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Helensburgh Pier, excluding public toilet building, West Clyde Street, Helensburgh.

A Category C Listed Building in Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute

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Latitude: 56.0021 / 56°0'7"N

Longitude: -4.7369 / 4°44'12"W

OS Eastings: 229433

OS Northings: 682175

OS Grid: NS294821

Mapcode National: GBR 0D.TXGN

Mapcode Global: WH2M4.6DLK

Entry Name: Helensburgh Pier, excluding public toilet building, West Clyde Street, Helensburgh.

Listing Date: 24 April 2019

Category: C

Source: Historic Scotland

Source ID: 407145

Historic Scotland Designation Reference: LB52502

Building Class: Cultural

Location: Helensburgh

County: Argyll and Bute

Town: Helensburgh

Electoral Ward: Helensburgh Central

Traditional County: Dunbartonshire



Helensburgh Pier mainly dates from 1859 when it was designed by William Spence, but it has earlier fabric dating from 1816 when a smaller pier was first constructed at this site. The timber extension was added to the south end in 1871. The pier is around 250 metres long. Half of the east side of the stone pier is attached to the later 20th century car park area.

The long straight stone section that extends from the shoreline is built in large coursed red sandstone blocks. It has rolled coped stones to the top edges and later tubular iron railings. There are large cast iron mooring posts equally spaced along the pier and the stone section has an overlaid asphalt type surface.

The rectangular end section of the pier is made of a timber platform with slightly curved corners built on large and closely spaced timber piles. There are no railings to this section and there are later metal steps down to landing points on both the east and south sides. The majority of the timber section is overlaid with a later non-slip surfacing. The northern section is fenced off because the flooring was lost following a fire and the timber post substructure is exposed (2019).

In accordance with Section 1 (4A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) (Scotland) Act 1997 the following is excluded from the listing: the public toilet building.

Statement of Interest

Statement of Special Interest:

Helensburgh Pier is a rare surviving example of a 19th century stone and timber ferry/steamer pier in the Clyde Estuary. It is also rare because it is largely intact and remains in use. These piers played a key role in the economic and social history of coastal communities in the west of Scotland in the 19th and 20th centuries which related directly to the development of Scotland's tourism industry. It has some interest in the wider maritime heritage of the West Coast.

The pier was first built 1816 and was among the earliest stone and timber piers on the Clyde. Its early history is strongly associated with Henry Bell, who invented the first sea-going paddlesteamer, and the current Helensburgh Pier is likely to contain fabric from this time. It retains its later 19th century character following the loss of the later alterations and associated buildings to the shoreline adjacent to it. It extends onto the shore esplanade from an axial street off the main square of the later-18th century town plan and is inter-visible with the obelisk commemorating Henry Bell.

In accordance with Section 1 (4A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) (Scotland) Act 1997 the following is excluded from the listing: the public toilet building.

Age and Rarity

Helensburgh Pier, in its current form, was built to serve the tourist steamers that sailed on the Clyde. Mainly dating to 1859, it was reconstructed from an earlier pier that was built on the site in 1816 and extended in 1871 for the increase in tourist traffic. The pier is a prominent feature of Helenburgh's esplanade on West Clyde Street and built directly in line with Colquhoun Square, which is the main square in the centre of the town.

In 1752 Sir James Colquhoun of Luss bought the rural land at Helensburgh and in 1776 Charles Ross of Greenlaw set out a feuing plan for a new town on a rectangular grid plan. Stocking and woollen weavers were encouraged to apply with the aim of developing a rural textile industry. By 1802 Helensburgh received its Burgh Charter from King George III.

Helensburgh did not develop as a textile town as planned due to poor road access and a shoreline that was inaccessible for shipping. By the early 19th century, however, the town's interest turned towards the emerging tourism of the Clyde Estuary. The engineer and businessman Henry Bell (1767-1830) Lord Provost of the town from 1807-1810, and played an important role in developing the tourist trade in Helensburgh during the 19th century. He built the town's saltwater baths and former Baths Hotel (later Queens Hotel) on East Clyde Street (LB34734, category C), which was run by his wife and on the Glasgow to Inveraray stagecoach route.

In 1812 Bell designed "The Comet" credited as the first sea-going steam-operated vessel in Europe (Morris 1844). A full size replica is on display at Port Glasgow where the original was built by John Wood and Company. The Comet ran the first commercial passenger paddle steamer route from Glasgow to Helensburgh. Bell's achievement was acknowledged during his lifetime - a government white paper of 1822 gives him whole credit for the first practicable steamship, while the Clyde Navigation Trust made him an annuity of £50 to recognise his contribution to shipping and trade.

The history of the pier itself begins in 1816, when Bell is recorded as building the first pier in Helensburgh in order to bring customers to his Baths Hotel. Prior to this, passengers were relayed to the shore from the Comet by means of a smaller boat (Morris 1844). While some sources suggest that the first pier was located to the (east/west?) of the current pier, at the foot of Hanover Street near his hotel (references), other sources confirm that the first, 1816 pier was on the site of the current Helensburgh Pier (Glasgow Gazette 1851, Glasgow Herald 1859, Helensburgh Heritage Trust 2002, Walker 2000). An early account describes this first 1816 pier as poor quality, made of rough stones, and already requiring an extension in 1822 (www.helensburgh-heritage.co.uk).

