Capt. Arthur David LINKLATER


Notes and jottings.

For some time thereafter steamers concentrated on what steam ships did best; covering comparatively short distances reliably and fast e.g. Falmouth to Corfu where the Meteor, then the Messenger, and the Echo regularly did the round trip in about one month whereas by sail, “weather permitting”, the trip took an average of three months. In 1836 the Berenice finally demonstrated that decent times from Britain to India could be achieved under steam via the Cape once the logistics of bunkering [establishing supplies of coal] and provisioning were sorted out and with this voyage Berenice showed that the problem of sailing via the Cape was not insoluble and from about this time on steam was in open, world-wide competition with sail on all routes.

Developing long-distance steam routes depended not so much on technological advances at this point but on solving the problem of efficient bunkering which required an adequate knowledge and use of geology combined with geography. Supplies of food and fresh water were also at best problematical and at worst non-existant. For years the East India Company had tried to establish a regular steamer service between Bombay, an important strategic bunker, and Egypt, rather than via the Cape, but the best they had been able to achieve was one service a year! The P. & O. sought to remedy this with a service based on Calcutta where they established large bunkers as well as stores, workshops and an administrative base. For this service they ordered the Hindostan to be built in 1842. This was still a wooden paddle steamer, but considerably strengthened with internal iron bulkheads. The accommodation for the 150 passengers was luxurious by the standards of the day. She first sailed from Southampton in 1842 and those aboard paid an estimated £40 a head for the privilege. She called at Gibraltar, St. Vincent, Cape Verde Islands, Ascension, Cape Town, Mauritius and Point de Galle, Ceylon. In 1843 the Bentinck, more or less a sister-ship of the Hindostan went out to Calcutta followed in 1844 by the Precursor and with her arrival all the pieces were in place for a regular service between Calcutta and Suez.

Calcutta was an important bunkering port but holding 4000 tons was only half the capacity of Bombay or Singapore. In the 1850s and 1860s coal stocks, in tons, normally held would have been; at Alexandria and Suez 6000; Point de Galle [Ceylon] 12,000; Hong Kong 10,000; but Aden topped them all with a mountainous 21,000 tons; Madras held a measly 500 - presumably because Calcutta was only 'round the corner.' There were other large bunkers maintained further afield at Hong Kong, Shanghai, Yokohama, King George's Sound and Sydney as well as nearer to home in Malta and Southampton. Most of this coal was ironically ferried around under sail before being devoured by steam ships. This was equally the case in America where in the 1850s, to establish and maintain adequate bunkers on the west coast of America, coal had to be taken there either from the U.K. or the eastern sea-board of America via Cape Horn in sailing ships!

There were of course equally important developments on other routes such as the trans-Atlantic, first undertaken by the Savannah, a sailing ship with a steam auxiliary engine which was only used for eighty hours of the 30 day crossing but claimed by some as a first for steam. The problem again was bunkering; ships were unable to carry sufficient fuel for the whole 2,500 to 3,000 mile trip, hence the need for using wind and steam. What was needed on the Atlantic were bigger ships with more efficient engines as bunkers for the Atlantic present their own difficulties. The first steam-ship specifically built for Atlantic crossings was Brunel's Great Western in 1838 which, with the Berenice performance to India two years earlier demonstrated that the world might be a steamed oyster. The Great Western remained in passenger service until 1846 by which time she had completed thirty-seven return trips averaging about 16 days westbound and fourteen eastbound. Her best time was under 12½ days from New York to Bristol in 1842. From 1847-57 she was owned by the Royal Mail before being taken out of commission. With improved technology came not only better reliability but greater speed and by 1840, particularly on the Atlantic routes, steam was demonstrably faster than sail. Having said that in 1871 the Caliph sailed “pilot to pilot” from New York to London in 12 days flat, but that was very much the exception rather than the rule.

That said, the rigors of an Atlantic crossing were not to be underestimated. Steam ships as well as sailing ships could be delayed by adverse weather, as was the case with the Diamond one winter when the trip from Liverpool to New York took 100 days rather than the fourteen or so that were the norm, with the result that 17 out of 180 steerage passengers died of starvation. Steerage passenger were generally required to provide their own bedding, cutlery etc but could usually expect a ‘separate’ berth to sleep in with women further separated from the men in their own ‘cabin’ or hold. As most trans-Atlantic passengers wanted to go westwards the logical development was for ships to return eastwards with bulk cargo that could be made to pay. This included cattle which were housed in the same, stripped out, holds that had been recently vacated by their human counterparts.

In an endeavour to cope with the ever increasing traffic of mail, merchandise and people to India, the P. & O. commissioned a number of new craft in 1853 including the Himalaya, an early iron paddler which, when finished, was the biggest steamer in the world. While still on the chocks she was converted to screw propulsion, another early innovation and still something of a novelty but an increasing trend which had been set ten years before by a similar modification to Brunel's Great Britain.

Screw propellers had been around since the third century BC when they were associated with Archimedes. However, their use as a means of propelling a ship posed certain problems such as; their size and shape; the means of turning it and what gearing to use; their thrust and tendency to vibrate and make a lot of noise; and overcoming the counterintuitive problem of making a large hole in the hull below the waterline through which the drive shaft from the engine connected to the propeller. This joint, the stern gland, remains to this day a Heath Robinson affair of grease and stuffing boxes.

A good old-fashioned tug o’ war decided once and for all the merits of paddle versus propeller. The Admiralty had commissioned a sloop, the Ardent, to be built at Sheerness. She was originally designed as a paddle steamer but was changed to screw propulsion while still abuilding and renamed at launch in 1843 the Rattler. She was engaged in ‘trials’ with the Alecto, a paddle-sloop but the outcome left their Lordships none the wiser till they lashed the two vessels together astern and ordered “full speed ahead” whereupon the Rattler hauled the Alecto backwards at the rate of 2 knots with her paddles flailing away ineffectually. In spite of this public display paddlers continued to be built but in decreasing numbers as the vibration and other problems associated with propellers were overcome. The last trans-Atlantic paddle steamer was the Napoleon III launched in 1866 by the Thames Ironworks.

Screw propulsion had an early champion in Brunel. His attitude to the problems its adoption posed was similar to his approach to any engineering problem; no such word as can't. We must adopt as a principle not to be departed from that all mechanical difficulties of construction must give way, must in fact be lost sight of, in determining the most perfect form - if we find that the screw determined upon cannot be made (but what cannot be made?), then it is quite time enough to try another form; though even then my rule would be to try again making it. Able to think as much as fifty years ahead of his time enabled Brunel not merely to envisage building a ship four times larger than anything else of its day, as was the case with the Great Western, originally named the Mammoth, but to see his plans brought to successful, productive fruition, not just freaks of technology. The Great Western can be seen to this day in Bristol.

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© 2018 Duncan Linklater