A hundred years ago an era came to an end in the Forth when was forced the Admiralty to declare the Firth of Forth a Controlled Area and a highly successful 1914 steamer season was brought to an abrupt end.
Paddle steamer excursions had blossomed in the Clyde from the mid-19th century. Whole families grown richer from plentiful well paid work in the booming shipyards and workshops of Empire would take a tram to the Broomielaw for a cruise to a whole variety of Clyde pier destinations as far away as Millport.
Seeing a similar opportunity for Edinburgh families on the Forth, the Galloway Saloon Steam Packet Company of Leith augmented their existing ferry service to Aberdour by running summer excursions further down the Forth in the 1870s. Initially these only included Leven and Elie because East Lothian harbours are all restricted in size and dry out at low tide.
But, after the railway arrived in 1850, North Berwick developed rapidly; first as a fishing port and then as a fashionable Victorian summer resort. Galloway’s decided to capitalise on this in 1877 by building a wooden pier with a concrete base projecting north from Platcock Rocks into the Fairway and extending their excursions to there.
All ships used were paddle steamers, starting with the 130-ton Lord Aberdour and 200-ton Lord Elgin (which survived into the 1950s as an Isle of Wight ferry). These were augmented on the growing trade during the 1880’s by the Lord Morton, Stirling Castle, Edinburgh Castle, Tantallon Castle and Wemyss Castle.
So good was the trade that the North British Steam Packet Company made a successful takeover in 1891. Though Galloways continued to operate under its own name, it effectively became a subsidiary of the North British Railway. By this time, service criss-crossed the Forth and reached up-river as far as Stirling. Travel was highly flexible through NBR offering combination tickets with train services.
The heyday was the Edwardian era—the time when North Berwick was at its height as a fashionable resort The NBR transferred their 277-ton Redgauntlet from the Clyde to cope. So the Admiralty brought a brutally abrupt end to a stellar 1914 season and with many ships casualties in Admiralty service ‘Doon the Forth’ trips never resumed.
The wooden upper deck of the pier was demolished in 1940 but the base soldiered on as an unsatisfactory low-water landing place until 2012’s storm. The damage suffered triggered ELC to organise a proper rebuild—the first serious work since abandonedment 100 years ago—and completed on the centebary of the last Galloway’s sailing from the pier.
(First published in East Lothian Courier, September 2014)