Friday, October 21, 2016

Power and Passion in 1830’s Cornwall

by Jane Jackson

Falmouth Harbour
The Post Office packet service – delivering mail and dispatches to British interests and theatres of war throughout the world - was formally established in 1688. Though the port of Falmouth in Cornwall was 230 miles from London, capital city and hub of UK commerce and the seat of government, it had the advantages of a ready supply of fresh water and a large well-sheltered deep-water harbour.

The packet ships (the name comes from the French paquet which describes the way the mail was packaged and sealed prior to dispatch) were mostly schooners and small brigs built in Cornish shipyards. These ships were privately owned and contracted to the Post Office for three years, the term being renewable subject to checks on seaworthiness. To comply with property law, ownership was divided into 64 equal shares. Usually the share-holders were members of the same family, plus perhaps one or more fellow packet captains, each holding a proportionate number of shares.

The rule was that packet captains must run rather than fight, and if running was impossible, hold off the enemy long enough to sink the mails before surrendering. To ensure obedience, packet ships were armed only for defence.

In 1823 after a decade of rumour and wrangling the Admiralty took over management of the packet service from the Post Office. This move was prompted in part by pressure to give work to Royal Navy seamen made redundant by the ending of hostilities with France.

As contracts on privately-owned vessels ran out, the Admiralty used naval gun-brigs. But in Atlantic waters these were death traps. Heavy masts and spars and great quantities of canvas made them top heavy. The hull design – a deep waist, low deck and small emptying ports - meant that when a heavy sea broke inboard the water could not quickly drain away so the ship became dangerously unstable. Pressure to cut voyage times forced captains to drive hard resulting in nine brigs lost with all hands, passengers, freight, bullion and mails in just ten years. These ships were quickly dubbed ‘coffin-brigs’ and though the Admiralty never formally acknowledged their flaws, a new design of brig was commissioned and brought into service.

By the 1830’s the packet service was at its peak, carrying and mail to and from Halifax in Nova Scotia, Bermuda, Tampico, Havana, Jamaica, Barbados, Cartagena and all major ports on the north and east coasts of South America, Corunna, Lisbon, Gibraltar, Malta and Corfu.

It was during this decade that the Admiralty decided to modernise the service and increase efficiency by introducing steam vessels. The first paddle-steamer, HM Steam Vessel Meteor powered by two 50HP engines made the round trip from Falmouth via Gibraltar and Malta to Corfu and back in 47 days, compared to with the 90 days it took a ship under sail. This success claimed the route for steam. But success in Mediterranean waters did not translate into Atlantic crossings as the ships could not carry enough coal to complete the voyage and no one had thought to organise refuelling ports.

Meanwhile the Admiralty withdrew HMStV ‘Echo’ from service after only two years and fitted her with Cornish tubular boilers to test high-pressure steam. But because high-pressure steam was still in its infancy, few understood the dangers.

Internal corrosion weakened the boiler barrel so it could not withstand normal operating pressure. Grooves could occur along horizontal seams, known as lap joints, below water level. None of this could be seen from the outside so no preventive measures were taken.

A basic fire-tube boiler steaming at 50lbs per square inch contains water at a temperature of roughly 150 °C (300 °F). If the boiler fails and depressurizes, most of the water will instantly flash into steam. Steam takes up 1,600 times more space than liquid water, so each cubic metre of heated boiler water will expand into 1,600 cubic metres of steam in a fraction of a second. The result: a devastating explosion. Metal plates from a ruptured boiler have been thrown a quarter of a mile.

When this occurred in a railway locomotive, only the engine driver and fireman died. But as in the case of two American river boats, when their high-pressure boilers exploded, hundreds died and both ships and valuable cargo were lost.

Reading about this, then seeing a working model of a ‘hot air’ engine that doesn’t need a boiler so is perfectly safe, gave me the idea, the factual background, and a powerful conflict for ‘Crosscurrents.’

Prejudice and mismanagement sabotaged the ‘Echo’ trials delaying development of Cornish marine steam engines by a decade.

By the mid 1830s commercial steamship companies were bidding for the mail contracts. In 1840, the British & North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, (now the Cunard Line) won the contract to carry mail for North America from Liverpool. By 1842 the Royal Mail Steam Packet vessels were sailing from Southampton to the West Indies, Mexico and Cuba.

In 1851, after 150 years of service, the Falmouth Packet Station ceased operating.

[This is an Editors' Choice post, originally published on 6th August 2014]



Jane Jackson loves history, Cornwall and romance. A professional writer for over thirty years with twenty-eight books published, she also teaches the craft of novel-writing and ten of her former students are now published novelists. Happily married to a Cornishman, with children and grandchildren, when not writing she enjoys reading for pleasure and research, long walks while listening to music and playing 'what if' with characters and plot ideas. She also likes to bake - hence the need for long walks.

1 comment:

  1. A lack of refueling stations? Sounds so familiar--consider today's arguments on the pitfalls of alternative fuels. Great post, Jane. Your new book sounds intriguing!


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