Packet Service I to 1854

The World's earliest known sea going craft - the Bronze Age Boat in its own special gallery on at the Dover Museum. Dover Museum

The World’s earliest known sea going craft – the Bronze Age Boat in its own special gallery at the Dover Museum.       Dover Museum

The earliest known sea-going craft in the world is the Bronze Age Boat kept at Dover Museum. The Bronze Age period is usually given as between circa 2,100BC to 700BC and the boat was built about 1,500 BC. It took goods and/or people across the Channel – the Dover Passage. When Julius Caesar (c100BC-44BC) arrived on the British shores in 55BC it was at Dover that was considered the best place to land as it was perceived as the only sheltered haven on the south-east coast. However, the resident Britons quickly made their presence felt and so the Romans turned east and landed at Walmer. Albeit, the Romans came back in the summer of AD43 with a large force and conquered Briton as far north as the Hadrian’s Wall. They stayed for five centuries during which they used Dover as a base building light beacons or pharos on the eastern and western heights in order to light the way into the River Dour. The pharos on the Eastern heights still survives.

During the Roman occupation of Dover the River Dour estuary changed creating two streams, one running west and the other east. The eastern stream, under eastern cliffs, was the most direct course to the sea and here the Eastbrook harbour was formed. The Saxons (c450AD and 1066) followed the Romans and it was during this time that Royal Decrees referred to ships carrying royal mail between Dover and the French port of Wissant. During the days of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) Dover was one of the five ports and two antient towns that made up the Confederation of the Cinque Ports. In return for a number of privileges they were obliged to supply the monarch with 57 ships a year, of which Dover supplied 20 ships for 15 days with 21 men for each vessel. This obligation was the forerunner of the Royal Navy.

Cinque Port ship c13th cent as it appears on the Arms of Dover

Cinque Port ship c13th cent as it appears on the Arms of Dover

William I invaded England in 1066 and in the Domesday Book of 1086, it is recorded that the Kings messengers, riding on horseback, paid 2pence in summer and 3pence in winter for their passage across the Channel. During the medieval period, England had strong ties, not always friendly, with France and in 1227, Henry III (1216-1272) conferred on Dover the monopoly of the cross-Channel traffic to Wissant in France. The mariners of Dover became prosperous but also arrogant such that from 1323, a Royal Directive was issued compelling the fellowship of Dover mariners to make fair charges and to take regular turns. Then, in 1343, another Royal Ordinance compelled the fellowship to pay a certain proportion of their profits into the Common Chest of Dover Corporation to be used for the upkeep of the harbour. In 1381 a Royal Charter was issued ordering the passage to change from Wissant to the newly formed port of Calais.

Throughout this time, the Dover mariners in their small ships were well used in making the Passage – crossing the Strait of Dover with goods and/or passengers. They carried Royalty, the Royal court, Royal messages, envoys and armed forces. However, between 1300 and 1500 there was a movement in the land mass that triggered a phenomenon called the Eastward Drift – the tide sweeping round Shakespeare Cliff and depositing masses of pebbles at the eastern end of the Bay. Then a massive cliff fall rendered the Eastbrook harbour useless and the lucrative business of the passage went to Sandwich. John Clark, the Master of the Maison Dieu, petitioned Henry VII (1485-1509) for a grant to build a small harbour on the western side of Dover Bay.

Dover Harbour c1543 - Cottonian Manuscript. Bob Hollingsbee Collection Dover Museum

Dover Harbour c1543 – Cottonian Manuscript. Bob Hollingsbee Collection Dover Museum

Following the move the passage industry recovered by which time the Dover ships had developed into small sloop rigged craft of about 40-tons. A century later, the major passage between England and France was from Dover and the passage ships that specialised in taking pacquettes – Royal messages etc. – would leave Dover or the French port on the high tide following the arrival of the pacquettes. They became known as pacquette boats and finally packets. Over time, the Dover shipbuilders developed increasingly faster ships and by 1624, there was a well-organised packet service to and from Wissant, Calais, Boulogne and Dieppe.

