Early Beginnings

Most of the paddle steamer boats that plied between Belfast and Bangor in the 19th and early 20th century were built alongside the River Clyde, the cradle of the steamship enterprise of the world [1]. The first commercial steamship in Europe was built in 1812 by John Wood & Company, Port Glasgow for Henry Bell of Helensburgh. It was named Comet after the Great Comet of 1811 (which with an orbital period of about 3000 years will not return soon). Three years later, in 1815, the paddle steamer, Greenock, was built by Archibald McLachlan, Dumbarton.

On Friday, the 19th April 1816, the wooden paddle steamer, Greenock, set sail from Greenock. She called at Rothesay and Campbeltown, leaving the latter place between 9 and 10am and arrived at Bangor in little more than seven hours. This was the first steamer to cross from Scotland to Ireland. The Belfast Commercial Chronicle of 24th April 1816 reported that they understood that the Greenock was intended to ply between Belfast, Carrickfergus and Bangor. However, this service only lasted one summer.

Advert, Belfast Commercial Chronicle

Nine years later the Belfast Commercial Chronicle of 2nd March 1825 recorded that it was being contemplated to establish a regular communication between the towns of Belfast, Bangor and Carrickfergus. A joint stock company had been projected at £10 per share, to procure immediately a small steamboat for the purpose. The day before the shares had been rapidly subscribed for. On Monday, 25th April 1825 the steam vessel, Bangor Castle, commenced plying between Bangor and Belfast, leaving Bangor every morning, except Saturday and Sunday, at 7.30am, touching at Carrickfergus when the tide permitted, and returning from Belfast for Bangor at 4pm [2]. The Bangor Castle, previously named the Marquis of Bute, had been built in 1818 by John Wood & Company, Port of Glasgow for the Glasgow-Gourock service. The Bangor Castle provided regular sailings in Belfast Lough up to 1828 [3]. The paddle steamer was later broken up at the end of 1833 [4].

The next paddle steamer to sail on Belfast Lough was the Culloden in 1852. The service was introduced by Mr Robert Henderson, 25 Donegall Quay, Belfast. The Culloden had been built in 1845 by Caird & Company, Greenock [5]. The first excursion to Bangor was on Thursday, 3rd June 1852. The Culloden left Belfast at noon, called at Bangor and then proceeded to Donaghadee. She called at Bangor again on the return journey and arrived back at Belfast Quay around 7pm [6].

A couple of weeks later an advert in the Ulster Gazette of 19th June 1852 announced that there would be a regular service to Bangor and Donaghadee. At that time the steamer couldn’t dock at Bangor at low tide. Instead an old boat man, named George Ferguson, conveyed passengers to the Culloden every morning in Bangor Bay before she headed to Donaghadee. Unfortunately, on 21st September 1852, after he had successfully placed three passengers on the steamer, a high wave struck his boat with such force that he was knocked overboard into the sea. Despite the valiant efforts of the steward and Captain McVane, who had dashed into the billowing waves to rescue him, by the time he was brought on board the steamer he was beyond recovery [7].

The following year the Culloden sailed to Melbourne, Australia for the gold rush. In her place, Robert Henderson along with other business men had bought the steamer, Pilot. The Pilot had been built in 1844 by Barr & MacNabb, Paisley. In 1850 she was placed on the Loch Lomond service from Balloch. On 19th July 1850 she struck an unknown rock on the eastern side of the loch and sank in shallow water off Rowardennan. All passengers were transferred onto a nearby steamer. Ever since that rock has been known as the Pilot Rock. The steamer was later refloated and repaired [8].

The Pilot commenced sailing from Belfast to Bangor on 2nd June 1853 under the command of Captain Richardson. The steamer left Belfast daily, except Sunday, at 7am, 11am and 5pm. On route she called at Grey Point. The return sailings from Bangor were at 8.30am, 2pm and 7pm [9]. The only inconvenience was the lack of a proper landing place at Bangor. By mid August 1853 arrangements had been made for the erection of a new commodious pier, which was to be proceeded with in the following spring. Lord Bangor and Colonel Ward would be joining the proprietors of the Pilot in the costs of the work [10].

An advert was placed in the Northern Whig on 6th April 1854 announcing that the steamer Pilot was undergoing a complete overhaul and new boilers were being fitted. At the same time the new pier at Bangor was in course of erection, at which there would be sufficient water, at all times of the tide, for the steamer to run alongside and land her passengers. The steamer Pilot and the Cambria would resume the service from Belfast to Bangor in early May. By July 1854 the Cambria was placed on the Belfast to Isle of Man service.

