A History of Port Glasgow

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Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   Text © Copyright February 2013, Thomas Nugent; licensed for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence.
Images also under a similar Creative Commons Licence.


Location of Port Glasgow

1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright
1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright
Port Glasgow is located on the south bank of the River Clyde, about 18 miles north west of Glasgow, where the river widens and deepens to become the Firth of Clyde. In the days of sail, the town's location on a west flowing estuary in the north west of the mainland gave it an advantage of several days passage over the likes of Bristol and the east coast ports in the race to trade with North America. Today, the town is well connected by road, rail and air, being only five miles by modern dual carriageway from the M8 western extremity, 14 miles from Glasgow Airport and 21 miles from the city centre. Prestwick Airport is within 50 miles. There are several trains per hour to Glasgow and Gourock and one per hour to Wemyss Bay.

Port Glasgow is the second largest of the three Inverclyde towns, the others being the larger Greenock and the smaller Gourock. The present population is around fifteen thousand, having fallen by around 20% since the demise of the shipbuilding industry in the 1980s. The residents are known as "Portonians".

The town has always been (and probably always will be) regarded as the "poor relation" by its more pretentious Inverclyde neighbours, many of whom still refer to it as "The Dirty Wee Port". However, "The Port" has a real sense of community and belonging which the other Inverclyde towns lack and that's why I am proud to call myself a Portonian.

Newark: The early days

NS3274 : Newark Castle by Thomas Nugent
From AD142 to AD165, the area was the northwest frontier of the mighty Roman Empire, but this historical account begins in comparatively recent times.

Prior to 1668, Newark was a herring fishing village, centred around Newark Castle which was built in 1478 by George Maxwell of Pollok when he inherited the Barony of Finlanstone (now known as Finlaystone) in the parish of Kilmacolm. It was extended in 1597-99 by Patrick Maxwell and that section remains intact today.

Surrounded by shipyards until the 1980s, the castle is now on the edge of a riverside park and is open to the public, under the care of Historic Scotland



As the name suggests, Port Glasgow was once the principal port of the city of Glasgow. Before the Clyde was made navigable all the way to the city centre, the larger transatlantic sailing ships needed to offload their cargoes into smaller ships or carts to complete the journey to the city. In 1668 the Magistrates of Glasgow purchased a piece of land west of Newark Castle from Sir Patrick Maxwell for the sum of 722, in order to set up docks for this purpose.

Three harbours were constructed; the West Harbour and the East Harbour stood where the traffic lights on the A8 at Fore Street now stand. A fine ship sculpture named "Endeavour" by Malcolm Robertson was unveiled at this site in 2012. Immediately to the east, between the present day Ferguson's shipyard and Port Glasgow Health Centre was the "Wet Dock".

There were quays on the river side of the harbours and these still exist today. Well worn steps lead down from the quay to the river, evoking thoughts of the great sailing ships from the New World which once plied their trade here. Mirren Shore and Steamboat Quay are located by the lighthouses at Coronation Park. Newark Quay has been annexed by Ferguson's shipyard and is used for fitting-out purposes. This quay saw some commercial traffic for a period during the 1980s.

The new settlement around the docks became known as Newport, then Newport Glasgow, eventually merging with Newark. In 1710, the town became the main Customs port on the Clyde, trading in tobacco, cotton, timber, sugar, iron and hemp. A position which it held for over a hundred years until 1812.

Port Glasgow becomes a town

The grid pattern of the streets in the town centre was laid out in 1694 and took advantage of the flat area of raised beach which extends to the present day railway line, beyond which the land rises steeply. The grid pattern remains largely intact today, consisting of Princes Street, King Street, Bay Street/Fore Street, John Wood Street, Church Street and Scarlow Street/Shore Street.

The oldest buildings in the town centre are the Masonic Hall (1746) and the King George VI Club (1758) at 9-11 King Street, part of which was formerly the town hall. The Anglican evangelist and founder of the Wesleyan Tradition John Wesley LinkExternal link preached here on 22nd January 1771 and described the occasion in his journal; I preached once more in the Masons' Lodge, at Port-Glasgow. The house was crowded greatly. This LinkExternal link provides further reading about the occasion.

The buildings are Category B Listed LinkExternal link .

NS3274 : 11 King Street by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : 9 & 11 King Street by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : 9 & 11 King Street by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : 11 King Street by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : King Street by Thomas Nugent

By 1775, not long after these buildings were constructed, the population had reached 6000 and a successful application was made to Parliament to have the town of Port Glasgow made a Burgh of Barony. In 1883, it became an independent burgh.

