Of all the wrecks
in the Clyde, this one has the most exciting of histories, imagined, real
and never to be.
Let us go back to 1863 and sit in some warm hostelry somewhere in Glasgow
and listen in on the conversation of two worthies setting the world to
rights as they do today. With a couple of shillings they have managed to
view the world more or less as they would wish it and their thoughts turn
to troubled times over in America where the Federal Government is
desperately trying to blockade the Confederate ports.
"Aye," one remarks, regarding the bottom of his glass which is
surprisingly clear and accepts an offer of another with alacrity, "but
it's closer to home we should be lookin' on that score." The other nods.
Both of course know that the Clyde is supplying blockade runners as well
as vessels to catch them. All very profitable for the Clyde of course, but
is it right? Not that officially anyone is knowingly supplying them to the
Amercian agents on both sides, but all the same, we all know it's going
"And look at that wan that is said to have sunk aff Gourock," both nod at
The story goes that in the previous year a David Hutchison steamer - the
IONA - had been bought by Confederate agents under the pseudonym "The
Emperor of China" and was making her way to America when she was struck by
a steamer and sank in the dark.
"Handy that," said one to the other, "very handy indeed. Sunk in the dark"
"Aye, most appropriate," his friend agreed, "I hear tell that
investigations have proven the story is just a ruse"
Now sitting in a corner of the bar is a man from another part of town, a
Partick man and he can stand the talk no longer. With a swagger born of
his breed he steps up to the two older worthies and asks if he can treat
them. To halfs and not half truths. The two philosphers accept his offer
and he sits down with them
"You are there and you are talking of a ship I was on," he informed them
and they eagerly craned forward, "I work in Tod & McGregor's and I can
tell you the truth of it."
"We were taking the CHANTICLEER out on trials. A fine boat too and my job
is to check the various instruments on the bridge and see that they are
responding properly you understand? Well, everything had gone accordingly
and we set off back for the river after leaving the measured mile"
He paused to take a swig of his own whisky and to check the men were
listening and understanding, both were nodding along with him
"It was dark by that time and we were steaming back at eight knots. We had
just got to Fort Matilda yonder, when suddenly, BANG! " and he crashed his
fist into the table, "we smashed into the hull of this grey steamer that
appeared from nowhere. No lights gentleman, no lights and as grey as a
Clyde sky in winter."
His two eager listeners nodded at each other with great satisfaction. The
details so far painted a true picture indeed. This ship the storytellers
vessel had hit had been up to no good and no mistake.
"Well gentlemen, I need hardly tell you we got a fright but our master is
no slouch and straightaway he bellows orders to get the chaps on that boat
into ours. We had fair sliced the thing in two and even as all this is
going on I am looking at her and I know who she is, pitiful a sight as she
was. Her stern was slipping as these men jump from her onto the
"And a rum lot if I ever I saw rogues some of them were," he looked from
one to the other, "I see two honest Glasgow men in front of me now, but
the chaps as was on that boat were not gentlemen. Drunk some of them were
too. I was afraid they not make it as they staggered onto our ship. They
even had a stowaway aboard!"
"A stowaway?" one of his audience repeated incredulously
"Aye indeed. Show's what slackness there was on such a wee vessel. Anyway,
we get them all on board and they are not the best pleased with us at all,
shouting at us for having no lights. Us? It was them floating about the
channel with no regard for anyone else's safety nor their own. I tell you,
I am thinking to myself, 'What are this lot up to?' when another vessel
hails us and offers a line to the captain of the sinking vessel but he was
having none of it. None of it."
"He refused an offer to save his ship?" again incredulity in the voice of
the enquirer. Another round of drinks was ordered as the tale became
"He says to our master 'If you admit that you are responsible for this, I
will take a line' says he, 'but she can sink for all I care if you don't'.
Well our master knows fine he is not to blame. All our lights were as they
should be and we knew fine that this mystery ship would be in a bit of
bother explaining itself. So he gives orders that we are to push the
damned thing to shore if we can. Real seamanship." he paused for a while
in reverance and took a satisfied and satisfying measure of whisky, "but,
we could see it was a lost cause. Half of her was already gone and try as
he could, our master could make no good of the situation, and he tried
mark you, to best of his ability, but, she slipped down into the channel
and was gone."
The three remained silent for a while each absorbed in the intricacies of
"So what happened after that?" our man was asked.
"Well we made for port and got that lot of our ship. You don't run around
the Clyde with rogues like that for shipmates. Ach, they made all sorts of
noises about us being hauled up, but they seemed to me to be just doing
that, making noises as if they were really hurt. But, you know, from the
looks of some of their eyes, I could tell they were pleased and good to be
rid of their charge."
"So you are saying..."
"I am saying nothing gentleman except what I saw." said the man firmly "If
you want to take anything from it that is your business and none of mine.
All I can say is that if it were me facing a long perilous journey in a
coastal mail steamer - for that is who she was - it is myself would wish
the thing to sink before she left port."
All three agreed that it was fruitless to conjecture too much, but of
course, there could only be one reason why a ship would be making it's way
down the Clyde, without lights, painted to be invisible and in the
darkness of a cold autumn night. The storyteller threw back his final
whisky and bid the other two good night and with a swagger born of his
breed and evening's entertainment, he left them to ponder his tale.
