An Introduction to Paddle Steamers

by MAT

MAT volunteer Roger Burns was particularly inspired by the Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War project and some of the more unusual examples of vessels within the collection. Here, Roger takes a look at paddle steamers, their development, and some considerations involved in their operation.


The Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War project identified five paddle-powered steamers, the hulk Kingswear Castle, three armed vessels that were owned by the Admiralty and were sunk by enemy mines, namely the Kempton and the Redcar, which were sunk close to one another, and the Ludlow, plus the requisitioned Empress Queen, which was lost aground on the Isle of Wight when used as a troop carrier. There was another steam paddler, Resource II, originally an Admiralty ship named Helicon then Enchantress and used from 1905 as the Royal Motor Yacht Club’s floating headquarters moored in Southampton Water, but which was lost by fire in 1915 soon after being requisitioned as a motor boat depot ship for the new RNVR-commanded Motor Launches arriving from the USA. This short narrative looks at selected steam-powered paddle-driven ships from the beginnings of such vessels through to the 1960’s and touches on the paddle configurations.


Paddle steamer propulsion was prevalent in the early days of steam before screw-driven propulsion became the norm. The Charlotte Dundas, launched at Grangemouth in 1803 and scrapped in 1861, is recognised as the world’s second successful steamboat, the first towing steamboat, and the boat that demonstrated the practicality of steam power for ships [PS CD]. As a stern-powered paddler, typical of those on the Mississippi, it is not the subject of this article.

Paddle steamer restored Kingswear Castle

Side paddlers, as illustrated by the restored Kingswear Castle (above), are typically configured with their paddles amidship. Kingswear Castle, B. L. Nairn, Empress Queen and Resource II, all had side paddle configuration (see the table below for details of each ship).

The hulk of the original Kingswear Castle, featured in more detail in the Forgotten Wrecks site report, is embedded by the bank of the river Dart, Devon. Remains of the side paddle boxes are shown below.

Port paddle-wheel box against the bank, 2016

Paddle-wheel box breaking away from starboard side of the hull, 2016

Paddle-wheel boxes are akin to mudguards, shrouding the rotating paddles for safety but also to contain the water spray within. The bottom of the boxes terminate a short distance above water level under vessel-loaded conditions.


You may at some stage in your life have worked a hand-operated paddle boat. If so, you might have noticed that when two people who weigh differently are aboard, paddling in a straight line can be challenging. This is because each paddle immersion is different, which directly influences the transfer of power from paddle to water. For the same reason, small steam-powered paddlers would have difficulty approaching their destination as passengers would flock to the pier-side of the vessel. In the same way, consumption of coal would reduce the displacement, reducing transmitted paddle power.

Small, steam-powered paddlers were usually built for transport on specific rivers. Some may have had near flat-bottomed hulls due to water depth and were inappropriate for the open sea as lateral roll and wave action would adversely impact paddle immersion. The Tay, Forth and IoW ferries, although in estuarine settings and subject to wave action, were bigger craft with keels. And open seagoing steam-powered paddlers, such as Empress Queen and Resource II, were much larger with well-developed keels that reduced these problems. An image of B. L. Nairn’s hull just prior to launch can be viewed at

Paddle steamer feathering paddle wheel – Source


The problem of fixed floats (the paddle blade thrusting against the water) was that maximum thrust was only possible when the blade was at the six o’clock position (at a right angle to the water relative to the direction of travel) meaning that, at any other position during its immersed rotation, a specific float would exhibit reduced power. This inefficiency was apparent from the outset of paddle driven craft. In response, the feathering paddle wheel was first patented in England in 1829 by Elijah Galloway, with rights transferred a decade later through an intermediary to William Morgan, who developed the design that became the standard for many paddlers – each paddle during the rotation of the wheel would automatically rotate slightly through a mechanical linkage thereby improving the angle that each individual paddle was presented to the water, thus increasing overall efficiency. This has been illustrated in sketches in a review of the civil war blockade runner, [Denbigh].

It is a complement to the engineering of the 1904 engines used in the original Kingswear Castle in that they were transferred to its similarly named successor, which sailed from 1924 until 1965 when it was laid up. The vessel was restored by the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society (PSPS) over an approximate ten-year period culminating in the restored vessel’s first sailing in 1984 and remains in use today still using the original engines, although the boiler has been replaced. This vessel is the only steam coal-fired paddle steamer in service today and is part of the National Historic Fleet. The detailed restoration project is available online. [Restoration].


The inclusion of the PS B. L. Nairn is simply down to the author’s nostalgia! He travelled on it many times during the late 1950’s until the Tay Road bridge was opened in 1966, travelling from Dundee to Edinburgh via the Tay ferries and the Queensferry Forth ferries [Forth] to avoid a long detour via Perth and Kincardine in the pre-motorway era. These ferries gradually changed to diesel-powered screw-driven, but all these services were originally steam-powered paddlers.

The B. L. Nairn was fitted with disconnecting engines that significantly increased manoeuvrability by selecting which paddle was driven in docking operations. It also had vehicle and pedestrian access ramps each side and was fitted with radar in 1948. The 2.5km crossing duration was dependent on the tide. At high water a near-straight line was possible in about ten minutes but at low tide sandbanks had to be rounded, which doubled journey time. The alignment of the new road bridge forced tidal operation and the author can recall that occasionally, in winter, small ice floes were swept down the Tay forcing cancellations as B. L. Nairn’s hull was not designed for such impact.


The Empress Queen launched on 4 March 1897 in Glasgow for the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company to ferry nearly 1,000 passengers between Douglas and Liverpool. It was 109.8m long and, when built, was one of the fastest and most powerful paddle steamers afloat, with a top speed of 21.5 knots, crewed by 95 persons. It was claimed that the engines (which could develop 7,500kW) and paddle wheels were the heaviest ever placed in a paddle steamer. The steel floats were of the curved and feathered type.

Requisitioned by the Admiralty on 6 February 1915 and fitted out as a troop carrier, Empress Queen served in this role until 1 February 1916 when, in fog, returning from Le Havre to Southampton with 1,300 troops on board, it went aground on the Ring Rocks off Bembridge, Isle of Wight. Fortunately, all onboard survived but the Empress Queen did not, eventually breaking up. Nearer the Trust’s offices, early ferries from Southampton which travelled some 15km to Isle of Wight were also paddle steamers. [IoW]

The Empress Queen coming alongside Prince’s Landing Stage, Liverpool. Image from the Manx National Heritage iMuseum, check out the collection for more images of the Empress Queen: No detail of copyright.

Some ferries, such as Empress Queen, were equipped with bow and stern rudders, offering increased manoeuvrability when in port or navigating beneath bridges, reducing the need to turn around.

Further reading for steam-powered side paddlers includes: and Additionally, the following weblinks illustrate the engines of Waverly and Kingswear Castle, the respective sizes of which are in stark contrast. The engines of paddle steamers were often visible to passengers, creating palpable interest. Paddle steamer Waverley’s engines. Kingswear Castle paddle steamer engine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.