Lock and Key of the Kingdom

Early Cross-Channel Steamers

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Image:  The Admiralty Steam Packet 'Ariel' in 1837 - built as the Post Office Steam Packet 'Arrow' in 1822.
The Admiralty Steam Packet 'Ariel' in 1837 - built as the Post Office Steam Packet 'Arrow' in 1822. This ship brought Prince Albert to England in 1840 for his marriage to Queen Victoria.


Until the early nineteenth century fast sailing vessels had conveyed the mails and any passengers wanting to cross the Channel. Six years after the Battle of Waterloo the first vessel powered by steam arrived at Dover. The paddle steamer ‘Rob Roy’ entered Dover Harbour on Sunday, 10 June 1821. She set out on her first cross-Channel run to Calais on the morning of Friday 15 June, but with very few passengers. The ‘Kentish Chronicle’ reported with some glee that “those in the town preferred the regular (sailing) packets”. Nor was the Post Office convinced, and for some time continued to send the mail by sailing ships . Five of these were employed at the time, three for Calais and two for Holland.

But very soon the ‘Rob Roy’ had won over the sceptics. In August 1821 the ‘Kentish Chronicle’ swallowed its pride and wrote “The ‘Rob Roy’ steam vessel continues to sail daily for France, with a number of passengers and carriages far exceeding any vessel in the employ”. The pages of the paper for the same month also tell the story that “The ‘Rob Roy’ on her passage to Calais met the ‘Lord Duncan’ (Post Office sailing packet), Capt. Hamilton, and the ‘Prince Leopold’, Capt. Rogers, and after landing her freight at Calais, and taking on board passengers, she came out again, and passed those vessels and reached Dover long before them.”



Image:  A Post Office Packer-Boat Tarrif of 1836.
A Post Office Packer-Boat Tarrif of 1836.

The superiority of steam soon wrought profound changes in the mail packet fleet and the Post Office ordered two steam packets of their own. The ‘Dasher’ was delivered in October 1821 and the ‘Arrow’ in January 1822. Other owners followed suit and placed orders for steam ships. By the end of 1826 the Post office had switched entirely to steam power. For a good number of years yet sailing ships continued to work across the Channel in association with steam ships but the writing was on the wall for sail.




Image:  Shakespeare Cliff.transparent