River Boats Before 1851 - Overview

River boats were the first form of transport to be powered by steam. In contrast with the reaction to steam-powered road and rail engines (as we shall see later), there is little anti-steamboat feeling in songs of the time. This may well be accounted for by factors that led to their rapid and enthusiastic adoption.

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.

There had been very little use of water transport for pleasure, steam boats opened up a new market without threatening established interests. 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.

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. 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. By 1816 steamboats could be found on the Forth, Tay, Avon, Yare, Trent, Tyne, Ouse, Humber, Orwell, Mersey, and Thames.