Monday, 6 October 2008

Balmoral Salutes a Retiring Legend

(Clicking on most of the new pictures below will open a larger high resolution view)

On Sunday 5th October the veteran Waverley Excursions motor ship Balmoral played a significant part in the final visit of one of the greatest ships that the world has ever known to the river of her birth . The celebrity was, of course, RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 the last of the great Clydebuilt passenger liners. The QE2 was built at the former John Brown shipyard in Clydebank and was to be the last of many fine passenger liners built on the river. In fact, the majority of the ships built for the famous Cunard Line were built on the Clyde (122 in total) and, when the QE2 is handed over to her new owners in Dubai in December 2008, it will be the first time in its near 170-year history that the Cunard fleet has not had at least one Clydebuilt ship in its number.

The first four Cunard liners were paddle steamers designed according to the advice of the renowned Clyde engineer and shipbuilder Robert Napier. The first of the four was the PS Britannia. At the time of her construction in 1839 Napier had yet to establish his shipyard at Govan near Glasgow, so the hull of Britannia an her sisters where built by several shipyards on the lower Clyde and towed up river to Napier’s Dock to have all of their machinery installed. Napier's Dock was at the eastern end of what is now Lancefield Quay, now Waverley Steam Navigation's office and workshop. His marine engine building works was in the adjacent Hydepark Street.

The first Cunard paddler Britannia
(Cunard Archives)

Although the Cunard Line (founded by Canadian Samuel Cunard) was long associated with the port of Liverpool, its headquarters, a lot of the capital raised to finance the Company and its early fleet of vessels was raised on Clydeside, principally by the established shipowner George Burns. The partnership regaled under the impressive title of the ‘ Glasgow Propriety in the British & North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’. Details of the Burns family's influential position in the development of steam navigation can be found here. In fact, the Company did not change its name to the Cunard Steamship Company until after the death of its founder in the 1880s. Again, while most of the Line’s ships, prior to the QE2, were registered in the port of Liverpool, the early fleet of ships were registered in Glasgow. After Napier established his new shipyard in the 1850s one of the first ships that he built there was the huge paddle steamer Persia for Cunard. She was the largest merchant ship in the World at the time of her construction.

PS Persia under construction at Robert Napier's Clyde shipyard
(source unknown)

The last ocean-going paddle steamer built by Napier for Cunard was the PS Scotia, launched at Govan on the 25th June 1861.

Model of PS Scotia, Cunard's largest and last ocean going paddle steamer
(Model at the Science Musuem, South Kensington, London)

As the Cunard ships became bigger the principal builder became the Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Company, set up by the brilliant shipbuilder and engineer John Elder, a pupil of Napier. John Elder’s father David Elder was Napier’s highly regarded foreman for many years. The huge screw steamers Campania and Lucania represented the peak of Fairfield’s contribution to Cunard.

RMS Campania, Cunard's Record Breaker
(Model at the Science Museum, South Kensington, London)

As the 19th Century drew to a close, and Cunard’s liners became so large that the main production of liners for Cunard moved yet further down the Clyde to Clydebank where the shipbuilders J & G Thomson had established a sizable state-of-the art shipyard directly opposite the location where the River Cart flows into the Clyde. That location was to become more important as the 20th Century progressed.

Early in the 20th Century the Cunard Line, by then under the chairmanship of Baron Inverclyde of Wemyss Bay, was facing a substantial threat from large American concerns,. Lord Inverclyde negotiated assistance from the British Government for the construction of two huge new liners to fend off the American challenge. The sister ships were Mauritania (built on Tyneside) and Lusitania, which was built at Clydebank, by then under the ownership of John Brown & Co.. The relationship between Cunard and Brown’s lasted for over sixty years with many of its finest and largest ships built at Clydebank. The building of the progressively larger Cunarders was only possible at Clydebank due to the River Cart opposite , which eliminated the restriction imposed by the relatively narrow River Clyde. The decision to locate the yard there was an inspired choice by those that could not have known of the giant liners that were to be built in the next century. Consequently, world renowned Cunarders such as Aquitania, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and Caronia were all created at Clydebank and the association continued with the order for Yard No 736, which became QE2 on her launch in Sept 1967. Sadly, she was to be the last prestige Cunarder to be built at Clydebank, or anywhere else on the Clyde.

