The Steamships of Drogheda

Steamship Tredagh from Drogheda

An Article by Michael Holohan from the archives of the Drogheda Port company.

The Drogheda Steam Packet Company (DSPCO) was founded in the year 1826 and it was one of the six major Irish shipping companies operating on the cross-channel and Irish Sea routes in the early days of steam.  The board of directors was composed of some of the most talented businessmen in Drogheda.

St. George Smyth acted as the first chairman and his indefatigable secretary was Patrick Ternan of 11 North Qauy.  The other board members were Ralph Smyth, Thomas Carty, Edward Atkinson, James Matthews, Henry Smith, John Morton, C. Gordon, F.McCabe, W. Campbell, Patrick Matthews, Nicholas Boylan, Thomas Ennis, P. Verdon, Finlay Chester, W. Cairnes and Wm. Ownes.

On Monday, 13th November, 1826 the paddle steamer, the 'Town of Drogheda' arrived at her home port having come from the Clyde in Scotland.  The description given in the Drogheda Journal contrasted the crimson and gold silk lace in the ladies' cabin with the blue cloth upholstery covering the berths reserved for the gentlemen. The holds could accommodate up to 100 cattle or sheep.  The 'Town of Drogheda' made her maiden voyage to Liverpool on the 26th November, 1826 and the journey took 14 hours. For the next three years a weekly service was operated with the steamer sailing from Drogheda on Fridays and returning on Tuesdays.  The master of the vessel was Captain M. Ownes.

When the 'Town of Drogheda' first came to the Boyne it was found that her draft of water was too much, and the steamer was chartered by the Wexford Steampacket Company. To solve this serious problem the Harbour Commissioners purchased a dredger to deepen and widen the river.  They also erected a landing stage at Baltray, where the steamers could load and unload the heaviest part of their cargoes. A steam-tug was used for towing vessels into and out of the harbour.  The 'Town of Drogheda' was 124 feet in length, 204 tons register and 100 nominal horse power, or indicated horse power of 275. She was employed on the Liverpool crossing until 1846 and two years later she was sold.  She was converted into a sailing ship and in May 1849 she foundered about 100 miles east of Gibraltar. In 1829 the DSPCO chartered the 'Liffey' and the 'Mersey' from the City of Dublin Steampacket Company and increased the number of sailings to three a week.  In October of the same year the company acquired a new ship the 'Fair Trader' and returned the 'Liffey' and the 'Mersey' to their owners.

Captain P. Leaney was in command of the 'Fair Trader' and she could carry 200 tons.  Three more ships arrived in the mid-1830's and they were called the 'Green Isle' the 'Irishman' and the 'Grainne Ueile' and like all Drogheda steamers they had plenty of space for cattle which extended over two decks. During the 1840's traffic continued to grow and five sailings each week were acquired, and in 1849 a daily service to Liverpool was introduced.  In 1844, the company acquired the first iron paddle-steamer to run on the cross-channel trade. The 'Faugh-a-Ballagh' arrived at Drogheda in February, 1845.  Many were sceptical about the capabilities of the ship but their fears were unfounded since she was a great success and remained with the company for 35 years.
The 'Brian Boroimhe' and the 'St. Patrick' arrived in summer of 1846.  The 'St. Patrick' was employed as a French troop ship during the Crimean War and throughout her service she received no damage either by storm or enemy action.  Her master was the famous Captain Branigan who later became manager of the Drogheda Steampacket Company. It is also interesting to note that 'Branigan's Point' on the river is named after the same man.  Another ship the 'Leinster Lass' was purchased during the period and like the 'Brian Boroimhe' she was built by Robert Napier at Port Glasgow.

In the early days of steam little or no thought was given either about safety or the basic needs of deck passengers.  In 1839 Captain Denham, a consultant marine surveyor at Liverpool, told a Parliamentary committee "I have known instances of steam vessels leaving the docks and foundering within a few hours...so long as the engines can go, they go to sea". The committee reported in favour of steamers carrying lifeboats, fire buckets, and anchor, an engineer and a steam trumpet for use in fog.  The well being of deck passengers did not receive much attention until the late 1840s.  In 1849 Capt. Denham produced a controversial report.  It revealed that passengers were treated worse than livestock when afloat. Livestock was loaded first, after which 'the deckers' were permitted to go on board to find what room they could.  Many of them spent the night in the cattle pens huddled close to the cows or sheep for warmth.  If no horses were on board the privileged were allowed to travel in the stables. Capt. Denham recommended that covered accommodation should be available for a third of the passengers on board, that a gallon of water should be carried for each passenger and that the number of deck passengers should not be numerically larger than 50 per cent of the gross tonnage of the vessel.  The DSPCO was the first in the Irish trade to provide sleeping accommodation for ordinary steerage passengers.

On 13th April, 1847, the 'Grainne Ueile' left Liverpool for Drogheda at 8p.m.  with 90  aboard and carrying a cargo of grain, urgently required for a starving Ireland and flax.  At 6a.m. on 14th April she went on fire north of Lambay Island. In a rush for the two lifeboats a number of passengers where drowned.  At 7a.m. the fishing smack the 'Bessy' of Ringsend came alongside and rescued all on deck save the master, Captain Rowden.  He was killed during a rescue attempt.  The Bessy made her way to Dublin with 68 survivors uncomfortably packed aboard, reaching the quayside at 6p.m.

