The Thames Before 1851

Overview of the Songs and Poems in this Category:

With the possible exception of the 'Excursion to Putney' all these songs bear the signs of having been produced for the Pleasure Garden or popular Theatre. Steam boat travel is portrayed as a leisure activity and mainly for the rich.
The category is dominated by songs about the steamer services between London and Margateº. Most of the songs are comic.

Main Themes and Motifs

- Pleasure trips to Margate
- The wonders of steam
- The luxury and fine food enjoyed
- Sea sickness
- Comic portraits of the passengers.

Chronology

1800-09
1810-19 242; 628; 652
1820-29 006; 195; 618; 722
1830-39
1840-49 112; 419; 633

Historical Background

In 1815 the paddle steamer Argyle was moved to London and renamed The Thames. The Times described her as rapid, spacious and splendid vessel with well appointed cabins, a choice library and stewardess to attend to the needs of the fair sex.

Steamboats were first fitted with high-pressure "puffer" engines, based on Richard Trevithick's design, in 1818 and by 1820 the passage time to Margate was down to six and a half hours. For passengers who were happy to make the voyage itself the highlight of the excursion, a day-trip to Margate was now a practical proposition. A new jetty was built at Margate in 1824 to accommodate the steamer trade and the town expanded as a resort. Thus the steamers established transport links that paved the way for the mass tourism of the later 19th century.
The first steamboat songs reflect the social status of the passengers. In 1820 the return fare from London to Margate was 15 shillings; more than a week's wages for most people. Despite the prices, plenty of people were willing to pay to enjoy this way of travelling. By 1825 the service was well established and the ballad 'Shop Windows, or; Amusements of London' printed in the late 1820s speaks of "Steam boats to Margate at nine every day"

Regency London was notorious for gambling and the headlong pursuit of pleasure. Princess Lieven (wife of the Russian ambassador between 1812 and 1834) was, like many other foreigners, shocked by the blatant immorality and sexual promiscuity of English society. Foreign tourists visiting London were amazed by the corpulence of many of the inhabitants. Rich Londoners grown fat on the wealth of empire and the industrial revolution were a tourist attraction. Guidebooks said "a passage to Margate....is frequently so replete with whim incident and character, that it may be considered a dramatic entertainment'.
The enthusiasm for steamboats held up the prospect of healthy profits and competition for passengers became fierce. The traditional watermen¹ soon realised that they could not compete with steamers. A broadside of the time says that "On the river.......skiffs¹ wherries¹ and other small fry have so-to-speak been boiled by steam". In 1840 the Waterman's steam packet company was established with a fleet of 12 fast packets.