S.S. Royal William

Canada - Scott #204 (1933)
Canada – Scott #204 (1933)

Here we have another of the beautifully-engraved stamps that Canada released during the first half of the twentieth century that makes it a real joy to collect from that era. In my opinion, Scott #204 featuring the side-wheel paddle steamship Royal William of the Québec and Halifax Steam Navigation Company is nearly as beautiful as the famous Bluenose stamp of 1929 (Scott #158). It’s certainly far less expensive to obtain a decent mint, never-hinged, copy!

SS Royal William is sometimes credited with achieving the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean to be made almost entirely under steam power, using sails only during periods of boiler maintenance, though the British-built Dutch-owned Curaçao crossed in 1827, and the sail-steam hybrid SS Savannah used some steam power when crossing in 1819. She was the largest passenger ship in the world from 1831 to 1837.

Painting of SS Royal William, circa 1834. Published in Samuel Cunard: Nova Scotia's Master of the North Atlantic by John Boileau (Publisher: Formac, 2006) p48
Painting of SS Royal William, circa 1834. Published in Samuel Cunard: Nova Scotia’s Master of the North Atlantic by John Boileau (Publisher: Formac, 2006) p48

The ship was commissioned by brewer John Molson and a group of investors from various colonies in British North America, including whom subscribed 196 shares at £25 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There were all told 235 investors of a total £16,000 in the Québec and Halifax Steam Navigation Company. The incorporation occurred on March 31, 1830.

The 1,370-ton SS Royal William (named after the ruling monarch, William IV) was 160 feet (49 m) long, of 44 feet (13 m) breadth and had a draught of 17¾ft, a large steamship for the time. She was drawn by 21-year old James Goudie who had by then served his apprenticeship, likely at Scotts Shipbuilding and Engineering Company of Greenock, Scotland, a seaport on the Firth of Clyde and also the birthplace of James Watt.  Before building got underway, the youthful professional made changes to his plan  and brought them from Greenock, acting as foreman during the construction. He later wrote a brief account in a letter to Archibald Campbell of Québec which was eventually reprinted in The History of North Atlantic Steam Navigation by Henry Fry (1896):

As I had the drawings and the form of the ship, at the time a novelty in construction, it devolved upon me to lay off and expand the draft to it’s full dimensions on the floor of the loft, where I made several alterations in the lines as improvements. The steamship being commenced, the work progressed rapidly, and in May following was duly launched, and before a large concourse of people was christened the Royal William. She was then taken to Montreal to have her engines, where I continued to superintend the finishing of the cabins and deck-work. When completed she had her trial trip, which proved quite satisfactory. Being late in the season before being completed, she only made a few trips to Halifax.

The launch of SS Royal William on April 27, 1831, at the shipyard of George Black and John Saxton Campbell, Cape Blanc, Quebec City. On the watercolor by James Pattison Cockburn, the Royal William is north of the Canada Floating Dock Dry Dock, appearing without her masts but with two wheels with side blades visible.
The launch of SS Royal William on April 27, 1831, at the shipyard of George Black and John Saxton Campbell, Cape Blanc, Quebec City. On the watercolor by James Pattison Cockburn, the Royal William is north of the Canada Floating Dock Dry Dock, appearing without her masts but with two wheels with side blades visible.

The ship was built in Cape Blanc, Québec, by John Saxton Campbell and George Black, who laid its keel on September 2, 1830. She was launched on April 27, 1831, in the presence of Governor Lord Aylmer and a large crowd at Cape Cove, Québec: a public holiday had been decreed for the occasion. Lady Aylmer named the Royal William with the band of the 32nd Regiment attending. Her steam engines were manufactured and installed in Montreal, at the premises of the Bennett and Henderson Foundry, where she arrived on May 2. Her shakedown voyage under steam from there to Québec (calling at Sorel and Three Rivers en route) occurred on August 13, 1831, after which she was officially registered on August 22. SS Royal William entered service on August 24, 1831, sailing from Québec on her first trip to Miramichi in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

One of Royal William‘s co-owners was Samuel Cunard a merchant from Halifax, Nova Scotia who drew important lessons from the ship which he applied when he founded the Cunard Steamship Company a few years later.  It is said that the Royal William convinced him that steam was the coming force for ocean navigation. He asked many questions about her, took down answers in his notebook, and subsequently became a large stockholder in the ship.

