Heritage Locations

Clyde Puffer Vic 96, Chatham

Small steam-powered cargo ship which provided a vital supply link around the west coast and Hebrides islands of Scotland


Period of construction:
1900 - 1949

Transport Trust plaque:

Transport Mode:

No 1 Basin, Maritime Way, Chatham, Kent ME4 3ER


Nearest Town:

Heritage Centre:

The Clyde puffer is a small steam-powered cargo ship which provided a vital supply link around the west coast and Hebrides islands of Scotland. Typical cargoes could include coal and furniture, with farm produce and gravel being brought back. Their flat bottom allowed them to beach and unload at low tide, essential to supply remote settlements without suitable piers. Characteristics were ally bluff bows, crew's quarters with table and cooking stove in the focsle, a single mast with derrick in front of the large hold, aft of which the funnel and ship's wheel stood above the engine room while the captain had a small cabin in the stern.

The puffers can trace their lineage to the gabbert, small single masted sailing barges which took most of the coasting trade. The first puffer was the Thomas, an iron canal boat of 1856, less than 20m (66 ft) long to permit passage through the Forth and Clyde Canal locks. These were powered by a simple steam engine without a condenser, drawing fresh water from the canal and emitting a series of puffing sounds as steam exited the funnel as the piston stroked. Although boats built from the 1870s onwards required condensers, as they travelled beyond the canal, the name "puffer" stuck. A derrick was added to the single mast to lift cargo.

Three variants emerged: "inside boats" continued in use on the Forth and Clyde canal, while "shorehead boats" extended their range eastwards into the Firth of Forth and westwards as far as the Isle of Bute and from there up the length of Loch Fyne, their length kept at 20 m (66 ft) to use the canal locks. Both these types had a crew of three. The "outside boats", built for the rougher sea routes to the Hebrides islands, had a crew of four and a length of 27m (88 ft) which still allowed use of the larger locks on the Crinan Canal which cuts across the Kintyre peninsula. There were more than 20 builders in Scotland, mainly on the Forth and Clyde canal at Kirkintilloch and Maryhill, Glasgow.

During World War I these hardy little ships were used at Scapa Flow for servicing battleships. In 1939, the Admiralty placed the first order for new-build steamships of the same design with the class name VIC - "Victualing Inshore Craft". These were mostly built in England. After the war a number of VICs came into the coasting trade, a number os them converted to diesel. The coasting trade to serve the islands was kept up by the Glenlight Shipping Company of Greenock until in 1993 the government withdrew subsidies and, unable to compete with road transport using subsidised ferries, the service ended.

A much-loved series of short stories about the Clyde Puffer "The Vital Spark", written by Neil Munro (1864 - 1930), appeared in the Glasgow Evening News between 1905 and 1927and were published in book form from 1931. They formed the basis of three popular BBC television series from 1959 to 1995.

A handful of puffers survive as conservation projects, with only two retaining their coal-fired engines. Part of the second series of 80ft VICs, VIC 96 was commissioned by The War Office in 1945 and was built by Richard Dunston Ltd of Thorne.  Based at Sheerness, she was employed in general store carrying duties, and often sailed between Sheerness and Harwich. On 11 April 1949 she was re-named C668. In 1956 she underwent a refit at Lowestoft, after which the Victualling Department considered disposing of her. Nevertheless, she survived as a naval vessel at Sheerness until 1959 when the dockyard closed.

VIC 96 was then transferred to Chatham, where a survey estimated her hull life at 20 years. In 1960, she was involved in a collision with the SS DURANGO, the damage being repaired by Harland & Wolff, London. In 1972, the boat was referred for disposal and towed from Chatham by R. W. Fielding of Dublin, who also owned VIC 1. She was kept in various London docks, and maintained but also vandalised.

In 1981, the vessel was purchased to become one of the steam vessels at Maryport Docks. She was steamed from London's Limehouse to Newcastle, where she put in for coal at Bridlington, and then on through the Caledonian Canal to Maryport. In 1986, she was purchased by Allerdale District Council with FLYING BUZZARD. The vessels were considered for disposal in 1995 as the Council could no longer afford to maintain them. Early in 1996, the vessels were transferred to a charitable trust; over a five year period VIC 96 was restored by a team of trustees led by Derek Gransden, each making regular 1,300 km (800 miles) round trips from the south of England to Maryport in Cumbria to make her seaworthy. Still powered by her original coal-fired Crabtree steam engine. Vic 96 arrived at her new home, the Historic Dockyards at Chatham - her operational base for many years - on 8 August, 2009 after an epic five week journey.

To enable the journey, the hull required 70 sq. metres of steel plate, a new propeller, the re-tubing and refurbishing of the Cochrane steam boiler and a complete re-build of the engine. The rotten decking was replaced by pitch pine reclaimed from one hundred year old piles from the Thames and the wheelhouse was rebuilt with teak salvaged from the old tannery in Canterbury.


Armstrong, R. & Osbourne, B. D., Voyages of the Vital Spark: Para's Handy Guide to the West Coast of Scotland, Seanachaidh Publishing Ltd, ISBN-10: 0948963352 (1988)

Brouwer, Norman J., International Register of Historic Ships, Anthony Nelson Ltd, ISBN-10: 0904614506 (1993)

Cressey, Roy, Clyde "Puffers" - a review of their rise and decline (Ships Monthly) - Cressey, Roy - 1981

Cressey, Roy, Clyde "Puffers" - a review of their rise and decline (continued) (Ships Monthly) - Cressey, Roy - 1981

Cressey, Roy, The Story of the VICs, Ships Monthly (1981)

Cressey, Roy, The Story of the VICs - Part 2: Post War Service, Ships Monthly (1981)

Hillsdon, Brian & Smith, Brian, Steamboat Register: An illustrated Register of Surviving Steao Vessels in the British Isles, Steam Boat Association of Great Britain, ISBN-10: 0951315811

Hutton, Guthrie, Puffers, Stenlake Publishing, ISBN-10: 1840334142 (2007)

Lendrum, Leslie, Neil Munro: The Biography, House of Lochar, ISBN-10: 1899863915 (2004)

Munro, Neil, Para Handy, Birlinn Ltd, ISBN-10: 1841582271 (2002)

Munro, Neil & Haswell-Smith, Hamish, The Vital Spark: The Illustrated Para Handy, Black and White Publishing, ISBN-10: 1902927788 (2003)

Peterson, Len & MacDonald, Dan, One Man's River: Clyde in Pictures 1920-1980, House of Lochar, ISBN-10: 1899863494 (1998)

Pottinger, James, Clyde Shipping: The Twilight Years, The History Press, ISBN-10: 0752421387 (2001)

Opening Times:
Viewing times vary - visit website, email derek@vic96.org or telephone 01795 892149

How To Find:

By road: On A289 (Wainscott Bypass)

By rail: Chatham Station is a short walk away


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