During the mid-19th Century Drogheda was one of the ports through which thousands of Irishmen passed on their way to England and the New World.  In the spring of 1849 the Drogheda-Liverpool Steamers carried an average of 200 deck passengers per trip, a number which gave them third place in the Liverpool cross-channel trade. Before the famine of 1847, the foreign commerce of Drogheda was not considerable, being confined to a few cargoes of Baltic and American timer and deals annually.  However between 1851-55 there was considerable trade in the import of foreign wheat, but more particularly in Indian Corn for the Black Sea. Exports consisted of linen, grain, flour, meal, ale, butter, eggs, sheep and cattle.  Imports consisted of tea, sugar, timber, coal, culm, rock-salt, iron, bark, slates.  Linen yarn spun in Drogheda and shipped via Liverpool to Hull and from thence to Hamburg in Germany.

During this period the harbour and the quays were lit by the Gas Works Company which was based on the South Quays of the town.  A number of hotels and hostelries on the North Quays provided overnight accommodation and other interesting diversions for would be passengers on the steamships. In the late 1850's the Dublin and Liverpool Screw Steampacket Company's steamers the 'Mail' and the 'Times' plied for a short time between Drogheda and Ardrossan in Scotlank, via Dundalk.  'The Colleen Bawn' was acquired by the company in 1862. She was the first steamer on the Irish Sea to have a compound engine and had wo funnels placed aft of her paddle boxes.  On board she had such revolutionary features as an engine room telegraph, a wheel amidships and a compass which was repeated in the captain's cabin.  She spend more of her career at Drogheda and was broken up in 1901.

The DSPCO as ever enterprising acquired new ships during the 1870s.  The 'Tredagh' went into service in June 1876.  Her arrival in Drogheda aroused great interest as she was the first cross channel steamer working to Ireland to have steam steering gear, steam winches for cargo handling and a steam capstan for her anchor. She also had sleeping accommodation for steerage passengers, who were provided with a bar for those "who liked to be afloat in the double sense of the word".  The saloon accommodation was good with berths for over 50 passengers. She was economical on fuel and needed only 25 tons of coal for a round trip.  The 'Nora Creina' was similar to the 'Tredagh' and arrived in Drogheda in 1878.  In 1912 she was sent to France for breaking up.  A third ship the 'Lord Athlumney' had accommodation for over 500 cattle.  She was wrecked in 1888.

Between 1876 and 1902 a passenger service was operated by the company between Drogheda and Glasgow. At first a weekly service was operated in summer and a fortnightly one in winter but by the turn of the century the vessels sailed at infrequent intervals whenever occassion demanded. The career of the 'Kathleen Mavourneen' was short for she entered the service in 1885 and was broken up in 1903.  She was the first cross-channel steamer working to Ireland to have a steel hull and one of the first steamers in the British Isles to have electric light. In the 1880s there were four sailings a week and the fares to Liverpool was 10s. saloon and 4s. steerage; a one month excursion ticket cost 15s saloon.  The 'Iverna' was the last paddle steamer to enter the Irish cross-channel trade. She was built with a triple expansion engine and could carry about 500 cattle in well-ventilated cattle decks.  However her most impressive feature, according to the local newspapers, was a 'steam radiator' in her ladies cabin.

Sometime in the late 1890s a race took place between Dundalk's famous steamer the 'Earl of Erne' and Drogheda's 'Nora Creina' and the 'Iverna'.  Judging by the extract from this poem the Earl of Erne won the race.

Down the Chief goes to the stokehold
And says, "Boys let her go
There are two Drogheda Steamers by us
They wont pass us i know.
Nora Creena and Iverna
Think that by us they can walk,
But we'll show them
they're just nowhere
With this old craft from Dundalk.

In 1902 the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway acquired the DSPCO in order to operate shipping services between Drogheda, Liverpool and Fleetwood.  On the 25th September the new company took over the existing ships and it continued to operate the Liverpool service although it never started one to Fleetwood. The fares remained the same and one could still sail from Drogheda to Collingwood Dock Liverpool for as little as 4s.  The new owners set about improving the standard of the service which was to be twice weekly and to this end ordered two new twinscrew steamers of 1,200 tons gross.  It should be remembered that the Drogheda Company never owned a screw steamer during its existence. The new 'Colleen Bawn' went into service in August 1903 and the 'Mellifont' followed later in the year.  Both vessels were capable of 17 knots and were built for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway at Barrow.  'The Colleen Bawn' continued as a cattle boat on the Drogheda-Liverpool route until B&I Steampacket Company took over the trade in 1928. After this she was transferred to the Dublin-Holyhead cargo service on which she remained until her withdrawal for breaking up in 1931.  The 'Mellifont' was moved to her owner's Hull-Zeebrugge passenger cargo service in 1906 and remained on this until 1912 when she returned to Drogheda to replace the Iverna. In 1928 she was transferred to the Greenore-Holyhead cargo trade, in which she remained until withdrawn in 1933.  In 1902 the new company advertised that its saloon paddle steamers sailed regularly between Drogheda and Liverpool and Drogheda and Glasgow.  Sailings from Ireland to Liverpool were on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; from Liverpool Collingwood Dock on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

To conclude it must be said that the railway system killed the steerage passenger traffic of the port.  The new mode of transport, which was centered on Dublin, enabled harvesters and emigrants to get conveniently and cheaply from their homes in the midlands to join a steamer at the capital city, whereas previously they had walked to Drogheda which had been their nearest port in the pre-railway era. Saloon traffic was never heavy and efforts made by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Company to stimulate it met with little success.  Despite providing free transport between Liverpool Docks and Exchange Station and Keeping their fares low passenger traffic decreased until only two weekly services were required.  The service was suspended during World War I and never re-opened.

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