Henry Bell

Engineer and Steam Ship Pioneer

Henry Bell was born at Torphichen, Linlithgowshire on 7th April 1767 and was the fifth son of Patrick Bell and Margaret Easton, members of a well known family of millwrights, builders and engineers.

Their work included the design and construction of harbours, bridges, etc, in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom. Henry Bell was educated at the local parish school and was apprenticed to a stonemason in 1780. Three years later, he was apprenticed to his uncle, a millwright. He later learned ship modeling in Borrowstounness and in 1787, pursued his interest in ship mechanics in Bell's Hill with the engineer Mr James Inglis. This was followed by several years in London.

He returned to Scotland around 1790, and moved to Glasgow, where he worked as a house-carpenter. His ambition was to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors and become a civil engineer, and to this end he joined the Glasgow Corporation of wrights on October 20, 1797. He was entirely unsuccessful, due to either lack of money, or lack of application or skill on his part.

The idea of propelling vessels by means of steam early took possession of Bell’s mind. He became fascinated with the work that had been undertaken to get steam powered ships operational. In the early 1800’s he applied to the Admiralty for sponsorship to pioneer steam ships but his plea fell on deaf ears (with the notable acceptation of Lord Nelson who feared that the Americans would gain the initiative). Bell remained undaunted and in 1811 he constructed the Comet. The Comet, weighing 30 tons, and named after a great comet which had been visible for several months, was built by Messrs John Wood and Co., at Port Glasgow. It was capable of carrying forty passengers, and its total cost was £192.

Bell had by then moved to Helensburgh (1806) and he built the Baths Hotel (later the Queen’s Hotel) in East Clyde Street to run as a spa with his wife Margaret.

The Comet made a delivery voyage from Port Glasgow 21 miles upriver to the Broomielaw, Glasgow, and then sailed from Glasgow 24 miles down to Greenock, making five miles an hour against a head-wind. The exact date of the Comet’s true maiden voyage is a little murky but it is thought that it is August 7, 1812, certainly it is around this date that Bell started advertising a passenger service on the Comet between Glasgow, Greenock and Helensburgh three times a week.

Bell advertised the service using the following advertisement which appeared in several local newspapers of the time.


Steam Passage-boat, THE COMET, between Glasgow, Greenock and Helensburgh, for passengers only.

THE Subscriber having, at much expense, fitted up a handsome vessel to ply upon the Clyde, between Glasgow and Greenock—to sail by the power of wind, air, and steam—he intends that the vessel shall leave the Broomielaw on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, about midday, or at such hour thereafter as may answer from the state of the tide—and to leave Greenock on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the morning, to suit the tide. The elegance, comfort, safety, and speed of this vessel require only to be proved, to meet the approbation of the public; and the proprietor is determined to do everything in his power to merit public encouragement.

The terms are for the present fixed at 4s. for the best cabin, and 3s. the second; but, beyond these rates, nothing is to be allowed to servants, or any other person employed about the vessel. The subscriber continues his establishment at Helensburgh Baths, the same as for years past, and a vessel will be in readiness to convey passengers in the COMET from Greenock to Helensburgh. Passengers by the COMET will receive information of the hours of sailing, by applying at Mr. Houston’s Office, Broomielaw; or Mr. Thomas Blackney’s, East Quay Head, Greenock.


Helensburgh, 5th August, 1812.

In 1819 the service was extended to run to Oban and Fort William via the Crinan canal.

Bell also became Helensburgh’s first Provost and much change occurred in the area under his care. Although Bell lived long enough to see his invention come to fruition he did not profit from it - a series of bad business deals left Bell virtually penniless.

Touched by his condition a number of benevolent individuals, including Thomas Telford, commenced a subscription on his behalf, by which a considerable sum was raised. The trustees on the river Clyde granted him an annuity of £100, which was continued to his widow. Bell died on 14th November 1830 and is buried in Rhu. Clyde shipbuilder Robert Napier, who lived at Shandon, erected a large monument to Bell’s memory in the churchyard.

On the initiative of James Lumsden, later Lord Provost of Glasgow, who had been on the Comet’s maiden voyage an obelisk was erected in honour of Bell and his achievements, it stands in the grounds of Dunglass Castle (ruin). A further obelisk monument was erected on the seafront at Helensburgh in 1872.