Saturday, 6 August 2011


Today we celebrate the foundation of the James Watt Dock 130 years ago on 6 August 1881 with a look at how the dock, the sheds and the sugar industry all played a part in the history, heritage and development of our town.

At around the same time as the shipbuilding industry was developing along the firth of the Clyde, another commercial development was beginning which would have an equally significant impact; sugar refining.  Trade began between Greenock and the sugar exporting colonies of the West Indies around the early 1730's, but very little of what was imported stayed within the area. Glasgow had been refining sugar since the 1660's, and so much of what was brought ashore at Greenock and Port Glasgow was shipped up river by cart. It is possible that there were a number of small refining industries operating in the area at this time. However, the first comercial refinery was not established in Greenock until 1765, at the foor of Sugar House Lane, close to where the Oak mall now stands. It was built by Mr Mark Kuhl, and employed just a handful of men. But other refineries quickly followed by the 1820's there were at least 8 operating in the area. By the 1870s, there were 14 or 15 large refineries in operation, producing a quarter of a million tons annually and employing thousands. At this time, there was no town in the Empire, outside of London, carrying out the trade so extensively and Greenock rightfully earned the title of Sugaropolis, the sugar capital of Scotland.

Such were the opportunities for work that many immigrants arrived in Greenock in search of employment. The area’s Irish population began to grow but so too did a small German community. The Germans had been considered as masters of the sugar trade for some time and many came to Britain from rural North Germany in search of work. Immigrants from Hanover tended to sail into Hull or London before making their way to the centres of the refining industry such as Liverpool and Greenock, often working in the sugar trade until finding something less arduous. Census data shows that in 1881 there were fewer than two dozen Germans in the Inverclyde area yet, by 1891, this figure had grown to nearer 1,000. While the hard and often dangerous work was carried out by native Scots, and immigrant Irish and Germans, the refineries tended to be owned by wealthy local merchants.

One of the major players in the industry was Abram Lyle II. Having bought into the Glebe Sugar Company as part of a partnership of local merchants in 1865, Lyle was to go on to make his fame and fortune from sugar. As provost of Greenock, Lyle presided over the development of several important schemes, including the James Watt Dock, the municipal buildings, and the construction of the road to the Lyle Hill. Lyle, who also donated the fountain that bears his name and still stands in Cathcart Square today, can be considered as one of the most influential figures in the area’s development.

In 1921 some 30 years after Lyle’s death, the Tate and Lyle sugar companies merged in London to become the largest sugar company in the world. Yet Lyle was not the only son of Greenock to make an impact on the sugar industry in other locations. Indeed, many members of Greenock families, having helped establish the industry in their native town, sought fortune in London, Liverpool and beyond. The abolition of duties on sugar in 1874 had a great impact on the Greenock refineries seeing an increase in output to meet the growing national consumption. It was at this time that plans were drawn up for a facility that would ensure the town’s prolonged success in the industry.

During the latter half of the 19th century it was becoming increasingly apparent that Greenock’s harbour accommodation was too small. The growth of overseas trade and the sugar industry forced the Harbour Trust to make plans to expand the area’s harbour facilities. In 1850, the Victoria Harbour was completed and within 20 years the Albert Harbour was also in operation. Yet even as these docks were being constructed, plans were being made for a grand scheme that would make Greenock the finest seaport in Britain. In 1868 a competition offering prizes of £300 and £100 was set up to find the best proposed scheme for the new development at Garvel Park. The winner was an amateur called Mr Fiddler of London. As he couldn’t guarantee he had the necessary expertise to carry out his development, the second prize-winner, renowned architect and engineer, Walter R. Kinipple was commissioned  for the development. The first stage of the project, the Garvel Graving Dock, was started in 1870 and completed some four years later. In 1871, however, it had been decided to add a wet dock to the scheme, so the Harbour Trust set about raising the necessary funds and public support for the new development. Eventually, on 1 August, 1878, Provost Lyle ceremonially cut the first sod of what was by now called the James Watt Dock, suggesting “there had never in the history of Greenock been a more momentous time involving greater interests or a greater outlay of money.”

On 6 August 1881 a double celebration for the town of Greenock took place when Provost Campbell laid the foundation stones of both the municipal buildings and the James Watt Dock and finally on the 5 August 1886, almost 20 years after the project was first started, the dock was officially opened. The lavishness of the opening ceremony reflected the importance of the project to the people of Greenock. A train was laid on to bring a large party of guests from Glasgow, a fleet of boats sailed from the Albert Harbour with the Provost’s craft officially opening the dock by breaking a ribbon stretched across the sea entrance. Thereafter banquets, back-slapping and speech-making were the order of the day. It was truly an event of national significance with reporters and sketch artists coming from as far away as London and from illustrious publication’s such as The North British Daily Mail, The Illustrated London News, The Scotsman and The Glasgow Herald. Yet the event was best summarised by the Greenock Telegraph which stated: “ After having experienced many years of corporate and administrative travail, after having seen Glasgow go dangerously ahead in the matter of steamship trade, Greenock yesterday, for the first time in her history stood forth as one of the greatest and best equipped of British seaports.”

James Watt Dock and its warehouses made possible the expansion of Greenock’s trade connections and in particular allowed for the growth of the sugar industry as it entered its heyday in the early 1900s. Perhaps this venture more than any other gave Greenock its image as a ‘ships and sugar town’.

Over the course of the 20th century, the decline of Greenock’s sugar industry was marked, until finally in the late 1990s the last refinery closed and the ships no longer came. James Watt Dock is a legacy of the area’s past, a monument to industry. Today it represents the most complete 19th century wet dock in Scotland while the Titan cantilever crane dates from 1907 and is the oldest in existence. The Sugar Sheds themselves are the largest surviving brick and cast iron warehouse in Scotland.

The dock’s dilapidated state is symbolic of the decline of the local shipping and sugar industries, yet the scheme itself is hailed by architectural critics as a rare early example of a warehouse designed as part of an overall dock plan. Such is the historical and architectural value of the building that it has featured on the World Monument Funds list of the 100 most threatened monuments alongside The Valley of The Kings and The Great Wall of China. James Watt Dock: Inverclyde’s very own wonder of the world!

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