200 years of steamships in Southampton

This year marks 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 July 24, 1820.

Operating as a steam packet, the Hants Telegraph observed on July 31 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 the services of sailing ships could at times be problematical.

However, steamships also had issues, and passengers had to be given reassurance of Cobourg’s lower pressure engine and safety valve as at that time boiler explosions were not uncommon.

It 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 one and a half 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.

It still takes one and a half hours to cruise on 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 ill-fated maiden voyage on Wednesday April 10, 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. They had been laying idle in Southampton at the time due to a coal strike.

There were 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 hours – a then world record!

This week sees the 80th anniversary of Dunkirk, where 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 will be raising a glass to toast the heroes of Dunkirk – although they may fall 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 had been scheduled to take place on SS Shieldhall, herself constructed in Glasgow. on Sunday July 19.

Unfortunately due to the COVID-19 pandemic this and other Shieldhall 2020 sailings have been re-scheduled for 2021.

For more info, visit ss-shieldhall.co.uk .

Nigel Philpott is a tour guide with SeeSouthampton.co.uk .