Simon O’Regan’s screw steamer

On 17 August 1850 John M’Mullen, Secretary to the Grand Canal Company, had caused to be inserted in the Freeman’s Journal a notice that the Company’s half-yearly meeting would be held that day, starting at noon, at its offices in William Street, Dublin, Ireland.[1]

GCC meeting notice_resize

The Grand Canal Company’s ad

Just below that ad appeared another:

To the Shareholders of the Grand Canal and all Persons interested in Inland Steam Navigation

Simon O’Regan, the Projector, will start his Screw Boat from Portobello Harbour at Two o’Clock, on This Day (Saturday), to show the practicability of applying the Screw Propeller to Inland Navigation.

The Boat will continue running to and from the Fourth Lock until Six o’Clock in the Evening.

This enterprising undertaking will be found well worth the attention of all persons interested in the welfare of this Country.

The Projector trusts that the result of the Experiments will prove to the most sceptical the perfect practicability of the application of Steam to Canal Navigation.

O’Regan and his steamer

William Street and Portobello_resize

The Grand Canal in Dublin ~1840 [OSI]

O’Regan’s steamer had been mentioned in a letter to the newspaper on 13 July 1850[2]. John Wilson of 3 Sandwith-place said that he had some experience in the working of canals in England and Scotland. He wrote that the engineer Simon O’Regan, who had for the last seven years been manager of the Ringsend Foundry, had at his own expense tackled the difficulties of applying steam on canals, difficulties on which “many thousands” [of pounds] had been spent in England and Scotland. The greatest obstacle was

The locks not admitting the working of side paddles, in addition to the injury from the wave to the banks […].

O’Regan had bought a fly boat “of sixty feet keel, twelve tons burthen” from the Grand Canal Company. He had fitted a pair of 6 hp engines and a vertical boiler in a space six feet by four in the stern of the boat, which was “propelled by a screw” and could be operated “by any handy labourer after a day’s practice”.

Wilson said that the boat had been difficult to work by horse and cost 1s 9d per mile; it now made six miles an hour at a cost of only 3d per mile. Even lumber boats, he said, at only three miles an hour, cost 10d per mile when horse-drawn. Furthermore, horses required expensive ropes and trackways had to be maintained.

Wilson believed that, if the Grand Canal Company took up the project, its shareholders would be saved from total ruin and Ireland would benefit from “cheap and expeditious transit of passengers and goods”.

On the following Monday, the Freeman’s Journal[3], anxious (as Wilson had hoped) “to promote any enterprise calculated to improve this unhappy country”, wrote about the experimental trips. It also gave a more useful description of the boat:

The boat is built on the same principle as the ordinary canal passage boats, and fitted up with cabins, &c, in a like manner. The machinery is fixed near the stern, and occupies but a comparatively small space — namely, the boiler three feet, and the engine three feet four inches by two feet six inches. The boiler is a vertical tubular boiler; and the consumption of coal required to work for ten hours a day is calculated at 8 cwt. The engine is of six-horse power, having ninety revolutions per minute — diameter of cylinder, 5⅝ inches; stroke, 10½; ordinary pressure, 50 lbs to the square inch; and the average speed which the inventor proposes to attain with the boat in proper trim and machinery in full working order is six miles an hour.

The second engine mentioned by Wilson has disappeared: it seems that there was a single engine driving a single screw. That engine was designed and built by O’Regan, “a clever, intelligent, and industrious Irish artisan”, at his own expense. It had cost him over £300 as well as many months of work.

The trips attracted “numerous scientific persons and others”: the boat was heavily laden with machinery, coals, ballast and passengers but managed speeds from three and a half to five miles an hour between Portobello, on the Circular Line, and Grand Canal Harbour on the Main Line, about 2½ miles with no locks but a sharp turn at the junction with the Main Line.

The motion of the boat was steady, easy, and agreeable; and the disturbance of the water in her wake much less than might have been expected, being altogether central in her track, and creating no perceptible surge along the banks.

The passengers included “Mr Dargan, the eminent railway contractor“, who was said to have been impressed by the invention’s prospects in inland navigation. O’Regan repeated that horse-drawn boats cost 1s 9d per mile to run but had reduced the expected running costs of his own boat to 4d per mile including the engine, the fuel and the wages of the engine man and fireman. The Freeman’s Journal wished him every success.

Some context

Ruth Delany, in The Grand Canal of Ireland[4], shows that the Grand Canal Company was reducing its passenger-carrying fleet in the late 1840s. In 1848 it sold off nine swift boats [fly boats, ie fast horse-drawn passenger-carrying boats] and two heavy boats and retained only a day boat from Sallins (outside Dublin) to Ballinasloe, Co Galway, the westernmost station on the canal, as well as a night boat from Dublin to Ballinasloe. O’Regan might well have bought one of the nine boats and have fitted it out in the dry docks at Portobello.

