London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


Steam Navigation.

I HAVE now to speak of the last great change in river transit—the introduction of steam navigation on the river Thames. The steamboat used in river navigation, or, indeed, in any navigation, was built and launched by Fulton, on the river Hudson, New York, in . It was not until years later, or in , that the English river steamboat challenged the notice of the citizens as she commenced her voyage on the Thames, running daily from the Dundee Arms, , to Gravesend and back. She was called "Margery," and was the property of a company, who started her as an experiment. She was about the burden of the present Gravesend steamers, but she did not possess covered paddle-wheels, being propelled by uncovered wheels (which were at the time compared to ducks" feet,) projecting from the extremity of the stern. The splashing made by the strokes of the wheels was extreme, and afforded a subject for all the ridicule and wit the watermen were masters of. Occasionally, too, the steamer came into contact with a barge, and broke or more of her duck feet, which might cause a delay of an hour or so (as it


was worded to me) before a jury duck-foot could be fitted, and perhaps, before another mile was done, there was another break and another stoppage. These delays, which would now be intolerable, were less regarded at that period, when the average duration of a voyage from to Gravesend by the "Margery" was about hours, while at present, with favouring wind and tide, the distance from London-bridge to Gravesend, miles by water, is done in less than hour and a half. The fares by the river steamer were for the best, and for the fore cabin. Sailing-packets, at that time, ran from the Dundee Arms to Gravesend, the fare being ; and these vessels were sometimes a day, and sometimes a day and a-half in accomplishing the distance. The river steamboat, after running less than months of the summer, was abandoned as a failure. A favourite nickname, given by the watermen and the river-side idlers to the unfortunate "Margery" was "the Yankee Torpedo." About that time there had been an explosion of an American steamer, named the "Torpedo," with loss of life, and the epithet, doubtless, had an influence in deterring the timid from venturing on a voyage down the Thames in so dangerous a vessel. The construction of the "Margery" was, moreover, greatly inferior to the steamers of the present day, as when she shot off her steam she frequently shot off boiling water along with it. waterman told me that he had his right hand so scalded by the hot water, as he was near the "Margery," in his boat, that it was disabled for a week.

In the following summer another steamer was started by another company—the "Old Thames." The "Old Thames" had paddlewheels, as in the present build, her speed was better by about mile in than that of her predecessor, and her success was greater. She ran the same route, at the same prices, until the "Majestic," the river steamer, was started in the same year by a rival company, and the fares were reduced to and The "Majestic" ran from the Tower to Gravesend. At this time, and years afterwards, the watermen had to convey passengers in boats to and from the steamers, as of the watermen has stated in the narrative I have given. This was an additional source of employment to them, and led to frequent quarrels among them as to their terms in conveying passengers and luggage; and these quarrels led to frequent complaints from the captains of the steamers, owing to their passengers being subject to annoyances and occasional extortions from the watermen. In , smaller boats, the "Favourite" and the "Sons of Commerce" were started, and the distance was accomplished in half the time. It was not until , however, that steam navigation became at all general above bridge.

The increase of the river steamboats from is evinced by the following Table:—

 Years. Number of River Steamers. Number of Voyages. 
 1820 4 227 
 1830 20 2344 
 1825 43 8843 

Thus we have an increase in the years from to of steamers; and in the years from to , of over the number employed in ; and of over the number of .

During the next years—that is from to ,—there was an increase of steamers.

The diminution in the time occupied by the river steamboats in executing their voyages, is quite as remarkable as the increase in their numbers. In , boats performed voyages; or presuming that they ran, at that period, weeks in the year, voyages each, or about a-week. In , following the same calculation, steamers accomplished voyages, being each, or between and voyages a-week. In , steamers made voyages, being voyages each, or about a-week. During this time some of the steamers going the longer distances, such as to Richmond, Gravesend, &c. ran only , , or days in the week, which accounts for the paucity of voyages compared with the number of vessels.

In , only voyages were accomplished during the season of weeks; in , half that number of voyages were accomplished daily during a similar term, and during the whole of that term the river steamboats conveyed passengers. The amount expended in this mode of transit exceeds a quarter of a million sterling, or upwards of half-a-crown a-head for the entire metropolitan population.

