The Tall Ship in Glasgow

John Hannavy tells the story of the tail ship Glen lee , a three-masted steel-hulled barque, launched fully rigged in December 1896 and now a museum ship at the Riverside Museum on Point house Quay, Glasgow.

It must have taken quite a leap of faith, and a good deal of imagination, on the part of the Clyde Maritime Trust back in the early 1990s to believe that the abandoned and vandalised hull of Glen lee, which then lay in an all-but-forgotten dock in Spain, could become the centrepiece of a new maritime museum. But today, lovingly restored to her former glory, the ship sits proudly at the quayside next to Zaha Hadid’s stunning new Riverside Museum. The steel-hulled barque SV Glen lee is one of only five Clyde-built sailing ships to survive from the hundreds constructed along the river, and the only one based in British waters.

Indeed, until 1990 it was thought that she, too, had been lost — it was only just over 20 years ago that the Spanish navy’s abandoned training ship Galatea was recognized as being Glen lee, built at Anderson Rodger’s Bay Shipyard in Port Glasgow in 1896, one of 120 windjammers built by the yard. Galatea was purchased for £40,000 and towed back to Glasgow, where she became Glen lee again — the name she had carried for only the first three years of her working life. She arrived back 96 years after yard No.324 had first slipped into the Clyde, and within seven years she was partially restored and open to the public. Between 1896 and 1999, however, she had a varied and often troubled life.

Maiden voyage

Glen lee was built for Archibald Sterling & Co, trading as the Glen Shipping Company, and her maiden voyage took her round Cape Horn and up the west coast of America. The last survivor of the ten ‘Glens’ built for Sterling, she has outlived her sister ships, the last of which, Glenelvan, was wrecked off Madeira as long ago as 1926, by more than 85 years.

After only 18 months sailing under the Glen flag, Glen lee was sold to Robert Ferguson & Co of Dundee, renamed Islamount, and embarked on the second phase of her life, trading as far afield as Australia, and making her first complete world circumnavigation between August 1901 and October 1902.

Glen lee could carry up to 2,600 tons of cargo, and this was usually made up of mixed goods. She was an efficient ship, ideally designed for carrying bulk cargoes over long distances. With over 2,300m2 of sail, she was relatively fast, and unlike the steamers with which she shared many of her routes, her large capacity below decks was not encumbered by either engines or fuel.

During her life she carried everything from wheat and oil, to coal and guano — the latter two cargoes being both dangerous and unpleasant to work with. Records tell of the crews suffering nose bleeds from the strong ammonia vapours which permeated the ship from the sacks of guano below decks.

The 25-man crew was a tight and mutually-dependent community. In addition to those who sailed the vessel, Glen lee’s complement included sailmakers, a carpenter, cooks and sometimes a medic. Most lived in cramped quarters in the deckhouse, with the captain and senior officers having more salubrious quarters in cabins at the stern. On long voyages in heavy seas, with the 1,600grt vessel heavily laden with cargo, life on board the cannot have been comfortable.

Islamount’s life as a British-registered cargo ship came to an end when, in 1920, she was sold to the Societa Navigazione Stella di Italiana, and refitted in Trieste. Twin diesel engines were fitted, and she was re-registered as Clara Stella before embarking on a short and largely obscure period under Italian ownership, trading around the Mediterranean. By the end of 1922, sold again -this time to the Royal Spanish Navy — she had been renamed a fourth time, and sailed for Cartagena as Galatea.

From 1922 until she completed her last voyage, Galatea, described as the ‘pride of the Spanish navy’, was the country’s most important training ship, and more than 4,000 officers and men sailed on her. As a training ship, her crew sometimes numbered more than 300 rather than the 25 she carried as a cargo vessel. Retired from sea-going training in 1959, she spent a further 20 years as a static training school before being decommissioned in 1979. And there the story should probably have ended, with Galatea, like many other redundant ships, making a last trip to the breakers.

Galatea however, was in a very sound shape — she had been extensively re-plated and re-engined in 1950 — and, ten years after she was decommissioned, plans were drawn up for her to become one of the highlights of Seville’s Expo 92. The money, however, never materialised, and Galatea was towed to a little-used quay to be used as a store. There, she was vandalised and sunk, before being refloated and finally virtually abandoned.

Abandoned, that is, until her true heritage and national importance as one of the last surviving Clyde-built sailing ships was recognised in 1990. What has happened to her in the last 20 years is little short of miraculous, and she is now in the Clyde not just as a preserved and restored ship, but as a museum paying tribute to her many roles and her 115 years at sea.

A personal view

I first visited Glen lee a few years ago in her first berth on York hill Quay, where restoration work was still going on, and sat looking at her from a cobbled quayside adjacent to the Victorian pump house which had served the nearby Queen’s Dock. The setting, with barrels and other paraphernalia dressing the quayside, was very photogenic, and reminiscent of how she must have looked as a working vessel.

In 2011, however, she was towed the few hundred yards to Point house Quay — itself once the home of A. & J. Inglis, one of Glasgow’s most important shipyards — to sit adjacent to the new Riverside Museum. While lacking the romance of her earlier location, the move has made her more accessible, and a core attraction to thousands of people who have visited the new museum to discover her unique and unusual history. And Glen lee is fortunate for, unlike so many other historic vessels, she seems to have her future assured.

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