The Aaron Manby and the Shannon

In May 1822

… the public were much gratified, and astonished, at the exhibition of an Iron Steam Boat in the river Thames, between London and Battersea Bridges.[1]

The boat was the Aaron Manby, named after its builder, who operated the Horsley Iron Works at Tipton in Staffordshire. It was commissioned by Captain Charles Napier RN as the first of a fleet to operate on the Seine. The boat was sent, in pieces, to Rotherhithe on the Thames and reassembled there for trials before its voyage to France.

The Aaron Manby (Wikimedia)

Early steam boats

The Aaron Manby was by no means the first steam boat to be seen on the Thames. Europe’s first commercial steam boat service was that of Henry Bell’s Comet, which began in August 1812.[2] Bell used the boat to carry visitors from around the Clyde to his hotel and baths at Helensburgh but it also helped to attract them: indeed it has been described as a publicity stunt.[3]

By 1818 the Clyde had ten passenger steam boats and six goods-carriers, with two more being built.[4] But the new technology was not confined to the Clyde: steam boats were mobile capital and required little new infrastructure, so they were soon in use on other rivers and on short sea routes.[5] By the end of 1817, 40 steam boats had been built in Great Britain[6] and at least two in Ireland;[7] the greatest concentrations were on the Clyde and Thames estuaries.

Several steam boats had by then made long journeys from one estuary to another: the Elizabeth from the Clyde to the Mersey in 1814;[8] the Margery via the North Sea to the Thames in 1815[9] and to the Seine in 1816; the Argyle via Dublin to the Thames in 1815;[10] the Lady of the Lake to the Elbe in 1816; the Caledonia to the Thames in 1816 and on to the Rhine, ending in Copenhagen in 1818.

The voyage of the Argyle (renamed Thames for service in London) is of Irish interest. Isaac Weld, who was born in Dublin in 1774, had had an adventurous life. At the age of 21, he sailed to Philadelphia and spent two years touring north America, where he met (amongst others) George Washington. He returned in 1797 “without entertaining the slightest wish to revisit the American continent” and later navigated the Lakes of Killarney in a boat he made from compressed brown paper.[11] In 1815 the Argyle visited Dublin en route from Clydeside to London; Weld persuaded Captain Dodd to take him and his wife, born Alexandra Hope, as the only passengers on the fifteen-day voyage to London.[12] Mrs Weld may have been the first European woman to undertake a sea voyage in a steam boat. Weld later, as Honorary Secretary of the Royal Dublin Society, helped to set up the programme of Statistical Surveys of Irish counties; he himself wrote the survey of County Roscommon, in which he pointed out that there were only three quays — Carrick-on-Shannon, Drumsna and Lough Allen (the Irish Mining Company’s coal quay) —on the upper Shannon.[13]

There was another early sea voyage in 1817, when the Lady of the Shannon, built by John Scott of Greenock[14] with one 20 hp engine by James Cook of Glasgow,[15] sailed for Kilrush and Limerick. It was the first steamer on the Shannon, carrying passengers on the estuary, and was owned by James Paterson of Kilrush. It had been built in 1816: its voyage to Ireland may have been deferred because of the bad weather that year, the “year without a summer”, especially as it had to face the exposed waters of the north and west coasts of Ireland.[16]

The revolving oars

The Aaron Manby was not, therefore, the first steam boat to make a sea crossing, but it was the first iron steam boat to do so. The boat was described as

… 106 feet long, and 17 broad, and is propelled by a 30 horse engine, and Oldham’s revolving oars, the most perfect piece of mechanism that has ever yet been adopted in steam boats.[17]

These revolving oars were one of many designs for improved paddle-wheels proposed in the early days. John Oldham, their inventor, was a Dublin man: originally an engraver, he became a painter of miniatures but, although he had no engineering training, he was a highly inventive person who introduced innovations in many fields: a machine for reproducing miniatures, another for automatic consecutive numbering of banknotes, heating and ventilation systems for ships and buildings, a steam-powered plate-printing press, a paper-cutting machine, new methods of sizing dyeing and wetting paper, improvements in fuel supply to furnaces and the Oldham coupling.[18]

Oldham’s banknote numbering system was adopted by the Bank of Ireland, which appointed him as its engineer; much later, the Bank of England did the same. His banknote system had been backed by Charles Wye Williams, whose father was the secretary of the Bank of Ireland; Charles also provided financial backing for Oldham’s paddle-wheel inventions (which led eventually to the feathering paddle-wheel) and, as “patentee of the revolving oars”, Charles was on board the Aaron Manby for its trials, amongst “a large party of distinguished Naval Officers, Engineers, and Savants”.[19]