NS3274 : Port Glasgow Town Building by Thomas Nugent
The distinctive Town Building was funded by public subscription and was constructed in 1815-16 to a design by prominent Scottish architect David Hamilton (1768-1843). It is described as a two storey ashlar classic with tetrastyle G Doric portico. The copper weather vane is a six foot model of a fully rigged sailing ship, which sits 150 feet above sea level.

Erected in what was a harbourside location, the building now sits in an ever decreasing piece of parkland at the entrance to the town centre. The well loved building lay unused for a few years before being extended and converted for community use in the mid 1990s and now includes a library on the ground floor. The upper floor is occupied By Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd LinkExternal link as their head office.



The beginning of the end for the harbours

Two years before the town became a Burgh of Barony, work commenced to make the Clyde navigable all the way to the centre of Glasgow. On the recommendation of the eminent engineers of the day (Smeaton, Golborne and Telford) 117 jetties were built, projecting into the river at right angles from both banks. This resulted in increased water flow through the centre of the river, thus gouging a channel which enabled ships drawing six feet to sail upriver, bypassing Port Glasgow.

This situation continued until 1799 at which time work commenced to deepen the river even further. 83 more jetties were added and dykes were constructed parallel to the channel to prevent silting. This work continued throughout the nineteenth century and by 1870 vessels drawing 17 feet were able to bypass the town and sail directly to Glasgow. The newly established Burgh of Port Glasgow's days as a major port were numbered.

NS3274 : Dead Slow by Thomas Nugent
This photo shows the navigable channel between Port Glasgow and Dumbarton. It continues all the way to the centre of Glasgow.

Creation of this channel sounded the death knell to the harbour trade in Port Glasgow, but the town was quick to fill the gap with shipbuilding, which survives in the town today.


The photos below show the navigable channel in the upper stretches of the Clyde, above Dumbarton.
NS4871 : Dalmuir, Erskine Bridge and Firth of Clyde from the air by Thomas Nugent NS4672 : River Clyde and Dumbarton Rock by Thomas Nugent NS4273 : The Lang Dyke by Lairich Rig NS4273 : The Lang Dyke by Lairich Rig NS4273 : Supposed remains of a Roman causeway by Lairich Rig NS4373 : Doon The Watter - 25th June 2011 : The Start of The Lang Dyke by Richard West NS4173 : Doon The Watter - 25th June 2011 : Smooth Water at The Lang Dyke by Richard West NS4273 : Doon The Watter - 25th June 2011 : Passing The Third Pillar On The Lang Dyke by Richard West NS4273 : Doon The Watter - 25th June 2011 : Passing Longhaugh Beacon on The Lang Dyke by Richard West NS4173 : Doon The Watter - 25th June 2011 : Dumbuck Perch by Richard West NS3974 : River Leven and River Clyde from the air by Thomas Nugent NS4273 : The Longhaugh Light by Lairich Rig NS4173 : Dumbuck Crannog by Lairich Rig NS4273 : Buoy in River Clyde by Stephen Sweeney

The docks and harbours are now long gone and Coronation Park stands in their place. The park was opened on the site of the West Harbour in 1937 to celebrate the coronation of King George VI. It was expanded in the 1960s when the East Harbour and Wet Dock were filled to make way for the new A8 dual carriageway, which also cut through part of the original park. There are still traces of the old harbours and dockside warehouses to be found in the vicinity of the park.

The photos below show the area of the docks, warehouses and quays at the time of writing. The outer quays and bollards are still in place and the harbour entrances can be discerned.

NS3274 : Coronation Park by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Coronation Park by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Coronation Park and Perch Lighthouse by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Coronation park, Port Glasgow by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Newark Quay by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Port Glasgow waterfront by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Rainbow at Port Glasgow by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : West Quay and Mirren's Shore by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Newark Quay by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : West Quay by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Bouverie Street by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Port Glasgow lighthouses by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Perch Lighthouse by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Perch Lighthouse by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Well worn steps by Thomas Nugent

Shipbuilding: A New Era

As the shipping trade moved upstream, the town turned its hand to shipbuilding, a trade which thrives until this day in the form of Ferguson's Shipyard, albeit on a much smaller scale than in the heyday of Port Glasgow shipbuilding the early 20th Century. The earliest recorded shipbuilder in the town was Thomas McGill in 1780. John Wood (who built the Comet for Henry Bell in 1812) followed in 1783 with a shipyard near his birthplace at the foot of King Street. Various other yards came and went until William Todd Lithgow arrived on the scene in partnership with Anderson Rodgers and Joseph Russell in 1874. This partnership built the famous barque "Falls of Clyde" in 1878, which survives to this day in downtown Honolulu, Hawaii.

