Henry Bell, Torphichen's unsung hero

Article in Konect Bathgate, October 2013

by Helen-Jane Shearer 

Hardly anybody has heard of him, but Torphichen-born Henry Bell was the first man to successfully apply steam power to shipping so that sea travel, for the first time, was no longer dependent on the whims of the wind. A huge achievement, so why is his name so obscure?

A special performance to end this year's series of “Torphichen Summer Nights” in Torphichen Kirk on 8th September was dedicated to Henry Bell. I went along to find out more and was treated to a dramatisation, with specially written musical interludes, of Henry Bell's life and achievements. 

He was born at Torphichen Mill in 1767 into a family of engineers and builders. As a child he skipped school as often as he could, especially in the summer when he preferred to be out playing or working in the fields. As a result his reading and writing was perhaps not up to scratch but he had a great practical understanding of how things worked. On leaving school at 15, he tried his hand at various trades in the businesses of his extended family, including as a stone mason, millwright and carpenter. But he didn't really settle at anything long term - it seems he was distracted by his interest in steam engines, and his conviction that he could make steam work in ships. Steam engines were a relatively new technology, James Watt having patented his engine in 1781. Steam was driving the industrial revolution in factories and trains everywhere. But so far nobody had managed to make it work for ships.

Henry spent a few years in London working for a Scottish engineer, but moved back to Glasgow to get work in the building trade. He had been working on a building project for a customer in Helensburgh, but when the customer failed to move in and take over, Henry and his wife Margaret decided to move to Helensburgh and acquire the building. It was a large building which Margaret ran as an inn and spa (“The Baths Inn”) while Henry busied himself with his steamship project. Profits from the Inn were ploughed into it, and Henry also petitioned investors to help him realise his dream. Most were dismissive and he received little support. James Watt himself didn't believe it was possible, writing to Bell “How many noblemen, gentlemen and engineers have puzzled their brains, and spent their thousands of pounds, and none of all these, nor yourself, have been able to bring the power of steam in navigation to a successful issue.”

But through determination, finally Henry was able to commission his first paddle steamer to be built at Port Glasgow. He named it the PS Comet and its first voyage in 1812 was from her home berth in Broomielaw to Greenock. The first trip had a few problems, including the fact that the crew had to get out into the Clyde and push it off some rocks. But nevertheless the concept of the paddle steamer was proven, and Bell ran a commercial passenger service, the first ever in Europe, between Helensburgh, Greenock and Glasgow for some years. 

Competition soon sprang up of course. Henry had not patented his design, so others were free to copy and benefit from the years of research and effort he had put in. Bell had to upgrade his ship to compete, and put on new routes including a four day trip from Glasgow to Fort William. 

In December 1820 the Comet was wrecked in bad seas near Oban. Undaunted, Bell commissioned a new ship, the Comet II. This came to a tragic end however when it was hit by a larger steamer in 1825 and sank in just three minutes, with the loss of 62 lives on board. With this blow Henry Bell retired from the steam navigation. The accident investigation revealed several irregularities including that the Comet II had made an unscheduled stop to take more passengers on so there wasn't a complete passenger list; and that Bell had been in the habit of supplementing crew pay with generous amounts of whisky.

Henry lived the last few years of his life in Helensburgh with very little money and died aged 62, leaving his widow Margaret who lived another 26 years. Henry only gained the recognition he wanted and deserved after his death. The engine of the first Comet is in the Science Museum in London, and the engine of Comet II is at Clydebuilt. There were significant centenary celebrations in 1912. Today, though, his name is little known, even right here in West Lothian where he was born.

But, in the words of one of the ballads for the Torphichen show last month, Henry Bell was the man who proved, against the belief of the greatest scientific brains of his day, that “you can sail a ship without a sail.”

With thanks to the organisers of “Torphichen Summer Nights” (www.torphichensummernights.org.uk) and the performers for the September show on Henry Bell. 

© Lothian Publications 2014