Helensburgh: the early years

Helensburgh, on the north bank of the River Clyde, is today a prosperous residential town, a popular home for Glasgow commuters and famed for Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s The Hill House, built in 1904 for the publisher Walter Blackie, just one such Glasgow commuter. It is also now home to large numbers of naval personnel from HM Naval Base Clyde at Faslane on the Gareloch.


A comfortable, settled sort of place which you might think had been there for ever.  However a glance at an 18th century map shows nothing like Helensburgh – just a settlement, too small to be termed a village, called variously Malligs, Millrigs or Milligs, forming part of the parish of Rhu.  Where Helensburgh’s tree-lined streets and desirable houses now sit was then just scrubby grazing with a few simple cottages for farm workers and fisher-folk.


The area had traditionally been part of the estate of the Macaulays of Ardencaple, but the Chiefs of Macaulay fell on hard times and the Milligs lands were sold to Sir John Shaw of Greenock in 1700.  Shaw did little with the land and his heirs sold Milligs to Sir James Colquhoun of Luss in 1757.  At this time Colquhoun was actively buying land in Rhu to add to his extensive landholdings on Loch Lomondside.


The mid-eighteenth century was a great period of improvement in Scotland and landowners were taking more care to ensure that their land was properly cultivated.  Attention was being given to crop rotations and fertility, to enclosure and to the beginnings of scientific agriculture.


There was also, all across the nation, from the Pentland Firth to the Solway, a positive spate of new towns and villages being built by local landowners. These proprietors saw prospects of better income from feu-duties on houses, factories, shops and commercial premises than they did from rents of agricultural land.  The new towns would also help agriculture by providing local consumers for farm produce and could also perhaps absorb the rural workers displaced by the new, more scientific and less labour intensive patterns of agriculture.


In 1776 Colquhoun, after twenty years of ownership of the Milligs property, advertised his intention to feu the lands of Milligs for building: “To be feued immediately, for building upon, at a very reasonable rate, a considerable piece of ground upon the shores of Malig, opposite Greenock…” His advertisement in the Glasgow Journal went on to state that the ground would be regularly laid out and would be built according to a plan. 


Sir James Colquhoun of Luss



This concern for regularity and design was very typical of the planned village of the period. There was widespread concern that older, unplanned villages that had evolved organically were less hygienic, less appropriate, less suited to the modern age.  When the Duke of Argyll built his new castle at Inveraray he swept away the old huddle of houses around the old Castle that had been the village of Inveraray and arranged for the neat symmetrical development that is the Inveraray we see today. 


Similarly Colquhoun’s plans for his new village involved a regular street plan – a grid plan of intersecting streets has remained a striking feature of Helensburgh over the centuries.  The feuing plan for the new village was the work of Charles Ross of Greenlaw, a surveyor who worked extensively for Colquhoun.


Helensburgh may, over the years, have become a holiday resort and a residential centre but the laird’s initial project was for something much more industrial.  Sir James’s advertisement ended with the promise: “Bonnet-makers, stocking, linen and woollen weavers will meet with proper encouragement.”  There was little response to Colquhoun’s advertisement, and his plan to create a new community hung fire for quite some time.  By 1794 there were still only 17 feuars in the new village, producing the less than princely sum in annual feu duties of £8.16.8  and when the minister of Rhu wrote the Statistical Account of his parish in the early 1790s he managed to do so without mentioning the new settlement at all.


Helensburgh had a small herring fishing industry and there were the associated trades associated with this – coopers, herring curers, as well as the usual service industries of a rural community – smiths, maltsters and distillers (not all of them legal!)  The plan for a semi-industrial village full of textile workers however met with no success.


In its early days the new town had no name other than Milligs, but Sir James decided that it deserved a better name, and at the suggestion of a friend, called it after his wife, Helen Sutherland.  This fashion for naming planned settlements after proprietors or members of their family was quite marked at the time –  Gardenstown, Port William, Archiestown, Charlestown, Pultneytown all appear on the map of Scotland around this period.