Although some small independent shipyards survived (Lamonts and Fergusons at Newark), the Lithgow family went on to dominate the Port Glasgow shipbuilding industry in the 20th Century (including eventually Ferguson's in the early 1960s) until nationalisation of the yards in 1977. Unfortunately nationalisation was unable to save the British merchant shipbuilding industry, which lost out to much cheaper competition from the Far East (a similar fate was to befall the Scottish electronics industry less than thirty years later).

Some photos of Port Glasgow shipyards past and present.
NS3174 : The Glen Yard by Thomas Nugent NS3174 : The Glen Yard by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Ferguson's shipyard by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Ferguson's shipyard by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : PS Comet replica at Ferguson's shipyard by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Ferguson Ailsa Shipyard by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Ferguson Shipyard by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Ferguson's shipyard by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Ferguson's shipyard by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Newark Quay by Thomas Nugent NS3273 : Newark from Selkirk Road by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Newark from Ardmore Road by Thomas Nugent NS3174 : Former shipyard joinery shop by Thomas Nugent NS3174 : Former Glen shipyard by Thomas Nugent NS3174 : Former shipyard gate by Thomas Nugent NS3174 : Former shipyard gate by Thomas Nugent NS3175 : Former Kingston shipyard by Thomas Nugent NS3175 : Kingston Basin by william craig NS3175 : Kingston Basin by Thomas NugentNS3175 : New viewing platform by Thomas Nugent NS3175 : Kingston Basin being filled in by Thomas Nugent NS3175 : Former Kingston shipyard by Thomas Nugent

Shipbuilding Related Industries

Shipbuilding had several spin-off industries in the town, most notably timber and rope & sail making.

Gourock Ropeworks

Most prominent amongst these spin-off businesses was the Birkmyre family owned Gourock Ropeworks. The Port Glasgow Rope and Duck Company was set up by a group of Glasgow Traders in 1736 in a mill where Port Glasgow railway station now stands. This company sold out to the Gourock Ropework Co in 1797. The Birkmyre involvement began in 1814 with Henry Birkmyre.

The company moved to premises on Bay Street in 1886. The 8 storey building began life as Richardson's sugar refinery in the 1860s and was converted for use as a ropeworks some 20 years later. The Category A Listed mill building on Robert Street/Bay Street still stands, having been converted to loft apartments in 2006/7, following many years of dereliction and uncertainty about its future.

The Birkmyre mill produced sails and ropes for ships which reached every corner of the globe. Notable amongst the ships served by the mill were the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, as well as the Port Glasgow built Comet in 1812.

Birkmyre patented a waterproofing process which was marketed from 1889; 'Birkmyre' patent waterproof cloth was the first to use 'dry' chemical proofing.

The company had offices around the globe, as well as mills in India and elsewhere in the UK, including David Dale's New Lanark mill which was purchased in 1881.

There was a 400 yards long "rope walk" at Port Glasgow which was used for spinning ropes by means of a very intricate system of tracks, bogeys and machinery. This ran alongside the railway line and was sadly demolished during the 1980s, although the foundations remain.

Here are some photos of what remains of the once vast mill complex.

NS3274 : Gourock Ropeworks Building by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Former Gourock Ropeworks mill by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Newark Quay by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : The view from Bouverie by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Newark and the Clyde from Selkirk Road by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : The Mill by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Flash back in time by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Gourock Ropeworks Building by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Remains of the rope walk by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Remains of the rope walk by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Remains of the rope walk by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Railway line at Port Glasgow by Thomas Nugent NS3274 : Old Mill Building by Thomas Nugent

This LinkExternal link to The Archives Hub at The University of Manchester provides much more detail about the company.

The Timber Industry

18th Century shipbuilding demanded a lot of timber and Port Glasgow was a major timber importer during this time. Massive shipments of prepared and unprepared timber were received from far-flung places such as Canada, Norway and the Baltic states. Vast timber holding ponds were constructed to the east of Newark Castle, stretching almost three miles along the coast, beyond Parklea, to Langbank. These are still very much in evidence today and can be seen from land, sea and air. They are known locally as "the stabs".

