puffers & vics



William Robertson Shipowners Ltd.

This article is reproduced here by courtesy of its author, Angus MacKinnon.

William Robertson was born in Paisley, Renfrewshire, in 1832. Whilst still in infancy, he was taken to live in nearby Renfrew where he grew up and went to school. He was educated at the Old Burgh School and later at the Blythswood Testimonial School, in Renfrew.

William Robertson began his working life in 1847 at the age of 15 years, working for the Firm Henderson Brothers, London Works, a branch of the Firm that built the London Crystal Palace. He later started in business on his own account at Bowling, Dumbartonshire.

Forming his own Company in 1851, just four years after he started working, his interest was coal and he quickly realised that to be really successful it was not enough just to be a coal merchant but also to have the means of transporting it to customers. Thus it was, with the purchase in 1852 of the scow ‘Ellen’, he started hauling coal from Kirkintilloch and Renfrew to Dumbarton and Helensburgh. From this moderate start, William Robertson expanded his interests to sailing vessels and then to ‘puffers’. In 1854 and 1855, with the acquisition of the ‘GEM’ and the ‘RUBY’, he increased his sphere of operations to Dunoon and continued to ‘grow’ his business.

Initially operating frmm premises in Renfrew,  he moved to Glasgow in 1861 to pursue his business as a shipbroker with offices at 75 Jamaica Street and in 1862 the first Robertson ship to trade outside of the Clyde was the sailing vessel ‘TOPAZ’, of which there are records showing her outward-bound for Oban via the Crinan Canal.

The first steam-engined ship was the JASPER, built by Swans of Kelvin Dock at Maryhill on the Forth and Clyde Canal in 1865. This was a ‘puffer’ of dimensions suitable for working the Clyde and Forth Canal, and she was followed by others that were later lengthened. It was also his good friend, Tom Seath, that delivered William Robertson with his first iron-built sea-going steamer. This was the AGATE of 1878, built at a cost of £5,100 with a 35 RHP steam engine by W. King & Company of Glasgow.

By the 1880’s the fleet had grown to fifteen coasters, primarily engaged in the coal trade (to Ireland) or in the limestone freight business to the Baltic, bringing timber back. Limestone became a major part of Robertson’s business as the insatiable demand of the increasing number of blast furnaces on the Clyde developed. Robertson took over the management of the vessels belonging to the Carnlough Lime Company. Many years later the Company bought the quarries of Kneeshaw, Lupton in North Wales, having already been managing that Company’s own ships for them before this.

By the end of the century, the Robertson fleet, most of which were built on the Clyde, numbered over forty ships.

William Robertson took an interest in many other areas outside his own immediate business, as was not uncommon in these times. He was a Member of the Clyde Navigation Trust, a Director of Merchants’ House in Glasgow, a Director of the Glasgow Western Infirmary, Member of the Chamber of Commerce, a Deacon of the Hammermen Incorporation, a Member of several other Guilds, a Member of the Anderson Weavers’ Society and a Justice of the Peace.

William Robertson never forgot his humble beginnings and retained an affection for the Burgh that raised him - Renfrew. As a memoriam to his great friend, Dr. Mclaren, Headmaster of the Burgh School, he founded a Gold medal for annual competition. He also placed a stained glass window in one of the Renfrew Churches, as a memoriam to two of its Ministers and, in August of 1909 he donated around 30 acres of land to be used by the Townsmen as a Public Park for the people of Renfrew – which was named the Robertson park as remains to this day.

The great man retired to Bulwood, his home in Dunoon, passing the substantial shipping business he had founded into the care and management of his sons. He lived there until his death in 1919 at the age of 87 years, and the business he had started 67 years earlier finally passed over to his sons, who continued to ‘grow’ the business further, until just before the Great War when the number of ships reached 49. The brothers were astute businessmen as evidenced by their purchasing of second-hand vessels at a fraction of their real value during the ‘slump’ and then putting them to maximum use when trade picked up again, with erstwhile competition no longer shipowners.

Wm Robertson operated as the Gem Line from the early 1950s until 1970s when the business was absorbed by Stephenson Clarke Shipping Ltd.