Thomas Wilson (1782 – 1873)
Thomas Wilson had the sea in his blood. He was born (26 May 1782) in Dunbar to Robert, a mariner, and Janet McGill, whose family also followed the sea. While Thomas was still young, the family moved to the West Coast and Thomas trained as a shipwright in a yard at Bowling, on the Clyde.
Meanwhile, a little to east, the Monkland Canal, begun in 1770 under the supervision of James Watt, was slowly developing, extending its route and linking into the wider canal network. Demand for efficient canal transportation was increasing and the amount of goods, raw materials and passengers demanding transport was exploding. Everything came together in 1819.
A group of academics, considering the improvement of Scotland’s canals and their carrying capacity, tendered for a ‘fast carrying barge’ of iron construction. Thomas, with the brothers John and Thomas Smellie, won the contract. He began construction at Faskine, on the Monkland Canal near Coatbridge. Locals, of course, were convinced that an iron boat would never float – it stands to reason, doesn’t it – and they threw pennies into the water by the yard to demonstrate that they sank straight away! Thomas and the Smellies pressed on and delivered the world’s first plate iron riveted ship in May 1819. The Vulcan was 19.5m by 3.4m and was pulled by horses walking the towpath. She served at first to carry passengers (a water bus) along the Forth & Clyde Canal but was later converted to a coal barge. After 54 years service she was scrapped in 1873.
The technology that Wilson developed was the inspiration for the bulk of the ships built on the Clyde. The process became standard, and increased greatly in scale, but every stage had been thought out by Thomas: to arrange measured ‘puddled-iron plates for the shell and hand crafted angle irons for the frames’¹ as well as ensuring water-tight riveting throughout.
On the back of his achievement, Thomas became inspector of works on the Forth & Clyde Canal before relocating to Grangemouth where he supervised the construction of the docks. He died in his daughter’s home in Grangemouth at the advanced age of 92 in 1873.
Fittingly, the Clyde’s very last riveted iron hulled vessel was in fact a replica of the Vulcan, built in 1988. Today, restored by the Scottish Waterways Trust, she is a feature of the Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life.
¹ Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology, edited by Lance Day & Ian McNeil