There were also timber ponds to the west of the harbours, but these were removed as the shipyards expanded and no trace remains today. The map of 1864 shows the "Kingston Sawmill", "timber yard" and "timber ponds" on the site where the Kingston shipyard later stood. That area is now a housing estate, with some light industry at Ardgowan Street.

Here are some photos of the expansive Parklea timber ponds.

NS3474 : Timber ponds and coastal path by Thomas Nugent NS3474 : Timber ponds at Parklea by Thomas Nugent NS3474 : Timber ponds and Dumbarton Rock by Thomas Nugent NS3474 : Kelburn Park and timber ponds from parklea by Thomas Nugent NS3474 : Timber ponds information board by Thomas Nugent NS3574 : Parklea timber ponds by Thomas Nugent NS3574 : River Clyde. Parklea near Port Glasgow by wfmillar NS3674 : Clyde timber ponds by Thomas Nugent NS3674 : Clyde timber ponds by Thomas Nugent NS3674 : Timber ponds and Dumbarton Rock by Thomas Nugent NS3674 : Clyde timber ponds by Thomas Nugent NS3674 : Timber ponds at Parklea by Thomas Nugent NS3773 : Timber ponds and Langbank by Thomas Nugent NS3773 : Timber ponds and Langbank by Thomas Nugent

Port Glasgow Dry Dock

NS3274 : Town Building Port Glasgow by Thomas Nugent
The first dry dock in Scotland was opened in Port Glasgow 1762. It was designed by James Watt and it employed horses for driving the pumps. Located between the present day Town Building and Port Glasgow Health Centre, the dry dock closed in 1966, having been cut off from the Wet Dock and the Clyde by the new A8 road construction.

This dock was located in the area in the foreground of this photo.


The oldest surviving dry dock in Scotland can be found two miles along the A8 in neighbouring Greenock, next to Victoria Harbour. It is disused and in a sad state of repair.

New Industry

Port Glasgow Industrial Estate

A fairly large industrial estate was established on the upper shelf of the town by Scottish Industrial Estates during the 1940s. Although it employed mostly women, the industrial estate was intended to provide a "fallback" for the town in the event that the shipbuilding industry should ever fail.

In its heyday in the 1960s & 70s, this was a thriving estate, home to a diverse range of local and international companies specialising in clothing (Playtex & Wovenair) electronics (AMP, Fescol, Sangamo) and camping & leisure equipment (Blacks of Greenock (later, Vango and then The North Face)). Whilst still fairly busy today, the estate is a shadow of its former glory.

Here are some photos of the estate, including some companies that have since pulled out.

NS3273 : Sangamo factory by william craig NS3273 : Port Glasgow Industrial Estate by Thomas Nugent NS3273 : Port Glasgow Industrial Estate by Thomas Nugent NS3273 : The North Face by Thomas Nugent NS3273 : Port Glasgow Industrial Estate by Thomas Nugent NS3373 : Disused Factory by Thomas Nugent NS3373 : Playtex Factory by Thomas Nugent NS3273 : The North Face by Thomas Nugent

Other Industrial Areas

Other small industrial estates followed over the years, including Ardgowan Street, Kelburn and a small one at Anderson Street. Part of the former Gourock Ropeworks site was home to an electronics factory (Inverclyde Electronics) during the 1990s. A Lidl supermarket now stands on that site.

NS3274 : Anderson Street Industrial Area by Thomas Nugent
Anderson Street Industrial Area as seen from Birkmyre Park



Kelburn Business Park

Built on the site of the Parklea allotment gardens (known locally as "the plots"), after the re-aligned A8 dual carriageway opened in the mid 1980s. The three units have seen various occupants over the years, including camping and outdoor leisure company Vango, hydraulic pump specialists White House Products Ltd and Chinese company Amphenol who made cables for the computer industry.

There are plans to build further units on the adjacent former Woodhall Park site (former home of Port Glasgow Juniors FC) which has lain as a brownfield site for several years.

NS3474 : Kelburn Business Park by Thomas Nugent NS3474 : Kelburn Business Park by Thomas Nugent NS3473 : Kelburn Business Park by Thomas Nugent NS3473 : Kelburn Business Park by Thomas Nugent NS3474 : Kelburn Business Park by Thomas Nugent NS3474 : Parklea Road by Thomas Nugent NS3474 : Site of Woodhall Park by Thomas Nugent NS3474 : The A8 at Woodhall by Thomas Nugent NS3474 : Site of Woodhall Park by Thomas Nugent

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