Making the Clyde Navigable


Until the late eighteenth century, the parish of Govan was distinctly rural – a rolling landscape comprised of the estates of Glasgow’s merchant classes; and a small, salmon fishing village built around the church. At around 14 inches deep, the Clyde was fordable on foot at certain places. It was felt however, that Glasgow was falling short of its potential economic value and status due to the condition of the river. Indeed in 1656, Thomas Tucker, a commissioner of Cromwell stated:

“The situation of this towne in a plentiful land, and the mercantile genius of the people, are strong signs of her increase and growth were she not chequed and kept under by the shallowness of her river…” (Thomas Tucker, Nov. 20th1656)

However, it would appear very little was done to rectify the situation in the mid-17thcentury, and deepening the river was not discussed again until around 1740. The lack of action could perhaps be attributed to the difficult, slow and labour intensive nature of early dredging methods, which was performed using large rakes or porcupine ploughs, wrought by hand capstans. And indeed, when civil engineer, John Golborne arrived in Glasgow in 1768 the Clyde was still choked with sand banks and fords – only suitable for herring boats and other small craft. Golborne suggested a system of contracting the river with rubble jetties, and removing the sand and gravel shoals by means of ploughing, harrowing and dredging. By implementing these techniques, Golborne was able to make the first marked improvement to the navigability of the Clyde.

Govan’s industrialization in the 19thcentury however, necessitated greater changes to the Clyde, particularly in terms of its width and depth, and in 1809 an Act of Parliament instituted the Trustees of the Clyde Navigation. They were given the power to deepen the river to 9 feet at high water, between Glasgow and the Castle of Dumbarton. This was quickly found to be inadequate however, and alterations to the river entered a new phase in 1824 with significant dredging (using a steam dredging machine), straightening and widening programmes. These alterations allowed increasingly substantial ships to navigate to Glasgow facilitating exports and the movement of considerable quantities of raw materials. This contributed in large part to Glasgow’s epithet of ‘Second City of Empire’, as it was essential in the development of shipbuilding and industry. The bed of the Clyde at its confluence with the Kelvin was lowered by approximately 25 feet (c. 7.5m) between 1820 and 1940 – giving an indication of the ever growing size and weight of ships.

Altering the river Clyde to such an extent would have been physically and fiscally impossible without the application of steam power. The introduction of steam dredgers and steam hopper barges allowed vast quantities of material to be removed from the river bed and deposited elsewhere with relative ease and efficiency. The adoption of steam hoppers in 1862 drastically increased the speed at which dredged material could be removed – in 1861, the total quantity dredged was 593,176 cubic yards; whereas by 1892, this had increased to 1,598,984 cubic yards.  

By implementing this programme of ‘improvements’, the Clyde was able to support ships with a draft of between 23 and 24 ½ feet within a century. This incredible feat of engineering saw Glasgow flourish. Indeed, the city’s coat of arms and motto (Let Glasgow Flourish) was registered in 1866, just as the Clyde was becoming central to Glasgow’s economic development and growing international acclaim.

Below are pictures showing fishermen casting their nets in the village of Govan prior to the major alterations to the Clyde; a diagram of a steam powered dredger - the tool that revolutionised the process of making the Clyde navigable; and an aerial view of Clyde following the programme of developments.