Steamers on the Royal Canal

This page is intended to assist some future historian: it provides some information that I came across but that is not central to my own interests. Accordingly, I provide brief notes here in the hope that somebody else will be inspired to find out more.

Histories of the Royal Canal, and of its owner the Midland Great Western Railway, focus on the use of steamers in the 1870s. However, there were steamers on the Royal Canal before then. Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary (1837) has this in its entry for Mullingar:

The principal trade is in wool, for which this is the greatest mart in the county, its central situation and facility of communication with the Shannon and with Dublin having rendered it the commercial centre of a wide extent of country. The City of Dublin Steam Company commenced operations here in 1830: a steamer plies twice a week between this town and Shannon Harbour, where it meets the Limerick steamer and Grand Canal boat for Dublin.

It is interesting that the company did not run steamers eastward from Mullingar to Dublin (53 miles, 25 locks). The westward route (37 miles, 21 locks to the Shannon) would have enabled it to serve Longford, Tarmonbarry, Lanesborough and Athlone, although only the entry for Athlone mentions steamers. The schedule suggests that (unless two steamers were used) the steamer took a day and a half in each direction.

The Parliamentary Gazetteer (1845) does not mention steamers at Mullingar, which may suggest (but no more than that) that the steam service did not last long, but further research is clearly required.

The 1870s

The published histories give slightly different accounts of the steamers (some tugs, some tug-barges) the MGWR ran on the canal from around 1870.

Ernie Shepherd 1

According to Ernie Shepherd’s The Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland (Midland Publishing Ltd, 1994; seems to be out of print and no copies on Abebooks), in 1870 the company got an estimate from Grendons of Drogheda for a cargo steamer for use on the canal and then ordered two boats.

One of them was disabled by August 1871; the following March Courtney Stephens of Dublin were commissioned to fit new boilers by 1 May 1873.

Shepherd says that Steamer No 1 was out of action with a broken main shaft in March 1874; it is not clear whether this was the steamer with the new boilers or the other steamer.

Shepherd worked from the MGWR archives, amongst other sources.

Peter Clarke

Peter Clarke, in The Royal Canal: The Complete Story(Elo Publications, Dublin, 1992) dates the MGWR’s use of steam from 1876; he cites as source the minutes of the evidence given on the nineteenth day to the Waterways Commission in 1923. He says:

Until 1876 an unknown number of railway owned horse drawn barges were used. In that year, the service was expanded when four new screw propelled boats were purchased at a cost of £5,000.

Ruth Delany

Ruth Delany, in Ireland’s Royal Canal 1789–2009 (co-authored by Ian Bath, in association with Waterways Ireland, Lilliput Press, Dublin, 2010), says that the company decided in 1871 to act as a carrier on its canal, but that it used horse-drawn boats until 1875. In that year, she says, the company bought five steamers:

  • Mermaid, Conqueror and Pioneer were small tugs, towing three boats each
  • Rambler and Rattler could carry 30 tons each; they had steam winches as well as steam engines. In her The Shannon Navigation (Lilliput Press, Dublin, 2008), Ruth Delany suggests that the Rambler and Rattler were used on the Shannon as well as on the Royal Canal.

The service was unprofitable and the MGWR ceased carrying in 1886, although the event passed unnoticed by the Irish Times.

The Irish Times

At the half-yearly meeting of the proprietors of the Midland Great Western Railway Company, held on 7 September 1876, the Chairman (Sir Ralph Cusack) said that the largest trader on the Royal Canal (owned by the MGWR) was about to retire from business because of ill health. Sir Ralph said:

[…] it might be very inconvenient to persons in the country, who carry on the canal materials that are not exactly suited for a railway, such as coals, timber, slates, bricks, etc.

[…] it is therefore our intention to commence — perhaps in a small way at first — carrying with a couple of boats on the canal, so as to relieve the railway of this rough kind of traffic, and at the same time to benefit the country through which the canal runs. [Irish Times 8 September 1876]

Sir Ralph said that the company had ordered a small steamer:

We don’t propose that the steamer shall carry goods, but we propose to have a few small tugs similar to those used by Sir Arthur Guinness on the Liffey to draw laden boats. […] we will begin in a small way and see what way the thing will do. We cannot lose very much by it. We are getting one small tug, and I suppose we will get another. [ibid]

Here is the text of an advertisement placed in the Irish Timesin 1877:

Midland Great Western Railway
Royal Canal

The Company, having now placed on the Royal Canal several Barges drawn by Steamers, are prepared to enter into arrangements with Millers, Corn Factors, Timber and Potato merchants, &c, for the conveyance of grain, coal, timber, and other heavy consignments. All information as to rates can be obtained upon application to the Manager’s Office, Broadstone.

J E Ward, Manager, Broadstone, 11th October, 1877.