"Well, he strikes me as an honest man, and it sounds like the IONA story
right enough." one of the friends remarked. "Aye, I have no doubts now as
to the truth of it. Them reports of her sinking being a ruse are just
blethers. Wait till I tell the folks we met a man who actually sank her!"
They laughed delightedly at the prospect of being able to relate such a
great tale and put to rest these doubts as to the sinking of the IONA when
another gentleman, a man who had been reading a book quietly in a corner
decided he too knew more than they knew and it was time they were fully
"Gentlemen, may I join you?" he asked as he pulled out a purse and
extracted a coin. The prospects for this evening were promising so long as
this gentleman was leading the rounds and he seemed more than prepared to
engage. "I heard the story your erstwhile friend told and, remarkable as
it was, I fear he may not be as honest as his appearance suggests."
"Now I am not a seafaring man," he excused himself, "nor do I know much
about the subject, my interest being mainly books and publishing, but
listen to good advice, there are many who are being led astray by this "
he pointed to the drinks on the table, "and this" and he pointed to his
Both stared at the drinks, the purse and then the face of this wealthy
man. "I dont quite get your meaning?" admitted one of our friends.
"I am saying that to muddy the waters a little, many a tale is told and
that tale is encouraged from 'certain parties' to ensure confusion."
This seemed too incredible even after so much 'good spirits'. The
wealthier man sighed. "Perhaps you can explain to me then why this vessel
that is supposed to have sunk in nearly two pieces has been puchased by a
"What?" spluttered one of the pair, "is that true?"
"I have it on good authourity. Sold, gentleman, to someone in this city
for a modest sum of money" he lingered on the last words of his sentence.
The least credulous of the pair thought for a moment, "Simple. It's
simple. She was sold for salvage"
The wealthy man sighed again, "Yes, but only if she really did sink would
that be the case. Let me put it to you gentleman that the exceedingly
interesting tale you heard this evening was encouraged and built upon.
Money is flowing around the river of this city that came from certain
former colonies. A lot of it. How much do you think they would need to
persuade a few to tell some good stories? And if so, you have to ask the
question, where is IONA now? She is not on, or in, the Clyde gentleman, I
And so the evening progressed until final orders. The Partick man was
already home, pleased he had managed to put right a story. The wealthy man
went home to his good wife and shook his head at the foolishness of
working class people, and our two dear friends supported each other to the
street where they lived, minds reeling from all the different tales that
abounded about the mysterious loss of the former Ardishaig mail steamer
IONA. And for years such stories would be told and the history of the IONA
would be as murky as the waters she does indeed lie in until of course the
truth became clearer as the Civil War ended and it was safer to be more
open about what really went on.
Elsewhere on the site I have posted about the use of Clyde steamers at the
time of the American Civil War. Agents from both sides were reputedly seen
eyeing up potential craft that could either break the blockades or catch
the blockade runners.
The vessel type the blockade runners wanted was fast and with a shallow
draught and the Clyde had the perfect answer - it's own paddle steamers.
Greyhounds of their day they were built in an atmosphere of intense and
often bitter competition, each owner wanted ever faster tonnage to beat
off the competition at the piers.
So this pedigree gave the Clyde steamer an unusual career choice and the
owners were only to pleased to part with their prize steeds for very
lucrative rewards from the Americans. But these dealings were shady
indeed, fictional companies, fictional voyages and much fiction flowed
from these dealings - as can be seen above.
One such steamer sold was indeed the 1855 IONA, who plied her honest trade
so well she got her own American following. David Hutchison & Company had
ordered her for their expanding services but by 1862 they may have felt
they wanted new tonnage anyway, as development of ships proceeded rapidly
in the sixties. She was however, just the job for the Confederates and
they duly purchased the vessel. The offer Hutchison got was too good to
refuse even if she was still a useful and good boat. Immediately an order
for a new IONA was placed, but more of that later...
What happend to her is indeed the story related by the Partick man in our
tale above. It is clear to me that the captain of the IONA was only to
glad to be rid of her and it was not in his interests to be embroiled in
an inquiry, much better if the CHANTICLEER master took responsibility.
That he did not do, the vessel was lost, all hands were saved. Did they
just slip into the darkness of history as IONA slipped into the darkness
of the Clyde? I am not sure and would love to know if an enquiry was held
and what it's results were. For all that the above tale contains elements
of the discussions and rumours that abounded, it is better if even today
we get hard facts.
Nonetheless, it is stories that make history interesting and the many
stories that buzzed around the Clyde must have made for much more
entertaining evenings in watering holes up and down the country!
She lies now quite well buried in the mud, and much of her form is almost
unrecognizable, however, divers report her engines are very much in shape.
A poignant reminder of the power that the Confederates so much wanted.
And does that end this article? Not quite.
Believe it or not the Confederates bought the second of our IONAs - the very
one Hutchison placed an order for. The following year, In 1863, they
snapped up this new mean machine as well!
Unfortunately, they shouldn't have bothered. On her way across, she too
foundered, this time off Lundy Island.
(With many thanks to John Newth for supplying corroborative information
and new angles on this most exciting of times on the Clyde)