PS Comet: What heritage status means for Europe’s first commercial steamship

Europe’s first commercial steamship – the PS Comet from 1812 – was granted heritage status in August 2023. We explore how this modest steam-propelled boat from Port Glasgow gained her new title and what it means for her future, even if she's been submerged for two centuries

In August 2023, what remained of the sunken 1812 paddle steamer PS Comet was granted valuable heritage status from Historic Environment Scotland (HES).

The passing of this protective legislation will serve to protect the wreck of PS Comet as the Scottish government consider upgrading the site to a Historic Marine Protected Area (MPA).

Initially carrying passengers between Greenock and Glasgow in 1812, PS Comet is recognised as Europe’s first commercial steamship – and therefore the vessel which introduced passenger travel on water within Europe.

The wreck of PS Comet has lain submerged for over two centuries near Craignish Point on the Scottish west coast after she got into difficulty and sank in December 1820, when dangerous weather and navigational error combined.

Thanks to the efforts of HES, PS Comet is now listed as a scheduled monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act of 1979.

The vessel’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. The same mantra applies to the likes of RMS Titanic. It's a big deal.

So how did PS Comet, a modest wooden steamship from the Georgian era, go on to attract such accolades and legislative protection from heritage experts? Time to roll our sleeves up and delve into the archives.

PS Comet took the travel world by storm. Credit: Wikicommons

A brief history of PS Comet

Commissioned by millwright and hotel owner Henry Bell, the steamship PS Comet was designed to harness steam power on water and provide a much-needed form of public transport that was both efficient and safe.

Thanks to a keen personal interest in steam-propelled ships, and yet seeing none on his home waters of Scotland, Henry Bell spotted what was - at the time - a niche opportunity.

Having watched the North River Steamboat impressively demonstrate steam propulsion on the Hudson River in New York, Bell was convinced there lay commercial potential in the technology.

Soon enough, in his home town of Helensburgh – for which he served as first provost – he set about making his idea happen. What resulted was an elementary steam paddler with modest performance; PS Comet.

The vessel’s name took inspiration from the Great Comet of 1811, a notable celestial event in which a comet had been visible to the naked eye for some 260 days. It proved so memorable that it even got a mention in the literature classic War and Peace.

Clearly, with such a bold name being given to his ship, Henry Bell had grand ambition. He commissioned the vessel to be built from wood in Port Glasgow by shipbuilders John Wood and Company to great fanfare.

The vessel quickly came together in Shore Street, weighed a total of 28 tonnes and was powered by a single-cylinder engine that delivered four horsepower via two paddle wheels on each side.

Henry Bell's PS Comet depicted on the River Clyde in 1812. Credit: Wikicommons

1812: The first cruise

In August 1812, the single-funnelled steamer was launched into duty, carrying passengers between Greenock, Glasgow and Helensburgh.

Heralded as a mode of transport that made use of the latest technology in the early 1800s, PS Comet quickly became somewhat of a phenomenon as she successfully showcased what was possible when steam power was utilised on water.

However, it didn’t take long before PS Comet’s early success would push her out of her original itinerary and home waters of the Firth of Clyde for, soon enough, both her technology and what she had to offer were hastily copied by others.

This spawned – a mere six years after PS Comet had first shown the way – no fewer than 25 similar or more capable steamships working the Clyde.

As such, the little steamer moved on to new pastures. In 1816, she commenced alternative work around the shores of Fife and the outskirts of Edinburgh upon the Firth of Forth. Three years later, in 1819, PS Comet returned to her native west coast and worked to establish communication between Glasgow and the West Highlands.

After eight years of diligent service across many of Scotland’s imperative nautical routes and having won the heart of many an admirer, in December 1820, disaster struck.

As PS Comet sailed in strong currents within the Dorus Mor channel – an area renowned for being particularly treacherous thanks to a plethora of small islands as well as skerries and whirlpools – she met with her unfortunate demise.

Stormy conditions and strong tides pulled PS Comet down into an early grave. Credit: Shutterstock

The death of PS Comet

With a wooden frame too delicate for the beating that the sea delivered, and an engine insufficiently powered for getting her out of deteriorating conditions, PS Comet found herself simply unable to cope with the tidal race.

She eventually broke in two, sinking near Craignish Point – approximately 30 miles south of Oban – before coming to rest on the rocky seabed, not long after her owner Henry Bell had escaped from the floundering vessel.

Shortly afterwards, and thanks to PS Comet having sunk within sight of the shore, her engine was quickly recovered from a watery grave. It went on to find further means of employment, first being used to drive the machinery within a Glasgow coach-building works before then being used in a brewery.

There are no further records of salvage from the wreck after 1820.

More than two centuries after she sank beneath the waves, PS Comet was finally visited and surveyed in 2021 by Wessex Archaeology. It was determined that many artefacts survived and in good order.

The examination suggests that it is the bow section of PS Comet that survives, with the ship having broken apart at a point where she’d previously been lengthened during her service years.

With her recent designation as a scheduled monument and potentially a future historical MPA, PS Comet’s chances of prolonged survival have increased significantly.

However, given that she is one paddle steamer out of around 70 that have been lost in Scottish waters, which criteria have been used to consider PS Comet special enough to warrant her new heritage status?

The wreck of PS Comet now boasts protected status. Credit: History Scotland/Facebook

Why PS Comet matters

PS Comet contributes significantly to our understanding and appreciation of the past as the remains of Europe’s first commercial steamship, while retains physical attributes that greatly aid our understanding of the past.

The most obvious justification for PS Comet being protected on the grounds of heritage is that she was the first commercial steamship within Europe. Not only did this make her a unique vessel when she embarked upon her maiden passenger-carrying voyage, she also had success in subsequently becoming a trend-setter.