Yard No 736 at Clydebank Shipyard in Sept 1967
(picture by the late William Davies)

In 2007, when the announcement came that QE2 was to retire to Dubai as a floating hotel (just as her illustrious predecessor, Queen Mary, done at Long Beach, California in 1967) there was some considerable regret that the strong link between Clydebuilt vessels and the Cunard fleet, dating back to the very founding of the Company, was finally to end. The final visit of the ship to Clydeside, on 5th October 2008, was going to be filled with an emotion that only shipbuilding and maritime communities can fully appreciate.

The Balmoral was rostered to participate in that great event. In fact, though not a Clydebuilt ship, Balmoral had a significant association with QE2 as the liner was to be the first Cunarder to be registered in the port of Southampton, which had replaced Liverpool as the Line’s main base port many years earlier. Balmoral was also registered in Southampton as she served the Isle of Wight from the city in her first life (subsequently, when she was acquired by Balmoral Excursions Ltd in 1986, her registry was switched to Bristol).

QE2 first returned to the river of her birth in 1990 when she was escorted by PS Waverley and the paddler had greeted the liner 'home' on subsequent visits in the 1990s. Balmoral had assumed the role in 2007 when she accompanied the departing Cunarder almost as far as Toward after her visit to the Clyde for the 40th anniversary of her launch in 1967. See pictures of the launch and the 40th anniversary visit here.

Due to different timings for the liner’s last ever return to Clydeside, the Balmoral was able to join a large flotilla of craft including the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Manchester that escorted the liner on her arrival. So at the early time (for a Sunday) of 0900 an almost capacity quota of passengers joined the 59-year old motor ship at Greenock’s Customhouse Quay to go and meet the liner. After a unprecedentedly poor summer (even the previous day was horrible), the 5th October 2008 dawned with an almost cloudless blue sky. It was almost like a dream that the weather could be so good and undoubtedly it added immensely to the enjoyment of the tens of thousands of people who came to see the Clyde’s last great liner for the last time.

Balmoral, dressed fore and aft for the special day at Greenock about 0900.

Queen Elizabeth 2 had served, like her predecessors, as a troopship in time of conflict (Falklands War 1982) and as a mark of that the Royal Navy honoured ‘our old friend’ by assigning the Type 42 destroyer HMS Manchester to escort the liner from the lower Firth of Clyde to the famous ‘Tail of the Bank’ anchorage off Greenock .

The magnificent QE2 arrives back on the Clyde for the last time

HMS Manchester escorted QE2 from the lower Firth of Clyde to the Tail of the Bank

After the extremely successful escort sailing Balmoral left Greenock for Glasgow to bring another near capacity crowd of passengers to view the liner at the Ocean Terminal at Greenock. As an added bonus Balmoral cruised around a number of large naval vessels that were at anchor off Greenock in preparation for extensive naval exercises off the West Coast.

Balmoral heading upriver to Glasgow

Balmoral passing QE2 on her second special sailing

Balmoral passing the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal
(with the classic motor cruiser Fenella in the foreground)

Balmoral ‘threading the needle ‘ between HMS Ark Royal and the destroyer HMS Manchester.
Waverley's original base, the derelect remains of Craigendoran pier, can be seen in the Background

Within the next decade both of these vessels may be replaced by new tonnage under construction on the Clyde and elsewhere, Manchester by one of the six Type 45 destroyers currently under construction at Scotstoun and Govan and Ark Royal by the new aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales (the largest sections of which will be constructed at Govan)

Balmoral having a brief look at the RFA Mounts Bay (built upriver at Govan) and HMS Bulwark, constructed at Barrow-in-Furness. Bulwark's landing craft were also built at Govan.

Balmoral headed back upriver to Glasgow to embark yet another near capacity crowd before setting sail to join the flotilla that escorted magnificent QE2 away from the Clyde – all in darkness so no pictures I’m afraid.

Capt Andy O'Brian, Waverley Excursions senior master takes Balmoral away from Greenock.

Balmoral’s season is over and it is no secret that it has been a most disappointing one. Therefore, it was good to see her so busy on that most unforgettable of days. Next year is her Diamond Jubilee. Let us hope it will bring her the passengers that she deserves to have.

Balmoral's 2008 season ended on a high with three full load sailings in an unforgetable day

QE2 has gone from the Clyde and we know that we will never see her likes again here.
(More General pictures of the QE2 visit on alternative website - links to follow)
All pictures by Stuart Cameron except where indicated