Although fast, the packets were frequently beset by Dunkirkers – the name given to the Barbary Corsairs who had settled around the estuary of the River Aa that flows into the sea at+ Gravelines northern France. Having written the book Discourse on Piracy, which became the recognised manual for the suppression of the illicit occupation, Henry Mainwaring (1587/8-1653) was appointed to try to solve the problem. He was a well-known buccaneer who had turned gamekeeper and was so successful at dealing with the pirates that he was knighted. He was also appointed a Lieutenant of Dover Castle, the Deputy Warden of the Cinque Ports and was elected to Parliament as Dover’s MP!

In 1633, Thomas Witherings, a London merchant, was appointed as one of two postmasters to administer foreign mails and the Dover and French packet service. At the time, messengers on horseback delivered the official mail and, in the case of important mail, the official messengers carried it to the recipient in Europe. Otherwise, mail was put in sacks for the Channel crossing and then given to a second set of official messengers, on the Continent, for delivery to the recipients. As the packet ships tended to drop anchor in the Bay, boatmen were paid £2 to take the mail and official messengers and the horses to the packet ships that would then convey them across the Channel. London merchants had their own messengers and used either packet or passage ships.

Due to the sporadic Anglo-Dutch Wars (1652-1674), the packet boat owners and the men who manned them became exposed to a new danger, that of Dutch privateers who infested the busy Dover Strait. Privateering was a legalised  form of piracy that was introduced in England during the reign of Henry III, (1216-1272). Ship owners were granted commissions to seize the king’s enemies ships at sea in return for splitting the proceeds with the Crown. The commissions limited the activity of the privateer to a specific locality and to hostile nations. During the reign of Edward III (1327-1377), the commissions were formalised with Letters of Marque. In order to avoid Dutch ships that held Letters of Marque, the Dover packets could be escorted by large frigates or other armed vessels but they had to be paid for by the Packet Farmer.

Dover Custom House 17th cent. Lynn Candace Sencicle

Dover Custom House 17th cent. Lynn Candace Sencicle

The 1657 Postage of England, Scotland and Ireland Settlement Act, enacted the position of Postmaster General and following the Restoration in 1660, the Post Office packet service was Farmed by wealthy individuals. They bought a 10-year lease which gave them authority to charge for mail carried on the packet boats. Out of the revenue the Farmer earned, he paid a percentage to the Crown, hired the packet boats with crew and shore staff that was headed by the Dover postmaster who arranged for saddle horses to carry the mails by six stages to London. Daniel O’Neill (c1612-1664) held the position of Postmaster General in 1663-64 and he gave T Tremen junior the authority to open a combined Post and Packet Office in Dover. This was at the Customs House in Snargate Street.

Packet ships operated three times a week, on Monday’s packets went to Calais and either Nieupoort or Ostend and on Thursday’s they went to Calais and Friday to Nieupoort or Ostend.  There was an established rate for the carriage of letters and this service was to last, except in times of war, until 1744. Between 1672 and 1677, the Dover packet contracts were managed by a Colonel Roger Whitley (1618-1697) who although he used his position to feather his own nest, organised a highly efficient packet service on behalf of the Farmers. Whitley’s efficiency included copies of the correspondence with the Farmers, which were filed in the apparently now missing Dover Letter Book.

Customs House built 1666 demolished March 1821 replaced by John Minet Fector Bank in 1821. Dover Museum

Customs House built 1666 demolished March 1821 replaced by John Minet Fector Bank in 1821. Dover Museum

During Whitley’s time, the Dover passage service was worked by four packets and they carried Letters of Protection, which meant that any privateer would be in trouble from his own country if they boarded the one without invite. John Lambert, in 1673, was the master of one of the packets out of Dover but he lost his life at sea that year. Dover’s first post office was established in 1673 within the new Customs House on Customs House Quay. The Head of Customs, Mr Houseman, was also the manager of the Dover’s Letter Office, and handled local letters. Under him were Mr Rouse – the postmaster who arranged the saddle horses and there was also the Clerk of the Passage, an early form of immigration officer. The Farmers were Henry Bennet, 1st Earl of Arlington (1618-1685) who was the Postmaster General from 1667-1685 and Sir John Berkeley, Baron Berkeley of Stratton (1607-1678).

Charles II (1641-1685) expressly laid down by a Statute that the Packet-boats must not carry parcels or any other freight. Although illegal it was openly flouted even by the government and Whitley was well aware of what as going on and in one of his reports stated that ‘it was coevil with the Packet service itself.’ Unofficially, they only way he could deal with the problem was to ensure that the Clerk of the Passage must satisfy himself that no Packet carried so large a quantity of goods or stowed them in such a manner as to put the ship out of trim. Many of the goods were merely legitimate covers of smuggled contents.

