Post Office Packet steamers

Wrecks and accidents:
Dasher 1830
Escape 1832
Thetis 1834
Urgent 1839

The Government had instigated using steamships (Meteor and Lightning) to carry mail for the Post Office on the Holyhead-Dublin (actually to Howth near Dublin) route in 1821. King George IV, on his visit to Ireland in August 1821, transferred from the Royal Yacht (sailing vessel Royal George) in Holyhead and took the Lightning to Dublin to avoid delay from contrary winds. See image of PSS Lightning at Holyhead. Because of this "fit for a king" approval, Lightning was renamed Royal Sovereign (or sometimes just Sovereign).

From August 1826, the Post Office had a fleet of steamships to provide the mail service from Liverpool to Dublin (actually to Dun Laoghaire - then called Kingstown). Initially these were the Thetis, Dolphin, Etna and Comet [first two built Harwich; latter two launched July 1825 by Humble and Hurry, Liverpool, 300 tons burthen, with engines of 150hp by Fawcett of Liverpool and by Mawdsley of London]. They also had a steam tender, Richmond, available. They provided a passenger service on these government-owned boats in competition to companies such as the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. Since they did not take cattle, their passenger service was at a premium.

Another important route to Ireland was from Portpatrick to Donaghadee and, again, two Government (Post Office) steam packets (Arrow and Dasher) provided this service from 1825.

By 1839, there were 4 wooden paddle steamers (Avon, Lucifer, Shearwater, Urgent) providing the Government (Post Office) mail service from Liverpool to Ireland (Kingstown - now Dun Laoghaire). They left the St Georges Pier Head at 5pm - and passengers could board them as they lay moored, using a small steam packet. Since these steamers did not take cattle, they were regarded as a better option than the commercial services (from City of Dublin Steam Packet Co, etc).

By 1841, the service had been placed in the hands of the Admiralty - and H.M. Mail Steamships were used:
See collision involving HMS Merlin .

Eventually the Post-Office steam packets were considered poor value for money and arrangements were made with commercial companies to carry mail.

PSS Dasher lost 1830


Wooden paddle steamer built William Paterson, Rotherhithe, 1821 [he took over Willam Evans shipyard].
130 nrt, 100 x 17 x 6 ft.
Engines 40hp, side-lever, built Boulton & Watt
Built for government service - Post Office, initially Dover/Calais.
Transferred 1825 to Portpatrick-Donaghadee service.
Aground just south of entrance to Portpatrick Harbour 19 December 1830.
Captain Henry, crew and all but 1 passenger saved.

From Belfast News-Letter, Friday 24 December 1830

LOSS OF THE DASHER STEAM PACKET. - In a former number we briefly noticed the loss of this fine vessel - the following is a more circumstantial account:
  On Sunday [19 December 1830], the Dasher, Capt. Henry, had sailed from Portpatrick with the mail and passengers for Donaghadee, where she arrived after a rough passage occasioned by a north western gale. The mail for Scotland was there put on board, and the Dasher set off with a fair wind for Portpatrick, off which she arrived in the evening, and was about to enter the harbour, when a tremendous storm arose which rendered her quite unmanageable, and drove her, in spite of the utmost exertions of the Captain and the crew, upon the rocks at the back of the south pier. The darkness of the night, and the height of the surf, rendered it impossible for boats to approach the place where the vessel lay. The inhabitants, however, rendered every assistance in their power by procuring lights, lifelines, etc. and eventually all on board, with the exception of a female who was washed off the bow of the vessel, were saved. In a little time, the Dasher was a complete wreck and had disappeared off the rocks. The mail was not got on shore, as the situation of the vessel was so perilous as to render it impossible for any person to venture into the cabin for it. Hopes are, however, entertained, that it may be thrown ashore, and may thus be recovered.

From North Wales Chronicle, 3 February 1831 (quoting Dumfries Journal):
Part of the wreck of the Dasher and, what is fortunate, the mail, have been picked up at the Isle of Man. Part of the wreck has been recovered by means of a diving-bell, and further operations are this week carrying on.

Postscript: The Dasher was a wreck and a replacement vessel (Fury) was obtained. Some newspaper reports put blame for the wreck on a malfunction of one of her two boilers - so Dasher was delayed for 3 hours until it was dark, and also was relying on sail in coming in to the harbour in a gale.
  The location of some of the wreckage is thought locally to be in a cleft of the rocks just south of the harbour - known as Dasher's Den. There is a carpark nearby and a railing allowing to look into the cleft, which can have high spouts of water if there is a big swell. The location of the cleft is 54° 50.298N, 5° 6.943W.
  Contemporary reports quote locations as (i) the southern side of the base of the south pier (which is 54° 50.374N, 5° 7.070W) and (ii) near the Castle (this is the ruined Dunskey Castle) about 0.5m south of the Harbour with shore at 55° 50.143N, 5° 6.720W..