The consequences of the increase of steamnavigation commanded the attention of Parliament in the year , when voluminous evidence was taken before a Committee of the , but no legislative enactments followed, the management of the steam traffic, as well as that of all other river traffic, being left in the hands of the Navigation Committee of the Corporation of London, of the composition of which body I have already spoken. "Collisions have taken place," said Sir John Hall, in ; "barges, boats, and craft, have been swamped, and valuable property destroyed, from the crowded and narrow space of the passage through the Pool; and human life has, in some instances, also fallen a sacrifice from such collisions, and in others, from the effect of the undulations of the water produced by the action of the paddle--wheels of the steamboats, — circumstances which have been aggravated by the unnecessary velocity with which some of those vessels have been occasionally pro-


pelled." The returns laid before Parliament show deaths, in , attributable to steam craft. In the year , the number of deaths from the same causes was no less than . In all these cases inquests were held. In , the number of deaths, from all causes, whether of accident or suicide on the river, as investigated by the coroner, was ; the deaths caused by steamboats being -eighteenth that number; while, in , the deaths from all causes were , the steamboats having occasioned loss of life to nearly - of that number.

To obviate the danger and risk to boats, it was suggested to the committee that the steamers should not be propelled beyond a certain rate, and that an indicator should be placed on board, which, by recording the number of revolutions of the paddle-wheels, should show the speed of the steam-vessel, while excessive speed, when thus detected, was to entail punishment. It was shown, however, that the number of times the wheel revolves affords no criterion of the speed of the vessel, as regards the space traversed in a given period. Her speed is affected by depth of water, weight of cargo, number of passengers, by her superior or inferior construction and handling, and most especially by her going with or against the tide; while, in all these circumstances of varying speed, as regards rates of progress, the revolutions of the paddle-wheels might, in every minutes, vary little in number. The tide moves, ebb and flow, on the average, miles an hour. Mr. Rowland, the harbour-master, has said, touching the proper speed of steam-vessels on the river:—" miles an hour through the water against the tide, and with the tide, would give ample speed for the steamboats. An opportunity would thus be afforded of travelling over the ground against the tide at the rate of about miles an hour, and with the tide they would positively pass over the ground at the rate of about miles." The rate at which the better class of river steamers progress, when fairly in motion, is now from to miles an hour.

Although no legislative enactments for the better regulation of the river steam navigation took place after the Report of the Committee, accidents from the cause referred to are now unfrequent. In the present year, I am informed, there has been no loss of life on the Thames occasioned by steamboats. This is attributable to a better and clearer "water way" being kept, and to a greater efficiency on the part of the captains and helmsmen of the river steam fleet.

It is common for people proceeding from London-bridge to Gravesend to exclaim about the "crowds of shipping!" The fact is, however, that notwithstanding the great increase in the commerce and traffic of the capital, the Thames is less crowded with shipping than it was at the beginning of the century. Mr. Banyon, clerk to the Waterman"s Company, in his evidence before a Committee of the , described himself as a "practical man years before ." He says, "There is a wonderful difference since my time. I was on the river previous to any docks being made, when all the trade of the country was laying out in the river. . . . . The river was then so crowded that the tiers used to overlap another, and we used to be obliged to bring up so as to prevent getting athwart hawse." I mention this fact to show that, without the relief afforded by the docks, steam navigation would be utterly impracticable.

The average tonnage of a steam-vessel, of a build adapted to run between London and Greenwich, or Woolwich, is or tons; adapted to run to Gravesend or beyond is about tons; and those merely suitable for plying between London-bridge and , or tons. What is the number of persons, per ton, which may safely be entrusted to the conveyance of steamboats, authorities are not agreed upon. Mr. W. Cunningham, the captain of a Woolwich steamer, represented it to the committee as or to the ton, though he admits that to the ton inconvenienced the passengers by crowding them. The tonnage of Mr. Cunningham"s vessel was ; his average number of passengers, "on extreme freights," was ; yet he once carried persons, though, by his own admission, would involve crowding.

The changes wrought in the appearance of the river, and in the condition of the waterman, by the introduction of steamers, have been rapid and marked. Not only since the steam era have new boats and new companies gradually made their appearance, but new piers have sprung up in the course of the Thames from Gravesend to Richmond. Of these piers, that at Hungerford is the most remarkable, as it is erected fairly in the river; and on a fine summer"s day, when filled with well-dressed persons, waiting "for their boat," it has a very animated appearance. A long, wooden framework, which rises into a kind of staircase at high water, and is a sloping platform at low water, connects the pier with Hungerford-bridge. At and bridges the piers are constructed on the abutments of an arch, and a staircase conducts the passenger to the bridge. On the north side of the river are, at London-bridge, at Southwark-bridge, at Paul"s-wharf (Blackfriars), Temple, , Waterloo-bridge, Fox-under-the-hill, , , Hungerford, , Cadogan-pier, , Battersea-bridge, Hammersmith, and Kew. On the other side are, at Richmond, at Putney, Red House, Battersea; Elms, , Westminster-bridge, and London-bridge. Below bridge, on the Middlesex side, the piers are, the Tunnel,


Limehouse-hole, Brunswick, North Woolwich, and Purfleet. On the Surrey side there are piers at Gravesend, at Rosherville, Erith, Woolwich, East Greenwich, Greenwich, and the Commercial-docks, .