At the time of Whitley, John Carlisle was Clerk of the Passage (see Stokes Dynasty). He was a Dover Jurat who also owned one of the packets. The other packet owners were Richard Hills, Walter Finnis and Ambrose Williams. In 1674, Francis Bastinck was appointed Clerk of the Passage and four years later was appointed Dovers Postmaster. The Farmer was James Duke of York (later King James II 16851688) who complained to the Privy Council that the Dover mails were too slow. A Mr Sawtell was sent to investigate and Mr Rouse, the postmaster, was told that he was ‘to haste in his duties … the Dover letters were expected at Court every Sunday.’ Around 1678 the Dover Letter Office moved to Strond Street and remained in the Pier District until 1893 when it moved into purpose built premises on King Street. During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715) of France, the word malle, entered the English language as mail. Malle were the bags slung across post horses backs in which letters were carried.

South Prospect of Dover c1739. Dover Harbour Board

South Prospect of Dover c1739. Dover Harbour Board

The continued improvements in the design and building of ships by Dover shipyards meant that by the 18th century they had the reputation of being the swiftest sailing ships in Europe. Indeed, Dovers packets were so fast that orders for similar craft flowed into the town from domestic and foreign buyers. Although Farmers hired packet ships, some were individually licensed by the Post Office and these were usually crewed by six men and a boy. Further, the individual ship owners were not paid to carry mail, instead, their profits came from carrying passengers and freight. Because of the reputation of the service they provided, the individual owners enjoyed a long running boom and pushed the Farmers out of the market.

Possibly, because the local passage shipowners were making good profits, by the mid-18th century the Post Office introduced greater control that included a share of the proceeds from passenger and freight traffic. Ships, by this time, had increased in size with a crew of nine, except during wartime when the number of men increased. During those times, the packet ships were allowed to carry armaments for use against privateers. There were also changes taking place on the Continent and by February 1744, the regular mail service to Nieupoort had ceased with all Flanders (Belgium) mail going to Ostend. This left Dover on Tuesdays and Fridays and the Post Office changed the Calais packets to Tuesdays and Fridays in April 1763.

However, the relationship between France and England was far from cordial. In January 1773, according to a story cited by Alec Hasenson (History of Dover Harbour. Aurum Special Publications 1980 pp149), ‘the Packet Express sailed from Dover to Calais with mails, and their being a heavy sea, Mr Pascall, the mate of the Union Packet, then in Calais, thinking the Express could not enter the port, came out in a small boat, rowed by seven Frenchmen, to exchange mails at sea. The boat was upset, and the seven Frenchmen drowned. Pascall contrived to get on the bottom of the capsized boat, but because the French were all drowned, the French soldiers would not allow a boat to go out and rescue Pascall, who was drowned within hail of hundreds of spectators.’

During the American War of Independence the Fector's were forced to sell their ships. This poster was produced by the purchaser Flanegan Vercoustre. Dover Museum

During the American War of Independence the Fector’s were forced to sell their ships. This poster was produced by the purchaser Flanegan Vercoustre. Dover Museum

The situation deteriorated even further during the American War of Independence (1776-1783), due to the danger from French privateers. They, apparently, took no notice of the Letters of Protection and the packets ceased making the crossing. The Dover packet ship owners such as the Minet/Fector’s were forced to sell their ships and instead use small but fast boats with shallow draughts and used ‘safe’ Continental natural harbours. Following the War, four Dover packets operated, making the crossing every Wednesday and Saturday with mails for Calais and Ostend.

This encouraged the growth of the smuggling industry a practice that became so flagrant that there was a public outcry and investigations were undertaken. It was found that in Dover the game of eluding the revenue laws were played to perfection and with even more zest in the West Country. Admiralty Records show, that Customs Officers more than once complained of the obstruction  they met with when the Revenue men went on board Dover Packets to carry out routine examination.

By this time two large shipping companies had developed in Dover and they were owned by the Minet/Fector and the Latham/Rice banking/shipping families. They also owned all the packet licences and had fleets of ships that were fast and were used interchangeably as packet and passage vessels. By the time of the French Revolution in 1788, there were five Post Office packet licences for Dover ships and thirty vessels sailing between Dover and the Continent and both families were heavily involved in smuggling.

