In the time of Queen Victoria, Britain was the world's leading industrial nation. As an island, much of her wealth depended on her merchant ships, which carried goods and people between the various parts of her empire. British ships had to be amongst the best in the world and keep up with the latest advances in technology. The use of steam for propelling ships through the water was one of these advantages.
When did the first steamships appear in Britain?
In 1794 the Earl of Stanhope built a steam-powered vessel named the Kent. This was an experimental ship which, though not successful itself, showed designers how to develop others that were. In 1801, a small steamer called the Charlotte Dundas ran trials on the Forth and Clyde Canal near Glasgow. Its engine not only powered it through the water against the wind but allowed it to tow two heavy barges as well. After this, steam-powered vessels could be used to earn money. For example, by 1825 steamships could offer people an alternative to stagecoach travel. Railways, also powered by steam, would come later.
By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne, steam-powered vessels were a familiar sight up and down coasts and along rivers. There was even a regular steamship service across the North Atlantic by Brunel's Great Western, which first crossed to New York in April 1838.
Which were the first services to use steamships?
Although coal to fuel them pushed up costs, steamers were useful where a short and regular service was needed, such as for the mail or for wealthy passengers. One of the first companies to invest in steamers for the mail service was an Irish stage-coach firm. Later this firm became part of the famous P&O shipping company. These first steamships, which used paddle-wheels, had an advantage over sailing ships because they were not held up when winds were in the wrong direction or if there was no wind at all. They were also very easy to manoeuvre in narrow waters such as canals or rivers.
How did steamships develop?
Paddle-wheels had several problems. Their main disadvantage was that in rough seas, away from the shelter of rivers or coasts, they could become submerged or rise out of the water altogether. This harmed the engines. During the 1840s screw propellers replaced the paddle-wheels, and engines became larger. When larger and more powerful engines were used, they were of course heavier, and so the amount of stress and vibration increased. This weakened ships' wooden hulls. Planks worked apart and the ships began to leak. However, Britain's growing industries could provide shipbuilders with a new and stronger material and one which was easier to supply than wood. So iron, and later steel, came to be used in shipbuilding.
Were sail and steam in competition throughout Victoria's time?
Not at first. For many years sailing ships and steamships had equally important but different jobs to do. Throughout the 19th century both types of vessel advanced in technology and became far more efficient. By 1870, sailing ships could be worked with far fewer men than those of 1800 and offered increased space for goods. This was important in an age when trade throughout the world was growing, especially in such bulky goods as jute and rice from India, wheat from California and wool from Australia. On the long ocean-going runs to such places, ship-owners chose wooden and later iron sailing ships, called square-riggers, rather than steamships. Wind power was free, while coal for engines was not. Besides, before 1870, a steamer might need to refuel up to ten times on a long trip. These coaling stops were expensive, hard work and took up valuable time.
Were sail and steam power used together?
Yes. Most steamships in the time of Queen Victoria carried sails in case of engine failure and also to get extra power if there were favourable winds.
Where were the steamships built?
Many sailing ships had been built in southern Britain, particularly London, but steamships required different resources, such as coal and iron, plus highly skilled engineers and a supply of cheap workers. So shipbuilding followed other heavy industries to Glasgow (River Clyde) and North-East England, where these could be found. Workmen and engineers became more and more efficient and by the end of the century, Britain was a world leader in steamship production.
What part did steam play in the Royal Navy in the 19th century?
The Battle of Navarino in 1827 was the last to be fought by the British Navy entirely with sailing ships. At first, however, the navy only used steamships for certain tasks. Steam tugs, for instance, manoeuvred large warships in and out of harbours. Navy commanders thought that engines and paddle-wheels were too unreliable to be used in the fighting ships themselves; furthermore the paddle-wheel and its protective cover did not allow a full broadside of cannon to be carried and were vulnerable to the enemies' shot. Officers also thought that steamships were not smart enough! So, at least until the 1860s, sailors in Her Majesty's Navy were trained in the traditions of sail, not steam.
What effect did steamships have on sailor's lives?
A whole new type of seafarer appeared. The traditional skills of working sails and ropes were eventually replaced by the craft of the 'marine engineer', sometimes sarcastically called 'engine drivers' by other members of the crew. In fact, many engineers had indeed driven steam trains before working on ships! For some time both Merchant and Royal Naval captains were puzzled about how to treat the engineers, and how they should fit into traditional ships' ranks. Working the ships' engines was dirty, hot, noisy and wet, as well as dangerous. Stokers had to keep the furnaces fed with coal, while greasers kept the machinery parts well oiled. In addition, of course, there was the refuelling or 'coaling' which was an exhausting job involving the shovelling and carrying of coal from dockside to ships' bunkers.
When did steamships take over the long distance routes?
From about 1870, a new and much more efficient engine was introduced into ships, called the Triple Expansion Engine. It allowed steam to be used three times before being turned back by the condenser into fresh water for the boilers. The boilers themselves were improved in design to allow higher steam pressures. This all meant that the engines could propel the ship for longer distances before recoaling, and so take on long runs. However, some sailing ships continued to be used into the next century on runs where speed and timekeeping were not essential.