Impact of Steam on Water Transport

The Songs

The songs in this category come from a variety of sources. With the exception of bar648, all the songs are topical responses to the advent of steam boats and the views of those directly effected are well represented.

Main Themes and Motifs

  • Danger to other non-steam craft
  • Unemployment of watermen caused by the adoption of steam
  • Changes to way of working

Chronology

1800-09
1810-19
1820-29    679; 647
1830-39    054; 273; 279; 399
1840-49    112
1850-59    539
1860-69
1870-79    648
1880-89
1890-99

Historical Background

River boats were the first from of transport to be powered by steam. The steamboat was easily incorporated into existing fleets. It could use existing harbours and facilities for loading and unloading both cargo and fuel (coal) so their arrival did not of itself threaten established shipping interests. There was money to be invested. Shipping had done very well out of the French Wars. As Thomas Bewick noted; “the shipping interest wallowed in riches; gentry whirled about in aristocratic pomposity, they forgot what their good demeanour and good kind behaviour used to be to those in inferior stations in life; and seemed far too often now to look upon them like dirt” [T Bewick,. Memoir.]

Steam engines freed boats from their dependence on wind and tide. Steamers were faster than sailing vessels and, most importantly, able to work to regular timetables. Passengers could therefore plan a voyage at a time that suited them and be confident that the journey would be completed on schedule. Importantly, steamers were more stable, and thus more comfortable than wind powered ships because they could sail into the wind and did not need to tack. The combination of speed comfort, and reliability made them ideal passenger transport. (See Ships & Boats>Holidays & Excursions by Boat) 

The first, steamboats were small and needed calm waters so the first services were established in the growing cites of Glasgow and London, whose settings beside large, tranquil estuaries; offered the possibility of lengthy river trips aboard these new, exciting vessels. The first steamship in regular service in Europe was the paddle steamer 'Comet' built in 1812 to carry passengers on the river Clyde. In 1815 the paddle steamer Argyle was moved to London and renamed The Thames. By 1816 steamboats could be found on the Forth, Tay, Avon, Yare, Trent, Tyne, Ouse, Humber, Orwell, Mersey, and Thames. 

Many of the sailors returning from the French Wars found work as watermen. In contrast to the benefits that steamboats brought to the business owners - traditional watermen who had rowed people and goods in wherries¹ were deprived of customers.  and  A broadside of the time says that “On the river [Thames]....skiffs wherries and other small fry have so-to-speak been boiled by steam”. The watermen soon realised that they could not compete with steamers. In 1840 the Waterman’s steam packet company was established in London with a fleet of 12 fast packets. The Steam Watermen deliberately timed their packet to start at the same time as those of their strongest rival The Woolwich Steam Packet Company. The spirit of reckless competition, typical of the age led to vessels racing, with no heed to the safety of passengers or other craft. 

Few of the hundreds of popular songs and poems featuring seafarers mention steam power. There are two plausible explanations for this omission. Firstly; The continued use of sail in conjunction with steam meant that sailors did not lose work and that changes in their work happened slowly. Steam therefore did not bring them any new hardship beyond coping with smoke while working aloft.  Secondly; most songs about steamships are tales of shipwreck sold for the entertainment of landlubbers (See Ships & Boats>Shipwrecks). These songs concentrate on the passengers to the almost total exclusion of the sailors.

 

References and Notes