PS Orion lost 1850:
 
Details of another paddle steamer (iron) wrecked near Portpatrick - with 41-60 lost.
  See also this full account of the wreck and inquiry into the wreck of PS Orion.
  Also summary of wreck data from Canmore.
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Fatal accident to PS Escape 1832

Late Melancholy Death of Captain Skinner RN [contemporary newspaper report]:
  Captain Skinner, commanding the Escape post-office steam-packet, sailed from Howth on Tuesday morning, at nine o'clock, with a fair wind, for Holyhead. Between two and three that day [13 October 1832], about five miles from the land, the packet was struck by two very heavy waves following each other. The second dashed Captain Skinner, and his mate William Morris, (a stout and able seaman), through the bulwarks overboard, carrying away binnacle and compass, and knocked down the man at the helm who fortunately got entangled in the chain of the wheel, which was broken, and by this means he was saved. It is supposed Captain Skinner and the mate were killed on the instant, as they were seen for twenty minutes floating with their faces downwards, and no appearance of life. Every exertion was made, and several times they were caught with the boat hook by clothes which gave way.
  On the arrival of the packet at Holyhead, the pier was crowded by persons of all ranks, anxious know what misfortune had happened, having previously learnt by signals made at the station-house on the top of Holyhead mountain, that an accident had occurred. It is totally impossible to describe the effect the melancholy tidings had on the multitude - the screeches and lamentations were awful. The loss of Captain Skinner will be severely felt at Holyhead, particularly by the poor, to upwards of one hundred of whom he weekly gave out of his private purse an allowance of bread. He was esteemed by every person who knew him; and from the length of his servitude in his Majesty's packet service, (nearly forty years), together with his civil, obliging and gentlemanly manners, he became a decided favourite, and most families of distinction preferred crossing by the vessel he commanded. In the year 1821 be had the honour of bringing over his late Majesty George the Fourth, by whom he was offered a knighthood, which he declined. The highest honour that could be bestowed on him, so as to retain the situation of Captain in the Holyhead station [this was a very lucrative post - since the Captain could take passengers with their fares accruing to him, personally], was graciously conferred, by his Majesty promoting him to be Master and Commander of the Royal Navy.
  Captain Davis of Holyhead has offered a reward of £10 for the recovery of his body.

Postscript
  The bodies of Captain Skinner and his mate were not recovered for some weeks. When Captain Skinner's body was discovered, it gave reason to suppose that it had been found some time before, when valuables had been removed before casting him back into the sea.
  Captain John MacGregor Skinner was 70 years old, and had been in public service for 59 years. He was born in Perth Amboy in New Jersey, North America, in 1760. He joined the Royal Navy in 1776 and was a midshipman on
HMS Phoenix during the American War of Independence; he had only served for a short time before he lost his arm and received other wounds from gunfire, in 1776, from Fort Washington on the Hudson River. He had lost an eye during service in the West Indies. He served with the Navy until 1793 when he entered the Post Office shipping service. In 1807, he astonished seasoned mariners by successfully bringing his ship into Holyhead harbour during an exceptionally severe gale; Captain Skinner had to navigate, under sail, past numerous rocks and small islands to enter the harbour which was, at that date, much less well protected. He was well loved and respected by the people of Holyhead. Captain Skinner became master of Paddle Steamers (when introduced from 1821, including Lightning and Escape). He was master of the Lightning when it carried King George IV to Howth in 1821. He was often accompanied by his raven who would recognise the Escape and fly out until it was perched on its Masters' shoulders.
  In 1832, he became the principal witness of a Committee drawn up by Parliament to look into the fact that Holyhead should have been grown in prosperity due to great sums of money being spent on roads - but with the cramped accommodation on the boats, people were opting to go to Ireland from the port of Liverpool. Captain Skinner was to investigate this. He reported that high fares and bad accommodation were turning passengers away from Holyhead, together with the report that the Holyhead packets had only iron knives and forks and earthenware, compared to their rival packet ships in Liverpool who could boast being magnificently fitted and provided plates, table linen, mattresses, feather beds and an abundance of blankets. Sir Henry Parnell corroborated Captain Skinner's evidence and concluded that the Admiralty take over management of the packets from the Post Office. The Committee made a statement that the Holyhead route was a major one, and that no expense should be spared on it.