To have 25 rivalling steamships operating in the same area, within only a few short years, PS Comet had clearly demonstrated that paddle steamers had massive commercial potential at the time. Everyone else simply joined in!

In the massive cruise market that exists today – with some 5.73 million passengers having travelled within Europe in 2022 – we can trace back to when PS Comet first offered passenger travel in the same waters. In her doing so, she opened up a whole new opportunity that could easily be taken for granted now.

When PS Comet was surveyed by Wessex Archaeology in 2021, it was established that the bow section of the ship had likely survived as well as a wealth of rare yet intact artefacts.

Most notable of these were the assemblage of a single-cylinder side-lever steam engine as well as possible flue and paddle shafts, piping and components of the boiler.

Being able to assess the structural, architectural, decorative and physical attributes of PS Comet allows for in-depth understanding of her technology and what specifically made this vessel a success in the eight years that she operated.

Any knowledge gained from the wreck will contribute to our overall appreciation of the very earliest steamships.

Some other items, including PS Comet’s bell and compass have already been recovered. These now reside in the Riverside Museum in Glasgow.

Elsewhere, in Edinburgh’s National Library of Scotland and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, plans and drawings are housed that relate to PS Comet, her engines and her machinery.

Should archaeological information from the physical wreck be intertwined with understanding gleaned from contemporary documents, this will provide a comprehensive understanding of steamship history as well as some of the Georgian era.

The original drawing that depicts PS Comet's drivetrain and power system. Credit: Picryl

PS Comet: The last of her kind

Given that PS Comet was the first commercial steamship operating within Europe, she is therefore an extremely rare example of a pre-1820s steamship generally as well as one that operated within the UK and, more specifically, Scottish waters.

Not only can PS Comet help us to understand the design and construction of early steam-powered ships, she may also hold clues as to what conditions were like in UK waters throughout her operative years.

Furthermore, there exists the opportunity to study PS Comet against the remains of Abbey (Built in Liverpool 1822 and sunk in Machir Bay, near Islay in 1839) and PS Irishman (Built near Greenock in 1834, stranded on reef of Sgeir Thraid, Isle of Skye in 1862).

In turn, this would inform on the development and rate of change that took place within steam-powered and transport technology as well as the environmental conditions that all three wrecks have encountered.

The legendary Sir Walter Scott sailed aboard PS Comet to great fanfare. Credit: Wikicommons

Associations with historical figures and events

In addition to being named after and built shortly after a famous celestial event, PS Comet enjoyed links with notable Scottish engineers, shipbuilders and entrepreneurs during the Industrial and Transport Revolutions.

The vessel’s most significant connection is with who Thomas Telford – engineer of the Caledonian canal – referred to as "the ingenious and enterprising Mr Henry Bell."

Henry Bell commissioned the construction of PS Comet in 1812 and to be called this by Thomas Telford was high praise indeed.

Telford was responsible for engineering much of Liverpool’s water supply, improving London’s docklands, the rebuilding of London Bridge in the 1800s, designing the Menai suspension bridge between the Isle of Anglesey and mainland Wales as well as countless other projects.

Henry Bell both knew and gained recognition from many notable engineers. On Bell, prolific civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel said: “Bell did what we engineers failed in. He gave us the sea steamer; his scheming was Britain’s steaming.”

Upon Bell’s death, Robert Napier – regarded as the father of Scottish shipbuilding – built the impressive monument that rests above Bell’s grave in Rue within Argyll and Bute.

In addition to being the brainchild of the renowned Bell, PS Comet gained technological input from several notable, industry names.

These included engineer John Robertson, who designed and built the steamship’s engine; shipwright John Wood, who built the Margery which was considered to be the first passenger paddle steamer on the River Thames; and marine engineer David Napier who is credited with building the first steam passenger road carriage as well as being one of the best builders of marine engines within Scotland. That’s quite a pedigree.

As if that weren’t impressive enough, PS Comet ferried a number of famous passengers. Among her more well-known clientele was Scottish historian, novelist, poet and playwright Walter Scott and Scottish inventor, mechanical engineer, chemist and inventor of horsepower James Watt.

Watt had made many particularly important contributions that had boosted the Industrial Revolution so we can only imagine Henry Bell’s excitement when Watt purchased passage to Greenock via PS Comet in 1816.

With so many renowned names connected to PS Comet, it is hard to deny her heritage status when both she herself and the man who commissioned her were held in high regard by those who themselves attracted notable respect during her years of operation.

The wreck of PS Comet therefore provides a physical, tangible link to numerous historical figures and the overall history of the Industrial Revolution.

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

What heritage status means for PS Comet

When you consider that PS Comet was the first commercial steamship to operate in European waters and then combine this with the possibilities of being able to fully understand the vessel but also elements of her technology, the Industrial Revolution and many renowned names in the fields of transport and engineering, it is easy to see why she deserves her designation as a scheduled monument.

Protection of the wreck also opens up exciting research opportunities as well as significantly prolonging her lifespan. For the time being, maritime heritage enthusiasts will have to wait to see if PS Comet gains further status as a Historic MPA where, if this were to go ahead, this historic steamship would gain even more protection.

If her wreck site is nominated as a Historic MPA by Scottish Government, it would then be a criminal offence to intentionally or recklessly remove, alter or disturb the wreck.

This would ensure that rare artefacts, which can significantly progress our understanding of technological history and evolution, remain safe and are retained.

Being granted heritage status ensures that PS Comet is valued and that her place in industrial history is secure.

Most importantly, this legislative protection ensures that this charismatic little steamship – the genesis of passenger travel on a European ship today – will not be forgotten, allowing Henry Bell’s vision and PS Comet’s legacy to live on.

Find out more about the lead image through the Science Museum Group.

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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.