Charles Wye Williams

In the following year, Williams set up a steamship company to operate between Ireland and Britain. It was not the first such company, but it was the first to undertake, from the beginning, to operate all year round, not just in the summer; it was also to carry freight and livestock, not just rich passengers. Its City of Dublin made its first crossing of the Irish Sea on 20 March 1824.[20]

The company became the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company and, by 1826, it had taken over the rival Mersey Steam Company. Its capital was £250000; it owned 14 vessels and was able to provide a daily service (except, of course, on Sundays), sailing with the tide between Dublin and Liverpool. The company sought to involve merchants, shippers, graziers and exporters in the business: shareholders got free passages, free storage and reduced charges.[21]

John Grantham

The Horsley Iron Works built another iron steam boat for the Seine but French regulations required that it be sent there “in parts” and it was reconstructed at Charenton; Mr Manby established an iron works there and built two more steam boats for service on the Seine.[22]

In 1824 the Horsley works began building another iron steam boat which, like the Aaron Manby, was sent dismantled to a sea port for reassembly. In this case the port was Liverpool; the vessel was to cross the Irish Sea to Dublin and may thus have been the second iron steam boat to make a sea crossing.[23] It reached Ringsend in November 1826[24] and, via the Grand Canal and the Shannon, arrived in the canal harbour in Limerick in the beginning of February 1827:

… her arrival having been expected, vast numbers went out to meet her, and many to a considerable distance, so that when she entered the Shannon, opposite Plassy, her decks were nearly covered; but when she arrived at the upper lock, on the next line of the canal, the numbers that crowded on board were very great indeed, and we attribute it to the peculiar construction of the Boat that nothing unpleasant, even in the way of alarm for an upset, took place. She is what is technically called a Twin-Boat, and of course no danger of that nature need ever be apprehended.[25]

The owner, John Grantham, had been employed in surveying the Shannon and realised that steam could ensure reliable crossings of Lough Derg, the principal obstacle to a scheduled service between Limerick and Dublin. His steamer, the Marquis Wellesley, towed unpowered barges — “fly boats” — across the lake; the boats were horse-hauled between Limerick and Killaloe and between Shannon Harbour and Dublin. He offered two sailings a week in each direction; he also provided a horse-drawn “packet boat”, for passengers and parcels, between Limerick and Killaloe.[26]

The Inland Steam Navigation Company

Unfortunately Grantham faced almost immediate competition from the Shannon Navigation Company, likewise operating a single steamer, the Mountaineer, on Lough Derg. It may be that Grantham’s operation was under-capitalised and that he was not a particularly good businessman. By December 1828 he was bankrupt[27] and his assets were offered for sale: they included the steamer, six fly boats, a flat at Portumna, the Killaloe to Limerick packet boat, the “materials of a store” at Killaloe and sacks, scales, weights and other items at Dublin, Portumna, Killaloe and Limerick.[28]

In May 1829, the (Dublin and Limerick) Inland Steam Navigation Company was set up “in immediate connection with, and under the same direction as the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company between Dublin and Limerick”. That “same direction” meant that it was run by Charles Wye Williams. The new company took over the assets of both existing operations, Grantham’s and the Shannon Navigation Company, and began a major programme of investment, including the assignment of a steamer to the Shannon estuary, a doubling of the number of steamers on Lough Derg[29] and the purchase of new “trade boats” (unpowered barges), amongst them the first iron vessels built by Lairds of Birkenhead.[30] Grantham was employed as manager in Limerick but did not stay long.

In 1833 the Inland Steam Navigation Company was merged into the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company.[31] The scale of the company’s operations, and its economic and political weight, provided the justification for Her late Victorian Majesty’s government to make a major investment on the Shannon in the 1840s, providing the basic infrastructure that defines the navigation to this day.[32]

Notes and sources

[1] Cumberland Pacquet, and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser 20 May 1822

[2] John Armstrong and David M Williams “The Steamboat, Safety and the State: government reaction to new technology in a period of laissez-faire” Chapter 3 of The Impact of Technological Change: the early steamship in Britain Research in Maritime History No 47, International Maritime Economic History Association, St John’s, Newfoundland 2011; originally published in Mariner’s Mirror LXXXIX No 2 2003 pp167–184

[3] Gordon Jackson and Charles Munn “Trade, Commerce and Finance” in W Hamish Fraser and Irene Maver (eds) Glasgow Vol 2 1830–1912 Manchester 1996 quoted in John Armstrong and David M Williams “The Steamboat and Popular Tourism” Chapter 4 of The Impact of Technological Change op cit; originally published in Journal of Transport History 3rd ser XXVI No 1 2005 pp61–77

[4] George Dodd An Historical and Explanatory Dissertation on Steam-Engines and Steam-Packets; with the evidence in full given by the most eminent engineers, mechanists, and manufacturers, to the Select Committees of the House of Commons; together with the Committees’ reports, distinguishing and defining safe and unsafe steam-engines, and their proper management: comprising particulars of the fatal explosions of boilers at Norwich, Northumberland, Wells-street, and in America: concluding with a narrative, by Isaac Weld Esq, of the interesting voyage of the Thames steam-yacht, from Glasgow, in Scotland, to Dublin and London published for the author, London 1818