The new town’s founder died in 1786 and was succeeded as Chief of Clan Colquhoun and laird of Helensburgh by another Sir James.  In 1802 this Sir James decided that Helensburgh’s status should change from being an estate village run by his factor to a self-governing municipality and obtained a charter for it as a Burgh of Barony – authorising the election of a Provost, 2 bailies and 4 councillors and providing for an annual election, in which all the feuars, that is those who had taken a lease of house or garden ground for 100 years, could take part.


It would be wrong to say that the residents of Helensburgh seized the chance for local democracy with enthusiasm – the first election and appointment of the first Provost had to wait until 1807!


However between the grant of the Charter in 1802 and the election of the first council a significant development occurred in Helensburgh, a development which was destined to alter its character and stimulate the town’s growth.


In May 1806 Henry Bell, a 39 year old builder and engineer, born in Torphichen, West Lothian, but then resident in Glasgow, feued land on the south side of the road from Dumbarton to Rhu, at the east end of Helensburgh and proceeded to build the Baths Inn. 


Sea bathing had become a fashionable pastime in the late 18th century and contemporary opinion attributed a wide range of health benefits to immersion in salt water and indeed from the consumption of salt water.  The pioneer of sea-therapy Dr Richard Russell claimed seawater as a cure for all forms of disease from jaundice to leprosy.  Bell’s Baths Inn provided facilities for hot and cold bathing, and both fresh and salt-water baths were available.


By September 1809 Henry Bell was advertising in the London papers that he: “… has now nearly completed that part of his extensive plan of the BATHS, which he intends at present to execute.”  His advertisement goes on to detail the attractions of his establishment, including a Public Reading-Room with magazines and the London and Glasgow papers, an Assembly Room, and “a separate and elegant Lodging-House for the reception of a genteel family” – all this in addition to a “great variety of Lodging-rooms.”


Not only was Bell an enterprising hotelier but he also soon became involved in the politics and public affairs of the new town. It surely is no coincidence that the first Town Council was elected shortly after he settled in Helensburgh and the enterprising, and doubtless rather unsettling and annoying, incomer Bell was elected on 12 September 1807 as the first Provost.  The new Council made up for lost time and embarked on an ambitious series of undertakings and Bell’s influence can surely be detected in his Council’s schemes.  The first plan was to make a road and side path “through the city of Helensburgh” and a month later a plan to form other streets was being discussed, as was a proposal to arrange markets.


The Council could over-reach itself, and a scheme to build a “town’s house” or municipal buildings, although endorsed by a public meeting of electors, had to be abandoned and the site feuded had, doubtless to the embarrassment of Bell and his Council, to be surrendered back to Luss Estates.


Bell was re-elected as Provost in 1808 and 1809 and his last major project was a proposal, in May 1810, to provide the growing town with a supply of piped spring water.  Bell had originally been trained as a millwright and had a life-long interest in water-engineering and water supply schemes.  His three year term as Provost over he turned his very considerable energies and imagination to other activities as well as running the Baths Inn with his wife Margaret


Bell would add steamboat proprietor to his list of occupations when, in 1812, his steamship Comet, the first commercial steamship in Europe, started sailing between Glasgow, Greenock and Helensburgh and bringing customers down to take the waters at the Baths Inn.  Helensburgh soon developed as a holiday and health resort and saw its population rise slowly but steadily.



P.S. Comet


The easier, cheaper, and above all, more reliable travel opportunities opened up by Bell’s Comet and its many later rivals made Helensburgh a popular destination for holidaymakers. The town had previously been only accessible by an expensive stagecoach trip from Glasgow, a six-hour journey over rough roads, or by sailing ships from Glasgow, which could, if the wind was unfavourable, take all day to reach Helensburgh.  Holidaymakers and those anxious to improve their health away from the smoke and filth of the city could now travel to the seaside in comfort and with some assurance that the timetable was something rather more than just a pious hope.


