss Bay Railway ran its trains from Bridge Street in Glasgow to Wemyss Bay, but the single track from Greenock onwards limited speed and capacity. Steamer connections for this route were provided by the Gillies & Campbell partnership.

The key services were the commuter runs. In the morning steamers left Rothesay about half-past-seven to connect with their respective trains at Greenock and Wemyss Bay. In the afternoon, trains left Glasgow after four o’clock, each route seeking to deliver their passengers first to Rothesay. St Enoch was more centrally located than Bridge Street, but the latter connection had the advantage of a later departure, at 4.35pm. In 1877 the steamer legs of the journeys were provided by two of the crack steamers of the day, Sultana (from Princes Pier) and Sheila (Wemyss Bay). 

In his landmark book The Clyde Passenger Steamer 1812 to 1901, published in 1904, James Williamson reveals that he had a “very close and intimate association” with Sultana, “having wrought as an apprentice engineer in her construction, and having subsequently occupied the posts of emergency engineer and skipper on board”. That ‘close and intimate association’ stemmed from the fact that Sultana had been built (in 1868, by Robertson & Co of Greenock) for James’s father, Captain Alexander Williamson, who gave his three sons — James, Alexander Jnr and John — valuable apprenticeships in his thriving steamer-operating business. James had the distinction of being in command of Sultana when she made the first steamer call at Princes Pier after the opening of the railway line there in 1869.

Continuing his description of Sultana in the third person, Captain Williamson laconically recalled how “Somehow, during most of the period of his skippership there seemed to be great necessity – or it may have been great temptation – to relieve the monotony of ordinary plain sailing, the consequence being a weekly or bi-weekly invitation to make explanations to the River Baillie, to the tune of £5 per visit” — a reference to the tendency of late Victorian steamer captains to race their ships dangerously, often ending up in court with a fine and reprimand.

‘With a length of 188 feet, Sultana was of modest size’: she is pictured off Greenock in the colours of Captain Alexander Williamson, father of James, Alexander Jnr and John

With a length of 188 feet, Sultana was of modest size. She was also flush decked, at a time when the quality of covered accommodation for passengers was starting to assume greater importance in steamer design.

Despite her modest dimensions, Sultana was an impressive ship, a judgement substantiated by Andrew McQueen in Clyde River-Steamers of the Last Fifty Years, published in 1923.

McQueen’s description indicates not only a knowledge of the vessel almost as intimate as Captain Williamson’s, but also a greater willingness to express personal enthusiasms: “Her straight stem and knife-like entrance, with the rake of mast and funnel and the sweeping curve of her paddle box, conveyed to the beholder an impression of speed which her performances did not fail to bear out. Though her engine was not particularly powerful, she had a very rapid stroke and travelled at a great pace, her fine lines offering no resistance to the water. Though rather crank [sic] with a big crowd on board, she steered beautifully when in proper trim; few Clyde steamers have equalled, and certainly none have excelled her in manoeuvring at piers”. McQueen clearly had a soft spot for Sultana, which at that time held the record for the fastest passage from Princes Pier to Rothesay. She was a popular ship, retaining a loyal following over many years.

Her opponent was Sheila, designed to serve what James Williamson described as the “ever-increasing trade” from Wemyss Bay. Built in 1877 by Caird & Co of Greenock for Gillies & Campbell, she met the need for a fast steamer which could compete effectively with Sultana.

Sheila entering Rothesay Bay in the early 1880s

Of raised quarterdeck design, Sheila was 17 feet longer than her rival, and her powerful single diagonal engine gave her a good turn of speed. According to James Williamson, “she proved a decided acquisition to that station and did splendid service, till she was purchased by the North British Railway Company” in 1882, by which time she had lost some of her speed.

For two years, this pair of flyers battled for supremacy on the Rothesay route. Andrew McQueen’s account of a typical joust is worth quoting in its entirety:

“Let us fancy ourselves standing, at half-past five on a summer evening in 1877, alongside the then recently opened pier at Craigmore. Cast your eyes towards Wemyss Bay and you will see several small wreaths of smoke curling upward, marking where the steamers lie at the pier awaiting the arrival of the 4.35 express from Bridge Street. As we watch, the smoke-wreaths separate, and one of them is seen to be coming in our direction, while the small white speck from which it issues resolves itself gradually into the long white funnel of a steamboat.

“She grows rapidly larger as we watch, for she is travelling fast, and the dense smoke now curling from the funnel, together with the mass of white water that her wheels are throwing behind her, tells us that the Sheila is being driven. As she nears Toward Point the reason of her haste becomes apparent, for another smoke-wreath has appeared over Cowal, and a small black funnel comes in sight, moving rapidly past the low-lying land to the left of the lighthouse.

“The lighthouse buildings obscure it for a few seconds, and as it re-emerges, we recognise the graceful profile of the little Sultana, travelling at her utmost speed, as she brings the passengers who have left St Enoch by the 4.5 express. The turn of her helm at Toward buoy brings the two boats on parallel courses, and neck and neck they strain towards Craigmore. No change can be observed in their relative positions as we watch, but Sheila has an advantage in the port-hand position, just sufficient, provided she can steam yard for yard with her opponent, to give her first turn of Craigmore pier.

