Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
| Home | Contact | Events | Publications | Resources | Links | Membership | Interests | Activities | Notices |

Monday, 24 March 2014

18 March 2014 - "SV Glenlee"

On Tuesday we hosted our annual joint meeting with the other Ayrshire Family History Societies, where we welcomed guests from Troon, East Ayrshire and Largs & North Ayrshire FHSs. This was the occasion for Alan Blackwood, a volunteer with the Clyde Maritime Trust, to regale us with the story of the "Sailing Vessel Glenlee" - the Tall Ship which is berthed near the Riverside Museum in Glasgow. Over 60 people were present in the Hall to hear about the changing fortunes of the Glenlee, to handle the Ship's biscuit (hard tack) which was passed round and afterwards to enjoy the "soft tack" Buffet - definitely more enjoyable than the meals endured rather than enjoyed by crews of the ship, particularly in its early days! The story goes that sometimes the meat being loaded onto ships was labelled "Not for human consumption - only to be used for animals or ship's stores" ...

Alan opened his talk with the reading of 2 poems - firstly the well-known John Masefield's "Sea Fever" lines beginning "I must go down to the seas again ..." which speaks to our idea of the romance of the sea and another less well-known giving a more realistic picture of life aboard including the dangers and discomforts.

The Glenlee was built in Port Glasgow in the Bay Yard by the firm of Anderson Rodger for the Glasgow shipping company, Archibald Sterling & Co. Ltd. - one of a series of 10 sailing ships built to a standard design and was launched in 1896.

In spite of her description as a "Tall Ship" we learnt that the "Glenlee" is in fact a Barque, which has fore-and-aft sails on the mizzenmast (the one at the back) rather than a Ship, which has square sails on all three masts. She was the second of 3 barques built by the yard and was named after a lowly semi-detached house in Greenock which still stands.  A surprising fact being that she was built with economy in mind - 50 years after the first steam ship and 30 years after the Suez Canal was opened. 

Coal, grain and phosphates were the basic commodities of the Glenlee and owners sometimes regarded the long slow passages as a form of storage for their goods.  Unlike the Cutty Sark built 30 years before and dedicated to the Far East run for tea which was the "posh end" of the market and which cost a great deal more to operate.  The Cutty Sark would need a crew of 70-80, was long, narrow and most of all fast - managing 17½ knots when extra sails were added.  Whereas the Glenlee having a Jubilee rig, named in honour of the Jubilee of Queen Victoria, having both masts a little lower, carried only 5 square sails - had a capacity for 35 bunks, but in all her commercial history never had more than 25 crew.  However, in an industry where a carpenter could expect £6 a month and a humble Able Seaman only £3 a month the cost of wages does not seem to have been heavy.  At a time when the Merchant Navy counted for 65% of the total world shipping, the British owners were not generous - the appalling food could consist of salt pork or beef which was 10 to 15 years old.

Ten days after commissioning, her first journey was to Liverpool to pick up a general cargo load bound for North America.  A general cargo meant just that - anything from manufactured goods to pianos boxed up for shipping.  This first voyage lasted 13 months with a cargo of grain being brought back to Rotterdam to complete the voyage.  On this journey the Master took his wife and it was noted that ships with a woman aboard were known as "hen frigates".  Apparently, this was not unpopular with the crews, especially the indentured officers - apprentices - who felt that they would often be treated more generously as regards food and so on due to the wife's intervention on their behalf.  In her career as a cargo vessel with Anderson Rodger, the Glenlee circumnavigated the globe 4 times and rounded Cape Horn 15 times, not without incident. 
The Glenlee was sold to the Dundee Company of William Lowe (of supermarket fame) and her name changed to "Islamount".  Her cargoes included coal, especially the exceptionally good Welsh steam coal which was a very important commodity at the time as it needed to be available at very key positions on sea routes for the steam ships.  Grain from Australia as well as Zinc or other metals were collected for the return journey.  A layer of metals was important as a stabiliser in the hold as even with 200 tons of ballast they could be top heavy.  Phosphates from South America were imported as fertiliser as was guano which we were informed was a very unpopular cargo... Saltpetre was used in the explosive factories which were along the Clyde at the time.

