The Iron Boat
Ironworking was an important part of the economy of central Scotland even before technological improvements gave birth to Coatbridge and the ‘Iron Burgh’ in the 1830s. The development of the steam engine had created a need for steam boilers, sealed iron vessels in which water was heated until it turned into pressurised steam.
Most villages would have a smithy for making horse shoes and other small metal items while water-powered forges made tools and cutlery. James Kirkwood opened Airdrie’s first foundry in 1783.
All of this local expertise in the Monklands area was brought to bear when in 1818, local boatbuilder Thomas Wilson and Coatbridge blacksmiths Thomas and William Smellie were commissioned to construct the first ever iron boat to be built in Scotland.
Completed in September 1819, the Vulcan was a horse drawn canal ‘passage boat’ capable of carrying 200 people. It was almost certainly the world’s first iron passenger vessel.
This animation was made by pupils at St Patrick’s Primary School in Coatbridge:
The drive to build the Vulcan came from the scientist John Robison who sat on the Management Committee of the Forth and Clyde Navigation (‘navigation’ was the name used at the time for a canal). The canal had recently suffered from ice damage during cold winters. These affected not only freight traffic but also the canal’s fledgling passenger service between Port Dundas in Glasgow and Lock 16 at Falkirk.
In 1816 Robison commissioned the former Boulton and Watt engineer Henry Creighton to design the hull for an iron barge. Robison had heard (possibly from Creighton, who had recently worked in Manchester) that the Salford firm of Bateman and Sherratt had been building iron canal barges.
Creighton based the shape of the Vulcan’s hull on a model that had been sent to him by Admiral Jonn Shank. Shank (or Schank) was a distinguished naval architect who had successfully adapted designs for naval vessels for use on Canadian inland waterways.
It was to be another two years before the committee approved construction of the new boat and they advertised for builders. Three bids were submitted, the winning one by Wilson and the Smellies. They pledged to build the boat to the highest standards, including countersinking the rivets so that they were flush with the outside of the hull.
The construction of the Vulcan’s hull was similar to the ways in which boilers of the time were built, with curved plates riveted to hand-made angle-iron ribs. Here the metalworking skills of Thomas and William Smellie came into their own.
The malleable iron, which was imported, was rolled into shape at the small Calderbank works of the Monkland Steel and Iron Company. Although it would go on to become a large iron and, later steelworks, Calderbank Forge had humble beginnings as a small-scale water-powered steelworks. By 1819 the forge had begun to work malleable iron that had been made elsewhere.
The boat itself was constructed a short distance from the forge at Thomas Wilson’s Faskine boatyard. The rolled iron plates from Calderbank would have needed to be re-heated at Faskine in order to be beaten to shape, pierced for the rivets and then hammered and riveted onto the angle iron frame. This continued throughout the winter of 1818-19 and into the following spring.
Thomas Wilson later wrote, “there was no angle iron in those days, nor any machinery, except an old fashioned piercing machine purchased from Mr Robt. Baird, Old Basin, a cast iron grooved block to form the ribs, [and] a smith’s fire.”
So well were ‘Vulcan’s iron plates fitted that Robison remarked in 1820 that her bilge pumps “have hardly required to be used”. 44 years later the son of her first master observed, “it is really surprising to see the hull of her looking so well, and that she is quite tight.”
Vulcan’s hull shape caused little turbulence in the water and so protected the canal banks from erosion, although Robison noted that on coming to dock the iron boat had a tendency to ‘spring’ off the bank and into the middle of the canal.
This pioneering boat lasted in service for more than 50 years, first as a passage boat and later carrying cargo. It was a tribute to the skills of Lanarkshire’s iron workers even before the days of the ‘Iron Burgh’. Meanwhile the Calderbank Works became a big steelworks and, fittingly steel plate for the ocean liner Queen Mary was made on almost exactly the same site as plate was rolled for the first iron passenger vessel over a hundred years earlier.
The design of the Vulcan is quite well recorded with several plans and two models, one of which belongs to the National Maritime Museum and appears to be contemporary with the boat.
The Vulcan Reborn
In the 1980s a replica of the Vulcan was constructed from mild steel to the same design as the original boat. Probably the last vessel built on the River Clyde using traditional riveting techniques, the new Vulcan was built at Linthouse near Govan to provide work for unemployed shipyard workers.
The design of the replica closely follows the original externally but not internally, although the exact look of the superstructure is conjectural as the surviving plans and models of the boat do not agree. Other variations include the rivets, which were to be made flush with the hull on the original but protrude on the replica; the replica has no rudder unlike the original and during refurbishment in 2013-14 two large doors were cut into the side of the boat to allow wheelchair access.
The replica was riveted using pneumatic rivet hammers but the original had to be riveted by hand. The makers of the replica had trouble finding someone with the skills to do the riveting but luckily found Billy Johnston, a retired shipyard worker who had done his apprenticeship with Denny’s in Dumbarton.
The newly-built Vulcan barge was displayed at the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival and later at Summerlee Heritage Park, now Summerlee Museum.
After refurbishment in 2013-14 the Vulcan is now on display as a visitor attraction at Summerlee. The hull is supported on a steel cradle above the Gartsherrie Branch of the Monkland Canal. Inside, the boat has been fitted-out as an exhibition and education venue where you can learn more about the Monkland Canal and about the Vulcan itself.