Henry Bell

Henry Bell 1767-1830, Innovator and Businessman

Henry Bell first came to Helensburgh in 1806 and was to spend the rest of his life here. He was a pioneer of place marketing and “the first person to place a practical steamship on British waters”. A “little Clyde experiment” that was “to pioneer the way to an astonishing steamship industry.” (James Hedderwick, Backward Glances, 1891).

Bell’s relocation from Glasgow to Helensburgh was prompted by the potential opportunity to take advantage of its location and develop it as a resort for sea bathing. This had become increasingly popular in the late 1700s (a trend that was the subject of a popular TV series called Sanditon in 2019.) To do so he built the Bath Inn (to be run by his wife for nearly 50 years) and settled in Helensburgh serving as the first Provost of the new Burgh from 1807-1810.

Statue of Henry Bell. © Ann Stewart
Statue of Henry Bell. Credit: Ann Stewart
Henry Bell Monument. © Ann Stewart
Henry Bell Monument. Credit Ann Stewart

By now it must have become obvious that the success of his business and the growth of the town were limited by its links with Glasgow – its major market. Road transport was poor and travel by water by boat was unreliable. To overcome this, in 1810, Bell commissioned the construction of the Comet, a steam powered paddle steamer – the first of its kind.

Reliable steam navigation on the Clyde was a catalyst for many wealthy Glasgow merchants to build impressive homes on its shores at Gourock, Dunoon, Rothesay, Rosneath and, of course Helensburgh. Here, whole families would spend the summer months creating a demand for trades men and retailers to service their needs.

With the construction of a railway in 1858, creating a fast, reliable and comfortable link with Glasgow, Helensburgh’s desirability as a ‘dormitory’ suburb took off and with it a concomitant growth in the services needed to sustain its resident population as well as attracting day-trippers from the metropolis.

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