Robert Duncan served his apprenticeship in Robert Steels yard at Greenock, and then gained further shipbuilding experience in his father’s Greenock yard and other neighbouring yards before setting up on his own in 1862 in the East yard at Port Glasgow to build in iron. He was aged 35 years when he purchased the East yard from John Wood, and he built sailing ships for many owners including John Kerr of Greenock and his Diamond K fleet of sugar traders. Iron steamers were built for the Anchor Line of Henderson Bros. Steel replaced iron in 1882 for both steamers and sailing ships, the latter being continued to be built until the 1890s for local customers. The last sailing ship from the yard was the barquentine Alta for AP Lorentzen of Chile. Robert Duncan died in 1889, having also been closely associated with the Barrow Shipbuilding Co founded in 1871 with Henderson and Cavendish money and building ships for charter to the Anchor Line. He left the East Yard in the capable hands of his three sons, who had entered the business in 1883, and one of the last ships he oversaw at the yard was the steamer Holyrood. The yard continued to build ever larger steel steamers. The yard was taken over by the Lithgow brothers in 1915 but continued to build in its own name. The East Yard closed in 1931. It reopened under the Lithgow name in April 1937 after some four hundred ships had been built under the Duncan name at the East yard.
Robert Duncan & the First Cunarder
Story from the Illustrated London News of Oct 23, 1847.
The Britannia Steam-Ship
This "fine-looking, strong-built, and well proportioned" vessel has, of late, been an object of considerable interest; more especially by her escape from a most perilous position, on her voyage from Liverpool to New York, on the 14th ult. On the afternoon of that day, the steamer went on the rocks at Cape Race, the southern point of Newfoundland, in a very dense fog. A correspondent of the New York Commercial Advertiser writes:--
"As you may imagine, it was a moment of deep solicitude. Many of us had been for some time watching for land, anxious to know our true situation, that we might escape all apprehension during the approaching night. My eye was at the moment fixed on Captain Harrison, our excellent commander, and I saw him turn quickly, and heard him exclaim, 'Starboard-stop her!' Before the echo could have died away the ship struck, and for the first time I saw the bleak and barren rocks.
"As soon as it was ascertained that the steamer was ashore, orders were given to clew up the sails, the guns were run aft, and the provisions and everything else that could be removed were shifted, the water in two of the boilers was let off, and the passengers all crowded to the stern; the engines were reversed, and two waves or rollers coming in, we were, under the gracious protection of an over-ruling Providence, once more afloat.
"The Captain then summoned the chief engineer to ascertain whether the ship made water. The result was, that she was making at the rate of about twelve inches per hour, but he was sure the two pumps usually in service would keep the water down. Under this impression the captain determined to proceed on his course.
"The passengers, both ladies and gentlemen, behaved with great coolness during the exciting moment, and no one attempted to interfere with the Commander in the course he pursued, nor did any one converse with him until we were again under way. Soon after some half dozen gentlemen met the captain in his state-room, and looked over his chart, and ascertained our position. St. John's was some fifty miles north of us, but as the fog still continued there was no probability of getting into that port, and having full confidence in Captain Harrison's statement, that the ordinary pumps would keep the ship free, Mr. Winthrop made a report to the passengers which allayed their fears, and we arrived at Halifax on Friday morning, where a survey was held, and the report was made, in substance, that the steamer had been ashore at Newfoundland, that her forefoot had been knocked off, her keel injured, and that she made fourteen inches of water per hour; but that her two bilge pumps could throw out the water she made, and that she might proceed safely to Boston."
The vessel reached Boston; but, previous to her arrival there, a statement in testimony of the good judgment of the Captain and his men, was drawn up, and signed by 65 passengers.
On the arrival of the Britannia in New York, she was found to have sustained injuries of a greater magnitude than was anticipated. The keel was carried away from abaft the wheel to the extreme end, taking with it the forefoot and a great quantity of the heavy sheathing. Part of the stem or cutwater was also taken off. To replace these properly would at any time, or under ordinary circumstances, occupy five days at least; but through the facilities offered by the peculiar construction of the dock, and the perseverance and untiring exertions of Captain Harrison, she was enabled to leave for Boston, having been on the dock, only four days, during which she received a new keel, forefoot, some coppering and other repairs.
Our Illustration [a color version has been inserted] represents the Britannia just saved from a position which excited much attention. In January, 1844, the noble vessel became perfectly ice-bound in the harbour of Boston; when, by extraordinary labour, a channel was cut for her through the "thick-ribbed ice;" and on February 1, she steamed out of the harbour, amidst the shouts of the people at so great a triumph of perseverance.
The following is from, Frank C. Bowen, A Century of Atlantic Travel: 1830-1930, (Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1930), pp 38-42 and submitted by H. Buist.
