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Britannia, Cunard Line

Britannia 1840

Story from the Illustrated London News of Oct 23, 1847.

The Britannia Steam-Ship

This "fine-looking, strong-built, and well proportioned" vessel has, of late, been an object of considerable interest; more especially by her escape from a most perilous position, on her voyage from Liverpool to New York, on the 14th ult. On the afternoon of that day, the steamer went on the rocks at Cape Race, the southern point of Newfoundland, in a very dense fog. A correspondent of the New York Commercial Advertiser writes:--

"As you may imagine, it was a moment of deep solicitude. Many of us had been for some time watching for land, anxious to know our true situation, that we might escape all apprehension during the approaching night. My eye was at the moment fixed on Captain Harrison, our excellent commander, and I saw him turn quickly, and heard him exclaim, 'Starboard-stop her!' Before the echo could have died away the ship struck, and for the first time I saw the bleak and barren rocks.

"As soon as it was ascertained that the steamer was ashore, orders were given to clew up the sails, the guns were run aft, and the provisions and everything else that could be removed were shifted, the water in two of the boilers was let off, and the passengers all crowded to the stern; the engines were reversed, and two waves or rollers coming in, we were, under the gracious protection of an over-ruling Providence, once more afloat.

"The Captain then summoned the chief engineer to ascertain whether the ship made water. The result was, that she was making at the rate of about twelve inches per hour, but he was sure the two pumps usually in service would keep the water down. Under this impression the captain determined to proceed on his course.

"The passengers, both ladies and gentlemen, behaved with great coolness during the exciting moment, and no one attempted to interfere with the Commander in the course he pursued, nor did any one converse with him until we were again under way. Soon after some half dozen gentlemen met the captain in his state-room, and looked over his chart, and ascertained our position. St. John's was some fifty miles north of us, but as the fog still continued there was no probability of getting into that port, and having full confidence in Captain Harrison's statement, that the ordinary pumps would keep the ship free, Mr. Winthrop made a report to the passengers which allayed their fears, and we arrived at Halifax on Friday morning, where a survey was held, and the report was made, in substance, that the steamer had been ashore at Newfoundland, that her forefoot had been knocked off, her keel injured, and that she made fourteen inches of water per hour; but that her two bilge pumps could throw out the water she made, and that she might proceed safely to Boston."

The vessel reached Boston; but, previous to her arrival there, a statement in testimony of the good judgment of the Captain and his men, was drawn up, and signed by 65 passengers.

Britannia in ice

On the arrival of the Britannia in New York, she was found to have sustained injuries of a greater magnitude than was anticipated. The keel was carried away from abaft the wheel to the extreme end, taking with it the forefoot and a great quantity of the heavy sheathing. Part of the stem or cutwater was also taken off. To replace these properly would at any time, or under ordinary circumstances, occupy five days at least; but through the facilities offered by the peculiar construction of the dock, and the perseverance and untiring exertions of Captain Harrison, she was enabled to leave for Boston, having been on the dock, only four days, during which she received a new keel, forefoot, some coppering and other repairs.

Our Illustration [a color version has been inserted] represents the Britannia just saved from a position which excited much attention. In January, 1844, the noble vessel became perfectly ice-bound in the harbour of Boston; when, by extraordinary labour, a channel was cut for her through the "thick-ribbed ice;" and on February 1, she steamed out of the harbour, amidst the shouts of the people at so great a triumph of perseverance.

Deck Plans

This is a large file in PDF format (2.5 Meg)

The following is from, Frank C. Bowen, A Century of Atlantic Travel: 1830-1930, (Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1930), pp 38-42 and submitted by H. Buist.

These ships (British Queen, President, United States, Liverpool), however, were completely eclipsed when the Cunard liners started transatlantic operations on July 4, 1840. The details of the Britannia and her three sisters have been described ad nauseam, wooden paddlers 207 feet long on the keel with a beam of 34.2 feet inside the paddlers, giving a tonnage by the measurement then in rule of about 1,150. The engines took up over seventy feet of the length of the ships, and were all built by Messrs. R. Napier and Company on the Clyde. They were side-lever machines with a nominal horse power of rather more than four hundred, capable of driving the ship at a speed of eight and one-half knots on thirty-eight tons of coal per day.

