Port Glasgow stands on the south bank of the River Clyde some 18 miles north-west of the centre of Glasgow. It is the second largest of the three towns in Inverclyde, the largest being Greenock, which shares its riverside setting and can be found some three miles further north-west. The town is well served by the A8 dual carriageway road, which runs along the river valley, and by rail services which do likewise.
There was probably a fishing village on the south bank of the River Clyde here when, in about 1480, George Maxwell, who had inherited the Barony of Finlaystone two years earlier, began to build his "New Werke of Finlastoun" beside the river. The name seems to have migrated from "New Werke" to "Newark" quite swiftly, and Newark Castle still stands, less than half a mile from the centre of Port Glasgow.
It took two more centuries for the next step to be made in the story of the development of Port Glasgow. By the late 1600s Glasgow authorities had long been wrestling with the problem of creating a deep water channel along the River Clyde as far as Glasgow itself. The harbour facilities at Greenock were seen as a partial solution, either to unload ships or to transfer cargos to small craft which could navigate the river, but disputes arose over charges made for use of the harbour and warehousing. In 1668 the Glasgow authorities purchased 18 acres of land around Newark Castle from the then laird, Sir George Maxwell. This was developed as a port to help service Glasgow. The new development was initially named "Newport Glasgow". The remainder of the land owned by the Maxwells in the area was sold in 1694, together with Newark Castle itself. (Continues below image...)
"Newport Glasgow" grew rapidly (and became "Port Glasgow") during the 1700s through a series of major harbour developments. These included the construction of the West Harbour, the East Harbour, and the Wet Dock. And in 1762 Scotland's first dry dock, designed by James Watt, opened in Port Glasgow. This was all very well, but in the meantime work was continuing to make the River Clyde navigable by larger ships, mainly by building some 200 jetties out into the Clyde from both banks to focus the flow of the river into a narrower central stream, which as a result was scoured more deeply by the river water. By 1870 vessels with a draught of 17ft could reach Glasgow. The reason for the creation of Port Glasgow had disappeared.
Port Glasgow responded by diversifying into shipbuilding, and on a huge scale. The first shipbuilders were established in the town in 1780 and 1783, and many more followed. It is said that in the late 1800s shipyards covered every inch of the waterfront between Port Glasgow and Greenock, three miles to the north-west, and the riverbank within Port Glasgow and around Newark Castle. Meanwhile, large timber holding ponds were developed along three miles of riverbank to the east of the town to store imported timber intended for use in the town's shipyards.
Shipbuilding went into decline in the decades following the Second World War and one by one the shipyards closed. Today only one remains. Ferguson Shipbuilders, or Ferguson Marine Engineering Ltd, occupies a site immediately to the west of Newark Castle. Until the 1980s another shipyard occupied land to the south and east of the castle, obscuring it entirely from inland view.
When you visit Port Glasgow, and then look into its history, it can be very difficult to work out how the place you are reading about corresponds with the place you have seen. Today's Port Glasgow comprises a fairly compact and largely red stone-built town centre, backed by the main railway and then steeply rising ground. Much of the residential and (non river-related) commercial development that took place in the last century was squeezed by the topography in a south-easterly direction from the centre.
If the railway line can be said to delineate the rear or southern edge of the town centre, then the A8 dual carriageway can be said to delineate its front or northern edge as it sweeps between the town and the parkland which occupies much of the river frontage. This is all very confusing, because it raises a very obvious question: what became of the harbours and shipyards?
The West Harbour was filled in and redeveloped as "Coronation Park" in 1937, to mark the coronation of King George VI. In the 1960s the East Harbour and Wet Dock were filled in to provide land for the town to be bypassed on its northern side by the A8, and to expand the park. This cut the Dry Dock off from the river, and it in turn closed in 1966. It was later redeveloped into a car park for a health centre.
If you know where to look, you can still see traces of Port Glasgow's nautical past. Some are very obvious. We've already noted that Ferguson Shipbuilders continues in operation. Meanwhile, a large brick edifice standing near the A8 is the Gourock Ropeworks Building, once part of large and important industry serving the shipyards. This has been converted into apartments. Between the town centre and a nearby retail park you can find an even more obvious reminder of Port Glasgow's shipbuilding past in the shape of a replica of the PS Comet. This revolutionary steam-powered paddle steamer was built in the town for Henry Bell in 1812, and went on operate Europe's first commercially viable passenger steamboat service, between Glasgow and Greenock.