Small beginnings

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A large model of a ship

The Cretic on display in the museum. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

Great oaks from little acorns grow is a real truism and one that particularly applies to ships.

I like to think of early adventurers taking to the water countless centuries ago, presumably on logs that were later hollowed out to make primitive boats. The technology got better and better and today we are still improving our ships which seem to increase in size as each year passes.

The first steamship on the River Mersey was the paddle steamer Elizabeth which arrived on 28 June 1815 to serve as a ferry boat. This was also the dawn of a new era of comparative peace that was to last a century. The Elizabeth’s arrival came just 10 days after the Battle of Waterloo at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Although regarded by many people as a passing novelty at the time, ships such as the Elizabeth were in the vanguard of change which would see the maritime world transformed.

A 1:48 scale model of the Elizabeth in Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Art & The Sea gallery shows how small she was. Models on the same scale appear giants alongside the tiny wooden ship. The Elizabeth was fitted with an eight horse-power engine and inaugurated the ferry service between Liverpool and Runcorn. She made just one trip daily travelling at between nine and ten knots.

The first experimental steamboat was built in 1704. However, it was the brilliant English engineer James Watt (1736 – 1819) who realised the importance of steam and its great potential. His work inspired others to develop the concept of steamships. The first practical steamboat was the Charlotte Dundas which towed barges along the Forth and Clyde Canal to Glasgow in 1802. Her success opened the floodgates to steamship development in Britain and abroad.

The 1:48 scale model of the 13,518-ton Cretic (pictured), in the same case, shows the huge changes in steamships in less than a century since the Elizabeth was built. It is like comparing a whale to a sprat.

Cretic was a passenger and cattle carrier with the famous White Star Line of Liverpool. She was bought by White Star in 1904 and remained with the company until 1923.
Cretic could carry 245 passengers while the Elizabeth could only transport a fraction of this number and had no cabin accommodation.

Steamships continued to be built until recent times. The Queen Elizabeth 2 was the last passenger steamship to cross the Atlantic before being converted to diesel in 1986.

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 (£1.50 p&p UK).