On Monday 7th July 1856 the weather was exceedingly severe for the season. In the high grounds of the suburbs of Belfast the force of the wind and rain tore down chimney tops and windows were blown in. The Pilot passenger steamer, en route from Belfast to Bangor, experienced a severe and exceedingly rough passage that evening. Because of the violence of the wind Captain Richardson took a wide offing from Grey Point. The wheel chains were smashed but fortunately the steamship was sufficiently far enough away from the coast to allow for adjusting a temporary tiller otherwise she would have been thrown on shore. However, the steamer arrived in very good time at Bangor and few of the passengers aboard were aware of the danger they had been in [11].

In April 1858 the Pilot Steamer was laid up in Corporation Dock after being pronounced unfit for service. The season started on 3rd May 1858 with the beautiful steamer Tourist sailing from Belfast to Bangor. The Tourist had previously been plying between Morecambe and Peel, in the Isle of Man [12]. But by July 1858 the Pilot was back again on the Belfast-Bangor route [13].

Battle of the Boats

The tranquility of Victorian Bangor was about to be shattered two years later. In 1848 Seay’s Inn, formerly known for many years as Stevenson’s Inn, Quay Street was taken over by Henry McFall who renamed it the Royal Hotel. Mr McFall was also the Harbour Master, agent for the Imperial Fire Insurance Company of London, poor law guardian and secretary to the Directors of Bangor Gas Company. Bangor Gas Company had held their first meeting in 1854 in the Royal Hotel [14].

In 1860 Mr McFall decided to expand his business interests by partnering with William Brown. William Brown was one of three brothers who owned J. & R. Brown & Co. woollen drapers and grocers, Front Street (later Main Street) and sewed muslin manufacturers, Castle Street, Bangor. On 3rd April 1860 William Brown and Henry McFall placed an advert in the Belfast Mercury announcing that they had been put in possession of the Wharf at Bangor and honoured by RE Ward Esq. with the exclusive right of landing passengers there and that they had arranged to place their splendid and powerful steamer Petrel on this station early in the season.

The Petrel had been built expressly for the passenger trade. She had two first class cabins for the ladies as well as the principal saloon. She combined great speed and strength with perfect safety with her guaranteed rate of speed being 16 miles per hour. A toll box was erected at the wharf in Bangor. Passengers from the Petrel could pass through free but passengers from the Pilot had to pay 1d to land there. As the passengers of the Pilot resented having to pay to land at the wharf they were landed in boats at other points.

Bangor Wharf wasn’t the only problem for the owners of the Steamer Pilot. A letter, addressed to the Chairman of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, was read at the meeting of the Belfast Harbour Board on Tuesday, 1st May 1860 [15]. It had been written by Mr Robert Workman on behalf of the owners of the Pilot. On the previous Wednesday the Pilot took up her berth, the one the steamer had used for the previous six years.

The Pilot sailed on her first trip of the season on Monday morning the 30th April but on her return the berth was found to be occupied by the Petrel, who had been permitted to take it instead of the berth she had occupied since her arrival. The Chairman of the Belfast Harbour Board, Mr John Clarke, directed Captain White, the Harbour Master, to be called to account for his actions. After a lengthy discussion it was agreed to let the matter lie over for a week as it might all be settled by then.

The competition between the two steamers led to a reduction in fares but a bone of contention was the wooden wharf at Bangor. The owners of the Pilot asserted the right to use it as they had done in past years because they had contributed almost the entire expense of erecting it. While the charterers of the Petrel insisted they had the exclusive right to it by reason of an agreement with RE Ward Esq. The Belfast Morning News of 24th July 1860 recorded that the owners of the Pilot found it difficult to assert a right of way and Mr Ward was equally out of court as the wharf terminated in the deep sea, whereas he, as lord of the soil, had a right to claim only to low water mark. Things came to a head on Saturday evening of 22nd July 1860.

The Petrel, having arrived at the wharf a few minutes before the Pilot, the passengers of the former were allowed to pass free through the toll-box. But when the passengers from the Pilot disembarked they were debarred admittance unless they paid 1d at the toll-box. Some of the Pilot passengers tried to force their way through the toll-box but a large party was stationed there to prevent them doing so. Sticks and fists were used very freely and a desperate scene was the result. Mr Nicholson JP was called. The police were required to intervene with fixed bayonets and the Coast Guards were also pressed into service with their side-arms. For an hour or so a very exciting and turbulent proceeding took place. Five persons from Belfast were arrested and lodged in Bangor Bridewell. The Belfast Morning News ended their article with the following:

In the name of the Belfast people who desire to visit Bangor and who have contributed, in some degree, to make Bangor what it is, we may well question the narrow policy which has frightened visitors from going to the town, and has sent them to other watering-places, where there is no miserable contention about penny tolls and a rickety wharf, but where landlords and other interested consult their own advantage best by offering the most attractive inducements to tourists, traveller or excursionist.

