Alexandra Hope, Isaac Weld and George Dodd


Narrative of a Voyage performed by one from Glasgow to London; by J C Delametherie, Member of the French National Institute

A trial was made at Paris, more than thirty years ago, of a four-wheeled chariot moved by a steam engine. A boiler full of water was placed upon the chariot, and heated by a furnace to such a degree as to reduce the water into vapour. Behind the boiler was a pipe, by which the vapour escaped with rapidity. This vapour experienced such a resistance from the air, as to give the chariot a forward motion, which made it go at the rate of more than a league in the hour.

Steam-boats are constructed upon a different principle. The vapour here sets in motion large wheels similar to those of water mills, The invention of these boats, or at least the first application of this apparatus, is said to be as old as the year 1791. At that time M Clarke exhibited at Leith, in Scotland, a boat which was moved by steam. There appeared another soon after at Glasgow, on the river Clyde; and there are now sixteen or seventeen which ply regularly upon that river. Regular packet-boats, moved by steam, have been established in like manner between York and Albany. They have also been constructed in Canada, on the river St Lawrence.

M Fulton constructed a similar boat on the Seine, at Paris, in 1800, which sailed several hours. I was one of those who were in the boat. We passed the bridges, and went below Passy; thence we returned to the place we had left; this was repeated several times. The boat returned without any difficulty.

All these steam-boats had been employed only upon rivers; but a successful trial has been made of one upon a stormy sea, in a voyage from Dublin to London. We shall give an extract from this memorable voyage, made by Mr Isaac Weld, as communicated by him to Professor Pictet (Bibliotheque Britannique, au 15 Septembre).

[Isaac Weld‘s account follows]

The command of the vessel [originally Argyle; renamed Thames] had been given to Mr G[eorge] Dodd, a young man of great resolution, who had gone to Glasgow expressly to bring it to London. He had made his apprenticeship in the British navy, and had afterwards distinguished himself as a civil engineer, an architect, and even as a topographer. His equipment consisted merely of a master, four sailors of the first class, a smith, a fireman, and a cabin boy.

It was the first embarkation of the kind which had ever been attempted on the stormy sea which terminates St George’s channel; but full of confidence in his vessel and his equipment, he put boldly to sea.

The beginning of the voyage was not fortunate; the weather was very unsettled; and in the narrow channel which separates Scotland from Ireland, the swell is sometimes rendered terrible, by the meeting of the ebb-tide with the strong swell which comes from the Atlantic ocean. After having vainly attempted to advance, he was forced to seek shelter in Loch Ryan. A second attempt did not succeed much better than the first; he gained, however, the coast of Ireland; but there he had nearly lost his vessel, from the ignorance or awkwardness of a pilot, who, mistaking one cape for another, was like to cast it on shore. Captain Dodd affirmed to me, that no force but that of steam could have pushed the vessel against wind and tide, and saved it amid rocks.

It halted at Dublin for rest and repairs. On the 25th May, I learned by mere accident the arrival of a steam ship at Dublin. I immediately went to see it, and found it ready to set out, with a great number of curious persons, to exhibit its passage across the bar. I was so enchanted with what I witnessed, and what I learned of its passage from Glasgow to Dublin, that intending to go over to London, I immediately formed the resolution of trying the adventure of this voyage.

The following Sunday, being the 28th, at noon we put to sea. Many persons embarked along with us, through curiosity, only to cross the bay, and land at Dunleary, at seven miles distance. Some naval officers who were on board, agreed in thinking that this vessel could not long sustain a heavy sea, and that there would be great danger in venturing far from the coast. Nothing, however, suffered in this passage, and the vessel went through the waves in less time than the best sailer could have done.

My wife [née Alexandra Hope] and I spent some hours on shore at Dunleary, and then set sail, the only passengers. The shore was covered with many thousands of spectators, who wished us a happy voyage. The sea was very calm, and we reckoned on an agreeable sail through the night; but when no longer sheltered by the coast, we found a great swell. In fact, the movement of the vessel differed entirely from that of one pushed by sails or oars; the action of the wheels upon the water on both sides, prevented rolling; the vessel floated on the summit of the waves, like a sea bird.

The most disagreeable movement took place when the waves struck the ship crossways; but here too its particular construction gave it a great advantage; for the cages which contained the wheels acted like so many buoys. On these occasions, the sudden arrival of the water in the windward cage, and the compression of air, caused an alarming noise, and a shock like what is experienced from a high sea. After having experienced this shock on one side, we commonly experienced another, by way of reaction, on the opposite; then a third, much slighter, on the first side; after which the vessel preserved a regular motion for some minutes.

I do not recollect to have experienced more than three of these shocks in rapid succession; and their constant effect was to put a stop to that rolling which continues often so long in sailing vessels. It cannot be denied that they were unpleasant at the first moment, from the noise which accompanied them, and from their force of percussion, which made the whole vessel tremble; but no lasting inconvenience resulted from them; on the contrary, the equilibrium was immediately restored; and, during the rest of the voyage, the vessel made what the sailors call a dry way, that is, it danced so lightly over the waves, that it never took in one; and in all the passage we were not once wet, even by their foam; a most rare case, and which could not be expected in any common ship.

