It was for excellence in shipbuilding that the River Clyde first gained its worldwide reputation. However, the Clyde that we know today is very different from the river that would have been familiar to the inhabitants of the small town of Glasgow in the 14th century when the river would have been very much shallower and studded with sandbanks. Indeed, it would have been able to be crossed by wading at certain times of the year.
A wooden bridge had been constructed in 1345 at the south end of what is now Stockwell Street, to be replaced in around 1410 by an eight arched stone bridge. This bridge, on the site of the modern-day Victoria Bridge, linked the settlement at Glasgow with that of the Gorbals on the south bank of the river and remained the only man-made crossing in the city until around 1772 when a new bridge was opened at the south end of modern-day Jamaica Street on the site of today’s Glasgow Bridge.
Glasgow’s merchants were extremely active in international trade, and in particular in the tobacco trade with North America. Due to the lack of deep-water ports on the Clyde, cargoes arriving from and bound for foreign ports had to be landed and loaded in Ayrshire. In 1667, the town council of Glasgow purchased land for the construction of a harbour and breakwater on the south bank of the Clyde about 20 miles west of Glasgow. This became Glasgow's first deep-water port and was named Port Glasgow.
However much of an improvement this was, cargoes still had to be transported between the port and Glasgow by packhorse and cart.
A project was commenced in 1760 to deepen a channel on the river to allow the cargoes to be transported by barge between the port and the town. This was achieved by constructing a series of groynes and dykes out into the river to narrow the channel and quicken its flow thereby removing the sand and silt from the riverbed1. Walls were built to connect the ends of the groynes and the material removed from the riverbed was used to fill the areas behind the walls. This transformed the shallow, slow-moving river with shifting sandbanks and variable river banks into a deeper, swifter-moving, canal-like channel with well-defined, static banks. By stages, using bigger and bigger steam dredgers, the river was deepened until by 1885 ships with drafts of 25 feet were regularly sailing up to the harbour at Glasgow Bridge.
In addition to immeasurably improving commercial transportation on the River Clyde, these changes made possible the establishment and development of the shipbuilding and associated engineering industries for which the Clyde and Glasgow were to become so famed.
Glasgow’s population mushroomed as the opportunities to work in these sectors attracted more and more workers to relocate to the city. To accommodate the workers and their families, vast numbers of tenements were built and these were strung along both sides of the river behind the docks, shipyards and engineering works.
While bringing enormous benefits, in both commercial and employment terms, to the citizens of Glasgow, the river also presented a natural physical barrier which could be a considerable inconvenience and hindrance to the free movement of the growing population and ways had to be found to enable and improve passage across the water.
In around 1800, James Laurie started to implement his vision of a major residential development on the south bank of the River Clyde between Glasgow Bridge and what is now Victoria Bridge. This was intended to be housing of superior quality for the businessmen and professional classes of Glasgow and would increase the numbers of people living south of the river. In 1832, while a replacement for the original Glasgow Bridge was being built, a temporary wooden bridge, known as the Accommodation Bridge, was opened. This was itself to be replaced in 1853 by a permanent pedestrian bridge - the South Portland Street Suspension Bridge – which is still in use today, albeit with some significant upgrading.
From 1865, steam ferries started to carry passengers back and forth across the river at several well-spaced points west of Glasgow Bridge. These operated day and night, were free to use and were very popular.
In 1870, the City of Glasgow Union Railway built the first railway bridge across the River Clyde in Glasgow. It crossed the river between the present day Victoria and Albert Bridges. The bridge was to carry the line that ran into the now-demolished St. Enoch Station which opened in 1876. The bridge was replaced by a wider successor in 1899.
The Caledonian Railway Company’s line into Glasgow terminated at Bridge Street on the south side of the river. In 1878, the first Caledonian Railway Bridge in the centre of Glasgow was built immediately adjacent and downstream of Glasgow Bridge and allowed trains to cross the river and terminate at Central Station which opened in 1879. A second bridge, immediately adjacent and downstream was completed in 1905.
In 1895 at Finnieston, a private company built and operated the Harbour Tunnel, for pedestrian and vehicle traffic, under the Clyde. Its terminal points were the North and South Rotundas which contained hydraulic lifts connected to one tunnel for pedestrians and two tunnels for horse and cart traffic.
In more modern times, the Clyde Tunnel was opened in 1963 and consisted of two parallel road tunnels which connected the Govan district on the south of the river to Whiteinch on the north.
In 1896, the Glasgow’s underground railway system opened. Underground for its entire circular route, it contained twin tunnels, allowing clockwise travel on the outer circle and anticlockwise on the inner. It passed below the river twice on its circuit - between Govan and Partick in the west and St Enoch and Bridge Street in the east. It still operates today, with updated technology.
Glasgow’s population continued to grow and then decline, as did the railway system, while increased ownership of the motor car led to further development of the road system in and around the city. The recent commercial development of both banks of the River Clyde downstream from Glasgow Bridge has led to further demand for quick and convenient means of crossing the river on foot. The diverse system of the Clyde’s river crossings has adapted to accommodate the city’s changing demands.
Today, there are 20 bridges crossing the River Clyde from the Millennium Bridge at the Glasgow Science Centre to Dalmarnock Bridge. Another bridge has been proposed further downriver.
A leisurely walk along the Clyde’s river bank between these two structures is a highly rewarding experience. The Institute of Civil Engineers, with support from Glasgow City Council, has published The Clyde Bridges Heritage Trail to encourage and add value to this activity. Take your time and take a camera. Examine the bridges. Touch and feel the materials from which they are constructed. Read the affixed plaques. Observe the construction and note the variety of types.
But in addition to examining the physical characteristics of the bridges, give some thought to the history of the bridges and their antecedents and also of the locations at which the bridges are sited.
When you walk across Victoria Bridge, reflect on the fact that this is the site of the first bridge across the Clyde in Glasgow and that for 700 years or so Glaswegians, travellers and armies have crossed here.
When you cross Glasgow Bridge you are walking on the third incarnation of the bridge which defined the eastern extreme of Glasgow Harbour and in former times you would have been gazing on a forest of masts and rigging of transatlantic vessels as they loaded and unloaded their cargoes.
Crossing the Clyde Arc, or the ‘Squinty Bridge’ as it affectionately known by Glaswegians owing to the fact that it crosses the river at an angle, you are crossing between the sites of the Queen’s Dock on the north and Prince’s Dock on the south which, from the latter part of the 19th century, formed the hub of Glasgow’s maritime trading activity.
The Kingston Bridge which carries the M8 across the Clyde, crosses at the site of a tragedy which occurred in November 1864 when a rowing boat, carrying 27 men across the river, capsized and 19 drowned in the freezing waters. The public outcry led to the introduction of the steam ferries.
The first Rutherglen Bridge at Shawfield was built in 1775 in response to a ban on carts crossing the old bridge at Stockwell Street in Glasgow imposed when it had been declared unsafe. The Rutherglen Bridge was built to a design by the Scottish engineer and inventor, James Watt, and its opening led to the settlement of Barrowfield on the northern side of the bridge being renamed as ‘Bridgeton’. The current Rutherglen Bridge replaced the original in 1896.
Glasgow’s emotional attachment to its river is strong. The River Clyde’s bridges, with their blend of traditional and contemporary designs, and their long and diverse engineering, commercial and social histories continue to fascinate Glaswegians and visitors alike. No doubt in the years ahead there will be further developments on the Clyde as its system of river crossings evolves to meet the ever-changing needs of Glasgow.
1John F. Riddell, “Glasgow and the Clyde” in “Glasgow – The Forming of the City”, Edited by Peter Reed, EUP (2006)