O’Regan’s was by no means the first canal steamer in either Britain or Ireland. Nor was it the first screw steamer: John Ericsson’s screw propeller powered a narrow boat from London to Manchester in 1837 and John Inshaw built a twin-screw canal boat in 1845.[5] O’Regan’s may, though, have been the first canal screw steamer in Ireland.

However, there is an interesting point here. Ruth Delany says that …

… in a last despairing effort the directors decided to build two twin screw passage boats which would accommodate 100 passengers each. The hulls were built by Barrington of Ringsend for £230 each and the engines, with oscillating cylinders, were supplied by Inshaw of Birmingham for £475 each. By the time these boats were ready the company had carried out some experiments with screw steamers […] and found that they were not very satisfactory in the narrow confines of the canal. […] The new passage boats never carried passengers; they were used as towing steamers for a short time; then the engines were sold and the hulls converted into trade boats.[6]

In her Appendix 3, Ruth Delany says that the two boats were built in 1852 and that their engines were removed in 1861. The “experiments with screw steamers” were made with two towing steamers, one built by Robinson & Russell of Millwall and the other by Barrington of Ringsend, with Inshaw’s twin-screw arrangement; I have a report on their trials here.

Wilson’s letter says that O’Regan had spent seven years as manager of the Ringsend Foundry, which I think was Barrington’s works. I don’t know when O’Regan stopped working there. Is it possible that O’Regan knew that Barrington was fitting out the No 1 Towing Steamer, as well as the two passage boats, using Inshaw’s engines and screws, and that he decided to produce his own single-screw version first? I would very much like to know more of the relationships between Barrington and O’Regan.

O’Regan’s later life

I am grateful to John Ditchfield for pointing me to the next step in O’Regan’s career, which I have written about here, as it tried steam on another Irish waterway.

I have found other mentions of an engineer called Simon O’Regan after 1850, but I cannot be sure that they all refer to the same man (although I think it likely).

According to Lennon Wylie’s web page on the Belfast street directory of 1852[7], an engineer named Simon O’Regan lived at 15 Eliza Place, Eliza Street, Belfast, as did Samuel Moore, gentleman. In 1853 O’Regan advertised his patent smoke-consuming apparatus:[8]

Patent Apparatus for Smoke Burning

Mr Simon O’Regan, Engineer, begs to direct the attention of the Public to his Patent Apparatus for consuming Smoke in Furnaces; his invention supersedes every previous plan for simplicity of working and construction; it economises the quantity of fuel, and consumes at least three-fourths of the Smoke. The advantages of this plan will be immediately obvious to all interested, particularly mill-owners and bleachers. A Furnace on this plan has been working for some weeks in the Foundry of Messrs Gray, Townsend Street. It has been wrought and inspected by many eminent Engineers — it has been visited by many leading Members of the Town Council, and has been highly approved of by all who have witnessed its operations.

The Furnace may be inspected daily at Messrs Gray’s Foundry.

Parties desirous of having their concerns visited will please communicate with Mr O’Regan, at Messrs Gray’s Foundry, Townsend Street; or, at 26, Great Edward Street.

Belfast Town Council did discuss the Smoke Nuisance in May 1853, but Alderman Potts said that O’Regan’s apparatus “was at present exhibited on too small a scale to enable the Council to come to any determination concerning it”.[9]

It may be that O’Regan — if it is the same O’Regan — then moved to Liverpool, because on 6 April 1854 Simon O’Regan, Engineer, of Liverpool, was awarded a patent for improvements in engine-boiler furnaces and other furnaces.[10] In August 1854 Simon O’Regan, address unstated, gave notice of intention to proceed with those improvements.[11] The patent was sealed in week ending 23 September 1854.[12] In October 1855 O’Regan was awarded another patent, sealed in week ending 12 April 1856, for improvements in marine engine boilers and other boilers and their frames.[13] His improved boiler was described in July 1856:[14]

New Tubular Boiler.— A model of a new tubular boiler was exhibited and explained by the inventor, Mr Simon O’Regan, at the Exchange News-rooms, Liverpool, on Tuesday. The novelty of this invention consists in the tubes being placed vertically, and being filled with water. The furnace occupies the same position as in the common boiler, but the flame passes from the furnace to that portion of the flue in which the vertical tubes are placed, and these are so arranged as to check the current of heat, while a large area is left for radiation.

By these means there is secured a two-fold mechanical distribution; first, of the water to be heated; and, secondly, of the heat by which steam is generated. The tubes would be about 3½ feet long, and 3½ inches in diameter, over which there would be about 10 inches of water, and leaving an unusually large space for steam in the crown of the boiler, which is probably one of its greatest practical advantages. The tubes being constantly filled with water and protected against heat, and will keep themselves free by the action of the boiling water which must pass through them.