The piermen at the pier belonging to the Gravesend Diamond Company (the oldest company now flourishing, as it was started in ), and to others of similar character, are in number. At Hungerford, however, there are piermen; and taking the steamboat-piers altogether, it may be safely said there are men to each on an average, or men to such piers. The piermen are of classes as regards the rates of remuneration.

The piermaster, who is the general superintendent of the station, has a-week; the others have and These men are not confined to any duty; as the man who takes the tickets from the passengers day may assist merely in mooring, or in "touting" the next—though a good touter is not often changed. The colour of the tickets is changed daily, unless a colour is "run out," in which case another colour must be substituted until a supply can be obtained. The majority of the piermen have been watermen, or seamen, or in some way connected with river work. They are, for the most part, married men, supporting families in the best manner that their means will admit.

From a gentleman connected with a Steampacket Company I had the pleasure of hearing a very good character of these men, while by the men themselves I was informed that they were, as a body, fairly treated, never being dismissed without reasons assigned and due inquiry. The directors of such vessels as are in the hands of companies meet weekly, and among their general business they then investigate any complaints by or against the men, who are sometimes suspended as a punishment, though such cases are unfrequent. All the men employed on board the riversteamers are free watermen, excepting those working in the engine-room. In the winter some of them return to the avocation of watermen—hiring a boat by the month or week, if they do not possess, as many do, boats of their own. In the course of my inquiries among the merchant seamen, I heard not a few contemptuous opinions expressed of the men on board the river-craft. There is no doubt, however, that the captain of a river-steamer, who is also the pilot, must have a quick and correct eye to direct his vessel out of the crowd of others about London-bridge, for instance, without collision. The helmsman is frequently the mate of the steamer—sometimes, but rarely, of the crew—while sometimes the captain himself relieves the mate at the helm, and then the mate undertakes the piloting of the vessel. During the season, when a steam-boat is "made safe" for the night, of the crew usually sleeps on board to protect what property may be kept there, and to guard against fire. The crew go on board about hours before the vessel starts, to clean her thoroughly; the engineer and his people must be in attendance about that time to get the steam up; and the captain about half-an-hour or an hour before the boat leaves her mooring, to see that everything is in order.

The river-steamers generally commence running on Good Friday or Easter Monday, and continue until the , or a little later if the weather be fine. Each steamer carries a captain, a mate, and men as crew, with an engineer, a stoker, and a call-boy —or hands altogether on board. The number daily at work on the river-steamers is thus : so that including the piermen, the clerks, and the "odd men," between and persons are employed in the steam navigation of the Thames. Calculating each voyage to average miles, the extent of steam navigation on the Thames, performed daily in the season, is no less than miles. The captains receive from to per week; the mates, from to ; the crew, each; the call-boy, ; the engineer, from to ; and the stokers,

The class of persons travelling by these steamboats is mixed. The wealthier not unfrequently use them for their excursions up or down the river; but the great support of the boats is from the middle and working classes, more especially such of the working class (including the artisans) as reside in the suburbs, and proceed by this means of conveyance to their accustomed places of business: in all, or nearly all, the larger steamers, a band of music adds to the enjoyment of the passengers; but with this the directors of the vessel have nothing to do beyond giving their consent to gratuitous conveyance of the musicians who go upon speculation, their remuneration being what they can collect from the passengers.

This object is in collection Temporal Permanent URL
Component ID:
To Cite:
DCA Citation Guide    EndNote
Detailed Rights
View all images in this book
 Title Page
Chapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
Our Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
Chapter III: - Street Musicians
Chapter IV: - Street Vocalists
Chapter V: - Street Artists
Chapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
Chapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
Chapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
Chapter IX: - Ballast-Men
Chapter X: - Lumpers
Chapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
Chapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
Chapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
Chapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
Chapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
Chapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
Chapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men