About a year ago I blogged about Mary Shelley and her trip by sea to Dundee.
At the time I made the point that before railways, travel by sea was considerably more comfortable that overland travel by coach.
In much the same way, during that window between around 1815 and the development of the railway network – say 1850 – river borne paddle steamers offered a viable alternative mode of travel between major cities in both England and Scotland.
So I was particularly interested when reports on a major archaeological dig in Hull reveled the graves of victims of an 1837 paddle steamer explosion in Hull.
When I lived in Hull at the end of the seventies, it was a moribund, woebegone place. The fishing industry had collapsed, and the city was very isolated geographically – the Humber Bridge was still being built, rail services were poor, often involving a change at Selby (who else remembers coming back from London and freezing on the platform on a winter’s evening waiting for the porter to shout ‘Ull train’ for the invariably late connecting service ?) and road links were not the best.
In contrast, in the early nineteenth century it was a bustling port with shipping services, including passenger services to London and the port cities of Scotland, to the Netherlands and northern Germany, and a network of paddle steamer services up the navigable tributaries of the Humber.
Paddle steamers demanded little in terms of infrastructure – they did not need particularly deep water to operate in, and could utilize existing wharves used for riverborne traffic – making them quick to establish, for example Edward Baines’ 1823 Yorkshire Gazetteer lists numerous steam packet services from Hull to Gainsborough, York, Selby, Thorne, and also connecting stagecoach services to the larger industrial cities of Yorkshire.
In contrast railways were capital intensive due to the costs of construction, and of course took significant time to build requiring bridges, viaducts, cuttings and stations to be built.
But of course the paddle steamers could only go where the navigable rivers went, and of course were often too wide to manage the canal locks, which is why their routes often terminated at unlikely seeming places such as Gainsborough in Lincolnshire and Thorne in West Yorkshire – Thorne being the nearest paddle steamers could get to Doncaster and Sheffield, and Gainsborough to the Trent valley.
The railways won out because they offered direct connections without the need to change services.
But of course it was not just in Britain that paddle steamers offered valuable low infrastructure links.
In Sibera some forty years later, Harry de Windt had a mad dash from Khiatka to catch a paddle steamer to take him on to Irkutsk, and Anton Chekhov again made use of paddle steamers on Amur on his 1889 journey to the Russian far east, the trans-Siberian and trans-Mongolian railways not having been in service until another fifteen years or so in the future.
At the same time, here in Australia, paddle steamers played a crucial role on the Murray allowing wool to be shipped to ports such as Morgan in South Australia from whence it could be shipped on the railway down to Adelaide for export – when we visited Morgan on a chilly winter’s day in 2012 it seemed chilly and forlorn – both the railway and the paddle steamers are long gone.
Paddle steamers, because they need little in terms of infrastructure, have left little behind them – an abandoned wharf there, a rusting hulk here, but it’s important to remember that once they provided an important service before road and rail won out …