Aberdeen Harbour



A Personal Recollection of Aberdeen Harbour in the 19th Century...


Let us take our stand in imagination in the year 1865 at the south end of Regent Bridge (that is the old man-handled bridge then in use) for the purposes of comparing the docks and the shipping in them with what may be seen today. The difference regards shipping is striking. In 1865 there were about 220 sailing vessels registered at the port, of which 109 were less than 200 tons, 127 of less than 300 tons, and 137 of less than 400 tons. Of the 83 vessels that exceeded 400 tons a large proportion belonged to George Thompson, Junior, & Co., and other owners of foreign-going craft that seldom or never re-entered the port. The maritime transport of Aberdeen was, therefore, carried on mainly by small vessels, which often lay alongside two or even three deep, awaiting their turn of quay space. Moreover, quay space in the Upper Dock was more limited than today, for Jamieson's Quay had not been formed, and the whole south side of the Upper Dock was occupied by shipbuilding yards. The owners of these yards were, reckoning from east to west, William Duthie, John Humphrey & Co., and Richard Connon. The launch of the Strathnaver from the yard of William Duthie is the last launch that I remember to have seen take place in the Upper Dock. At the south-east corner of this Dock was moored HMS Winchester, for the training of the Royal Naval Reserve. She was approached by a floating gangway which ran westward from Regent Bridge. When a launch took place the Winchester had sometimes to be moved to make way for it. In the corner between this gangway and the Bridge was laid up in winter the smack Cock of the North, of 48 tons, built at Aberdeen in 1835, which belonged to Messrs. Hogarth and was employed to bring to Aberdeen via the Pentland Firth the salmon caught on their net fishings at Gairloch and elsewhere on the west coast. In the Moray Firth Messrs. Hogarth had another smack, called the Dora. They employed smacksmen from East Anglia to command their little vessels, and so brought to the port not a few fine seamen who took root there, and subsequently were promoted to command the steamers of the Aberdeen Steam Navigation Co., of which my very staunch friend Mr A P Hogarth was chairman. I knew well some of these fine seamen, all now passed on, among them Captain Dowman, Captain Andrews, and lately, Captain Howe. They had a breezy, hearty English Address, which made a special appeal to their Scottish friends.

Among the front of the building yards in the Upper Dock was ranged a line - known as Rotten Row - of melancholy brigs and schooners, worn out, disused, or for sale. A broom at the masthead indicated that the owner had not quite abandoned hope of a buyer, failing which, break-up or employment as a hulk - say at Newburgh - was the vessel's ultimate destination. Rotten Row had an increasing number of tenants after steam began to replace sail for coastal traffic. This displacement began in the early 'seventies, when the ss. Hayle and the ss. Courier were acquired by Messrs. Adam & Co. to carry coal. From that time onwards the coasting brigs and schooners became fewer and fewer, and ultimately disappeared. The brig Ploughman, of 168 tons, built in 1867 by Walter Hood & Co., was the last of this class that I remember
to have seen launched at Aberdeen. The voyage between London and Aberdeen has lost much of its picturesqueness by the passing of the sailing craft, large and small; for not even a lover of the sea can work up romantic interest in the steamers that have displaced them. There are now no sailing vessels registered at the port of Aberdeen, and the shipping so registered consists of 28 screw steamers ranging in size from 1648 tons (gross) in the case of the Aberdonian to 87 tons (gross) in the case of the Ich Dien. But, of course, much of the local trade is borne by vessels not registered at Aberdeen, and the figures are informing only as illustrating the completeness of the turn-over from sail to steam.

At the Cross Quay - now South Market Street - a cargo of slates (as today) was often discharged, and the boy-cook of one clean, smart Welsh schooner, called the Grampus, was my special friend. His name was "Owen," and I remember a deal with him in which I, when a small boy, traded a conical lead-pencil sharpener - then a novelty, which had cost me a penny - in exchange for two ship biscuits. I was permitted to haul on the warp when the vessel shifted her berth, and the boyish pleasure of being for the first time on a ship in motion is still remembered.

At the north-west of this dock was a most unsavoury corner, when the Den Burn discharged its polluted waters into the dock. A cross-berth had been formed in the angle, where, when there was congestion, and unfortunate vessel might have to lie in a stench wellnigh intolerable. That evil was cured many years ago, and no sewer now discharges into the dock.

At Trinity Quay were often discharged cargoes of apples (known locally as "chippit apples") from the Channel Islands. These had been dumped in bulk in the hold, and were now shovelled with wooded spades into the hoisting tubs. They, no doubt, found buyers; but nothing more primitive or dirty in the handling of fruit for human consumption could well be conceived. The onion boy from Brittany is a later arrival at the harbour, and his ropes of clean, brown onions appeal fro themselves to housewife customers. One of them in pre-War days who came from Roscoff used to sit as model for my artist daughter, and would chat while he enjoyed his cigarette and cup of coffee. Open drunkenness at this time was a flagrant evil in the City, much too lightly thought of by certain types of folk, but now, without doubt, much diminished or less apparent. I asked the lad one day if he had ever seen anything worse in this respect than Market Street, and he said, "Yes. It was worse at Dundee." "Well then," I said, "have you anywhere seen it worse than at Dundee?" He hesitated for a moment, then smiled, and replied, "Yes, in Brittany." An honest lad, and truthful witness!

The steamers plying regularly at Aberdeen in the 'sixties were mostly paddle steamers; but the screw was fast ousting the paddle, and no paddle steamer was added to the register of the port in the 'sixties. Foremost in size and appearance was the City of London, of 1116 tons and 231 feet in length, built for the Aberdeen Steam Navigation Co in 1844. She was one of the few transports that weathered the great gale at Balaclava Harbour during the Crimea War. Her beam of 52 feet 6 inches across paddle boxes was so great that she had little more than room to get through the dock entrance. She could make the run between London and Aberdeen in three tides on a huge expenditure of coal. She was described in the Illustrated London News of 27th July, 1844, as a "stupendous vessel, ... and with the exception of the Great Britain, which has not yet been to sea, she is the largest iron steamship afloat." The Princess Alice, of the Newcastle and Hull Steam Co., was a vessel of 286 tons built in 1843. Her engines had the peculiarity that the upper part of the pistons rose and fell in casings fixed on and above the level of the navigating bridge, so that their up-and-down movement was visible to anyone on the quay who stood forward of amidships. The Vanguard, Earl of Aberdeen, Pharos, and Prince Consort were still doing duty. Among the screw steamers the St. Clair of the Leith and Clyde Shipping Co. deserves special mention, since, built in 1868, she is still in service after being under fire during the Great War. I remember seeing the Prince Consort aground in 1863 on the south platform of the North Pier, also in 1867 the schooner Mercury and the brig Agricola ashore at the same time and close together on the north side of the pier. The Mercury, I understand, was the first iron vessel built in Aberdeen for coastal service. All the vessels were got off, but the Prince Consort finished her career in 1869, when she was wrecked two miles south of Aberdeen....


Recollections of an Old Lawyer
by Lachlan Mackinnon

Trinity Quay
Aberdeen Harbour circa 1890