Why did Mary Shelley go by sea to Dundee ?

Years of BBC adaptions of Jane Austen novels and Christmas cards showing mail coaches in the snow might have led us to expect that Mary might have travelled all the way from London to Dundee by mail coach or by a private stage coach.

In fact travelling by coach was expensive, and excruciatingly uncomfortable, especially if you could only afford an outside seat which left you exposed to the weather. It didn’t help that many of the roads in Scotland were in poor condition before Thomas Telford’s improvements in the 1810’s.

All in all this meant that the journey overland would take a week or 10 days of bonejarring discomfort.

Going by ship could be as quick, and unless the ship was caught in a storm, rather more comfortable. After all both George IV when he visited Edinburgh in 1821, and Queen Victoria, on her first trip to Scotland in 1842, went by boat.

In fact there was passenger shipping to most Scottish ports in the nineteenth century. If you look at a map showing the old Scottish burghs you will notice that most of them are on navigable waterways – even cities such as Stirling which we might now consider landlocked, had a shipping service.

As early as 1814 there was a steam powered paddle steamer service on the Forth as far upriver as Stirling. (Sixty years ago, when I was little, you could still see remains of the staithes at Riverside where the paddle steamers had tied up.)

Basically, people and goods moved by water well into the nineteenth century. In the 1840’s before the railway network was complete, Bradshaw’s guide carried adverts for coastal packet companies:

aberdeen to london

In fact, even well into the railway era, many people preferred a sea voyage between London and Scotland – in the 1870’s the Freemans went to Scotland by sea for their walking holiday. In an era before corridor trains, sleeping cars and onboard toilets, it was probably simply more comfortable to go by sea

railway urinals

than spend 12 hours or so crossing your legs.

Dundee, of course, sprawls across a hilly ridge on the north bank of the Tay. Before the rail bridge was built, people had no alternative but to get a ferry across the Tay.

Prior to 1815, these were open sail driven pinnaces and at the mercy of the weather. But in 1815 disaster struck and one of these ships sank with the loss of 17 people including one boatman known as Cossack Jock (Incidentally, if you like stories it’s worth spending 10 minutes watching Erin Farley of Dundee Libraries tell the story of his wake).

One consequence of this was the setting up of an orphanage in Dundee, the other was to put the ferry service on the Tay on a more formal footing with steam powered ferries running to a timetable – which they continued to do until the opening of the Tay Road bridge in 1967. (Again I can just about remember a journey on the ferry when I was little).

bradshaw dundee ferry

What is interesting is, that as with the Stirling Steamboat company, the adoption of steam powered vessels relatively early in the nineteenth century.

Before the arrival of the railway in the late 1840’s, Dundee was fundamentally a city connected by water to the rest of Scotland, and remained so even after the Tay rail bridge was built.

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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