Paddle power

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painting of a ship at sea

'PS Victory' by Samuel Walters

I hope that one day we can have a paddle steamer back on the Mersey giving regular rides over to the Wirral.

I believe the last paddle steamers in regular use on the river were the ferries to Eastham, which closed in the 1930s. However the landing stage and ticket office are still at Eastham in wooded surroundings hardly changed for more than a century. 

The ferry ride would be a major attraction, giving wonderful views over the Mersey at its widest point. We still have the capacity to manufacture such a boat locally.

The first form of mechanical propulsion on ships was the paddle wheel – it marked the start of the switch from sail to steam which transformed sea travel. Most paddle steamers were sidewheelers with paddles on port and starboard although some had single wheels in the stern. The advent of screw propulsion using propellers saw the end of paddle steamers on the high seas although they continued for many years as ferries and river boats.

Paddle wheels were largely built of steel with numerous paddle blades called floats or buckets – the idea may have originally come from waterwheels in ancient times. The first paddle boat is believed to have been an experimental craft in Roman times which used ox power. The Chinese constructed many man-powered working paddle vessels from around 420 AD up to about a century ago.

The first paddle steamer to be built was the Pyroscaphe, constructed by French aristocrat Claude de Jouffroy in 1783. She chugged along the River Saône for 15 minutes before the engine failed before disappearing into history in the run-up to the French Revolution.

The Charlotte Dundas was the first commercial paddle-steamer, hauling two 70-ton barges along the Forth and Clyde Canal in Scotland for six hours in 1802.

The first commercial success was Robert Fulton’s famous paddle steamer Clermont in New York (1807). In 1838 the Sirius became the first ship to cross the Atlantic using steam power alone. Sirius is featured in a painting at Merseyside Maritime Museum. Another shows the paddle steamer Victory, painted by renowned marine artist Samuel Walters (pictured).

Victory was built in Liverpool in 1832 for the St George Steam Packet Co of Cork. She was one of several paddle steamers operating between English and Irish ports. A flag on the foremast, featuring a horse, indicates she is carrying mail for the Post Office. Victory is depicted in heavy seas off the Irish coast with passengers in brightly-coloured clothing on deck.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1 p&p UK).