O’Regan’s career was not without its difficulties. In December 1856 he and a Mr Clay of Edgeley, near Stockport, both claimed that William Tristram, manufacturer, and John Stones, cotton spinner, both of Astley Bridge, had infringed their separate patents by trying a “plan for preventing smoke” by “making a ventilator in the furnace door, capable of regulation”.[15] The Manchester Courier observed that

There are, therefore, two claimants for the patent right of this important discovery, in which there appears to be nothing new except that, to make the plan effectual, the quantity of air admitted must bear a proper proportion to the size of the furnace.[16]

The Hampshire Telegraph reported a more serious dispute in December 1859[17]. O’Regan had fitted his smoke-preventing apparatus on the Sir Henry Oglander’s steam yacht Firefly. The contract provided that the £50 fee would be paid only if the apparatus was satisfactory in every respect. Oglander refused to pay and O’Regan took him to court. Oglander’s engineer said that the apparatus did not prevent smoke, increase steam power or decrease coal consumption. The Firefly‘s captain said that the steam pressure had been reduced from 15 lbs to 10 lbs and the maximum speed reduced from eight to five knots. The fireman said that more fuel was required, which meant more work for the crew. Witnesses from two other installations of O’Regan’s patent were similarly uncomplimentary. As O’Regan’s promises of improved performance had not been met, he lost the case and costs were awarded against him.

However, the Newcastle Daily Journal was more impressed in 1862[18], when it reported a trial of the apparatus of Simon O’Regan CE [the first time that designation was used] on the Tyne. In its introductory remarks it said that his apparatus had been unvaryingly successful in Liverpool, London, Manchester and Glasgow and at Osborne House and the Houses of Parliament.

A year earlier, the Journal said, he had moved to Newcastle to seek the patronage of the coalowners of Northumberland; his apparatus had been installed at Backworth Pumping Main and at Haswell and Ryhope Collieries as well as at two sets of baths run by the Corporation of Newcastle. Mr Rogerson of the Red Star line of steamers had permitted O’Regan to fit his apparatus to the Louise Crawshay, his slowest and smokiest steamer.

As elsewhere, the patent has proved successful, and the captain of the Louise Crawshay may now run his boat down the river free from the fear of the lynx-eyed policemen, and without poisoning the inhabitants of the banks of the Tyne as he passes them. Nor is this all the benefit that has resulted from the change. To almost all former inventions for the consumption of smoke there has been the great drawback that, while by careful firing they partially succeeded in remedying the evil, they at the same time decreased greatly the power of the steam. So far from this being the case, however, by Mr O’Regan’s patent, it appears in this instance at least to have had quite the opposite effect. Formerly the pressure of steam which could be borne by the engines of the Louise Crawshay was only 14 lbs per inch, but since the introduction of the smoke-consuming apparatus, the engines have actually been able to bear not less than form 24 lbs to 28 lbs.

Few people turned up for the trial, which involved the Louise Crawshay in steaming out to sea using one type of coal and back using another, but it was accounted a great success.

I would welcome information about Mr O’Regan and his steamer as well as about Mr Barrington and the Ringsend Foundry.


[1] Freeman’s Journal 17 August 1850

[2] Freeman’s Journal 13 July 1850

[3] Freeman’s Journal 19 August 1850

[4] Ruth Delany The Grand Canal of Ireland David & Charles, Newton Abbot 1973

[5] C P and C R Weaver “The Steam Narrow Boat” in Steam on Canals David & Charles 1983 available online at

[6] Delany op cit

[8] The Belfast Newsletter 25 March 1853

[9] Report of meeting of Belfast Town Council in The Belfast Newsletter 4 May 1853. A search engine says that O’Regan was also mentioned in The Belfast Newsletter of 5 July 1854 but I could not find the piece.

[10] Supplement to the Leeds Intelligencer 20 September 1854

[11] Mechanics’ Magazine 19 August 1854

[12] The Bradford Observer 5 October 1854

[13] Aris’s Birmingham Gazette 14 April 1856, The Manchester Courier, and Lancashire General Advertiser 19 April 1856, The Bradford Observer 17 April 1856 [which last I have not found]

[14] Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle 26 July 1856

[15] The Manchester Courier, and Lancashire General Advertiser 13 December 1856

[16] ibid

[17] Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle 31 December 1859

[18] The Newcastle Daily Journal 6 September 1862

My OSI logo and permit number for website[steamongrand10]

One response to “Simon O’Regan’s screw steamer

  1. Pingback: Daargan, O’Regan, steam and the Newry Canal | Irish waterways history

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