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The Voyage of the Sirius – the first steam ship to cross the Atlantic

Wall mural of Captain Richard Roberts who commanded the Sirius on her historic crossing of the Atlantic.

April 4 is a historic date in Irish maritime history. On that day in 1838 a ship sailed from Passage West in Cork Harbour nd made maritime history across the Atlantic. She was 178 feet 4 inches (54.4 m) long from stem-to-stern, had a hold depth of 18 feet 3 inches (5.6 metres), beam of 25 feet 8 inches (7.8 m.) and draught of 15 feet (4.6 m.), gross register tonnage 703. Her two-cylinder steam engine, provided 500 horsepower to drive two paddlewheels, giving a maximum speed of 12 knots (about 14 mph).

This was the Sirius, built the year before, in 1837, by Robert Menzies & Sons of Leith, Scotland, for the St. George Steam Packet Company, the largest of the company’s steamers, for their ‘prestige’ Cork-London service, which she began in August 1837. One of the first steamships built with a condenser that enabled her to use freshwater, avoiding periodic boiler shutdowns at sea for cleaning. This could also result in high coal consumption. Leaving Cork Harbour on April 4, 1838, she was reported to be “overloaded with coal,” perhaps not surprisingly for a voyage of over 2,700 nautical miles to New York at a time when two shipping companies intended to start TransAtlantic passenger services.

The British and American company had suffered a setback. Construction of its British Queen fell behind when the firm building her engines went bankrupt.


The rival Great Western, named for its steamship company owners, had been designed by legendary British engineer, Isambard Brunel. It was described as “the largest passenger ship in the world” and was scheduled to sail its maiden voyage from Avonmouth, Bristol port, but was delayed by an engine room fire.

Many intending passengers cancelled voyages.

Sirius, a smaller vessel, was chartered, according to reports, by British and American Company to get to America before the Great Western. Another mentioned James Beale, a Cork shipping owner, being involved in the

charter. Lt. Richard Roberts, who had gained distinction serving in the British Royal Navy’s campaign against the slave trade, lived in Passage West and had commanded cross-Channel steam packets after his naval service. He was appointed to command Sirius, which sailed from London Docks on March 28,1838 to Passage West, where 45 passengers boarded.

Sailing for New York on April 4, she was reported as being “small for the voyage.”

Bad weather was experienced and an engine adjustment needed in mid-Atlantic. On 22 April, the Sirius dropped anchor off The Battery, New York. Some reports said ship’s furniture and other fittings had been burned to provide steam. Others contradicted, reporting she had coal reserves on arrival. Either way, its arrival was headline news. Sirius was the first ship to cross the Atlantic entirely under steam. The Great Western arrived a day later.

Roberts and crew were celebrities, given official receptions by the city authorities in New York. The harbour was thronged with people viewing the ship. Starting the return voyage on May 18, Sirius was given a seventeen-gun salute from The Battery as she left.

On his return to Cork, Roberts was given the Freedom of the City.

Ironically, he was given command of another ship described as “the largest passenger ship in the world,” when commissioned in 1840 – the British and American Steam Navigation Company’s liner, SS President.

Roberts was said to have doubts about its seaworthiness.

In February 1841 he commanded her crossing to New York. The return journey began in March, but the ship was never seen again. It was concluded that she sank in mid-Atlantic during a storm, Roberts, crew and passengers were all lost.

A memorial in the churchyard in Passage West recalls ships he commanded. The paddle shaft of the Sirius can be seen on the roadway near the cross-river ferry at Glenbrook.

A favourite saying of Roberts was: “I’d go to sea in a bath tub,” the inscription on a wall mural wall in the old railway tunnel at Monkstown village, which is close to Passage West, homeplace of Richard Roberts and from which port the Sirius left on its historic voyage – Photograph at the top of this article.

Tom MacSweeney

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