SS Royal William made several trips between Québec and the Atlantic colonies in 1831 and 1832, When she visited Boston on June 17, 1832, it marked the first time a seagoing steamer would fly the British flag in a U.S. port. She was also the first steamship built to develop trade between the ports of different colonies in British North America.

Modern computer-generated line drawing of SS Royal William (1833).
Modern computer-generated line drawing of SS Royal William (1833).

Travel became restricted because of the cholera epidemic in 1832. Some shareowners protested that she had been poorly maintained over the winter, and as a result costly repairs that should have been unnecessary were required. One legislator suggested that the annual subsidy not be paid because the Royal William had not fulfilled her schedule. The losses bankrupted the venture because the loans went unpaid. The owners lost some £16,000 on the venture. On April 3, 1833, she was purchased at auction by a half-dozen mortgage holders and original shareholders for £5,000.

Her owners decided to sail her to Europe and find a buyer. She departed from Pictou, Nova Scotia on August 18, 1833, under Captain John McDougall with seven passengers, a small amount of freight and a large load of coal and arrived on September 11 at Gravesend on the River Thames after a 25-day passage that included a stop at the Cowes, Isle of Wight for a fresh coat of paint. Aside from a one-day pause to clean her boilers, the ship had crossed non stop using its steam engines.

Royal William, which initially sold for £10,000, was first chartered to the Portuguese government for use as a troop ship. Portugal was asked to purchase her for their Navy but the admiral of the fleet declined. McDougall returned to London with the Royal William carrying invalid and disbanded Portuguese sailors and laid her up at the Deptford Victualling Office. In July 1834, orders were made to fit out the ship to run between Oporto and Lisbon but only one trip was made as was one to Cadiz for the Portuguese government.

The Irish paddle steamer “Royal William,” on her first voyage from Liverpool to New York, 1838 — “the first passenger steamer to cross the Atlantic Ocean from Liverpool under continuous steam.” Painted by S. Walters, drawn on stone by T. Fairland. Source: Muir's Liverpool, Plate 36. One should note that Walters has represented the Royal William in this painting steaming straight into the heavy wind while in the background a sailing vessel that wishes to head the same direction is forced to go sideways so as not to be forced back toward its starting point. This is NOT the Royal William as depicted on the Canadian stamp released in 1933.
The Irish paddle steamer “Royal William,” on her first voyage from Liverpool to New York, 1838 — “the first passenger steamer to cross the Atlantic Ocean from Liverpool under continuous steam.” Painted by S. Walters, drawn on stone by T. Fairland. Source: Muir’s Liverpool, Plate 36. One should note that Walters has represented the Royal William in this painting steaming straight into the heavy wind while in the background a sailing vessel that wishes to head the same direction is forced to go sideways so as not to be forced back toward its starting point. This is NOT the Royal William as depicted on the Canadian stamp released in 1933.

At Lisbon, Captain McDougall was ordered to sell the ship to the Spanish government through Don Evanston Castor da Perez, then the Spanish ambassador to the court of Lisbon. On September 10, 1834, SS Royal William was renamed Ysabel Segunda, becoming the Spanish navy’s first war steamer and later earning the distinction of being the first steamship to fire in anger in a minor Spanish rebellion. She was ordered to the north coast of Spain, against Don Carlos. Captain McDougall accepted the rank and pay of a commander, and by special proviso, was guaranteed six hundred pounds sterling per annum, and the contract to supply the squadron with provisions from Lisbon. Ysabel Segunda proceeded to the north coast. In the latter part of 1834, she returned to Gravesend to be converted into a war steamer at the Imperial Dockyard.