Following the outset of the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) the base for the Channel packets moved to Harwich and passenger and mail services out of Dover were officially suspended. Except for Fector ships, packets were redeployed either as cargo vessels or commandeered by the Royal Navy as warships. As the Fector bank held a large percentage of the Vercoustre company based in Ostend, their ships sailed under the neutral Belgian flag and they were immune from attack. In fact, their advertisement asserted that they sailed ‘free from molestation from ships and privateers of the Powers at War’. In 1799 a regular stagecoach between Dover and London was introduced and shortly after a weekly mail coach.

Under an agreement between the French and British Governments an Order in Council had exempted the Post Office Sailing Packets and Byes from the general embargo on shipping – a Bye was a vessel hired temporarily for the postal service. Thus the Dover packet service had been officially reinstated but was administered by the Admiralty. In 1798 the Dover packet, Despatch, commanded by Captain John Osborne was summoned to surrender by a French privateer and his ship was seized despite various protests. Osborne and his crew were made prisoners-of-war and the Despatch was taken to Dunkirk where it was declared a ‘prize.’ A few weeks later Captain Osborn was exchanged for a French officer prisoner and returned to Dover, but his crew were kept in prison, with one remaining there for three years before he was exchanged. In September 1798 Captain Osbourne was carrying two of the King’s messengers on the Despatch and they were taken ashore at Calais in one of the ship’s rowboats. What happened next was described by diarist Thomas Pattenden (1748-1819), who wrote that on going ashore the two Messengers ‘were drowned and also one of the sailors, the boat was over run with waves.’ (14 September 1798).

Custom House Quay by Burgess William - lythograph 1844. Dover Museum

Custom House Quay by Burgess William – lythograph 1844. Dover Museum

Privateering continued in the Channel and the Wars continued on the Continent. However, in the early hours of 14 February 1814, the weather was cold and the skies clear when there was a knock on the door of the Ship Hotel, on Custom House Quay. The proprietor, Benjamin Worthington, opened the door to a man in rich military dress who presented himself as Lieutenant-Colonel du Bourg, aide-de-camp to General Cathcart (1755-1843). The officer was wet from the knees down and said that he had just disembarked from a boat that had berthed on the beach. He went on to say, in hushed tones, that he was a courier bearing the important news that, ‘Napoleon Bonaparte had been slain in battle, the allies are in Paris and Peace is certain.’ He finished by asking Mr Worthington not to say anything to anyone about this.

Worthington gave the man a dry pair of pants and a hot meal and bid his servants to ensure that the officer was looked after. The officer told each servant the tale and swore them to secrecy. He then left the hotel, ‘in a post-chaise and four for the Metropolis.’ By that  evening what the officer had told a few people Dover to keep secret had become common knowledge in London. The following morning anyone with spare cash in the City hurried to the Stock Exchange to buy government consoles. By the afternoon the scene there was, by all accounts, wildly exciting!

At number 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister, Robert Jenkinson, Earl of Liverpool (1770-1828), was having doubts. The news had not been followed by any details of Napoleon Bonaparte’s (1769-1821) defeat – nor had any news come by the shutter telegraph system from the Deal Timeball Tower – the Timeball was the terminus of the 12-station line between Deal and the Admiralty in London. The Prime Minister’s concerns were well founded for two weeks before Admiral Thomas Cochrane (1775-1860) and some friends had bought consoles to the value of £826,000. On 15 February 1814, they sold them for a handsome profit to the eager buyers. For his part in the supposed fraud, Admiral Cochrane received a year’s sentence, fined £1,000 and pilloried. Later his conviction was overturned.

Following the abdication of Napoleon in April 1814, a Peace Treaty was signed and everyone thought that the wars were over. However, on 26 February 1815, Napoleon escaped from imprisonment on the island of Elba, in the Mediterranean, and quickly reassembled his Grand Army. Determined to regain his supremacy Napoleon prepared for battle and Dover became a hive of activity as troops embarked for Holland.