It was reported in the Belfast Morning News of 10th August 1860 that the Battle of the Boats at Bangor had ended and the wooden wharf was now open to the Belfast people, whether they sailed by the Pilot or Petrel. An order had been issued on 8th August that the wharf would be free to both vessels on the condition that the owners contributed whatever was necessary to keep the wharf in repair. The concession, while welcome, had come late in the season. Lodgings in the town were fast running down in price and ‘Furnished Apartments to Let’ signs had become very conspicuous in most of the windows in the town.

Now that the owners of the Pilot had lost the monopoly of landing at the wharf at Bangor, which they had held for six years, H. Andrews & Alexander, 1 to 4 Victoria Chambers, Belfast introduced Saturday evening cruises to Bangor and Donaghadee on their steamer, Wonder in 1860. The steamer left the quay at the foot of High Street, Belfast at 4pm and returning left Donaghadee at 7.15pm and Bangor at 8.15pm. Due to the competition from the other two companies H. Andrews & Alexander were also advertising reduction of fares [16].

The iron steamer Pilot continued to ply between Belfast and Bangor during the season in 1861 and part of 1862. On 20th August 1862 the steamship, Pilot, was put up for sale by auction. The highest offer was not considered a sufficient price for the vessel and she was bought in by her owner, Mr Keenan. The Pilot was broken up later in 1862 [17].

By 1863 H Andrews & Alexander were running two sailings from Belfast to Bangor every Saturday and Monday during the season. The steamer Wonder left Belfast at 11am and 4pm and returned from Bangor at 2pm and 6.30pm [18]. In 1864 the Wonder was sailing twice every day, except Sunday from Belfast to Bangor, starting from 23rd April [19]. It would appear that from 1865 John Brown & Co. was the only company running steamers from Belfast to Bangor.

Messrs J&R Brown, Bangor introduced the splendid powerful steamer Hero in 1861 and the fine steamer Heroine in 1862. Both steamers were built by Thomas Wingate & Co., Glasgow, the Hero in 1858 and the Heroine in 1862 20. However, by the summer of 1863 the Heroine was sold to a Glasgow firm [21]. She then, along with dozens of other Glasgow built paddles steamers, ran the naval blockade to bring weapons and supplies to the states in the Confederate South, which were fighting for independence in opposition to President Abraham Lincoln’s abolition of slavery.

The Petrel was again used for the remainder of the season, alongside the Hero, on the Belfast-Bangor run. In 1864 the new steamer Erin was brought into service on the route but this time the owner was John Brown & Co., Bangor. The Erin had been built by Kirkpatrick, McIntyre & Co., Glasgow. J&R Brown had put up for sale their premises, two excellent houses in Main Street, Bangor and nine houses in Castle Street adjoining, held for an unexpired term of 50 years at £16 per annum, in an auction which was held on 2nd December 1863 [22].

The Drowning of Captain William Brown

William Brown of John Brown & Co., Bangor also co-owned the paddle steamer, Arran Castle, along with Alexander Watson of Glasgow. The Arran Castle had been built by Messrs Kirkpatrick & McIntyre, Glasgow in the autumn of 1864. She had been built on the specification of a Confederate Block Runner but was sold before completion for the Glasgow - Rothesay service [23]. In March 1866 her owners decided to send her to the Thames to be placed as a passenger steamer between London and Gravesend. On Wednesday, 21st March 1866, the steamer left the Clyde heading to London. She was captained by William Brown. Also on board were Alexander Watson, his 12 year old son, also called Alexander, and the crew. The last sighting of the steamer was the following day off the Wicklow coast.

A very violent storm had raged on Thursday night into Friday, 23rd March 1866, and the slim-built river boat, intended to trade in comparatively smooth water, had been ill-fitted to face such a storm. Wreckage of the Arran Castle was found in the Irish Sea. All on board had perished. During the season of 1866 the steamer Erin, plying between Belfast and Bangor, had a box in the cabin for subscriptions for the widows and children of the 5 sailors of Belfast and the late Captain Brown. Among those who perished was Captain Brown’s nephew, Mr James Crawford. Captain Brown left a wife and children who resided in Bangor, his brother John who lived in Bangor and his brother Robert who lived in London.

