2020 marked the 200th anniversary of the first steamship operating out of Southampton, The Prince of Cobourg. Named after the husband of Charlotte of Austria, consort to the Prince Regent, the Prince of Cobourg began its route from Southampton to Cowes on Monday 24 July 1820. Operating as a steam packet, the Hants Telegraph observed on 31 July that year:
‘The long expected steam vessel, Prince of Cobourg, began to run between Southampton and Cowes as a regular post office packet. She performed the voyage to Cowes and back, three times in a day, being a distance of nearly nine miles (sic), part of which was necessarily against the wind and the tide. This fine vessel must be a great convenience to visitors, particularly in calms when only open boats may be used. Her velocity in a calm sea, even against the tide, is about 8 knots.’
Steamships proved a real boon to Southampton, particularly as the tide and coastal breezes meant that the services of sailing ships could at times be problematical. However, steamships also had issues, and passengers had to be given reassurance of the Cobourg’s ‘lower pressure engine and safety valve’ as at that time boiler explosions were not uncommon. 1820 was some thirteen years before the Royal Pier was introduced, and passengers were obliged to board the Prince of Cobourg by boat, paying the princely sum of 2s 6d in the ‘royal cabin’ or 1s 6d in the ‘fore cabin’ – single fare! The passage to the Isle of Wight would take approximately 1 ½ hours. Today, Southampton’s heritage steamship, SS Shieldhall (itself 65 years old in 2020) continues to uphold the tradition of ‘steam at sea’, its summer season excursions providing an insight into what life was like aboard a steamship at a time when Britain ‘ruled the waves’. (And it still takes 1 ½ hours to cruise on the Shieldhall to the northern shore of the Isle of Wight today!)
Interestingly, Alastair Arnott in ‘Maritime Southampton’ notes that the Southampton Herald reported that local residents were complaining about smoke from the Docks as early as 1825 – claiming it was ‘ruining the view of Southampton Water’! Something we can all reflect on with concerns of air quality in the city today.
In between the Prince of Cobourg and SS Shieldhall (herself listed in the register of National Historic Ships) many famous steamships have called Southampton home. The age of the steam packet really took off in the 1830s, with regular trips from Southampton to Le Havre and pleasure trips to and around the Isle of Wight. Later of course the liners arrived, the most famous being RMS Titanic, which left Southampton on her maiden voyage on Wednesday 10 April 1912.
The largest vessel of the day, Titanic could carry 8000 tonnes of coal, but only 5892 tonnes on her maiden voyage, much of which had been ‘borrowed’ from other steamships such as Majestic and Oceanic, laying idle in Southampton due to a recent coal strike. There was a total of 320 crew working in the Engine Room and Boiler Room of Titanic, a mixture of Engineers, Stokers and Trimmers, the so-called ‘Black Hand Gang’, many with a Southampton address. Similar figures were recorded for Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, which converted from coal to oil for raising steam in 1919. This conversion, adopted by many other ships, meant a reduction in business for the Southampton coal merchants of the day. These included R & J H Rea, who in 1911 had shifted 4000 tonnes of coal from barges onto Olympic in fifteen minutes – a then world record!
In World War II at Dunkirk, Southampton lost several of her finest steamships, including the Southern Railway Company’s cross-Channel boats the Lorina and the Normannia, and arguably the most popular steamer that ever plied between Southampton and the Isle of Wight, Red Funnel’s Gracie Fields.
Many have raised a glass to toast the heroes of Dunkirk – although they may have fallen shy of getting ‘totally steamed’. This saying is attributed to the actions of those enjoying trips ‘Doon the Watter’ in Glasgow – particularly on Sundays, with strict onshore licensing laws, but where drinking on steamships with ‘travellers’ was positively encouraged!
A celebratory cruise marking 200 years of steamships in Southampton (one year on!) is scheduled to take place on Steamship Shieldhall on Sun 18 July between 2.30pm – 6pm. On board to help celebrate this and Shieldhall’s 66th birthday will be members of local Steam Punk Groups and the Selsey Shantymen.
As Shieldhall leaves her berth 110 she will be joined by another steamship and member of the national historic fleet – the Dunkirk Little Ship, Steam Tug Challenge. Together, the two steamships will sound their respective whistles and provide a great photo opportunity as they mark the continuing tradition of steamships on Southampton Water.
Tickets for the Shieldhall sailing on Sunday 18 July are £36.50 adults; £13 children; £86 family bundle ticket (2 adults / 2 children).
For more info, please visit www.ss-shieldhall.co.uk