Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Because my books are set in C19th Cornwall, finding a subject and background that hasn’t already been explored, by me or others,  is not easy. But while I was re-reading a history of the packet service based in Falmouth, one line triggered a light-bulb moment. It mentioned trials of a new high-pressure boiler fitted to one of the first steam driven packet ships. 
For over fifty years the Post Office had run the packet service at a profit, the ships sailing to all parts of the globe carrying mail, bullion, passengers, and despatches to naval vessels. But the end of the wars with France threw scores of naval commanders and crews out of work.  To give them employment and ensure the country would have trained men available in the event of another conflict, the Admiralty pressured the government to transfer responsibility for the packet service to them.  Almost immediately it started losing money.  Instead of continuing to use locally built schooners that were fast, light, and able to cope with most wind conditions, the Admiralty insisted on replacing them with naval brigs. These were cumbersome and top-heavy.  In fact so many were lost during bad weather they became known as coffin brigs.
Desperate to get back into profit, knowing they needed faster voyages and a faster turnaround, the Admiralty decided to experiment with steam-driven ships. But initial trials were sabotaged by confusion and resistance. The engineers were civilians with no rank and therefore no authority, while the commanders and crew of the brigs knew nothing about engines and had no interest in learning. 
Early steam-driven marine engines powered paddlewheels fitted on either side of the ship. The Americans were ahead of Britain with this technology and were already using paddlewheel steamers to carry passengers and freight along the Mississippi and other rivers.
But rivers are smooth. The sea isn’t. Paddlewheels digging into ocean waves at different times and different depths resulted in a jerky waddling motion that made all but the strongest horribly seasick.
Another drawback to high pressure steam was that without regular careful maintenance the boilers had a tendency to explode. When this happened in a railway locomotive, only the driver and stoker perished.  But when a paddle steamer carrying two or three hundred people blew apart the loss and carnage were devastating.  
This set me thinking. Might there be a safer alternative? I found one. It’s amazing, and I’ll tell you more about it next time.

Jane Jackson.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating, Jane. I'd done some research into steam-powered ships for another book but I hadn't come across the stuff about the mail packets.

It's certainly true that the Royal Navy was slow to accept steam power. Part of the problem was that the paddle wheels got in the way, since they were midships, just where the guns would normally go. So fighting with a paddle steamer was really different and difficult. Not surprisingly, naval officers wanted to stick to sail.

Jane Jackson said...

Thanks for your comment, Joanna. The side-mounted paddle wheels weren't such a problem for packet ships (in contrast to naval vessels) as packets were supposed to run from any potential attack, only turning to fight as a last resort and for that they had bow and stern-mounted guns. But I imagine the ex-naval captains would have hated the order to flee not fight.

Jane Odiwe said...

I didn't know anything about the mail packets apart from having heard about them-looking forward to the next installment!

Jane Jackson said...

Thanks, Jane. I have used the different roles of the packet ships as a background to three of my earlier books so I learned a huge amount about them while researching. An additional advantage is that the service was based in Falmouth, four miles from my home! So I can stand on the town quay (now known as Custom House quay) look out on the harbour and visualise the ships on their moorings. Most of the packet captains chose to make their homes in Flushing, just across the river, and the exteriors of their houses haven't changed.