They were two-decked ships, the upper deck having the officers’ cabins, galley, bakery and cow house, while on the main deck were two dining saloons, the accommodation for one hundred and fifteen cabin passengers and all the other necessary fittings for a passenger ship. Only cabin passengers were carried, the emigrants of that day having no alternative to the sailing ships. In addition, the Britannia and her sisters carried two hundred and twenty-five tons of cargo, all at special rates.

Needless to say, steam steering gear had not been thought of when the earliest Cunarders came out, that convenience not being introduced until the famous Great Eastern was designed. In the Britannia and her consorts, and for several classes afterwards, the hand steering was right aft, the wheelhouse having the captain’s cabin on one side of it and the chief officer’s on the other. Multiple wheels were fitted so that in bad weather six or even more seamen could be at the wheel and were frequently needed.

Smoking was not permitted below decks and it was not until later that a smoke room of sorts chronically uncomfortable at that was fitted at all. Those who wanted to smoke were supposed to confine themselves to the engine room fiddleys, a most uncomfortable spot, although unofficially many were permitted to find a lee in way of the paddle boxes. Poultry of all sorts was kept in coops on deck and a special deck house with padded sides was provided for the accommodation of the ship’s cow, whose milk was reserved for the use of women, children and invalids.

The condition of the liner officers when the Cunard Line was started is supplied by a note drawn up by the office for the guidance of Captain Woodruff. The officer’s mess was to consist of the first, second and third mates, the chief engineer, chaplain, surgeon and any respectable passenger that they chose to invite to join them. The third mate was the mess caterer and he also had to attend to the issuing of practically all the provisions of the ship, a duty which would normally appear to be that of the purser. In the officers’ mess the company provided sherry, ale, porter and spirits, the mess being invited to decide upon a daily scale which they considered reasonable and afterwards to conform rigidly to it. The company do not appear to have laid down any limit, but significantly state that they ‘expect the quantity to be moderate and that the officers of the mess will prevent any abuses.’

The officer who was not mentioned in these regulations, but who must have been mentioned many times a day by the ship’s people, was the mail officer. In those days the postal contracts were in the hands of the Admiralty and not the Post-Office, and that department saw in the steamers an excellent opportunity of finding employment for a number of officers who had claims on it. So the law provided that every steamer carrying mails should also carry a naval mail officer who should be responsible for the mails and also occasionally for the ship herself, superseding her captain. As the officers so selected were generally those for whom the Navy itself had found no use since the end of the Napoleonic Wars they were seldom the best in the service and friction was constant. Finally the situation became intolerable and the Cunard Company was willing to pay a considerable sum to be relieved of them.

The engineers’ mess was to receive fresh meat and cabin bread, and in addition one gill of brandy and two bottles of porter were provided by the company for each member.

In the forecastle the seamen and ‘idlers’ were to have their three meals a day, breakfast at eight, dinner at noon and supper at six o’clock. Each was provided with a generous ration of meat and vegetables, and in addition bread, potatoes and water were to be issued as required, but not to be wasted. This appears particularly generous on the part of the company. A glass of grog was to be issued to each watch, while the chief officer had the right to issue as much more as he considered proper. The firemen and coal trimmers received the same treatment, but their extra grog was at the discretion of the chief engineer instead of the first mate.

All the ships were built on the Clyde, the Britannia by Robert Duncan, the Acadia by John Wood, the Caledonia by Charles Wood and the Columbia by Robert Steele. . . It was Cunard’s own inspiration to have these ships built as precise sisters, and there is not the least doubt that it was very largely due to this that the company was a success from the first. The steamers which had crossed the Atlantic before them were somewhat finer than the first Cunarders, but they never secured popular favor because they were so very varied in design. Then, as now, passengers wanted to know something of what they were in for. . .

. . . The other three Cunarders followed the Britannia in rapid succession and the regular service was maintained a remarkably regular service considering the difficulties with which they had to contend and the poor material with which they had to work. But all the steamers put together could only handle a very small proportion of the steady flood of westerly travel and the sailing ships still carried the great bulk of it. They professed to have a great contempt for the ‘steam waggons,’ and maintained that they would never be a serious competitor to sail. The fact that the sailing packets were improving rapidly they ascribed to keen competion between themselves, not to any fear of the steamer. To a certain extent that was true. But the Cunard mail contract was a very sad blow to their pride, and the far better average time made by the steamers soon attracted attention and support from those who could afford their rates.

The great majority could not, and there were sailing ships available to suit all purses. . .


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