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British Industrial History

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John Smith (Steam Boat Pioneer)

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of St. Helens

John Smith is recorded as having built and operated a steam boat in 1793. See below.

1832 'THE FIRST STEAM BOAT. On the recommendation of a most respectable correspondent, we copy the following letter from the Liverpool Chronicle;.-

'TO THE EDITOR. SIR,- Seeing in your paper of the 30th ult. an inquiry relative to the first inventor of steam-boats ; also some inquiries relative to one constructed at St. Helen's, by a John Smith, and having seen no answer, I willingly give such information as I am in possession of, and shall have pleasure if it leads to any thing like a remuneration to the family, some of whom are still living in St. Helen's, and are only in very moderate circumstances. The engine in the boat alluded to, and which is generally supposed to the first invented, was constructed for propelling boats by steam, as before stated, by Smith, at St. Helen's, in the year 1793, and the first excursion was down the Sankey Canal, to Newton Races, in June of the same year, laden with passengers. On the Saturday following, she sailed to Runcorn, from thence down the Duke of Bridgewater's Canal to Manchester. On her arrival there, such was the astonishment and curiosity at this wonderful (and, as some would have it) this mad idea, that thousands of the people came from all directions to see what their eyes could not believe, nor their senses understand; and, indeed, from such were the numbers, and such the curiosity this vessel excited, that Smith was obliged (for the safety of his property) to give notice that no one would be allowed to come on board her, excepting those who paid a certain sum. This exasperated the populace to such an extent, that a party of mechanics immediately got possession of, and almost destroyed her. Amongst the visitors was Mr. Sherratt, of the firm of Bateman and Sherratt, of Manchester; also several other respectable engineers of the same place, for whom it is unnecessary to name.

'So far as memory serves me, (after a lapse of 39 years,) the following is a description of this wonderful discovery ; but having made no memorandums of the circumstance at the time, and I may say, being then young, and to a certain extent, like the rest of my friends, incredulous. I never anticipated what is almost to every one in the present day so common. The vessel had on her an engine on the old atmospheric principle, was worked with a beam, connecting-rod, double crank, in an horizontal line, and with seven paddles on each side, which propelled her at the rate of about two miles an hour. John Smith was a rude, uncultivated, and self-taught mechanic, and was supported with money by a Mr. Baldwin, at that time of St. Helen's; and was the first aeronaut who ever ascended in a balloon, either in this or the adjoining counties. Perhaps I may observe that the vessel or boat was purchased at Liverpool, and on Smith's informing the parties from whom he bought it what his intentions were, he was treated as some insane person ; he was laughed at by one, insulted by others, and pitied generally; but having money with him, he was allowed to purchase her. So strong were the convictions of this self-taught mechanic as to the general utility of steam and the ultimate success of steam-boats, that on being questioned and laughed at by a merchant at the time the purchase was made, he replied, "Those may laugh who will, but my opinion is, before twenty years are over, you will see this, river, (Mersey) covered with SMOKE.”

'I feel Pleasure in giving your correspondent these particulars, and the substance of the remarks I can vouch for as being correct, having been an eye-witness to most of them, and one of the party who took this first excursion.
Yours, &c.
WM. BROMILOW, Merton Bank-, near St. Helen's.'[1]

It is recorded that John Smith's boat was seen in action by Robert Fulton and the Duke of Bridgewater [2]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Liverpool Mercury, 20 July 1832
  2. [1] 'Steamboat Evolution' by Basil Clark