The First Transatlantic Steamship Company

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On the 4th July Cunard celebrated the fact that it was the first line to operate regular services across the Atlantic. This is not true as the first was the British & American Steam Navigation Company in 1838. It had two ships BRITISH QUEEN and PRESIDENT which were the largest in the world at that time. PRESIDENT vanished without trace and that was the end of the line. This is the story of the British & American Steam Navigation Company.

SIRUS

SIRUS

On the 28th March 1838, a tiny paddle steamer SIRIUS sailed from London for New York with 22 passengers on what was to be the inaugural sailing of the first steamship line to be established on the North Atlantic. The British & American Steam Navigation Company had been formed in 1835 by an ambitious London-based American entrepreneur John Junius. He saw that the future of Atlantic travel lay not in sail but in steam-powered ships which could half the average westbound crossing time of over a month. A 1,862gt paddle steamer was ordered from the London shipyard, Curling & Young. Laid down as ROYAL VICTORIA, her maiden voyage in 1838 was delayed because the engine builders went bankrupt.

It now looked like ROYAL VICTORIA would be pipped to the post by a recently completed rival, the GREAT WESTERN, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. However Brunel’s new ship suffered a serious fire and her first sailing was postponed until 1838. Determined to be the first into New York, British & American chartered the 703gt Irish Sea passenger ship SIRIUS. The race was now on and after a coaling stop in Cork, SIRIUS proceeded across the Atlantic. Despite rough weather and limited coal supplies, SIRIUS arrived in New York on the morning of 23rd April. A few hours later GREAT WESTERN appeared and despite having left four days after SIRIUS, it was SIRIUS, which claimed the headlines and glory for British & American.

SIRIUS sailed for England on 1st May, with mail, newspapers and forty-nine passengers travelling mainly for Queen Victoria’s coronation. On the 16th May, three days from Falmouth, SIRIUS came across the becalmed brig TYRIAN, which had left Halifax twenty days earlier with mails and a group of Canadian dignitaries, also bound for the coronation. The Falmouth mails were transferred to SIRIUS and she soon departed, leaving TYRIAN with her sails flapping idly in the breeze.

This event had a profound impact on the Canadians, especially Judge Joseph Howe who wrote “there can be little doubt that ere long the Atlantic will be aswarm with these sea monsters and that a complete revolution will be wrought in the navigation of the ocean, as has already been witnessed on the rivers and inland seas.”

How right he was. Within two years, the British postal system had been revolutionised with the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post and more importantly, the awarding by the Admiralty of subsidised mail contracts. These led to the formation of Britain’s leading shipping lines, including P&O, Royal Mail Line, Pacific Steam and Cunard Line. At a stroke, the world had become a smaller place with a faster and reliable postal service. Instead of months waiting for the mails, they would arrive in a matter of weeks.

PRESIDENT

PRESIDENT

SIRIUS made another return voyage to New York before being returned to her owners. She was wrecked in 1847. Meanwhile, ROYAL VICTORIA, had been renamed BRITISH QUEEN, in honour of the new queen’s ascendancy and at 500 tons larger than GREAT WESTERN, became the world’s largest steamship. A second, even bigger, running mate was completed in 1840. Appropriately named PRESIDENT, this 2,366gt vessel was another giant of her day. On 11th March 1841 she sailed from New York and was never seen again. This was the first major steamship disaster on the North Atlantic and spelt the end of the British & American Steam Navigation Company. Among the 136 who perished was her captain and SIRIUS’s former commander Richard Roberts who, less than three years earlier, was the toast of New York. A sad end for what had been a triumphal new beginning for transatlantic travel.

Peter Newall

Peter Newall

A well-known shipping writer, cruise journalist and cruise ship lecturer,
Peter Newall is a former British Airways executive who has, in the past 57
years, visited and travelled on many famous ships.  As well as numerous
articles he has written seven highly acclaimed books including the
definitive histories of Union-Castle, Orient and Cunard Line.  He also owns
the Newall Dunn Collection, the extensive collection of historic merchant
shipping images.
Peter Newall
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