By 1920 the ship was showing her age and was difficult to maintain and crew.  She was bought by an Italian company who thought she would be a good coastal vessel for the Mediterranean - she was renamed "Clarastella" and fitted with 2 Fiat engines.  However, she was the wrong shape for this work. 

The ship was then bought by the Spanish navy and converted to an Officer Training Ship for cadets and renamed "Galatea".  This period in her life lasted for about 5 years and a great deal of money was spent on her.  She was then used for training ratings.  During the Second World War she was "parked" and after this had 1 trip a year with the navy until 1953.  Electrical generators and two new Polar engines had been fitted, but eventually after 10 years of neglect she sank.  Thieves then stripped off brass and copper, etc.  A Spanish Admiral wanted to keep her as a museum as did the Dutch, but funding was lacking.  A British naval architect saw her in Seville in 1990 and two years later, the Clyde Maritime Trust succeeded in buying what was left of her at auction for five million Pesetas (£40,000) and saved her from dereliction. 

Even the task of bringing her back to the UK was fraught with difficulty - the masts had to be cut to a size of 40ft lengths so that P & O could bring them back to Greenock.  Large tugs were needed to manipulate her to the dry dock where she was completely cleaned, scraped and painted with anti-fouling.
William Driscoll gifted sections of new masts, and the bottom was still good and did not need to be re-plated, but it took 7 years to restore and rebuild to a minimum standard.  Today, around 400 tons of ballast is still needed in the bottom of the ship - this is now stored in the original 1896 water tanks.  The decks were renewed with hardwood and the deck houses and sleeping accommodation added for her training task were removed.

There are a group of 25 volunteers and the permanent staff who tackle the more "high rise" work are now equipped with safety gear - very different from the position of sailors in the past.  She stayed in dry dock in Greenock then near the SECC at Yorkhill having a complete repaint which included the dark paint used to made her resemble a warship which was apparently traditional to discourage pirates in the past.  Since May 2011 she has been berthed outside the back door of the Riverside Museum and the quality of the refurbishment work with new materials should mean that no dry docking treatment should be needed for 20 years, especially as the water of the Clyde at that point is mainly fresh rather than salt. 

½ million has been spent on the restoration - not to mention the huge amount of work put in by volunteers.  The ship is now owned by the Clyde Maritime Trust which works closely with the Glasgow Museums who own the Riverside Museum.  One of the electric generators has been removed to provide space for visitor toilets and she is now a fully-fledged museum ship, although there are still details the Trust would like to restore.  Tours of the ship are available and we were treated to a "slide show tour" at the meeting.  This allowed us to appreciate the new figurehead which was made by a carpenter from Arran to be a perfect replica of the original which the Spanish wouldn't hand over unless they could exchange it for Gibraltar(!)  This doesn't have an official name, but is unofficially referred to as "Mary Doll".  The original bell looks impressive and has evidently made a strong impression on neighbours in the area because of the children's liking for ringing it with the new rope.

We saw the various areas which have been restored, including the Captain's Bond, the Pantry, the Lazerette.  There are now 18 berths in the forward deck house - this would have been used by the bosun and those "idlers" who worked only during the day rather than taking "watches",
such as the sail maker, carpenter and cook.  The Forecastle was used to carry the anchor and chain as well as a toilet for the crew and a small hospital.  Given the medical knowledge of the time isolation was often considered necessary.  Captains liked to recruit a crew member with musical ability on an instrument such as a violin or even a penny whistle as it was believed to help morale.  The cook was very important and sometimes called the Doctor.  It was considered that the Chinese made the best cooks because of their work ethic and ability to work with poor ingredients.

Seeing the shiny helm pictured in the sunshine it was difficult to imagine the ship during a storm when 2 men were needed on the wheel to control it - and they had to be lashed down to avoid being swept overboard.  Nowadays a great deal of educational work is carried out with schools.  In yet another change of career the ship can now be hired for weddings or corporate events and there is a cafe at the aft end!  For more information see the Website:

Pat and John Weston

Older Postings