All mod cons: the steam yacht Hermione, 1891

Hermione (Library of Congress)

SY Hermione in New York waters, 27 July 1895, 24 days after a passage stopover at St. John’s, Newfoundland. The Red Ensign, New York YC burgee at the foremast and swan houseflag at the mainmast confirm the photo was taken while on charter from her Scottish owners to railroad and property millionaire, Robert Goelet.
(J.S. Johnston/ Library of Congress)

When the elegant G.L. Watson-designed steam yacht Hermione arrived at the Newfoundland port of St. John’s on 2 July 1895 on passage from Gourock, Firth of Clyde, to New York, she naturally turned heads.

The seafaring citizens of such a place would want to know her vital statistics in great detail. Their evening newspaper, The Evening Telegram, duly obliged, leaving us with this remarkable account of the combination of luxury, and technology – especially in the generation and storing of electricity – employed in a typical Watson-designed, Clyde built steam yacht of the early 1890s:



From Gourock to New York Calls Here According to Arrangement.

The steam yacht Hermione, 17 men, Capt. Colin Mitchell, 7½ days out from Gourock, on the Clyde, bound to New York, called here last evening, at 5 o’clock, according to the arrangement at the time of sailing, and is taking a little coal. Upon her entrance into port she was much admired by our citizens. She is built on the lines of a model by Mr. G.L. Watson, of Glasgow, the designer of the

Great Racer “Valkyrie”

– which leaves Glasgow within two weeks to compete for the American cup – and is considered his masterpiece for a steam yacht. The Hermione is a steel boat, was built at Paisley in 1891, and is owned by the Messrs. Allan, Mr. James A. Allan, of 25 Bothwell Street, Glasgow, being managing owner. Her descriptive figures are:- 154.1 feet long; 22.7 feet broad; 13 feet depth of hold; 99 net, and 270 gross, tonnage. She has 120 nominal, and 1,100 indicated, horse-power. The engines are quadruple expansion; the boiler is driven by forced draught at a

Pressure of 200 Pounds to the Square Inch.

A speed of about 15 knots the hour is obtained. The steamer is called after a character in Shakespeare’s play of “The Winter’s Tale” – “Hermione, Queen of Leontes, King of Sicilia.” The saloon goes the full breadth of the steamer, and extends the other way sufficient to give a square and very spacious saloon indeed. All the figures of the play: Mamillius, Camillo, Sicilian gentlemen, etc. are represented.

Some Carved in Wood,

others cut in the glass of the “ports.” The saloon is furnished in mahogany. There are eight staterooms for passengers, two of them being double berths. There are three berths done in olive wood. Four of the staterooms are provided with hot and cold baths, under the floor, and two over the floor. The vessel has electric light, generated and

Stored into accumulators,

sufficient to supply 24 hours without use of the engine. There is an electric launch, 27 feet long, and, should anything get wrong with this electrical apparatus on board the steamer, the machinery of the launch would generate sufficient electricity of the demand. In a word, regarding the saloon, it is pretty well fitted in accord with the palace, characters and lives of “The Winter’s Tale.” The yacht has been chartered for 12 months to Mr. Goelet, a wealthy gentleman with business concerns in New York, Philadelphia, etc. He will use her for pleasure purposes, no doubt, doing much sailing down South.


Hermione would never return to Scotland. Property and railroad magnate Robert Goelet’s charter resulted in the commission of a much larger steam yacht of his own, designed by Watson. In fact, in the autumn of 1895, Watson had excused himself from the contentious final stage of Lord Dunraven’s Valkyrie III America’s Cup challenge to negotiate orders for four large steam yachts from American clients, including Robert Goelet’s Nahma, and his brother, Ogden’s  Mayflower, both eventually built by J. & G. Thomson’s Clydebank Shipyard, later to become famous as the John Brown yard of Cunarders fame.

After a few years in private US ownership, Hermione experienced a long naval career as the gunboat, later patrol yacht, USS Hawk, seeing action at Cuba in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.

We might think it very modern for a yacht of 1891 to be fitted with such an advanced electrical system, but this coincides with the beginning of practical electric cars –  which would soon gain rapid acceptance – and no expense was spared on these forbears of the modern super yachts.  The vehicular land speed record was held by an electric car until 1902.

The demands of power-greedy comforts afloat still continue to challenge yacht designers: check out Tako van Ineveld, of Holland Jachtbouw, talking at 14:18 below about the challenges presented by a replica of the Starling Burgess-designed J-Class America’s Cup defender, Rainbow (has it really taken us 121 years to move ahead so relatively slowly?):

peggy-bawn-pressHermione was launched 23 April 1891 at a nowadays unlikely site for a shipyard: on the banks of the River Cart, Paisley, by Fleming & Ferguson for the shipowning cousins James A. and Richard G. Allan of the Allan Line, partly as tender to their ground-breaking 10-Rater racing yacht Dora, built the same year by James Adam of Gourock to G.L. Watson’s design. Hermione’s steward was Archibald McNicol, previously heard of here as the 2nd Cook aboard the 1887 America’s Cup challenger Thistle: my great-grandfather.

Read more about these early, quite hi-tech versions of the “super yachts”, and their colourful owners, in Martin Black’s beautifully written, produced and illustrated biography, G.L. WATSON – THE ART AND SCIENCE of YACHT DESIGN, which can be  purchased online at our website here, and at a growing list of other online and over the counter outlets here.


~ Iain McAllister ~


 [Update 28 March 2015: Grateful thanks to Maureen Borland – author of The Allan Family: Scottish / Canadian Shipowners (2013) – for pointing out that an earlier version of this post erroneously described James A. and Richard G. Allan as brothers instead of cousins.]

Further reading:

Order of the Thistle

Scotia’s Thistle

Strachur’s first international sporting hero


About Peggy Bawn Press

496pg biography of Scottish yacht designer, George Lennox Watson (1851-1904). Significant book on the history of yacht design & the development of modern yachting. Beautifully illustrated. Many photographs previously unpublished.
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