On the Continent, the events were going Napoleon’s way and by 15 June 1815, he was advancing towards Brussels. On the London Stock Exchange, the price of government consoles fell to an all time low. The next morning Napoleon’s forces attacked the Prussians, driving them back and splitting the allied defence. He next attacked the British, under the command of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). Wellington withdrew to a ridge across the Brussels road near the village of Waterloo and the imminent British defeat was telegraphed, via the Timeball Tower, to London. The bottom fell out of the government console market.

The morning of 18 June, Napoleon and Wellington faced each other across the battlefield at Waterloo. The battle lasted nine hours and was one of the bloodiest in history. It was said that Nathan Rothschild (1777-1836), whose friends included the Fector and the Latham/Rice families, promised prizes to the first packet to bring news of the battle outcome. One of Rothschild’s agents, Rothworth, obtained a copy of the Dutch Gazette, fresh from the printers with the headlines saying that the Duke of Wellington had defeated Napoleon.

King George 80 ton sloop of the Fector Bank fleet c1790 drawn by Candace Sencicle

King George 80 ton sloop of the Fector Bank fleet c1790 drawn by Candace Sencicle

Rothworth travelled from Ostend, on the Latham/Rice packet British Fair and on landing went straight to London. He entered the city on 20 June and immediately reported to Rothschild who, in turn, conveyed the news to the Prime Minister. Lord Liverpool, concerned that it was yet another swindle, refused to accept the news until it was confirmed via the Timeball Tower. Rothschild, together with friends, including the Lathams, Sarah Rice and John Minet Fector went to the Stock Exchange. There, they sold a large amount of government consoles at the depressed price to their own representatives. The whisper was that ‘Rothchild knows’ and others sold theirs too – to the same representatives of Rothchild, Lathams, Rice and Fector! When the news broke of Wellington’s success, Dover’s two banking families, along with Rothschild and the representatives, had made a fortune!

On 10 October 1815, the packet service was officially resumed and the administration was immediately taken out of hands of the Fector and Latham/Rice families. Sloops of 60 to 70 tons were brought to Dover and frequently crossed to Calais in three hours and to Ostend in seven.  Albeit, it is recorded that when George III died on 29 January 1820, Queen Caroline was brought to England in the Fector Packet ship, Prince Leopold – Master R Rogers. She arrived on 5 June 1820 and was given a tumultuous welcome plus a royal salute from the commandant of the garrison and a guard of honour!

On Friday 15 June 1820 the first paddle steam packet, Rob Roy, was introduced to the Dover-Calais passage. Taking 4½hrs to cross the Strait, the 88-ton ship was built by Denny of Dumbarton with 33 horsepower engines by Daniel Napier. The French government, attracted by the idea of steam, purchased Rob Roy, gave her the name of Henri Quatre. She subsequently worked the Calais-Dover run.

Dover Harbour c1800

Dover Harbour c1800

In 1821 the packet service was given back to the Post Office and they introduced the Arrow and the Dasher as the first cross-Channel steam packets. In 1824, they acquired the 83-foot Spitfire with 40 hp engines and the Fury. The Post Office sailing ships, at the time, were the Aukland, Chichester, Eclipse, King George and the Lord Duncan but by December 1826, these had all been sold. However, after only two years service, the Monarch, a wooden paddle steamer built by James Duke of Dover and engined by Maudsley, Sons & Field, London, was withdrawn from service  suffering from what appears to be catastrophic engine failure.

Because the Post Office steam packets were not so vulnerable to wind conditions as the sailing ships they were preferred by passengers to the passage sailing ships. On 9 August 1833, the Post Office introduced a daily service, weather permitting, except on Sundays, between Dover and Calais. During bad weather Calais harbour was neither easy to enter or exit and Dover impossible even for steam packets. On such occasions, all ships would run to the Downs off Deal, until the weather abated. Albeit, in 1834, Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) made the crossing from France to England having travelled from Rome and praised, in his biography, of the ‘up-to-date advantage of a well fitted steam packet’.

Harbour Entrance - Dover by William Heath published 1836 by Rigden. Dover Harbour Board

Harbour Entrance – Dover by William Heath published 1836 by Rigden. Dover Harbour Board

On 5 February 1834, the Arrow with Captain Luke Smithett in command made the crossing from Dover to Ostend, in 5hours 45 minutes, the fastest passage on record at that time. However, Henshaw Latham of the Latham shipping/banking family was not impressed. He held a number of consulates that included the American, Russian, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Sicilian and most of the German States and wrote, ‘Holding eleven consular appointments we have constant applications from maimed, invalid, discharged seamen; a number of vagabonds passing themselves as such. Whilst there were private Packets, we had comparatively no difficulty, but now that the Post Office have monopolised the Passage. It is a sad cause of Annoyance … (as there is) trouble to get Reimbursement of your actual expenses.’

