Steam Boats

Whilst browsing through "Traffic and Transport - An Economic History of Pickfords" I found a reference to steam boats on the Macclesfield Canal in the early 19th century. This was too good to miss and subsequent research has so far elicited the following information. It paints a fascinating picture of pioneering attempts to introduce new technology and the problems which were faced. It is hardly surprising that in the end the technology was a failure in the form it was tried at the time.


From the Macclesfield Courier and Herald
24th September 1836

"On Thursday last, a novel spectacle was presented on the Macclesfield Canal by the appearance of a Steam Boat, having in tow a heavily laden boat, on its passage from Manchester to London. We learn this was an experimental trip, undertaken by the spirited firm of Pickford and Co. The steam boat was constructed by Mr Chell, of Manchester, and is about fifty feet long.

The pace it attained was by no means rapid, only about a mile and half an hour, - but his objection Mr Chell is of opinion can be easily obviated by an increase in power, and other improvements which this experimental trip has enabled him to discover; and he is confident that he shall ultimately succeed in attaining a speed which will supersede the use of horses.

The great objection to the use of paddles on canals, from the supposed injury they would occasion to the banks, is done away with, as it is found that scarcely any swell or ripple is produced; at least none was perceptible in this instance; how that may be, at a higher rate of speed, experience must determine; but as we have observed, the projector is sanguine of ultimately bringing his scheme to a successful issue."

From the Macclesfield Canal Company, committee minutes
6th October 1836

"He (Mr Hall) also reported that Mr Chell's Steam boat had passed along the Canal towing one of Pickford's Boats, that it went very slowly, but there was no ripple or appearance of damage to the banks."


Another steam boat appeared during August 1838.

From the Macclesfield Courier and Herald
18th August 1838

"STEAMING ON CANALS - On Thursday morning last, a steam-boat, for the first time, made its appearance at Macclesfield. It is the boat which has been described in the Manchester papers as having been started by Messrs. Robins and Co. It had been expected here some weeks ago; but had met with an accident from a rope in the canal catching the paddles. Such an accident has since been guarded against.

The engine is of four horse power, and occupies the part usually forming the cabin. A platform covers the paddles so that they cannot be seen, but we understand, there is only a single wheel. The boat was very heavily laden containing 16 or 17 tons of goods; and the consequence was that it moved but slowly through the water, not exceeding, by the engineer's account, five miles an hour; and while we saw it scarce reached four.

The swell ahead was considerable, and the washing or depression of the water about the middle of the boat might be about a foot. The wave behind was larger and more violent than in ordinary boats, but not considerably so. We should not suppose that such boats would occasion injury to the banks; indeed, on comparing the appearances with those of other boats the difference seemed to be very trifling.

The loss of power from the mode of applying the machinery must be very considerable, as we saw a single horse draw a boat as heavily laden with equal velocity. It is obvious that the attempt is as yet imperfect; but the Messrs Robins deserve credit for being the first to make it; and there is every reason to believe that it will at length be attended with more brilliant success."


For further information about the history of steam narrowboats see this site.

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© David & Lindsey Kitching 2012

Last updated 1.5.2012