Bill Mills' room

Bill Mills

The Clyde Hoppers

by  Bill Mills

          Another type of river craft was the Hopper.  The hopper was the vessel that took the dredged material from the grab- dredgers. Instead of buckets the grab dredger had a large crane with a big scoop –something like today’s JCB- and there could be one on either side of the dredger.  They would go to places on the river that either the bucket dredger was too big to operate or too awkward, or the job wasn’t big enough to justify the big bucket dredger.

          Once at the charted position of the ‘hump’ on the riverbed the crane or cranes would get to work lowering their crane or cranes into the river and scoop up a load of gooey detritus from the depths and then deposit the load into the hopper that had arrived alongside at a suitable position to receive the load.

          I can’t remember now how many hoppers there were working the River Clyde and the estuary- or the numbers they had painted on their hulls in big white letters, but there were quite a few.

          Not quite in the same category as the Puffer Skippers-the hopper Skipper were characters just the same. One I became quite friendly with through- as often happens with me- saying something and the wrong interpretation being taken.


I had gone aboard – let’s say Hopper No 10 to do a job and the Skipper offered me a cup of tea. I accepted and the usual big white mug was placed before me.  In a conversational way I said  “ Thank’s Skipper. God- I was aboard No 5 last week and nothing would do but Geordie the Skipper put a full breakfast down in front of me – bacon, egg, sausage, fried bread and coffee- I was so full at the end of it I could hardly get up to the wheelhouse to get on with the repair.” I looked up at this Skipper- and saw his face was quite red- and he almost snarled  “Are you trying to tell me that the hospitality on No 10 isn’a as good for you as on No 5?”  I hastily tried to make amends but things were definitely unpleasant right up until I finished my work and left No 10.

          It was several months before I had to go back to N0 10 for another repair Job. I joined the hopper by its small boat from the  shore and was efficiently skulled out as it was working alongside one of the grab dredgers. The Skipper was waiting for at the head of the rope ladder. Before I could say anything I was treated to a barked  “Ye’ll have a cup before ye’ start –EH?”. I followed him down to the wee mess-room and sat at the table without a word being spoken.

          Shortly he returned and placed before me a big mug of coffee and a plate with two lovely floury rolls filled with bacon, egg and tomato. He spoke very quietly with his Highland lilt more pronounced –“MR MILLS !  never again will you be able to doubt the hospitality on board N0 10!!”  

          From then on, no matter what time it was that I arrived on board- I was not allowed to commence work until I had been served a meal of some kind. In fact The Skipper –Archie- and I became good friends. He told me that his daughter and son were so different. The girl had to work very hard to get good exam results while the son found it very easy.  They both achieved a place at Glasgow University-with a difference. The Daughter, because she had always had to work hard in class, did the same at university and made the necessary grades. The son, because it had always been easy for him to pass exams at school could not cope with the tutorial style of information being imparted and did not study- and failed his exams time and time again.

          Eventually Archie and his wife had to lay the law down hard. Saying it was bad enough for them to have the cost of two at university, without the high and mighty clever one working and failing all the time. Eventually they received a report saying that unless the son improved drastically, grants would be withdrawn as would his place at university.

          Hoping  to ‘encourage’ the son, Archie told him if that happened he would get him some kind of job in John Brown’s shipyard and that would be him in the ‘yard for the rest of his life with little or no prospects.

          There was little change so one Friday Archie and his wife went out and made two purchases. On the Sunday night the son was given a parcel. When he opened it he looked at two pairs of

told that Mum and Dad had had enough and that a Yard foreman

was expecting him to start next morning and the overalls were the last things his parents were going pay out on him.

The son stuttered and stammered, then there were floods of tears. This was not the kind of future he wanted.

          Realisation dawned. The son buckled down and his sister and him both ended up with Honours degrees and two very proud parents.

          I perhaps saw Hopper No 10 and Archie four five times a year when he had radio problems. The last time I saw Archie before I changed by employers was certainly memorable.

          The office had received a call of defective equipment on Hopper No 10, and she was on her way down river and would call in at one of the old disused quays. I was told to meet her there.

          After a bit of scouting about I eventually found the entrance. I drove over a broken old road with overgrown weeds, scattered rubbish of all sorts and between the crumbling remnants of old warehouses.

          I was relieved when I could see the old quay and glint of the river ahead of me. As I got to the end of the crumbling red brick warehouses I turned toward the edge of the quay and was surprised, to say the least, to see a crowd about twenty tramps and down-and-outs, male and female, clustered around two old oil drums with flames and smoke blowing in the cold wind. I had to drive past them and as I approached the motley group three very rough looking characters stood out in front of me. The asked me

what I wanted down there- I told them I was meeting a boat to do some repairs. I was accused of being a customs or police spy. I tried to drive on but they wouldn’t get out of the way. Three more arrived – two of them females with a bottle of something –it wasn’t Coka Cola – in one hand and a suspicious, thin twisted smoke in the other. Things were really beginning to get nasty- two of the men had picked up fist sized stones. Then, like a gift from the Gods, there was the sound of a ships horn blowing hard and getting closer. I looked over at the river and there was a hopper with steam pouring out of her funnel and the horn as she closed the quay. It wasn’t exactly the Fifth Cavalry- it was Archie and N010!  The big hopper came in at a sharp angle, ropes were thrown over two rust crumbling bollards, and all six of the crew including Archie came racing over with various implements in their hands.

          I was escorted over to No10 and things quietened down. Archie told me they had recognised my car and anyway – who else would be down at that place. It turned out that it was a favourite gathering place for ‘alkies and druggies’ and once Archie had emphatically told them what I was doing down on the quay, they went back to their idea of a great party.

          When I left under escort from Archie’s men, the brain- damaged revellers actually offered me a drink and a smoke as I drove past.

          I’ll never forget Archie and N010 coming to my rescue.

          Apart from the Dredgers, the Hoppers, the Puffers, there were the Pleasure steamers that took thousands of holidaymakers around the Clyde waters- or as the locals would say “Doon the Watter”, the tugs, Harbour Authority launches, the smaller ferries

that ran from one side of the River Clyde to the other and others, all with different types of men as Skippers or, on the larger vessels, the Captains. All with diverse natures, from the Grumps- to the jovial. From the roughs to the gentlemen.

          They were all part and parcel of helping to fill my seafaring memory banks with many more good things than bad- and knowing how fortunate I have been to have met them and experienced a small part of their lives.

Bill Mills