Henry Bells PS Comet depicted on the River Clyde in 1812 .Credit: Wikicommons

PS Comet: World's first cruise ship protected by Scheduled Monument status

Author: Gillian Carmoodie

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Europe’s first commercial steamship – considered the genesis point of modern cruising – has gained heritage status from Historic Environment Scotland

Custodians of maritime heritage have reason to celebrate as the wreckage of PS Comet, Europe’s first commercial steamship, has gained protected status from Historic Environment Scotland (HES).

Recently designated as a scheduled monument by HES – the lead government agency responsible for investigating, caring for and promoting Scotland’s historic environment – PS Comet’s new status will ensure she has greater protection as she lies at a depth of 12 metres within the Sound of Jura on Scotland’s west coast.

Acquiring the welcome ranking on August 9, 2023, PS Comet’s designation will bestow valuable protection on the ship; considered to be the forefather to modern-day cruising.

The vessel, dating from 1812, is considered by HES to be both ‘extremely rare’ and ‘of international significance’. A replica was built during the 1960s and placed in the centre of Port Glasgow, of which the council has only recently demolished to public outcry.

The ship's protected status now only heightens the argument for the replica's replacement.

Henry Bell's PS Comet changed the face of marine transport. Credit: Glasgow Archives

Henry Bell's PS Comet given ultimate protection

PS Comet’s status as a scheduled monument will serve as an interim measure. HES will now push the Scottish government to go further and designate the wreck site as a Historic Marine Protected Area (MPA).

Meantime, the designation of PS Comet as a scheduled monument gives what remains of the ship protection under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act of 1979.

PS Comet’s newly-acquired heritage status means that, although visitors can still dive on the wreck, they must not disturb it nor remove artefacts without prior consent from HES.

Dara Parsons, HES head of designations, said: “There are very few examples of pre-1820 steamships known in the UK. As such, the remains at the site of the Comet are extremely rare and merit further detailed study. Henry Bell’s Comet is of international significance as Europe’s first commercial steamship and occupies an important place in the history of steam-powered navigation."

The PS Comet replica during renovation works in 2011. Credit: Wikicommons

Criminal offence

If PS Comet subsequently moves up to being regarded as a Historic MPA, it would then become a criminal offence to intentionally or recklessly remove, alter or disturb the wreck.

It is also possible that, if a Historic MPA falls into place, planning permission or a marine license will be required to operate within the area of the wreck.

The intention of both designation stages is to ensure that the ship’s importance is taken into account when future decisions are made about its management. Consequently, any heritage status that PS Comet attracts will prolong the lifespan of her wreck.

By classifying PS Comet as a scheduled monument, the intention of HES is to allow this notable paddle steamer’s heritage to be as fully recognised and investigated as if she were a heritage site on land. This will ensure that she is valued and her historical significance is understood.

Henry Bells PS Comet depicted on the River Clyde in 1812 .Credit: Wikicommons

Tony Dalton, co-ordinator of PS Comet’s wreck site search, commented: “We are all delighted that Comet is given the vital protection of designation so that further surveys can gain more knowledge and understanding from this wreck of national importance.”

Although PS Comet first set sail over two centuries ago, cruise fans can thank the modest ship for introducing the possibility of passenger travel upon water within Europe.

With 5.73 million cruise passengers cruising within Europe in 2022, the European cruising market is now the second largest in the world, of which the Carnival Corporation have an impressive 45 per cent market share.

Back in 1812, PS Comet was Europe’s first commercial steamship, where she modestly plied her trade solo between ports at Greenock and Glasgow. She's the genesis point, and this status should assist in understanding the timeline of our maritime progress.

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About Gillian Carmoodie

Gillian has been a part of the heritage world for longer than she would care to admit. From piloting pre-war racers across Montlhéry and traversing the Cumbrian mountains with an Edwardian automobile, to flying a WWI Tiger Moth and obsessing over all things shipping, Gillian lives for history.

When not buried in a book or lost to the archives, you'll usually find her under the bonnet of her classic Rover or exploring the old shipyards of the North East. When partaking in work for RNLI, Land Rover or RRM, Gillian mostly runs on high-octane Earl Grey.