These ships (British Queen, President, United States, Liverpool), however, were completely eclipsed when the Cunard liners started transatlantic operations on July 4, 1840. The details of the Britannia and her three sisters have been described ad nauseam, wooden paddlers 207 feet long on the keel with a beam of 34.2 feet inside the paddlers, giving a tonnage by the measurement then in rule of about 1,150. The engines took up over seventy feet of the length of the ships, and were all built by Messrs. R. Napier and Company on the Clyde. They were side-lever machines with a nominal horse power of rather more than four hundred, capable of driving the ship at a speed of eight and one-half knots on thirty-eight tons of coal per day.
They were two-decked ships, the upper deck having the officers’ cabins, galley, bakery and cow house, while on the main deck were two dining saloons, the accommodation for one hundred and fifteen cabin passengers and all the other necessary fittings for a passenger ship. Only cabin passengers were carried, the emigrants of that day having no alternative to the sailing ships. In addition, the Britannia and her sisters carried two hundred and twenty-five tons of cargo, all at special rates.
Needless to say, steam steering gear had not been thought of when the earliest Cunarders came out, that convenience not being introduced until the famous Great Eastern was designed. In the Britannia and her consorts, and for several classes afterwards, the hand steering was right aft, the wheelhouse having the captain’s cabin on one side of it and the chief officer’s on the other. Multiple wheels were fitted so that in bad weather six or even more seamen could be at the wheel and were frequently needed.
Smoking was not permitted below decks and it was not until later that a smoke room of sorts chronically uncomfortable at that was fitted at all. Those who wanted to smoke were supposed to confine themselves to the engine room fiddleys, a most uncomfortable spot, although unofficially many were permitted to find a lee in way of the paddle boxes. Poultry of all sorts was kept in coops on deck and a special deck house with padded sides was provided for the accommodation of the ship’s cow, whose milk was reserved for the use of women, children and invalids.
The condition of the liner officers when the Cunard Line was started is supplied by a note drawn up by the office for the guidance of Captain Woodruff. The officer’s mess was to consist of the first, second and third mates, the chief engineer, chaplain, surgeon and any respectable passenger that they chose to invite to join them. The third mate was the mess caterer and he also had to attend to the issuing of practically all the provisions of the ship, a duty which would normally appear to be that of the purser. In the officers’ mess the company provided sherry, ale, porter and spirits, the mess being invited to decide upon a daily scale which they considered reasonable and afterwards to conform rigidly to it. The company do not appear to have laid down any limit, but significantly state that they ‘expect the quantity to be moderate and that the officers of the mess will prevent any abuses.’
The officer who was not mentioned in these regulations, but who must have been mentioned many times a day by the ship’s people, was the mail officer. In those days the postal contracts were in the hands of the Admiralty and not the Post-Office, and that department saw in the steamers an excellent opportunity of finding employment for a number of officers who had claims on it. So the law provided that every steamer carrying mails should also carry a naval mail officer who should be responsible for the mails and also occasionally for the ship herself, superseding her captain. As the officers so selected were generally those for whom the Navy itself had found no use since the end of the Napoleonic Wars they were seldom the best in the service and friction was constant. Finally the situation became intolerable and the Cunard Company was willing to pay a considerable sum to be relieved of them.
The engineers’ mess was to receive fresh meat and cabin bread, and in addition one gill of brandy and two bottles of porter were provided by the company for each member.
In the forecastle the seamen and ‘idlers’ were to have their three meals a day, breakfast at eight, dinner at noon and supper at six o’clock. Each was provided with a generous ration of meat and vegetables, and in addition bread, potatoes and water were to be issued as required, but not to be wasted. This appears particularly generous on the part of the company. A glass of grog was to be issued to each watch, while the chief officer had the right to issue as much more as he considered proper. The firemen and coal trimmers received the same treatment, but their extra grog was at the discretion of the chief engineer instead of the first mate.
All the ships were built on the Clyde, the Britannia by Robert Duncan, the Acadia by John Wood, the Caledonia by Charles Wood and the Columbia by Robert Steele. . . It was Cunard’s own inspiration to have these ships built as precise sisters, and there is not the least doubt that it was very largely due to this that the company was a success from the first. The steamers which had crossed the Atlantic before them were somewhat finer than the first Cunarders, but they never secured popular favor because they were so very varied in design. Then, as now, passengers wanted to know something of what they were in for. . .
. . . The other three Cunarders followed the Britannia in rapid succession and the regular service was maintained a remarkably regular service considering the difficulties with which they had to contend and the poor material with which they had to work. But all the steamers put together could only handle a very small proportion of the steady flood of westerly travel and the sailing ships still carried the great bulk of it. They professed to have a great contempt for the ‘steam waggons,’ and maintained that they would never be a serious competitor to sail. The fact that the sailing packets were improving rapidly they ascribed to keen competion between themselves, not to any fear of the steamer. To a certain extent that was true. But the Cunard mail contract was a very sad blow to their pride, and the far better average time made by the steamers soon attracted attention and support from those who could afford their rates.
The great majority could not, and there were sailing ships available to suit all purses. . .
