One of my favourite scenes in the classic film Around the World in 80 Days (1956) is when virtually everything that’ll burn is thrown into the furnaces to keep the ship going – with hilarious results. A real incident many years before may have inspired French author Jules Verne when he wrote the original story in 1873.
The paddle steamer Sirius was the first ship to cross the Atlantic by steam power alone. She achieved the feat in 18 days, arriving in New York on 22 April 1838. Setting out from London and stopping briefly at Cork, she battled against head winds on the stormy ocean crossing in a race to be the first to steam all the way across.
As Sirius neared Long Island and the end of her voyage, she had run out of coal and was burning her supplies for fuel. A great crowd gathered in New York harbour to cheer her in. Sirius arrived just eight hours before her much-larger rival, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western, which had set out three days behind her.
Only 200 feet long, Sirius was built in Scotland for the coastal trade between Cork and London. Although she had sails, her steam-powered paddles were her main source of propulsion.
Early in the epic Atlantic crossing, her captain – the naval officer Lt Richard Roberts – had to persuade his crew not to turn back because of the bad weather. Sirius was carrying 40 passengers (29 man, 11 women) travelling in three classes. Cans of salmon, oysters and lobsters were among the provisions carried.
Both Sirius and Great Western suffered big financial losses, mainly because neither ship attracted many passengers for the return voyages to Britain. However, this trans-Atlantic steam race had sparked the imagination of the public and shipowners began to build steam packets to meet the demand. Steamers had conquered the mighty Atlantic, changing ocean travel forever.
At Merseyside Maritime Museum there is a fine oil painting of Sirius (shown). She is seen off New York with passengers and crew on deck, her helmsman at the wheel. There is also an exhibition model made by D Balfour and SH Phillips at the time of her 100th anniversary (1937). Sirius sank off Ballycotton, Ireland, in 1847 with the loss of 20 lives.
Until the mid-19th century sea travel was often unpleasant and hazardous. It was not usually undertaken lightly and only if absolutely necessary, such as for business reasons.