So much and so sincere was the grief in the town of Holyhead, at the tragic loss of Captain Skinner, that an obelisk to his memory was erected by public subscription on a dominating crag of rock overlooking Holyhead harbour (east side of old harbour). Image of text in 2019; it bears the words:-

This monument was erected by his numerous friends to the memory of John Macgregor Skinner, R.N., and for 33 years captain of one of the post office packets on this station, in testimony of his virtues, and their affectionate remembrance of him in his public capacity. He was distinguished for zeal, intrepidity and fidelity. In private life, he was a model of unvarying friendship, disinterested kindness and unbounded charity.MDCCCXXXII.

A report into the accident revealed that Captain Skinner had died because of the neglect of the Post Office, who were impervious to any lesson and incapable of grasping the needs of the time. The Sea Service did not improve, and nothing was done to introduce modern paddle steamers on the Holyhead route. An inquiry was held in 1836 due to the blatant mismanagement of the Post Office ships, and it revealed a financial loss in every station, but a particularly great one in Holyhead. Concern was also raised about the inadequate fire fighting facilities aboard vessels. At last, a decision was finally made to transfer the packets to the Board of Admiralty and in 1837 the six Holyhead Packets were transferred and renamed Zephyr, Doterel, Otter, Sprightly, Cuckoo and the Gleanor.

PPS: Many years ago, I took some dive trips out of Abersoch with Richie Bufton aboard his boat Captain Skinner. It is unusual for a boat to be named after a man - but now I understand the significance of the name.
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PSS THETIS 1834

From August 1826, the Post Office had a fleet of steamships to provide the mail service from Liverpool to Dublin (actually to Dun Loaghaire - then called Kingstown). Initially these were the Thetis, Dolphin, Etna and Comet [built Liverpool of 300 tons burthen]. They also had a steam tender, Richmond, available. They provided a passenger service on these government-owned boats in competition to companies such as the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. Since they did not take cattle, their passenger service was at a premium.
They had instigated using steamships (Meteor and Lightning) on the Holyhead-Dublin (actually to Howth near Dublin) route in 1821. King George IV, on his visit to Ireland in August 1821, transferred from the Royal Yacht (sailing vessel Royal George) in Holyhead and took the Lightning to Dublin to avoid delay from contrary winds. See
image of PSS Lightning at Holyhead. Because of this "fit for a king" approval, Lightning was renamed Royal Sovereign (or sometimes just Sovereign).
See also an earlier accident to P S Escape in 1832 on the Howth to Holyhead post-office service.
  Thetis was built (of wood) by Graham at the Naval yard, Harwich and launched in August 1825. She was over 300 tons burthen and had paddle engines of 140 hp built by Bolton and Watt.

Contemporary newspaper report:
  On Tuesday morning last [7th October 1834], his Majesty's steam packet Thetis, Captain Townley, one of the most beautiful and fast sailing Government packets on the Liverpool station, was nearly destroyed by fire, while moored in the Mersey. Many erroneous reports are in circulation, both as to the origin of the fire and extent of the damage, but the following particulars may be relied upon as authentic:-

The Thetis arrived from Dublin with the Mail and passengers early on Monday morning, and, after having discharged them at the Pierhead, proceeded to her moorings opposite Tranmere. As is usual, the fire under the boiler was put out. During the day fresh coals were taken on board, and on Monday evening everything was in a state of readiness for her voyage to Dublin on the following day. At nine o'clock on Monday night one half of the crew, as is customary, went on shore, the remaining half sleeping on board, and the vessel then riding at her moorings. Everything continued quiet throughout the night, the watch on deck being changed every four hours. At four o'clock a. m., the man who had the middle watch was relieved, and the fresh man, on coming on deck at that hour, made his round of the vessel and considered that all was right. About half past four, however, he was alarmed by a crackling sound, accompanied by strong smell as of something burning, and on going aft, the galley, or cook house for the passengers, which adjoins the after part of the funnel, was discovered on fire, and the flames issuing through a grating on the deck called the man-hole door, over the after part of the boiler. All hands were immediately roused, and on lifting the iron covers from off the coal lockers, a mass of flame and smoke burst - The alarm was immediately given to the shore, but at that early hour little aid was obtainable, especially as every effort of the crew was employed in quenching the devastating element, which was fast gaining ground.

