Book review: The Isle of Man Steam Packet Through Time by Ian Collard

Climb aboard for a historic voyage across the Irish Sea to see some of the many ways in which the world’s oldest steamship company has changed and developed over the last century.

By Pam Norfolk
Friday, 18th October 2013, 10:00 am
The Isle of Man Steam Packet Through Time by Ian Collard
The Isle of Man Steam Packet Through Time by Ian Collard

For over 180 years, the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company’s ships have been the lifeline to the island, providing both passenger and freight services, and using paddle steamers right up until the late 19th century.

Ian Collard’s fascinating history, brought to life by hundreds of stunning photographs, charts a distinguished maritime history including the heroic rescue of thousands of stranded British servicemen at Dunkirk in 1940.

In 1767, the first regular packet service to the Isle of Man was established, sailing from Whitehaven to Douglas on Mondays and returning on the following Thursday. The wooden paddle boat Elizabeth, built in 1812 and normally employed on the Clyde, was the first steamship to sail the Manx waters.

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In June 1815 she was damaged in a gale and anchored in Ramsey Bay because rough seas had ripped off one of her paddle wheels. After three days there, she sailed for Liverpool and became the first steamship to enter the River Mersey.

By 1820 a Scottish company was operating a thrice-weekly service from Greenock to Liverpool via Douglas and in 1822 the St George was providing a service to the Isle of Man from Liverpool.

Meanwhile, Manxman Mark Cosnahan of the Santon Broadstone family tried without success to interest the island’s businessmen in buying his ship Victory which he used for a service to the mainland. In 1829 she carried the British explorer Sir John Ross to the Arctic on her last voyage.

Many of the steamers operating at this time, including a twice-weekly mail service, were rough and ready with one report labelling them ‘shameful hulks, devoid of shelter or accommodation other than that of a small cabin aft.’

In December 1829, several Manx businessmen met at the Dixon & Steele sale rooms where £4,500 was subscribed for a Manx ship which would be manned by Manxmen and named Mona’s Isle. And so the Mona’s Isle Company was formed, evolving into the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company in 1832.

Mona’s Isle, described as ‘a small, fast ship… bearing the golden Three Legs of Man,’ was indeed one of the speediest vessels ploughing across the Irish Sea at that time, completing the voyage between Liverpool and Douglas in about eight hours.

The arrival of the 20th century saw the advent of screw steamers and in 1962 the first roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) ferries arrived. These vessels were designed to carry wheeled cargo such as cars and trucks which could be driven on and off the ship. By the late 1990s catamarans were being used, offering a huge increase in speed.

The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company ships saw service during both world wars with their vessels carrying about one in fourteen of all the soldiers rescued at the evacuation of Dunkirk.

After numerous changes of owners, the company is now owned by Portuguese investment banks but continues to dominate the Irish Sea routes to the Isle of Man despite competition from air transport.

The Isle of Man Steam Packet Through Time, with its vast array of photographs and posters, provides a nostalgic trip down memory lane as well as an interesting and informative guide to an historic and legendary steamship company.

(Amberley, paperback, £14.99)