When completed at Sheerness Dockyard, Ysabel Segunda took General Miguel Ricardo de Álava, the Spanish Ambassador (and who became the Prime Minister of Spain in 1835), to Spain and was afterwards employed in cruising between St. Sebastian and Fuente Arabia, acting in concert with the Legion against Don Carlos until the time of their service expired in 1837. She was then sent to Portsmouth, discharged before sailing to London where she was detained in the City Canal awaiting settlement of claims between the officers and crew against the Spanish government. At the end of 1837, Ysabel Segunda had her engines repaired, returned to Spain, and was soon afterwards sent to Bordeaux, France, to have the hull repaired.

Cigarette card showing the Irish Royal William (1837)
Cigarette card showing the Irish Royal William (1837)

Upon being surveyed, it was found that the timbers were so much decayed, that it was decided to build a new vessel — also named Isabel II — to receive the Bordeaux-built engines. In 1840, the former Royal William was converted into a hulk at Bordeaux and renamed Santa Isabel in 1850. She was sunk by a storm in Algeciras Bay, Spain, on January 2, 1860.

In the town of Pictou there is a Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps named after this vessel. A large wooden model of Royal William is on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. In 1893, this model was exhibited at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois.

 Irish cross-Channel packet Royal William, built in 1837.
Irish cross-Channel packet Royal William, built in 1837.

In researching this article (and searching for images — there are very few!), I found another paddle steamship by the name of Royal William, built at Liverpool by Messrs. W. and J. Wilson in 1836. She was the first steamer to be divided into water-tight compartments by bulkheads, of which she had four. This Royal William started out in the employ of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company operating on the Irish cross-Channel packet service. She was 175 feet long with a beam of 27 feet, depth of 17½ feet and tonnage of 817. The packet had accommodation for eighty passengers. Her engines were built by Fawcett and Preston of Liverpool and were of 276 horse-power, giving a speed of 11½ knots on a consumption of seventeen tons of coal per day. In 1838, the Irish Royal William was chartered by the Transatlantic Steamship Company to run between Liverpool and New York. She sailed on July 5, 1838, arrived at New York after a passage of nineteen days with thirty-two passengers. thus became one of the first passenger steamers to cross the Atlantic. Her return was accomplished in fourteen and a half days, leaving New York on August 4, 1838, and casting anchor in the Mersey on August 19, 1838. After a few successful crossings she returned to the Irish service and after a short period as a coal hulk she was sold in 1888 for £11. A few of the images accompanying this article portray the Irish Royal William.

Canada - Scott #204 (1933) first day cover, postmarked Halifax, N.S. on OHMS envelope
Canada – Scott #204 (1933) first day cover, postmarked Halifax, N.S. on OHMS envelope
Canada - Scott #204 (1933) first day cover, postmarked Pictou, N.S. (front)
Canada – Scott #204 (1933) first day cover, postmarked Pictou, N.S. (front)
Canada - Scott #204 (1933) first day cover, postmarked Pictou, N.S. [rear]
Canada – Scott #204 (1933) first day cover, postmarked Pictou, N.S. [rear]
Canada - Scott #904 (1933) first day cover, postmarked Toronto, Ontario; backstamped August 18, 1933 at Newark, N.J.
Canada – Scott #904 (1933) first day cover, postmarked Toronto, Ontario; backstamped August 18, 1933 at Newark, N.J. – from active eBay auction (NIMC2018]

Scott #204 was released by Canada on August 17, 1933. Printed by the British American Bank Note Company in a quantity of 4,854,200, the stamp depicts SS Royal William, with her sails furled, as she passes a sailing ship in stormy weather The depiction was adapted from a drawing by Samuel Walters in the National Archives of Canada. Naval artist Stephen D. Skillet painted the original — “Royal William” — in oils in 1834. That painting is currently in the possession of the Literary and Historical Society of Québec and displayed at Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec. The stamp Designed and engraved by Bruce Hay. Recess-printed, it is perforated 11.

Canadian Red Ensign, used as national flag of Canada 1921-1957
Canadian Red Ensign, used as national flag of Canada 1921-1957

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