In the 1830s and 1850s the pier was in a poor condition and many travellers chose to disembark at the nearby Rhu pier (now within Rhu marina). As a result, in 1836 the town council decided to take over the quay with a view to constructing a more substantial pier. In 1846 an Act of Parliament declared the pier unsafe and requested a replacement (Paisley and Renfrewshire Advertiser 1855), while in 1851 the Glasgow Gazette published an article on the dangerous condition of the pier, blaming protracted legal disputes between the town council and the railway company for delaying its repair or construction.

The Glasgow, Dumbarton and Helensburgh railway line opened in 1857 and Helensburgh Central Station was built two streets away from the pier. In 1859 the Harbour Trustees finally passed improvements to the pier under the designs of architect William Spence. In January 1859 The Glasgow Herald published an advert for builders to tender to Spence's designs, describing the works as 'reconstruction, enlargement and repairs'. By March 1859 the Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser announced that Sir James Colquhoun would finance the project, and that builder Thomas Brownlie of Glasgow had been contracted for the works. In July 1859, the long awaited construction was underway (Stirling Observer 1859).

A long double-ended pier is first shown in its current location on the Hydrographic Office Map of 1850. The first edition Ordnance Survey map (surveyed 1860, published 1862) shows it rebuilt in a simpler form and the MacNeur and Bryden's Town Plan of Helensburgh Borough Boundary (dated 1875) also shows the pier in the same position.

Helensburgh Heritage: The Story of Helenburgh's Piers records the improved pier increased trade to the town and that in 1866 there were up to three steamers berthed at any one time. In 1869 the pier was also used by the commercial fishing trade when there was a herring boom. A wooden end was added to the end of the pier in 1871 to provide more berths for the increased traffic.

In 1877 the rail company planned to extend the train line straight to the pier head, however, the town council objected to the plans. Instead in 1882 a large double timber pier was built to provide direct pier access to the neighbouring suburban Craigendoran Station. As a result Helensburgh Pier lost the majority of its tourist paddlesteamer traffic to Craigendoran Pier. Craigendoran's business later decreased during the mid-20th due to the decline in tourism along the Clyde, and it closed in 1973. It is now ruinous (2019).

In 1895, in a bid to increase tourism from Helensburgh Pier, the town council added a decorative stone arch and ticket offices designed by the architect Robert Wemyss. The new buildings were contemporary with Dunoon Pier and its associated buildings (listed at category A, LB26450) to which the Clyde steamers also travelled. For the first half of the 20th century the pier was part of a recreational hub for Helensburgh. The esplanade was developed to include a bandstand and putting green. In 1929 an outdoor swimming pool was added at the shore end of the pier. From 1968-73 there was extensive land reclamation to the east of the pier, for a car park. The outdoor pool was replaced by a new indoor swimming pool in 1976.

A small number of paddlesteamers continued to visit Helensburgh Pier but it finally closed to steamer traffic in 1952. After this date, the pier was used by Ritchie Brothers Ferries from 1950-2012, who ran a ferry that connected Helensburgh during the summer months with Gourock and Kilcreggan. The Paddle Steamer Preservation Society continues to run The Waverley paddle steamer which occasionally berths at Helensburgh Pier (2019).

Helensburgh Pier is of interest for listing mainly for its rarity as a largely surviving 19th century stone and timber former steamer pier, and for its historical relationship with the town of Helensburgh and Henry Bell. During the peak era of tourism along the Clyde in the late 19th century and early 20th century, these piers were of vital importance in the economic and social development of coastal and island communities in the west of Scotland. Of around 60 piers of various sizes along the Clyde, less than ten now survive in commercial use (2019). Surviving examples recognised through listing include Dunoon Pier, considered the best surviving example of this building type, (LB26450, Category A), and the smaller-scale Kilmun Pier, built in 1828 (listed at category B, LB85), to the north of Dunoon.

Helensburgh Pier also has some additional interest as an example of a long pier, still partially in use, and also for the likely survival of some early fabric within the structure. Advances in steam navigation in the early 19th century prompted a more sustained period of pier building in the Clyde, and the original 1816 build at Helensburgh, associated with former Provost and inventor, Henry Bell, is currently the first known of a sequence of pier projects that included later piers at Kirn (1823), Kilmun (1828), Hunter's Quay (1828) and Dunoon (1835). The timber pier extension of 1871 with its timber pile engineering is now also a rare survival of its building type.

Helensburgh Pier has had later alterations including the loss of its former arch and buildings and the addition of the land area to its east, which has obscured part of the east side of the pier. However, its overall long form and structure remain evident. Part of a network of piers, it directly illustrates the story of early steam navigation, the inventions and entrepreneurship of Provost Henry Bell, the rise of tourism along the Clyde, and the socio-economic history of Helensburgh in the 19th century .