This probably stemmed from the fact that the steam packets were proving costly for the Post Office and they wanted out. A number of private concerns made offers for the Dover packet service, but all were turned down. Instead, a Commission of Inquiry headed by Captain Evans was set up in May 1836, to investigate. It was found that the cost of operating, maintenance and repair of the ships for the four years to May 1836 was £273,018. In the same years, the packets had made a loss of, on average, £38,739 a year.

From the Commission of Inquiry report 1836

From the Commission of Inquiry report 1836

At Dover, it was noted that the packets left early in the morning so that the mail could be taken on the Paris train that arrived in the French capital late morning. However, potential passengers found the time leaving Dover far too early and instead crossed on the passage ships. The prospective loss to the Post Office was estimated as £4,000 for the previous year. It was also reported that at Dover, ‘the accounts were not examined with a view to ascertain whether the stores charged have been actually supplied, nor are any observations made on the prices. The bills are not certified by the commanders; and the agent acknowledges that the only check he has is his dependence on the honesty of the tradesman not to charge far more than has actually been delivered.’

All the necessary arrangements were made to transfer the national packet service to the Admiralty in December 1836 with the Post Office regulating the times of departure. Captain Boys followed by Captain H Boteler in 1841 were appointed the superintending commanders of Dovers fleet. By this time, there were six packets and all were repainted and renamed but the personnel remained the same. They were the Arrow renamed Aerial under Captain Luke Smithett, Crusader renamed Charon under E Rutter, Ferret renamed Swallow under captain R Sherlock, Salamander renamed Beaver under Lieutenant Madge and Firefly renamed Myrtle the reserve packet.

Over the next few years, the Admiralty replaced them with:

The Widgeon, a wooden paddle steamer built by Sir William Symonds at Chatham, engined by Messrs Seaward & Capel of London and tonnage 164 gross. She came straight from the shipyard on 25 October 1837, captained by M J Hamilton. From 1847, she became a survey ship for the Royal Navy. In the third week of August 1850 the Widgeon, made several crossings of the Channel laying flagged buoys that marked the course of the first cross Channel telegraph cable

Dover an iron paddle steamer designed and built by John Laird of North Birkenhead, engined by Messrs Fawcett & Co and was 224 burthen (an archaic tonnage of a ship based on the number of tuns of wine that could be carried in the holds). She arrived straight from the shipyard on 12 August 1840, captained by B Lyne. Was withdrawn in 1847 and then saw service in Gambia, West Africa.

Princess Alice, an iron paddle steamer built by Ditchburn and Mare, Blackwall, engined by Maudsley, Sons & Field and 110.1 burthens. She belonged to Dover ship owners, John and William Hayward of Snargate Street and came on station as a packet on 27 December 1843. She was purchased by the Admiralty on 27 January 1844 for £11,350 as a replacement for Beaver and was captained initially by Luke Smithett and from 1848 by E Rutter. She ceased to be a packet ship in February 1855 but occasionally returned to Dover in that capacity.

Onyx an iron paddle steamer built by Ditchburn and Mare, Blackwall, engined by Messrs Penn & Son, Greenwich and tonnage 294 gross. A replacement for Arial she arrived on 30 January 1846 and made the fastest crossing between Dover and Calais from 1846 to 1848, taking, on average, one hour and twenty-five minutes.

Violet an iron paddle steamer built by Ditchburn and Mare, Blackwall, engined by Messrs Penn & Son, Greenwich and tonnage 295 gross. She came to straight to Dover arriving 8 April 1846 as a replacement for the Swallow and captained by Lieut. Jones RN.

Garland circa 1848 when Captain Luke Smithett was the Master. Jim Henderson

Garland circa 1848 when Captain Luke Smithett was the Master. Jim Henderson

Garland a wooden paddle steamer built by Fletcher & Fearnall, London, engined by Messrs Penn & Son, Greenwich and tonnage 295 gross. Built for the Dover packet service she arrived 27 May 1846 and captained by Lieut. Wylde RN. She made the quickest passage from Boulogne taking 1hour 50 minutes and regularly made the crossing to Ostend in 4hours 30minutes.