1840 - 1880
The very first ship to use steam as support on an Atlantic crossing was the American sailing ship Savannah which had been equipped with auxiliary steam engines geared to two paddle wheels on the ship’s sides. In 1819, she made the voyage between New Jersey and Liverpool in 27 days, but the ship had relied on her sails most of the time – the engine had only been running for 85 hours
A colourful painting of Cunard's pioneer Britannia.
during the entire voyage. Not until 1831 did the Canadian paddle steamer Royal William cross the Atlantic with steam as the prime source of drift. However, her engines had to be stopped every few days because they had to be scraped from the accumulated salt deposits from the seawater used in her boilers. While the cleaning was being done, the Royal William depended on her sails. Finally, seven years later the new coastal steamer Sirius, temporarily hired for the trans-Atlantic voyage, made the whole voyage under continuous steam power.
Comparing to sailing vessels, the new steam ships were not much faster. However, development accelerated faster and faster during this industrial revolution. Enthusiastic visionaries such as the British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel realised that there was a future in the steam ships. In 1838, he commissioned the first of three magnificent sea-marvels – the Great Western. She was larger and faster than any ship before her and her interiors astonished the world.
At about the same time, the Briton Samuel Cunard too wanted to have a share of the trans-Atlantic passenger trade. He formed his Cunard Line in 1840 and that very same year he sailed on the Great Western back to England after a visit in America to see the first of four new liners commissioned by the him be launched on February 5th. The first of the new class was called Britannia. She started the tradition of how Cunard would name almost all of its ships in the future. All names would end with ‘-ia’ and they should be Latin words for different parts of the world. The three near-identical sisters of the Britannia (which of course means Britain) were Acadia (Nova Scotia), Caledonia (Scotland) and Columbia (America).
When completed, the Britannia looked every inch a sailing vessel with three masts carrying fully rigged square sails. Her bow was of the traditional clipper style and the squared stern boasted its gilded ornaments. But the two giant paddle wheels on the sides and the orange-red straight funnel between the first and the second mast proved Britannia to be something more than just another sailing vessel. With her – for the time – luxurious interiors, Britannia was a ship for the créme de la créme. Ordinary people who dared to go through an Atlantic crossing still used the ‘reliable’ sailing ships – or as they were commonly called ‘Coffin Ships’, because it was not seldom these vessels never arrived at their destination. The Britannia was what you could call the first of a new breed, offering a reliable service on a strictly regular schedule. Cunard had given the world the first true, purpose-built ocean liner.
In late June 1840, the Britannia arrived at Liverpool after the trip from her builders on the Clyde in Glasgow. The newspapers were not exactly hysterical about her as only two lines were spared for her in the local press at the day of her arrival. On Saturday, July 4th 1840 (Samuel Cunard’s birthday as well as the American day of independence), 63 passengers including Cunard himself along with his daughter embarked the Britannia who was to leave England on her maiden voyage towards Boston in the New World. The honour of being master on this very first voyage for any Cunard ship was given to Captain Henry Woodruff, RN. On July 17th, Britannia entered the harbour of Boston. The waiting crowds went wild with excitement as the new Cunarder berthed at the specifically designed ‘Cunard Wharf’. This voyage was considered by many distinguished Boston citizens as ‘the most significant crossing of the Atlantic since the Mayflower’. The time of crossing the Atlantic had been almost halved as the Cunard Line had entered the Atlantic with a bang, starting an era that would last for more than a hundred further years. The Britannia herself now settled in a distinguished career.
One of the most glorious moments in the Britannia’s history was in January 1842 when she carried the famous novelist Charles Dickens along with his wife Kate and their maid from England to America where he would attend a series of lectures he had been invited to. He was not the most experienced seaman so he chose the Britannia – one of the absolutely best ships on the oceans. But Dickens did not like the voyage at all. He found his cabin ‘claustrophobic’, and spent several days there before he recovered from his seasickness. He later wrote that he feared for his life when he saw the sparks from the funnel fly towards the hoisted sails. When Britannia reached America, Dickens did not leave the railing of the ship until she was securely moored to the berth. He returned to Europe by sailing ship, as the true – and now more dedicated – conservatist he was.
During an Arctic chill in January 1844, Boston harbour froze and trapped the Britannia who was just about to leave for Liverpool. Cunard Line’s reputation of reliability was threatened, but the citizens of Boston were obviously very emotionally attached to the ship as some of the city’s leading inhabitants put the money up to cut the ice up and free the liner. A seven-mile-long channel was made for Britannia through she made a daring escape and thereby saving the Cunard Line’s splendid reputation, reaching Liverpool in time.
In September 1847, Britannia was stranded outside Cape Race. She was pulled away and repaired in New York. The next year she made her final crossing on her Liverpool-Boston route. The years after Cunard did not offer Britannia much more excitement. She was sold in 1849 to the German Confederation Navy and was renamed Barbarossa. In 1852 she was transferred to the Prussian Navy, bearing the same name. She continued to serve for the Prussians as an accommodation and guard ship, but they subsequently laid her up until 1880. Then the old ship was considered expendable and her last task was to serve for the navy as a target ship. In this guise she was sunk this same year. The beautiful Britannia – the pioneer of the famous Cunard Line – was no more.