Monday, July 29, 2013

The 1844 paddle steamer Ariel

The paddle steamer Ariel,
built in Rotherhithe and launched from
Horseferry Dock, Rotherhithe, in 1844

As the age of the tea clipper came to a close, the age of steam was in the ascendancy.  The earliest steam-powered ships were paddle steamers, with twin paddles usually fastened to each side of the ship (there are exceptions, like the Rotherhithe-built steam warship Rising Star, covered in an earlier post).  Although Rotherhithe had been building sail-powered wooden ships for centuries, the new steam technology found a home here too.

John Jenkins Thompson was born in the Bermondsey area in around 1794. He was a successful local boat builder who specialized mainly in the construction of yachts, small prestige vessels and lifeboats.  Operating out of the Horseferry Dock, from around 1830, he had three large workshops by 1843, as well as sheds, a slipway, sundry other buildings and a home and garden, a not uncommon arrangement for shipbuilders and ship breakers, who sometimes lived where they worked.  Thompson seems to have seen the opportunities offered by steam and moved into larger projects.  As other yards closed around him, Thompson was building for a new era of shipping.  The above illustration from the Illustrated London News shows the yard, with two wood-built buildings fronting onto the Thames, one of which is clearly labeled "Thompson."  Small wooden boats are arranged apparently randomly around the launch slip.

Horseferry Dock was located just upriver from Lavender Stone wharf, divided from it by the Horseferry Stairs, backing onto Rotherhithe Street. There are no signs of it today, but it is opposite Limehouse Marina, along the stretch of the river to the west of the Lavender Pumphouse.

Ariel was launched in 1844.  Unusually, she was made of mahogany, a material usually employed only in the construction of small and prestige vessels, and it was perhaps a material he had used in the construction of some of his smaller yachts and boats. She was 120ft long, 14ft 6ins wide, with a draught of 3ft 6ins and was 120 tons. She was fitted with a two cylinder engine of 20 horsepower each and had the capacity for 600 passengers. 

The Illustrated London News, always a terrific source of information, reported the launch and provided an illustration (above). Published on 20th April 1844 the occasion was described with gusto:

On Tuesday last, Rotherhithe was a scene of unusual gaiety, owing to the launch ofa new steamer, the Ariel, built by Mr Thompson for the Woolwich Steam Packet Company.
The main dimensions of this fine vessel are - length, 120 feet; breadth, 14 feet 6 inches; tonnage, 120; she is built with a round stern, and of diagonal planking, three thicknesses, all mahogany; she has two engines of 20 horse power each, and has been built expressly for a passage vessel between Woolwich and Hungerford; and will carry, with her coals, boilers etc, 600 persons, at a draft of 3 feet 6 inches.

The launch was well attended by guests and bystanders who crowd around the ship and lean out of the building windows, some standing at the stern of a sailing ship, and a small group on a long thin rowing boat.  It looks as though it was a great day.

Ariel served on the Woolwich to Hungerford route, initially for the Woolwich Steam Packet Company, which was founded in 1834 and merged with the London Steamboat Company.  The assets of the combined company were sold at auction in 1884, with most of them, including Ariel, going to the River Thames Steamboat Company, which operated until 1890 when its vessels were registered under the name of the Victoria Steamboat Association.

Ariel had a long life.  She operated under the Woolwich Steam Packet Company, the London Steamboat Company and the River Thames Steamboat Company, but was taken out of service in 1884.  She was nearly sunk in 1878, when a barge ran into her near Cherry Garden Pier, only a few days after the London Steamboat Company's Princess Alice had been rammed by the collier ship Bywell Castle and was sunk with the loss of over 650 lives, the worst disaster recorded on the Thames. 

In 1847 Thompson built Brighton, Dieppe and Newhaven, all of mahogany, for the Brighton and Continental Steam Packet Company.  Thompson also built Banshee in 1847, a mail packet ordered by the Admiralty, leasing space at another Rotherhithe yard in order to complete the  contract.  He also completed a number of other vessels of different sizes and types, including two screw-propelled gunboats for the Crimean War, some of which will be discussed later.

Thompson had at least two sons, William Samuel and John Julian, both of whom followed him into the trade, serving as apprentices with other boat builders.

With thanks to Stuart Rankin's publications for most of the information on this post.

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