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Bell, Henryfree

  • Michael S. Moss

Henry Bell (1767–1830)

by James Tannock

Bell, Henry (1767–1830), hotelier and developer of steam navigation, was born at Torphichen Mill, Linlithgowshire, on 7 April 1767, the fifth son of Patrick Bell and his wife, Margaret Easton. He was educated at the village school and then in Falkirk. Despite the reputation of Scottish schools, his education served him badly and for the rest of his life he was unable to spell and made many grammatical errors in his extensive correspondence. At the age of thirteen he was apprenticed as a stonemason and then in 1783 as a millwright—two trades much in demand at a time when Scottish industry was growing rapidly. In 1786 he began work in the shipyard of Shaw and Hart at Bo'ness on the Firth of Forth; but he left after a year to become an engineer with James Inglis near Motherwell in Lanarkshire. He went to London in 1788 to gain experience with the distinguished engineer John Rennie, and returned to Glasgow in 1790 to set up as a wright and builder. Over the next twenty years he participated actively in the wave of new building as the city expanded.

On 23 March 1794 Bell married Margaret Young, and three years later he was enrolled as a burgess. In 1806 the Bells purchased ground alongside the road from Dumbarton to Helensburgh, a new resort for the well-to-do promoted by Sir James Colquhoun of Luss. Within a year they had built the Bath's Inn, equipped with hot and cold fresh and sea water therapeutic baths. When the first Helensburgh town council was elected in 1807, Bell was returned as provost. Until he stood down in 1811 he was involved in a number of civic projects, including an abortive initiative to build a town house and a successful venture to provide a public water supply.

Like many others in the west of Scotland, Bell had been interested in the propulsion of ships by steam since William Symington's prototype was abandoned. About 1810 Bell, assisted by a Glasgow engineer John Thomson, began his own practical experiments, which he seems to have financed by mortgaging the hotel for £2000. The following year he placed a contract for the hull with John Wood, a shipbuilder in Port Glasgow. The engines were supplied by John Robertson, a Glasgow engineer, and the boiler and smokestack by David Napier of the Camlachie foundry, also in Glasgow. The vessel, the Comet, was launched in July or August 1812 and, despite technical shortcomings, demonstrated the feasibility of paddle steam propulsion.

Typical of many pioneers, Bell was an incompetent man of business and lacked both the capital and credit to exploit his innovation. He quickly had imitators who were better able to develop steamer services on the Clyde. Frustrated, Bell attempted to pioneer services on the Forth, coastwise to London from the Clyde, and north to the western highlands and islands using the Comet, which had been lengthened and re-engineered. Chronically in debt and pathologically given to exaggeration and intrigue, he was again thwarted and it was others who executed his bold plans. During 1820 the ownership of the Comet, which was then operating a service between the Clyde and Fort William, was about to be transferred to a company whose shareholders included a number of west Highland landowners, when she was wrecked in the Sound of Jura. Bell had no interest in her successor, Comet II, but seems to have served as ship's husband (manager).

Apart from his steamship interests, Bell continued to manage the Bath's Inn and to work as an architect and contractor, reconstructing the Dalmonach calico printing works on the River Leven at Dumbarton in 1812. He also put forward visionary but flawed proposals for draining part of Loch Lomond and converting Glasgow harbour into an enormous floating dock. During the 1820s, dogged by poor health and in financial difficulties, Bell persisted in his efforts to promote steamer services on the west coast, inaugurating the Glasgow–Inverness route by way of the Caledonian Canal with the Stirling in 1825 and participating in the ownership of the Highland Chieftain used on the Skye route. The Stirling foundered in Loch Linnhe in 1828 with loss of life.

The success of steamships in the late 1820s fuelled Bell's appetite for vanity and self-deception. His visiting card showed a picture of the Comet with the caption 'the first steamboat' and he concocted a story of a trip to America in 1807 to instruct Robert Fulton in the design of his steamer. However, he had his supporters, who petitioned for public recognition of his achievement through the award of modest pensions from organizations that had benefited from the steamship. The Clyde Navigation Trust responded with an annual gratuity of £50, later raised to £100. In 1828 George Canning, shortly before his death, made Bell a Treasury grant of £200 to help him out of his serious financial problems. These and other gifts scarcely covered his debts.

Bell died after a long illness on 14 November 1830 at the Bath's Inn, leaving an estate of £707, mostly made up of the value of the contents of the inn. He was survived by his wife, who died in 1856. They had no children. They were both seceders and members of the Old Light Burghers' church in Helensburgh. Although Henry Bell was acknowledged by his contemporaries as the pioneer of the steamship, he had little of the talent or business acumen of his peers in the engineering profession, James Watt or David Napier. His achievement was marred by his failure to concede that others had contributed to the success of the Comet.


  • B. D. Osborne, The ingenious Mr Bell (1995)
  • D. D. Napier, David Napier, engineer, 1790–1869: an autobiographical sketch with notes, ed. D. Bell (1912)
  • H. Bell, Observations on the utility of applying steam engines to vessels (1813)
  • private information (2007) [C. Duncan]


  • NL Scot., letters relating to the Comet steamboat
  • U. Glas., Napier collection
  • U. Glas., Scott collection


  • T. O. Barlow, mixed-method engraving, NPG
  • J. Tannock, oils, Scot. NPG [see illus.]
  • photograph, repro. in Napier, David Napier, engineer, facing p. 80

Wealth at Death

£707: Osborne, Ingenious Mr Bell