Thursday, July 4, 2013

Built in Rotherhithe: The first Post Office steam packets

The remains of the King and Queen dry
dock, where Lightening and Meteor
were constructed
The first two Post Office steam packets were built in Rotherhithe by William Elias Evans at the King and Queen dry dock, not far downstream from the modern Old Salt Quay public house, the dock's remains partially preserved as an inlet with a modern bridge crossing it.

Named Lightning and Meteor, the two paddle steamers were commissioned by the government-operated Post Office from Evans to serve on the run between Holyhead (Anglesey, north Wales) and Howth (a coastal suburb of Dublin in southern Ireland).

Having served an apprenticeship as a shipwright in a private yard, William Elias Evans was a pioneer in steamship building.  He is an under-sung hero of early steamship design, which Stuart Rankin suggests may have been because although he was an innovative and successful ship builder, he was a poor business man, was declared bankrupt more than once, was frequently in arrears with payments, refused to participate in the lockout that lead to the shipwright's strike of 1825 and, being very hard of hearing, was also somewhat socially inept. In an era when sailing ships were in decline, however, he built many steamships between 1821 and 1835, including  the pioneering Constitutionen (the first steamship in the Norwegian fjords), William the Fourth (which was taken to Australia and put into service in coastal and riverine waters), the London and Gravesend Packet Sons of Commerce, the Margate Packet Victory and Thames steamers London, Favourite and Diana, of which more in future posts.  It is likely that as well as building directly for his own customers, he was also contracted to build ships by other shipbuilders. Lightning and Meteor are particularly important because as well as being the first Post Office packet steamers, they were amongst the first steamships to prove that paddle steamers, unassisted by sail, were seaworthy, fast and reliable all year round. 

The first Post Office packet boats at Holyhead were introduced in the 16th Century, to establish a postal link between Britain and Ireland.  This was later supplemented by other services that crossed the Irish Sea between other ports.  Boats ran to Post Office schedules, but were operated on a contract basis, with sailing ships paid to provide a licensed mail service, making their profit on cargo and passenger transport.  In the early nineteenth century this changed.  For the first time steam had proved to be successful on sea ships. Between Wales and Ireland private companies had set up in competition with the Post Office sailing ships, dependent not upon the vagaries of the wind but upon steam engines that could travel in the calmest seas.  The competition, carrying Post Office mail from the mainland to Ireland, was both  both illegal and threatened the profits of sailing ship operators.  The government decided that in the face of swifter services that were preferred by travellers, the Post Office would also enter the steam era.  They commissioned two steamers, Lightning and Meteor, from steamship specialist William Elias Evans in Rotherhithe. Both paddle steamers were built under Admiralty supervision.  

The construction of Lightning and Meteor was overseen by the Master Shipwright at Deptford, Oliver Lang, Both had two engines. They went into service in 1821, carrying Post Office mail, cargo and passengers to Ireland.  the average passage of Meteor from Howth to Holyhead was 8 hours and 13 minutes.  Unlike sailing ships, which could not operate during during calm weather when there was no wind to catch their sales, the paddle steamers were limited by stormy weather, which restricted their ability to run. 

The steam packet boat Lightening, just off centre,
with Meteor to the far left of the painting and the Royal George
just to the left of Lightening, flying the Royal Standard.
By William John Huggins 1822.
National Maritime Museum
Lightning is particularly well known both due to her royal connection with George IV and because of the rather lovely painting that was produced as a result.  In 1821, the same year in which the two steamers were put into Post Office service as packet boats, King George IV sailed on his ship Royal George, destined for a state visit to Ireland. Different versions of the story say that his ship was either becalmed or met with winds that prevented his timely arrival at his destination. He reached Holyhead but could travel no further on his own ship. Whatever the cause, the decision was taken for him to leave the Royal George and transfer to Lightning instead, accompanied by Sir Francis Feeling (Secretary of the Post Office) so that he could keep to his agenda. Lightning, commanded by John Skinner, departed Holyhead on the 7th August 1821, arriving in Dublin the next day. On board, it is reported that he passed time by eating goose pie and drinking whiskey.  As no-one realized that the King was on board, his greeting was somewhat informal, but a great success.  Lightning was afterwards renamed Royal Sovereign King George the Fourth, usually shortened to Royal Sovereign or Sovereign.

The captain of Lightning, John Skinner, was a Royal Navy veteran and was put in command of several sailing packets before being put in command of Lightning.  A monument to him, in the form of an obelisk, still stands in Holyhead harbour.  Lightning, by then Sovereign, was eventually transferred to the Admiralty and renamed HMS Monkey.

It became clear that the steam ship services introduced onto various postal routes were unprofitable. They were expensive to build and the Post Office had neither the expertise nor the experience to run them efficiently, resulting in substantial losses.  As a result of these failures, in 1837 an Act of Parliament handed packet operations into the hand of the Admiralty, although the schedules were still determined by the Post Office.

Control of packet services was once again handed over to the Post Office in 1860, but at the end of the 1800s the Post Office began to contract its operations out to private companies again, this time to steam, rather than sail companies.


Anonymous said...

Evans built at least the hull of the Sophia Jane. Vessel subsequently bought by a Barnes and Miller (engine builders) or a syndicate that included Barnes and Miller, and the firm installed her engine and probably her paddlewheel machinery.

Ron Madden

Andie said...

Many thanks Ron. I am always grateful for new information. I'll try and find out more about it. Best, Andie.