Maritime Tales - Liverpool’s steamship engineering genius

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Photo of a ship model. The ship has three main masts, lots of lifeboats and a funnel in the centre.

Model of the Agamemnon. Image courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post & Echo.

The legendary Holt family left their mark on Liverpool and I, Stephen Guy, have always admired their talents and business skills.

Alfred Holt (1829 – 1911) revolutionised sea trade with his remarkable fleet of steam ships in what became known as the Blue Funnel Line. In 1865 Alfred founded the Ocean Steamship Company with its technologically advanced ships featuring distinctive black and powder blue funnels which made them instantly recognisable around the world. He came from a family of five wealthy and talented brothers, the sons of successful cotton broker George Holt.

Alfred showed early promise as a railway locomotive engineer. However, it was as a marine engineer and ship-owner that he was to make his name. In 1864, when he was in his mid-30s, Alfred developed a type of compound steam engine enabling ships to travel much further and more economically than ever before. His engineering talent and business acumen were to make him a wealthy man living in an impressive mansion called Crofton, which still stands in North Sudley Road, south Liverpool (more on the Holt family and Sudley House here).

Alfred Holt was highly regarded by his peers and among the items in the collections of Merseyside Maritime Museum is the James Watt Medal awarded to him by the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1878. There is a scale model of the steam engine from the Blue Funnel Line’s Prometheus of 1886. Alfred designed this compound marine engine of the type used in all his ships until the 1890s. Compound two-cylinder engines made better use of steam than one-cylinder engines. The steam drove two pistons instead of one, producing more power at less cost. Like most great ideas, it was a simple concept.

There are two models of the Agamemnon of 1865 (one is shown here) – first of the Blue Funnel ships and one of the most influential steamships ever built. Agamemnon was important because she showed that long-distance ocean voyages were economically practical for a steamer.

The museum has personal possessions of William Elston of Birkenhead, a crew member on the Agamemnon between 1866 and 1873. Among other items is his concertina and an embroidered book mark believed to have been made for him by his first wife. It shows a sailing ship and bears the poignant message: “Think of me when far away.”

More about the Blue Funnel Line next week.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.