John Galt, in his novel The Steamboat, published in 1819, has his hero cross from Greenock to Helensburgh and visit Mr Bell’s Inn.  He records that: “When I had ate my dinner and drunk my toddy at the pleasant hotel of Helensburgh, in which there are both hot and cold baths for invalid persons, and others afflicted with rheumatism and suchlike…” he went for a stroll and met friends from Glasgow who were staying in a rented cottage.  Numerous houses were being built in Helensburgh with a view to rental to summer visitors.  Hopefully most were better than the one described by Galt, where the bread came out of the cupboard covered with blue mould from the damp!  The tenants, however, enthusiastically insisted that: “the sea and country air makes up for more than all such inconveniences.”


Soon another hotel, the Tontine, was opened up in the centre of the town and the tourist trade steadily expanded.  One of the problems of the early years was that although the Comet might bring Bell’s clients down to the Baths Inn there wasn’t actually a pier for them to land at and they had to make use of a landing slip near the inn.  In 1817 a rather primitive quay was built in the centre of the town; it was dismissively described as “a ruckle of stanes” and its need for improvement and lengthening was a burning issue in the town over many years.


In 1824, William Harriston, a weaver, soldier, fisherman and poet (and one hopes he was better at the first three trades) responded to the new tourist industry the steamer had created by publishing The Steam-Boat Traveller’s Remembrancer and these are some of his verses on Helensburgh:



See bright on the verge of yon bay,

That extends from Ardmore to Roseneath,

Fair Helensburgh now we survey

In front of high regions of heath.


There, still as the Steam-boats approach,

Groups of Glasgow’s fair ladies are seen,

On the shore, where the tides oft encroach

On their favourite paths on the green.


Harriston also turned his pen and his talent for dreadful rhymes to describing Helensburgh’s most famous resident:


Far advanc’d in old age is the sire

Of the Steam-boats in Scotland, yet he

 Retains a great share of the fire

Of activity, humour and glee


Though infirm, yet he holds on the paths

Of Business; and here I may tell,

His House has some elegant Baths,

A commodious Inn and Hotel.


It is interesting to note that Helensburgh also appreciated what Bell had contributed to the town – he had the unusual privilege of having one of the streets near his hotel named after him during his lifetime.  Bell died in 1830 but his widow continued to manage the Baths Inn for another 26 years.


By 1836 the 17 feuars had become 60 and the population of the town had risen to almost 1400.  A directory of the period, after detailing the history of Helensburgh’s foundation, observed: “Although of so recent a date it is rapidly on the increase, numerous handsome villas and houses being erected in and around it every season, which the numerous visitors frequenting it in the bathing season render necessary.”


It went on to ask: “what can be wanting to render Helensburgh a most attractive spot to all who resort to the sea-shore in quest of health, or with a view to seclude themselves for a short period from the noise and turbulence of a busy life?”  The writer did identify certain shortcomings – a spire to adorn the prospect from the sea and a public clock.  Soon these were provided, and the central core of the town took on the shape which can still be seen today, with a sea wall and esplanade being constructed in 1855 as protection against the elements and a promenade for visitors and residents.


The memory of Henry Bell made Helensburgh and the Baths Inn a popular stopping-off point for travellers who delighted in the chance to talk about the great steamship pioneer with his widow. Among the distinguished visitors was the American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe – the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin­ – who called on Margaret Bell in April 1855.  The local paper noted that the writer was “presented with two engravings of the Comet, the first European steamer, by Mrs Bell, the venerable hostess of the Baths, towards whom she evinced particular attachment.”



Helensburgh’s development as a popular holiday resort was completed when the Glasgow, Dumbarton and Helensburgh railway reached the town in 1858.  Although the railway terminus was inconveniently separated from the pier the idea was to develop Helensburgh as a connecting point for steamer services and in 1859 the railway company was able to offer services to the Gareloch villages such as Rhu and Rosneath.  By the 1861 census the town’s population had passed the 4,000 mark – a far cry from the years before the tourist trade had hit Helensburgh.

Brian D Osborne









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