The Ondine an iron paddle steamer built and engined in 1845 by Miller, Ravenhill & Co of Blackwall, 86 burthens for Dover ship owners, Messrs Bushell. The Ondine, she worked the Dover-Boulogne passage with the licence to carry the Indian mail. When the packet service ceased out of Dover, she was sold to Edward Baldwin the proprietor of the London Morning Herald. On 2 April 1845, Ondine made the crossing between Dover and Boulogne in 1hour 51minutes and was to break this record several times thereafter. Impressed, the Admiralty made Baldwin an offer for her and finally, in February 1847, £10,936 was accepted. Renamed Undine, she was commissioned for the Portsmouth – Le Havre crossing but occasionally coming to Dover on a temporary basis. In June 1848, she moved to Dover permanently as the relief vessel, with J Warman as her captain, until 1850 when she returned to Portsmouth.

The Vivid a wooden paddle steamer designed by Oliver Lang, Chatham Royal Dockyard, engined by Messrs Penn & Son, Greenwich and 352 ¾ burthen. She arrived in Dover from her maiden trials in 8 April 1848 and was captained by Luke Smithett (1800-1871) – the Commodore of the Admiralty Fleet.

Prince Albert arriving at Dover on 6 February 1840 for his marriage to Queen Victoria four days later. Dover Museum

Prince Albert arriving at Dover on 6 February 1840 for his marriage to Queen Victoria four days later. Dover Museum

Luke Smithett was a captain in the Irish Packet service before coming Dover. Highly thought of, Smithett was usually selected to pilot or accompany the Royal yacht, and to conduct Royal visitors to and from the country. On 6 February 1840, he brought Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1819-1861) in the Aerial, to be married four days later to  Queen Victoria (1837-1901). When the Princess Alice came on station, Captain Smithett took command and was not only proud of her, but also believed that she could not be beaten on speed. Following the arrival of the Onyx a race was arranged between the two ships. In a run of an hour and a half along the Kentish coast, the Onyx proved swifter by nine minutes. Captain Smithett on the Vivid brought Napoleon III (1852-1873) and Empress Eugénie (1826-1920) to England on 16 April 1855 to start a 6-day State visit. In Dover, the Royal couple were met by Prince Albert, Dover’s Mayor William Payn and other civic dignitaries and the Emperor conferred the French Legion of Honour on Captain Smithett. In 1862, Queen Victoria knighted him.

From the packet records of 1849, 1850 and 1851, it appears that there were two packet crossings a day from Dover to and from the ports of Calais or Boulogne and Ostend. During the week ending 24 June 1848, 900 Continental passengers passed through Dover, 500 via the Ostend route, 300 to Boulogne but only 100 on the Calais route. This was due to the Admiralty making a contract with the French Post Office to give preference to Boulogne over Calais. The contract was from January 1848 for one year and one month, in the hope of accelerating postal communication. However, on 1 September that year, the Northern Railway of France was opened to Calais and the question of restoring Calais as the primary French port came under discussion.

South Eastern Railway Company (SER) had opened their railway line to Dover on Tuesday 6 February 1843. Two years before Joseph Baxendale (1785-1872), the Chairman of SER had purchased the silted up Folkestone Harbour for £18,000. He immediately sold the harbour to SER, who then spent some £250,000 on deepening, constructing landing stages, passenger facilities, a viaduct across the town of Folkestone and a railway station. Folkestone Harbour opened on 24 June 1843 and SER hired ships from the Steam Navigation Company to provide a crossing to Boulogne until their own vessels were ready. From that time, they had regularly applied for the Channel mail packet contract but had been consistently refused.

Although the Admiralty adhered to the contract made with Boulogne, following the opening of the Calais-Paris railway connection that port was favoured. On 31 January 1849, the Admiralty ceased running mail packet’s to Boulogne and thereafter, Calais resumed its old position as the principal French port for English packets. SER, with one eye on the potentially lucrative mail contract and with the opening of the Calais-Paris railway line, introduced the Dover-Calais route to their schedules.