We left far behind us all the vessels that left Dublin by the same tide; and next day, about nine in the morning, we passed Wexford. The inhabitants, from the heights which rise over the city, had remarked the thick smoke that issued from our mast, and had thence concluded that the vessel was on fire. Instantly all the pilots put to sea, to fly to our aid; and on the arrival of the first, we could judge, by their attitude, of their extreme surprise, mingled with disappointment, at seeing us in good condition, and themselves frustrated of the dues of salvage.

The same day we reached Ramsay passage, between the island of that name and cape St David. Although the coast is broken by very abrupt rocks, we were not long of seeing, from some little creeks, round which there appeared no habitations, a number of boats issue, the rowers as usual taking us for a vessel in distress.

We had then to cross the bay of St Bride, where a great swell was produced by the meeting of spring tide with the current which came out of Ramsay passage. The turbulence of the waves, when we were in their power, was truly alarming; we were often so low between two of them, that we lost sight of the coast, though very high; but the vessel made its way across all these obstacles, in the most alert manner; and we left far behind us a fleet of merchant vessels which attempted to follow. We now crossed a narrow and very dangerous passage, called Jack sound.

Our situation at one time would have been very perilous on board a vessel which had only sails to trust to; but our powerful and indefatigable wheels soon drew us out of this danger, and brought us safe and sound into Milford road. Two days were employed at Milford in satisfying the curiosity of a number of marine officers, in examining the interior of the machine, and in cleaning the boiler — an operation which had not been performed since the departure from Glasgow.

We set sail in the evening of Thursday, and sailed through the middle of the Bristol channel. In the evening, we discovered the high coasts which form the western extremity of England; and as it would have been imprudent, this night, to have doubled the land’s end, we turned into the bay of St Ives. Our appearance caused the usual alarm, and in an instant every disposable sail was in motion towards us. The pilots on this station are the finest I ever saw. As we entered the bay, the appearance of our vessel appeared to cause as much surprise to the inhabitants, as that of Captain Cook on its first appearance in the South Sea islands. We spent a day or two on shore, and went to examine those curious masses of rock which form St Michael’s mount.

On Monday the 5th June, at four in the afternoon, the weather appearing favourable, we re-embarked. But, in doubling Cape Cornwall, the first of the two great promontories which terminate England to the west, we soon saw that appearances had deceived us; a tremendous swell came upon us from the whole depth of the Atlantic; while the current which came down St George’s channel, met these waves, and raised them to a height which it seemed impossible to pass. The vessel appeared to suffer, and the repeated shocks against the cage of the wheels alarmed the pilot, who heard them for the first time.

Night approached, and no harbour presented itself, save that which we had quitted, and which was already too distant. In this state of things, Captain Dodd remarking that the vessel sailed better against the wave than otherwise, caused it to make a long stretch in that direction, till we were out of the quarter where the swell struggled against the tides; we hoisted sail, which contributed always to the equilibrium of the vessel; and, at the end of some hours, we had at length doubled the Land’s end, and found a tranquil sea.

From this moment the voyage presented nothing painful or formidable; we were at the entrance of Mount bay, which is said to be always more tranquil than the Irish sea; the sun shone upon us, the sea sparkled with light, and the coast displayed all its beauties; we distinguished its woods, its villages, and its rich cultivation.

We arrived at Plymouth on Tuesday the 7th June. We were an object of astonishment to the sailors, who all collected on the sides of their vessels to gaze upon us, and make their observations. We had no sails — our wheels were invisible; and as the fire happened at the moment to burn without smoke, it was certainly difficult to divine the cause of our rapid motion.

From Plymouth we sailed without interruption to Portsmouth, where we arrived on Friday 9th June, at nine o’clock in the morning, having made 150 miles in 23 hours. At Portsmouth, the admiration was still more marked than elsewhere. The spectators crowded by tens of thousands, and the numbers of craft that pressed around us, became so considerable and inconvenient, that we were obliged to apply to the Admiral for a guard to maintain the police.

Our next stop was at Margate, at the mouth of the Thames. We arrived on Sunday morning the 11th, and spent twenty-four [sic] there. We then concluded our voyage, by sailing up the river to Limehouse, at the entry of London, in nine hours. We had made 760 miles in 121½ hours.

The notice which I have given leaves not the smallest doubt as to the usefulness of steam vessels in every case when it is of importance to make a quick voyage, and where the distance to be passed over is not very considerable; but the immense quantity of combustible matter which this process requires (two tons in twenty-four hours for a vessel of 75 tons) is an insurmountable obstacle to the employment of them in a long voyage; the great outlay required for constructing the machine, added to the value of the materials which it consumes, will not allow them to be employed with advantage in the conveyance of goods; but in situations like Dublin and Holyhead, where nothing is spared to accelerate the dispatches from London, these vessels might be of great service, particularly in the summer months, when calms are very frequent, and stop all ships that use the sail. In the same manner, between Dover and Calais; and wherever passengers are in haste to cross, these vessels will be used to much advantage.

This first voyage in open sea has proved that the wheels perform their functions very well in the roughest weather; and that the movement of the steam boat, though certainly slower amid waves than in a calm, will always be more rapid than that of an ordinary boat. As avisos, or sea-couriers, their merit is incalculable; and in time of war — but I stop; too many miseries mingle with these recollections; we breathe at last the balsamic zephyr of peace; let us enjoy it. (Journal de Physique)

Belfast Commercial Chronicle 24 April 1816


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