It had been intended to rename the doomed Arran Castle steamer the Palmerston on her arrival in London, presumably in honour of the statesman Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, twice Prime Minster of the United Kingdom, who had died on 18th October 1865. William Brown’s brother, Robert Brown, had a replacement steamer built by Thomas Wingate & Co., Glasgow for the London - Gravesend service. The new steamer, launched on 2nd May 1866, was also called the Palmerston [24].

In June 1869 John Brown & Co. purchased the steamer Devenish from the Lough Erne Steamboat Company which had gone into liquidation [25]. The steamer had previously plied between Enniskillen and Belleek as a passenger cargo vessel [26]. She was renamed the Lady of the Lake. She initially plied between Belfast and Holywood but on Good Friday the 15th April 1870 it was announced in the Belfast Morning News that as well as the the steamer, Erin, the Lady of the Lake, under the command of Captain R. McGreevy, would be sailing between Belfast and Bangor on Easter Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

On Saturday afternoon of 3rd September 1870 the Erin left Bangor Wharf. There was a fiddler on board and some passengers got up and danced. Among the passengers there was a young man along with his wife and infant child. The young man informed his wife that he intended to join in the dancing and she told him if he did such a thing she would drown herself. Undeterred her husband got a partner and commenced dancing. His wife then laid down her child on one of the seats and threw herself overboard in front of one of the paddles. The steamer came to a halt, a lifeboat was lowered and fortunately the woman was rescued [27].

On 28th June 1873 John Brown & Co. announced in the Belfast Telegraph that on or about 1st July the Magnificent Express Saloon Steamer Palmerston would be placed on the Bangor Station as well as the Erin and Lady of the Lake. However, on Wednesday, 24th September 1873, the Lady of the Lake left Cork Harbour, under the command of Captain Ligget, for the West Coast of Africa. [28]

By 1870 Mr Henry McFall was no longer the proprietor of the Royal Hotel. John Brown, of Bangor, ship owner, died on 30th April 1874. He was aged 64 and had been paralysed for the previous two years. John Brown & Co. continued running paddle steamers between Belfast and Bangor after John Brown’s death, no doubt managed by his sons.

Around 2am on Monday, 7th June 1875, a curious accident occurred to the steamer Erin while she was moored at Donegall Quay, Belfast.

There was a strong current in the river and a fresh breeze. The sponson of the vessel caught upon the wood-work of the Quay and with the fall of the tide the vessel heeled over. The ports were unfortunately open, the vessel filled with water and rapidly sank. The Belfast Newsletter the following day stated that the loss sustained would be more than £1,000. Divers and carpenters were engaged working at the steamer Erin all day Monday. On Tuesday two steam pumps arrived from Liverpool. Large crowds gathered on the quay to watch the operations. The Belfast Telegraph of Saturday, 12th June, reported that shortly after 1pm on that day the vessel was successfully floated and that at high tide that evening it was intended to tow the Erin down to the shipping yard of Messrs Harland & Wolff. By the following year the paddle steamer Erin and Palmerston were managed by Moore Brothers, Donegall Quay, Belfast. The new owners renamed the Palmerston the Bangor Castle.


  1. The Clyde Passenger Steamer: Its Rise and Progress during the 19th Century by Captain James Williamson, published 1904, James MacLehose & Sons, Glasgow.
  2. Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 23rd April 1825.
  3. Victorian Bangor: An Essay in Local History, by Members of Bangor History Study Group, Bangor Branch, Workers’ Educational Association & The Department of Extra-Mural Studies QUB, published 1972.
  4. www.clydeships.co.uk
  5. www.clydeships.co.uk
  6. Northern Whig, 3rd June 1852.
  7. Belfast Newsletter, 22nd September 1852.
  8. www.clydeships.co.uk
  9. Northern Whig, 31st May 1853.
  10. Banner of Ulster, 12th August 1853.
  11. Belfast Mercury, 8th July 1856.
  12. Belfast Morning News, 4th May 1858.
  13. Belfast Morning News, 10th July 1858.
  14. Victorian Bangor: An Essay in Local History, published 1972.
  15. Belfast Newsletter, 2nd May 1860.
  16. Belfast Morning News, 22nd June 1860.
  17. www.clydeships.co.uk
  18. www.clydeships.co.uk
  19. Northern Whig, 21st April 1864.
  20. www.clydeships.co.uk
  21. Belfast Morning News, 13th August 1863.
  22. Northern Whig, 14th November 1863.
  23. www.clydeships.co.uk
  24. www.clydeships.co.uk
  25. Northern Whig, 26th September 1868.
  26. www.clydeships.co.uk
  27. Belfast Morning News, 5th September 1870.
  28. Belfast Telegraph, 26th September 1873.