Ernie Shepherd 2

Shepherd says that, in August 1876, Hayes of Stony Stratford offered to provide a tug for £830; six months later he billed the company for the Pioneer. The Mermaid was ordered six months after that and was ready for inspection in May 1878. Hayes also supplied the Rambler. Shepherd says:

It is not clear how many vessels were owned and operated by the company, but the names Rattler and Dauntless also appear in the traffic minutes, the former in connection with a request from a Mr Lefroy for terms for letting. She was offered in March 1890 for 30s 0d per week […].

Shepherd says that Dauntless was mentioned in 1908 “when a Mr Claridge agreed to accept £80 for her”, that two old steamers were scrapped in 1916 and that in 1920 the engine and machinery of a third were sold, with the hull being converted for carrying out repairs on the canal. He says:

One of these three may have been Conqueror which was hired to a Mr Powderly in March 1892 for £3 per week.

The complete list …

Putting all of that together, we get this lot.

1871 Two steamers, names unknown, from Grendons of Drogheda; one re-boilered in 1873, one (not known whether it was the same one) with broken shaft in 1874. These steamers are not mentioned by Delany or Clarke, but the Irish Times of 22 September 1871 reported the Chairman’s address at the previous day’s half-yearly meeting of the MGWR:

He stated that the two steamers in operation on their canal were doing good work in ridding the canal of weeds.

Were these boats perhaps dredgers, weed-boats or maintenance boats rather than tugs or carrying craft? The fact that they were not mentioned in 1876 suggests that they were thought of in a separate category from the tugs and tug-barges.

1876–78 or thereabouts: five towing craft enter service:

  • the two tugsPioneer and Mermaid were supplied by Hayes of Stony Stratford in 1877 and 1878. The Pioneer seems to have ended up in West Africa (information from Alison Leighton, who has written a thesis about Hayes); I don’t know what happened to the Mermaid
  • I don’t know who built the tugConqueror. After being hired by Mr Powderly in 1892, it may have been one of the two scrapped in 1916 or the one converted into an unpowered float (repair boat) in 1920
  • theRambler was built by Hayes, in an unspecified year; it is still afloat in Ireland
  • I do not know who built the Rattler, where or when, or what happened to it.

1908: the Dauntless was mentioned. I have no more information about it.

Here is information about one former MGWR Royal Canal steam launch.

… or is it complete? The unknown carrier

So we now have seven or eight steamers, not just five. But even that list may not be complete.

Messrs Fishbourne were carriers, based in Dublin. I cannot supply a full history of the firm, but the texts of some of their advertisements will give an idea of what they did. This is from 1877:


We are now prepared to
carefully in our COVERED VANS, and forward to any part of the United Kingdom by

We can also carry on our ROAD WAGGONS, and with our TRACTION ENGINES, boilers and heavy machinery, at very reasonable rates.

We have a delivery to KINGSTOWN and neighbourhood DAILY.

Goods called for and forwarded daily and stored when required.

Parcels left at our offices,
Forwarded daily to all parts at low rates, for example, under 4lb to Cork, 4d.

This ad is from 1875:


General Carriers and Contractors to H M War Office, receive and forward goods and parcels daily to all parts of the United Kingdom, and Continents of Europe and America. Furniture removed by road or rail without packing. Goods called for on receiving notice, and stored on moderate terms.

Offices — Bachelor’s walk and Trinity street, Dublin. Belfast, Cork, Imperial Hotel Yard. Currah Camp. London, Holden terrace, Victoria.

In August 1877, just as the MGWR was starting its own service, Fishbourne placed this advertisement in the Irish Times:



We beg to inform the public that we purpose running our Steam Launches from the Custom House quay, Dublin, commencing the 20th inst, and every Monday afternoon at 4 o’clock, with Cargo to Mullingar, Ballinacargy, Abbeyshule, Ballymahon, Longford, Rooskey, Jamestown, and Carrick-on-Shannon, returning from Carrick-on-Shannon every Monday.

For particulars as to freight, &c, apply at our office, Bachelor’s walk, Dublin. 6th August, 1877.

So it seems that, in addition to the MGWR vessels, at least one and perhaps two other steamers were working on the Royal Canal. Unfortunately the Fishbourne service did not last long; this ad appeared in October 1877:


MESSRS FISHBOURNE & CO regret to inform the public that they are compelled to cease running their Steam Launches to Ballymahon, Carrick-on-Shannon, &c, in consequence of the state which the canal has been allowed to get into — choked with weeds and mud.

The propellor of their Launch, actually broken by railway sleepers lying in the mud, and all their efforts to hasten the action of the Irish Government who have a control over the Inland Navigation having proved unavailing, the matter must rest until the opening of Parliament.

As soon as the obstructions to the traffic on the canal are removed their Launches will commence running again.

I would welcome any further information about Messrs Fishbourne’s launches and about any other powered craft on the Royal before its first abandonment.

One response to “Steamers on the Royal Canal

  1. Pingback: Carrying on the Royal Canal | Irish waterways history

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