Sheila on her way from Port Bannatyne to Rothesay

“And so it comes about, and Sultana, accepting the inevitable, is slowed up some five hundred yards off, lest the other’s departure should find her too close to the pier, without steerage way. The Sheila is brought alongside, mooring ropes are made fast fore and aft, the gangway is run across, and her passengers—not many, for there is as yet no great volume of traffic to Craigmore pier—step ashore.

“There is no particular hurry at this point, for here, it is evident, Sultana must perforce await her rival’s convenience. At length the gangway is withdrawn, the forward mooring rope let go, and with the paddles reversing, the bow swings outward from the pier, as the strain comes on the after-hawser. As soon as the desired angle is reached, three strokes of the captain’s knocker give the signal for ‘Full speed ahead’, and the Sheila obeys slowly, for she is but an awkward starter, and the peculiar measure of her paddle-beats — four strokes and a pause, four strokes and a pause — proclaims that the whole staff of engine-room and stokehold are tailing on to the long starting-lever, to induce the obstinate crank to pass over the dead-centres.

“A heavy crank that! that sets the whole fabric of the vessel vibrating with each downward stroke, and makes the passengers, seated or standing on the quarterdeck, sway back and forth in unison with its movement.

“The stern of the Sheila has barely cleared the end of the quay ere the long, sharp stem of the Sultana is at the other end; her pilot knows his business, and her paddle-box grazes the piles as a backward turn of her wheels brings her up just at the right spot. A single mooring line is made fast aft, and while her few passengers are being hustled ashore, the ebb-tide is gently swinging her stem outward. The gangway is hurriedly hauled away, striking into the heels of the last passenger, and almost ere he has time to turn round and expostulate, the steamer is again under weigh, for, unlike her rival, she is sensitive to the starting-lever, and simply jumps off as the knocker goes.

‘And so they raced, day after day, throughout the summers of 1877 and 1878, to the great delight of the spectators’: Sultana at her peak

“We move a little way round the front, until Rothesay quay comes in sight. Sheila has secured the coveted berth at the western end, but a precious minute has been lost in mooring her, and as the first of her passengers step down the gangway, Sultana slips nimbly into the berth directly astern. With fewer passengers to disembark, she is ready to resume the race as soon as her rival; the paddle-wheels start revolving almost simultaneously, and the Rothesay clocks, striking six, find both steamers well clear of the quay, with Sultana this time in the inshore position, which ‘a spoke too far to port’ by the other’s pilot, cleverly turned to advantage by her own deft skipper, has enabled her to acquire. From where we stand, it is hard to tell how the race is going, but the white funnel swings round Ardbeg Point about a ship’s length ahead of the black, and so they disappear behind the houses, leaving us to conjecture whether the one-length lead or the inshore position has proved the deciding factor in the finish at Port Bannatyne pier.

“And so they raced, day after day, throughout the summers of 1877 and 1878, to the great delight of the spectators, most of them bigoted partisans of one or other boat, who lined the shore-roads round East and West Bays.” 

In the 1880s Sultana and Sheila went separate ways. After her purchase by the North British, Sheila was renamed Guy Mannering and began to win back her reputation for speed — until the addition of deck saloons in 1890 slowed her down again. She was purchased in 1895 by Captain William Buchanan, who renamed her Isle of Bute and used her for his Glasgow-Rothesay trade. In 1912 she was bought by Lancashire owners.

When the Glasgow & South Western Railway started steamer operations in 1891, with James Williamson’s younger brother Alexander as marine superintendent, Sultana was one of its first acquisitions. Relegated to the Holy Loch service, she was subsequently sold to John Williamson (youngest of the three steamer operating brothers) for his Broomielaw trade, before being bought by French owners in 1900.

The personal admiration for this pair of steamers expressed by two such eminent authors as James Williamson and Andrew McQueen indicates that, at least in their prime, Sultana and Sheila helped to define what a later author, Alan J. S. Paterson, dubbed ‘The Victorian Summer of the Clyde Steamers’.

This is the second article in an ongoing series comparing the writings of two pioneers of Clyde steamer literature. Catch up with Part One of ‘Williamson & McQueen’ here.

Preface to Williamson’s 1904 book

Introduction to McQueen’s 1923 volume




Purchased by the North British Railway in 1882 for its Craigendoran sailings, Sheila was renamed Guy Mannering in 1883. She is pictured at Kilcreggan

Guy Mannering ex Sheila leaving Craigendoran in the mid 1880s

Guy Mannering at Rothesay c1888, with Captain Alexander Campbell’s twin-funnelled flagship Victoria in the background

Guy Mannering leaving Rothesay in the late 1880s

In 1892 Guy Mannering was fitted with a deck saloon aft and a small detached fore-saloon. She looks pretty, but the additions affected her speed

In 1894 Guy Mannering was bought by Captain William Buchanan, who renamed her Isle of Bute, gave her a more substantial fore-saloon and operated her on ‘all the way’ sailings to Rothesay. Sold in 1912 to Morecambe Bay, she was broken up the following year

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Published on 18 February 2021