Soon after five, the Birkenhead steamer came to their assistance, and subsequently the Lady Stanley, Eastham packet. At this period, however, the flames had burst into the first cabin, and assumed so alarming an appearance as to threaten the total destruction of the vessel and, finding all efforts in the ordinary mode unavailing in staying its progress, it was deemed expedient to scuttle her. She was accordingly slipped from her moorings and dropped to Woodside, where she was run on the bank, a short distance from the slip. She here received the assistance of his Majesty's packet, Richmond; Mr. Williams's Woodside boat; the Runcorn packet, the Rival; and his Majesty's packet Dolphin, Captain Smithett, likewise, which had just arrived from Dublin, contributed her aid, in the endeavour to save her consort. The Norwich Union engine was likewise brought into play on board one of the Woodside steamers, and the whole united endeavours of this powerful aid were used to stay the progress of the fire, which, notwithstanding, even seemed to gain upon and threatened to ignite a small copper magazine of powder, which was stowed under the after part of the ship. Soon after six o'clock the flames had spread through the whole of the cabins, and about half past six the powder blew up with a loud explosion, tearing away all of the deck and top sides which the flames had left. We may here correct an erroneous impression that has gone abroad, occasioned, doubtless, by the violence of the report: - the quantity was only five pounds, it was, however, closely sealed in a small copper magazine, the resistance of which would occasion the loud noise. Providentially no injury occurred, but having succeeded in opening the scuttle, she soon after filled with water and sank to the bottom, thus fortunately saving this fine vessel from the total destruction with which she was at one time threatened.

No satisfactory cause can at present be assigned for the origin of the fire, but it is conjectured that it must have arisen from some of the combustible particles of the coal having ignited from the heat of the boiler, which would take some time to cool even after the fires had been drawn, and that it had slumbered for several hours. It certainly was first observed among the coal, and not in the cabin, as that apartment was locked early the night before, and no light was left, nor did any one sleep there. The extent of the damage sustained is not as great as might he expected. The decks and upper works from the funnel aft are entirely consumed, as well as the whole of the cabin furniture, linen, and plate, This last does not amount to £700, as has been stated, nor to one-fourth of that sum. The whole of the fore-part of the vessel and the entire engine is preserved, with no other damage than will be sustained from salt water.

Report of repairs to put the Thetis back in service:
  Last year [1834], the Thetis was obliged to have her boilers and engines put in at Liverpool, they having been taken out in consequence of a fire which occurred on board the vessel. Engineers from Bolton and Watts manufactory were employed. When they commenced putting in the engines, the Thetis was stationed at Mr Laird's establishment on the Cheshire coast where there happened not to be sufficient depth of water to keep the vessel afloat at ebb tide. She consequently grounded in the mud and the engineers declined setting the engines as they said they could not possibly work with any degree of accuracy, unless the vessel was kept afloat while they were at work. The Thetis was in consequence of this removed to the wet dock at Liverpool before her engines were put in.

The Thetis was repaired at Liverpool from her being in so disabled a state that she could not be taken to Holyhead. The repairs she received were very extensive. The boilers were taken out and overhauled, new cylinders and slide valves put, the shafts raised and the diameter of the wheels increased, at the same time the vessel was lengthened 15 feet. As many as 200 men were at work at the same time and the repairs were conducted with great expedition and in the most satisfactory manner.
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PSS URGENT 1839


Post Office wooden paddle steamer: Liverpool to Dublin. 10' draught.
Explosion 13 April 1839 while alongside Liverpol Pier.
7 injuries, no fatalities.

Around this date there were 4 wooden paddle steamers (Avon, Lucifer, Shearwater, Urgent) providing the Government (Post Office) mail service from Liverpool to Ireland (Kingstown - now Dun Laoghaire). They left the St Georges Pier Head at 5pm - and passengers could board them as they lay moored, using a small steam packet. Since these steamers did not take cattle, they were regarded as a better option than the commercial services (from City of Dublin Steam Packet Co, etc).

Contemporary report: EXPLOSION AT LIVERPOOL Considerable alarm was excited in the neighbourhood of the George's Pier on Saturday evening, at five, by the sudden explosion of the boilers of her Majesty's steamer, Urgent, just as she was on the point of sailing with the mail and passengers for Dublin. The mail bags had just been put on board the vessel, which was lying off George's Pier, and the passengers being on board, the bell was ringing as the signal of departure at the moment of the explosion. Very fortunately, the most dense portion of the steam found vent through the funnel, blowing the damper out at the top; the passengers, most of whom were on the quarter deck, escaped entirely unhurt, but nine men who were below in the engine room were more or less scalded; one man named Peter Hughes so badly, that his life is despaired of. As quickly as possible these persons were conveyed to the Northern Hospital, but that asylum being full they were obliged to be carried to the Infirmary, where seven of them were admitted into the house, and the other two, whose injuries were of a slighter description, were taken to their own homes. We have not learned how the accident happened, or what injury the vessel has sustained. She was esteemed the best, and was certainly the swiftest, packet on this station. The Shearwater was ordered to take the place of the Urgent, and was got ready as soon as possible; She sailed with the mail and passengers about eight o'clock.

The Urgent was put back in service.
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