Sir Thomas Bell Photographs

Sir Thomas Bell 22 July 2021

We have been very happy to receive the donation of a small collection of steam yacht photographs from the family of Sir Thomas Bell.  

Sir Thomas was a near legendary figure whose career spanned 60 years at the great Clydebank shipyard that was successively J & G Thompson, Clydebank Engineering & Shipbuilding Company and most famously John Brown & Company. Rising to be managing director of John Browns he played a leading role in British shipbuilding and in particular the adoption of the steam turbine.  

In 1910-11 John Brown & Co. built three very similar steam yachts to the designs of G. L. Watson & Co. Jeanette is shown here, she was preceded by Doris for the Solomon B. Joel who made a fortune in south African diamonds and followed by Sapphire commissioned by the Duke of Bedford.

The quality of John Brown & Co.’s facilities are evident in this shot of Thalassa taken just prior to launch.

In comparison with the great Cunarders from Lusitania and Aquitania through Queens Mary and Elizabeth or to great battleships like HMS Hood, the building of yachts was never a very significant part of John Brown’s business but in the 20 years between 1910 and 1930 the great shipyard built six major steam yachts all to the designs of G. L. Watson & Co. For the firm’s senior designer James Rennie Barnett who had succeeded Watson, John Brown’s provided a key partnership that allowed the first-class realisation of his designs.

Launched in 1923 for Eugene Higgins who was reportedly the wealthiest bachelor in New York, Thalassa was but one of his many yachts.

Thalassa in the fitting out basin at John Brown & Co. The slips behind her are those where Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and the QE2 were built and give some idea of the scale of the yard.

In 1910 and 1911 three of the clipper bowed steam yachts, in which Barnett excelled, were launched from the Clydebank yard: Doris, Jeanette and Sapphire . Then in 1921 and 1923 the two utility style yachts Restless and Thalassa followed. All these five yachts were equipped with triple expansion steam engines, but in 1930 Bell and Barnett collaborated on the construction of the 300-foot steam yacht Nahlin. Considered by many to be the most beautiful clipper bowed yacht ever, she was also equipped with the Brown Curtis turbines whose introduction had been one of the most far sighted of Bell’s many achievements.

At the launch of Nahlin owner Lady Yule is second from the right in front row, G. L. Watson & Co. senior partner James Rennie Barnett is third from the left in the front row and John Brown & Co. managing director Sir Thomas Bell is behind him to the right.

The collection of photographs contains both the more usual yacht portraits, and more significantly images of these yachts at the John Brown yard.