As far back as my Ship Shape post and more recently my Ship to Shore post I had promised to investigate the possible reasons as to why the former Barony St. John church in Ardrossan had a ship as a weathervane and why there is so much ship graffiti on the pews of the church;

You see, here’s boatmy problem – some distant history lesson has stuck in my memory and that’s that sea-going steamboats have been around since about 1813 and that the first iron steamship to go to sea was built way back in 1821 – so why would there be so many sailing ships carved into the pews of the Barony St. John which was built in 1844 and why would the weathervane (which didn’t go up until 1885) be of a sailing ship? Surely this was a bygone era by this time?

It just didn’t make sense to me.

DSC01705  DSC01707  thomas scott crop2

What I had failed to take into account was the clipper ships and what, as a newcomer to the town, I didn’t know about at all was Ardrossan’s shipbuilding history.
From 1839, large American clipper ships started to be built beginning with Akbar (illustrated in this tea advert) which could akbar clippercarry 650 tons of cargo. These larger vessels were built predominantly for use in the China tea trade and were known as “tea clippers”.
Smaller clipper ships were also built predominantly for the China opium trade (yes, opium was legal back then) and were known as “opium clippers” such as the 1842 built Ariel which could carry a cargo of around 100 tons.
Clipper ships were a lot faster than steam ships at this stage and so they were used for the transport of goods across the high seas right up until the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

After 1869, steam ships could take a shorter route to China and the time difference in voyages decreased between them and clipper ships and so the main tea / opium trade collapsed for the clippers – which was a shame as the famous Cutty Sark clipper ship wasn’t built in Dumbarton until 1869 (although she continued as a cargo ship until 1922).

cutty shipFrom the late 1860’s – early 1870’s the clipper trade increasingly focused on the carrying of cargo (mainly wool) and immigrants between Britain and Australia / New Zealand and the Cutty Sark (pictured) held the record time from Sydney to London (73 days) for ten years.

The Flying Cloud clipper ship set the world’s sailing record for the fastest passage between New York and San Francisco of 89 days 8 hours and she held this record for over 100 years (from 1854 to 1989). Unbelievable isn’t it?

Even into the 1880’s, sailing ships were still the main carriers of cargoes to and from Australia and New Zealand.


Ardrossan sailing ships

These are exerts from ships logs sourced by Helen Abbott and published in Memories of Ardrossan Facebook page –

New York, October 27, 1876:

Ada shipOn the 20th June 1876, the Ada Iredale (pictured) left Ardrossan, Scotland, for San Francisco with a coal cargo.
On the 13th October, in lat.15 S, long.108 W, fire was discovered in the lower hold, and within 36 hours the accumulated gases had caused the decks to explode.

The crew of 24 (Capt.Stewart, 1st, 2nd and 3rd officers, cook, carpenter, steward, five boys and 12 seamen) abandoned the vessel on the 15th October in three boats.

Initially a course was shaped for the Galapagos Islands, 1200 miles distant, but after the captain’s boat had capsized and the instruments had been lost, the plan was changed and the boats headed for the Marquesas, 2400 miles away.

On November 3rd, their other boat capsized and the carpenter was drowned.
On November 9th, the remaining survivors arrived at Dominique Island in the Marquesas. They had survived the final six days on a glass of water and one biscuit each per day.

The barque Ada Iredale drifted westward for eight months before being taken in tow by a French cruiser and taken to Papeete, Tahiti, with her cargo still burning. She was sold to American owners in 1878, the fire having stayed alight in her hull until May of that year.

She was renamed: “Annie Johnson” and resold to new owners who named her “Bretagne”.

In 1929, when on passage from Vancouver to the Fiji Islands the unlucky vessel had filled with water and taken a heavy list. She was abandoned off the coast of Oregon.
Her seventeen crew, together with the captain’s wife and daughter, were picked up on the same day from a lifeboat by the American steamship Whitney Olson.
The water-logged vessel was left adrift in the sea lanes and a Coast Guard cutter was sent to sink her by gunfire if she was still afloat.


Date: January 1871

Morning shipOn Sunday morning last, the brig Morning Star (pictured), of and from Dublin, in ballast for this port, was driven ashore on the Horse Island, in the gale which was then blowing from the South, South West.
She was observed as if making for the harbour, but when near the Horse Island, which is about a mile to the North West of the harbour of Ardrossan, her course was altered, and she made to go up the channel.
Her sails, however, gave way, and the island being close under her lea, she was driven ashore, her main mast going over board about five minutes after.
The master (Captain Delargy), and two of the crew swam ashore, and the other three got on to a rock close to which the vessel had struck.
The disaster being witnessed from the shore, no time was lost in getting out the Lifeboat. It was taken out by one of the harbour tugs to windward of the island, and was pulled round to the lea shore, where the men landed and crossed to the assistance of the crew of the stranded brig. Mr Brodie (pilot) and the crew of the pilot boat showed great courage and deliberation.
Pulling to the lea shore of the island they crossed, taking with them a line, one end of which was thrown to the men who were still holding on to the rock. A life buoy was then attached to it, and the men were, one at a time, dragged through the surf. The whole of the crew were brought across in the Lifeboat. The sea was running high, the spray breaking over the mast head. The vessel has become a total wreck.


I also failed to realise that Ardrossan was a ship building town and that the Ardrossan Shipyard was originally designed for the construction of wooden sailing ships.

Matthew Henderson began building small ships of 100 tons and under in 1825 and continued in business until his retiral in 1844 however shipbuilding on a large scale in Ardrossan took place once the railways were built and connected to the harbour in 1842.

John Barr, Ardrossan’s first Provost, and James Shearer started their shipbuilding business on land leased from the Ardrossan Harbour Company. Later the business changed hands and was continued under the title of the Ardrossan Shipbuilding Company.

This company and its leases were taken over during the 1890’s by the Ardrossan Dry Dock and Shipping Co. Ltd.
Although only small, single masted cargo ships were the order of the day,  there were some exceptions such as the Kirelaw, a three-masted, barque-rigged, carvel-built boat of 319.01 gross tonnage built in 1848.
Ardrossan on several occasions launched what was at the time the largest wooden vessel built in Scotland. One of these contest cipperwas the clipper ship, The Contest, shown illustrated for The Illustrated London News (famous for publishing Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories) on 1 October 1853 under the headline Launch of “The Contest” Clipper-Ship, at Androssan), registered at 1,160 tons, and launched on 16 September 1853.
The first steel ship built in Ardrossan wasn’t launched until 31 August 1888 (3 years after the weathervane went up) and most ships built after that date in Ardrossan were steel ships but wooden clipper ships would still come to Ardrossan for repair work well into the new century.


So taking all this into account – the clipper history, the Ardrossan shipbuilding history, the headline-grabbing ship flounderings and record breaking – it’s obvious why the weathervane would be of a sailing ship even as late as 1885 and why small boys may have carved images of clipper ships into the church pews…..the harbour and sea right outside the church doors would have been full of them!!

I really enjoyed investigating this feature and I learned a lot about the Ardrossan as well as the history of sailing ships – I hope you enjoyed reading about it.

Until next time.

Alan – The Ardross-man