[5] David M Williams and John Armstrong “‘One of the noblest inventions of the age’: British steamboat numbers, diffusion, services and public reception 1812–c1823” The Journal of Transport History Vol 35 No 1 Manchester University Press June 2014

[6] Joshue Field in Appendix 1 to Fifth Report of the Select Committee on the Roads from London to Holyhead; and into the regulations for conveying his Majesty’s mails between London and Dublin, &c, &c. Steam Boats; &c Ordered, by The House of Commons, to be Printed, 12 June 1822 [417]

[7] D B McNeill Irish Passenger Steamship Services Vol 2 South of Ireland David & Charles, Newton Abbot 1971

[8] Note 13 “James Cook” in David Napier and David Bell David Napier, Engineer, 1790-1869. An autobiographical sketch with notes James Maclehose and Sons of Glasgow 1912 on February 2016

[9] Frank Burtt Cross-channel and Coastal Paddle Steamers Richard Tilling, London 1934; Field gave the date of 1816 for the move to the Seine

[10] Field’s list applies this information to the Glasgow but Dodd’s trip in the Argyle is well attested

[11] Henry Boylan ed A Dictionary of Irish Biography 3rd ed Gill & Macmillan, Dublin pb 1999 and “Weld, Isaac” at Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 60 online at,_Isaac_(DNB00) checked June 2014

[12] “An Account of the First Steam Voyage on the British Seas, performed by the Thames steam-packet, from Glasgow to London, in the year 1815″ in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country September 1848 (in Vol XXXVIII July to December 1848 John W Parker, London)

[13] Isaac Weld Statistical Survey of the County of Roscommon, drawn up under the directions of the Royal Dublin Society Dublin 1832

[14] Fifth Report on Holyhead Roads op cit Appendix 8 (13) “Answers of Mr John Scott of Greenock”

[15] Ibid. Cook, in his “Answers” at Appendix 8 (20), does not mention the Lady of the Shannon

[16] Brian J Goggin “Mr Paterson’s Steamer” in The Other Clare Vol 41 2017

[17] Cumberland Pacquet op cit

[18] A D MacKenzie The Bank of England Note: A History of its Printing Cambridge University Press 1953; James McGuire and James Quinn eds Dictionary of Irish Biography Cambridge University Press 2009; Surgeon Lover “Sir James Anderson’s Steam-boiler” in The Repertory of Patent Inventions, and other discoveries and improvements in arts, manufactures, and agriculture; being a continuation, on an enlarged plan, of the Repertory of Arts and Manufactures, a work originally undertaken in the year 1794, and still carried on with a view to collect, record, and bring into public notice, the useful inventions of all nations New Series Vol X June–December 1838 J S Hodson, London; John Oldham letter to the editor in The London Journal of Arts and Sciences containing full descriptions of the principles and details of every new patent, also original communications on objects connected with science and philosophy, particularly such as embrace the most recent inventions and discoveries in practical mechanics by W Newton, Civil Engineer and Mechanical Draftsman, and C F Partington, of the London Institution. Vol I (second series) Sherwood & Co, London 1828; John Oldham letter to the editor in The London Journal of Arts and Sciences for 1821. An original work exhibiting the progressive advancement of practical science in the various branches of Arts, Manufactures & Agriculture Vol II Sherwood Neely & Jones, London

[19] Cumberland Pacquet op cit

[20] Charles Wye Williams in evidence to the Select Committee on the State of the Poor in Ireland 14 May 1830

[21] Dublin Evening Mail 29 May 1826

[22] John Grantham (jnr) Iron, as a material for ship-building; being a communication to the Polytechnic Society of Liverpool Simpkin, Marshall and Co, London and others 1842

[23] ibid

[24] Dublin Evening Mail 20 November 1826

[25] Limerick Chronicle 3 February 1827. The plaque to Grantham in Killaloe Cathedral gives the wrong year, 1825, for Grantham’s introduction of steam to the Shannon

[26] Dublin Evening Mail 16 March 1827, 8 August 1827; Limerick Evening Post 16 September 1828

[27] Dublin Mercantile Advertiser, and Weekly Price Current 1 December 1828

[28] Dublin Mercantile Advertiser, and Weekly Price Current 2 February 1829

[29] Dublin Evening Post 19 May 1829

[30] Liverpool Mercury 16 October 1829

[31] Dublin Evening Mail 22 May 1833

[32] Brian J Goggin “Steam, the Shannon and the Great British Breakfast” in Journal of the Railway & Canal Historical Society Volume 38 Part 4 Number 222 (March 2015)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.