Architectural or Historic Interest



Plan form

The current plan form of the pier dates to 1859 and is a long strip extending outwards in a straight line into the Clyde. The timber addition at its end was built in the later 19th century to accommodate more boat and paddlesteamer berths as tourism increased. A pier is first shown in its current location on Hydrographic Office Map of 1850. The first edition Ordnance Survey map (surveyed 1860, published 1862) shows it modified it 1859 and the timber addition is shown on the second edition Ordnance Survey map (surveyed 1897, published 1898). The timber addition to the pier is clearly evident and is of special interest as relates to the peak of Clyde estuary tourism and trade in Helensburgh in the later 19th century.

Piers are by their nature most commonly long and thin structures designed to link the shore with passing ships and other vessels. Helensburgh Pier is a particularly long example of a stone built pier in the Clyde. Its length was important to overcome the rocky nature of the immediate topography of the shore and the effects of the strong tides. The pier remains visually set apart from the area of land that was reclaimed in 1973 and its length and plan form is still clearly evident, particularly when viewed from the west side.

Technological excellence or innovation, material or design quality

Helensburgh Pier has had later alterations and additions and has lost some of its design detailing, however much of its 19th century structure and design quality remains intact. It is an imposing solid stone pier which has a degree of dressed stonework with droved surfaces on the large stone blocks.

The south end of the pier is built in timber and its corners have a radial plan of structural timbers built to withstand the weather and tides in such an exposed position. This timber detail appears to be in contrast to the nearby paired timber piers at Craigendoran which, although built around the same time, were a much simpler and therefore weaker construction. The use of timber piling to form marine structures has a long history in Scotland and on the west coast in particular. Once commonplace, they are now a rare building type. The structural design of the pier was purposefully over-engineered to withstand the severe storms along this particular stretch of coast and the high number of steamers and other vessels it served. This high quality of engineering design adds to its interest. The condition of this part of the pier has deteriorated and it has lost some of its fabric. The condition of a building, is not a factor unless it detracts significantly from the architectural or historic interest so that it can no longer be defined as special. In this case enough 19th century fabric survives that the quality of its design can still be seen.

The 1859 reconstruction of Helensburgh Pier and Esplanade was designed by the architect William Spence (1802-1883) (Dictionary of Scottish Architects). William Spence began his career at the office of John Bryce of Glasgow, possibly spending some time in either William Burn or David Bryce s Castle Street office. Spence became known as a theatre architect and his later commercial buildings, such as Stewart & MacDonald in Buchanan Street and the Clydesdale Bank in Dundee, are in a refined Roman Corinthian Style. His office was in Glasgow but he carried out work in the Clyde Estuary and particularly Helensburgh where he lived latterly. As the town developed he was commissioned to prepare a feuing plan for the upper areas of Helensburgh in 1857. Spence was a well-respected local architect who designed two churches, a school a tenement and many larges houses in the town. He was chosen to design and build the pier and esplanade, which was a major civic development at the time.


Helensburgh Pier is a prominent feature on the sea front and esplanade area of the town. It is prominent on the waterfront because of its length and also its alignment with the main Colquhoun Square, one street back from the sea front. While there have been changes to its immediate setting, including the addition of the reclaimed land area to its east, this does not diminish its interest for listing.

The pier stands as the visual and historic maritime link between Helensburgh and Greenock, Gourock and also Dunoon, the other main towns on the tourism and industrial routes of the Clyde Estuary. Henry Bell, Former Lord Provost, built the first pier on the site in 1816 to promote tourism and communications within the town. There is an obelisk monument to him on the esplanade just to the west of the pier, which is inter-visible with the pier. The position of the pier at the centre of the sea front makes it a key element of the seafront setting and it represents both the history of paddlesteamer tourism and the importance of Bell in developing this type of transport.

Regional variations

There are no known regional variations however piers are a distinctive feature of the Clyde Estuary. As a group they form a connected network demonstrating tourism and trade.

Close Historical Associations

Helensburgh Pier has a close historical association with the former Lord Provost and Engineer, Henry Bell (1767-1830). In 1812 Bell invented and built The Comet, the first sea-going paddlesteamer in Europe. He is known internationally as the inventor of sea-going steam vessels, and was recognised by his contemporaries such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel who wrote upon his death "Bell did what we engineers failed in. He gave us the sea steamer; his scheming was Britain's steaming." (www.helensburgh-heritage.co.uk). His importance to Helensburgh and the Clyde as a whole is recognised by the naming of Bell Street after him in Helensburgh, an obelisk erected to his memory in 1838 in Bowling and another in 1872, on the Helensburgh esplanade (LB34743, category B).

In 1816 Bell built the first pier in Helensburgh to service The Comet on the site of the current pier. Henry Bell is synonymous with the invention and history of paddlesteamers and tourism on the Clyde and the current pier at Helensburgh is part of this history.

The pier in its current form largely dates to the period after Bell introduced the paddlesteamer to the Clyde but his invention and association with Helensburgh pier is nationally significant.

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