The Comet: Wreckage of rare steamship given protected status

 The 1962 replica of the Comet which was located in Port Glasgow, in 2011.

The Comet passing Dumbarton Rock and the Queen’s Hotel in Helensburgh.

By Lucy Ashton

The wreckage of Europe’s first commercial steamship has been given a protected status by Historic Environment Scotland (HES).

The Comet was a wooden paddle steamer built in Port Glasgow by John Wood & Sons between 1811-12. It was owned by 19th Century entrepreneur Henry Bell.

It was recently discovered in the fast tidal waters of the Dorus Mor west of Crinan in Argyll and Bute.

HES said the ship is “extremely rare” and of “international significance”.

The Comet was launched in 1812 and operated for eight years on the Clyde, then the Forth, and from September 1819, on a new Glasgow to Fort William service.

However it wrecked off Craignish Point on 19 December 1820, where it is believed to have split in half after running aground due to a navigational error.

It was not carrying any passengers when it wrecked, and Mr Bell and the crew managed to get safely ashore.

A replica of the vessel was situated in Port Glasgow from 1962, but was dismantled in April due to its deteriorating condition.

the comet
The Comet wrecked in Argyll and Bute

HES assessed the remains of the Comet in September 2020 after it was discovered by members of Dalriada Dive Club in Oban.

Marine heritage sites are normally designated as Historic Marine Protected Areas (MPA).

However HES decided to name the Comet as a scheduled monument to protect it until a decision is taken by the Scottish government on making the site a Historic MPA.

Scheduled monument status means that visitors can still dive on the wreck, however they must not disturb it or remove artefacts without consent from HES.

An illustration of the Comet passing Dumbarton Castle
Another illustration of the Comet passing Dumbarton Castle

Dara Parsons, head of designations at HES, 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 Comet was originally designed to carry passengers between Port Glasgow and Helensburgh, where Mr Bell was from. He owned the Queen’s Hotel there.

Its name references the Great Comet of 1811, when a comet passed by the Earth and was visible to the naked eye for 260 days.

A dive survey by Wessex Archaeology in September 2021 confirmed that the visible remains of the wreck on the seabed were likely to be from the front half of the ship.

These include the engine assemblage, possible flue and paddle shaft.

the wreck of the comet
An Oban diving club discovered the ship’s remains.

The monument is located at a depth of around 12m (39ft) on rocky seabed interspersed with sand within an area of dense kelp.

It is thought that further parts of the wreck are likely to have survived nearby.

Historian Tony Dalton, who co-ordinated the search for the wreck site, said: “Over three years of research, exploration and survey by a small group in Argyll established the correct facts behind the wrecking of Comet and enabled us to pinpoint the site.

“Together with Glasgow Museums it was very much a team effort, leading to diving and discovery by John and Joanne Beaton, together with images of the engine, two centuries after it sank.

“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.”


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