Train-Packet schedules Spring 1850 presented by South Eastern Railway Company to the Inquiry

Rail-Packet schedules Spring 1850 presented by South Eastern Railway Company to the Inquiry

SER transferred the Princess Maud and the Queen of the French paddle steamers to Dover and persuaded the Admiralty to increase passenger fares on the Dover packets to equal the fares that they charged their passengers. The SER argument was that the Admiralty were subsiding cross Channel passengers travelling on their ships. A new fare structure was introduced and the number of passengers using the packet boats fell.

This led to yet another Inquiry and where it was shown, by SER, that of the two packet crossings to Calais, the day mail train left London at 10.30hrs. It arrived in Dover at 14.30hrs, where it was loaded onto the packet boat and taken to Calais. The train left Calais at 18.30hrs and arrived in Paris at 05.30 the next morning and a reciprocal journey went in the opposite direction. This, it was stated, was convenient for the delivery of mail, which took place approximately two later, but left the two capitals too early for businesses purposes.

The evening mail train left London at 20.30hrs and Paris at 20.00hrs, which was convenient for businesses but the arrival in London, argued SER, was at 10.30hrs and Paris 08.45hrs and was delivered some two hours after. The time the trains left was convenient but by the time the mail arrived a considerable part of the days business had been done. The Committee considered this evidence and the advisability of putting to tender the Dover and Calais transit of the mails. SER made a tentative tender of £9,825, but, much to their surprise, packets remained with the Admiralty!

Admiralty Pier construction being inspected by the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). Dover Museum

Admiralty Pier construction being inspected by the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). Dover Museum

The Great Exhibition was held in London in 1851, and SER lay on express trains between Dover and London, arriving an hour before either the Princess Maud or the Queen of the French were due into the port. Although the number of passengers using the packets coming to Dover increased significantly, averaging some two hundred passengers each voyage, the larger SER ships were crowded. SER’s gamble paid dividends! It was that year the first part of the Admiralty Pier was completed and on 19 June 1851 the Princess Alice, became the first cross-Channel packet to use the Pier on a regular basis. On that day, she landed 86 passengers and their baggage, after which the Pier was well used, except in rough weather.

Although the Onyx was scheduled, on 14 June 1851, to be the first packet to tie up on the partially built Admiralty Pier but as the harbour official log it states, ‘This morning the Onyx had orders to land at the new Pier, but was unable to do so, being a strong SW wind, and the Pier works not yet affording sufficient shelter from the sea either at the buoy or the landing place, so as to lie at either with safety; also being low water spring tide at the time of arrival, there was not sufficient water to come to the buoy or the Pier without risk.’ The following day the Violet, coming from Ostend, made fast on a harbour buoy and sent the mails by boat to the Pier. She then proceeded into the harbour to land passengers.

Later, on 14 June, the steamer Father Thames, managed to make it to the Admiralty Pier and landed 50 passengers but two days later, 16 June, when the Vivid tried to get alongside, she failed due to a heavy swell. Instead she anchored in the bay and the mail and Dover boatmen took off passengers. Elsewhere, it states that the Onyx was the first ship to land passengers on the Admiralty Pier and that was on 15 January 1851. In fact, the Pier was not sufficiently advanced to take vessels and passengers at that time. Further, on that date, there was a gale blowing and the mail packets, including the Onyx, had to run for shelter in the Downs.

In 1852, the Violet was forced to put into Woolwich, on the Thames, following damage to her bowsprit and bow. Captain Baldock, inspector of the Dover Mail Packets, checked her out and following repairs she returned to Dover. At the time, SER, supported by the Times newspaper, were putting pressure on parliamentary representatives. Thus, the relatively minor accident and the cost of repair of the Violet was blown out of proportion. The Times reported that the Dover packet industry, in private hands would bring an annual saving to the government of £10,000. Eventually, in 1854, tenders were invited and SER made a bid but it was Jenkins & Churchward‘s offer of £15,500 that was accepted! Joseph Churchward, who ran the company, purchased a ship named Ondine as his first and only ship in his packet fleet! He then purchased the Undine and renamed her Dover and the Onyx and Violet and leased the Vivid and Princess Alice.


  • Presented:
  • 02 March 2015




About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
This entry was posted in I. Packet Service to 1854, Ships of the Packet Service to 1854. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Packet Service I to 1854

  1. Roger Gray says:

    Thanks Lorraine! another interesting article.

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