With Her Majesty’s Mails to Ireland

by Edward John Hart, in the Strand Magazine, London – 1895


Understand, I am going to take you from Holyhead to by the night mail, and, with a nor’-westerly gale blowing, you will probably require your mackintosh.  Here on the sea rim of Great Britain, we are about to cross to the sister island by the fastest and most famous local line of mailboats in the world; so let’s down to the pier alongside of which is lying the Ulster, grinding and straining at her hawsers with a very human-like impatience to be off. But, though time and tide wait for no man, the mail-boat must wait for her mails (sent per rail from London), and to pass the time we may chat about the company and its boats, and hereafter, if we have luck, we may get speech of our captain.

The City of Dublin Steam Packet Company, running the mail between Holyhead and Kingstown, is the oldest Irish mail service in existence, dating beck to the year 1833. They continued the service from the Admiralty, and some of their first boats – notably the Lewellys – were old Navy boats, and at that time they ran from Liverpool to Howth.

The present fleet of mail-boats – five in all – consist of the Ulster, Munster, Leinster,
Connaught, and Ireland. The first four were built in 186o, and all, with the exception of the Leinster, which came from the yards of Samuda, of London, were constructed by Laird, of Liverpool.

H.M.S. Ulster, of Dublin

H.M.S. Ulster, of Dublin

The Ulster, by which we are to travel, may be taken as the type of the fleet – with the exception of the Ireland – and, like the other four vessels, is painted black, as to the hull and funnels; with the inside, upper works, paddle-boxes, and boats painted white. She is 1,4oo tons (builder’s measurement), 350ft. in length, furnished with oscillating direct engines of 750 horse-power (nominal), indicating up to about 7,000, and is reckoned a twenty-knot boat.

The distance from jetty to jetty is sixty-four miles, and the contract time allowed for the trip four hours and a quarter, with a fine of £100 for every minute over. But the Ireland one November, on a speed trial, crossed in 2 hours and 47min., in the teeth of a very strong easterly breeze and a very nasty choppy sea. Under ordinary circumstances, the average speed in crossing is from sixteen to seventeen knots.

Each vessel is provided with six boats, four life-rafts, and cork jackets for everybody.  Nowadays, of course, all the mail-boats are furnished with steam steering gear, and one man steers the vessel in and out of harbour, doing the work that used to be relegated to six or eight. Formerly they had two great steering wheels on the bridge of each ship, and it used to be a fearful heave to get over. One heard a regular chorus of, “All together Now then, down! All together ! Now then, down” the men getting it over spoke by spoke and standing on it. Then, when the word “Steady !” was given, they let go, and the wheel – owing to the pressure of water against the rudder of the ship going full speed-whirled round, so that you couldn’t see the spokes, and the chains rattling out through the waterways frightened the passengers in their cabins.

There is a complete post-office on board, furnished with desks, pigeon-holes, etc., for every separate county. As soon as the mailbags come on board they are opened and sorted on sloping tables, the ten or fifteen sorters – increased to twenty just before Christmas – working the whole way across. “I’ve seen a Christmas mail of as many as
6oo mail-sacks and forty-seven parcel-post hampers,” says the captain; “and as for
literary curiosities – well, we get our share of them, I can assure you. ‘The Irish harvest
hands who come over to England for work frequently address the covers of letters (letters
containing money even) – after this inscrutable fashion: ‘to my mother in the white cottage with the green door at the end of the village, Betty McGuire at the house forninst the forge’– these, mind you, are actual examples. They send loose coin in paper envelopes – all sorts of live animals, meat, cake, etc., in cardboard boxes; and some of the addresses the mail hands brought up to show us on the bridge I’ll defy anyone to make out !

The post-office is in charge of the mail clerk, and amongst his duties is that of sealing up all the mail-sacks. In former times the mails were in charge of a mail agent, who was generally a retired commander, appointed by the Admiralty, and who wore his naval uniform, had a very good time on board, and was invested with rather peculiar powers.

The captain was supposed to consult with him as to the advisability or otherwise of slowing down in a fog or a gale, or whether in cases of fog, etc., the mails should be put into the boats and landed. This functionary had to enter in a gorgeous red leather pocketbook, with “V.R.” stamped on the cover, the time of arrival of the mail train, starting of the boat, weather remarks, etc., and was a relic of the days when the mails were carried
by naval vessels, Formerly most of the officers of the boats were naval men, but this is not now the case. The mail subsidy is £85,ooo per annum.

But all this time we have kept the Ulster grinding and straining at her hawsers, and as the train has just come down with it’s sleepy passengers, and its much more important mail-bags, there is nothing further to delay our departure.

Captain Thomson

Captain Thomson, Commander of R.M.S. “Munster”

From the deck of our trembling steamer it looks cold, wet, and black on the pier. The flickering gas-lights are reflected in the wet of the sodden planks, and shine on the oilskins of the men, holding hand lamps and assisting in the preliminaries of departure – and the grinding and straining of the ship increases. The second officer comes up to the captain and say’s : “All’s in, sir.” The third and last bell is rung, and the whistle blown – a long, sonorous, re – echoing blast. The gangways are hauled back to the pier, the telegraph rings the “Stand by” below to the engineers, the chief officer goes to the fo’c’s’le head and the second beside the quartermaster at the wheel, and then the captain gives the order, “Let go! Turn ahead!’, “All gone, sir,” comes back the faint answer from the darkness, and then, with one or two sighs and hisses from the valves, the wheels churn up the sea and she slowly moves ahead.

” Starboard ! ”
” Starboard, sir,” from the second officer, and she gains in speed and feels the starboard
helm, and we see there is a clear course to the end of the breakwater, and the order is given, “Full speed ahead !” In a minute’s time the order to the helm is “Steady !” and she flies along for the end of the breakwater, distinguished by a revolving red light, after passing which it is “Starboard !” again, and the course is given “”West-nor’-west quarter north,” and the signal is given to the engine-room “All clear !”

As she rounds the breakwater she takes the first plunge-a long, shuddering lunge into the black water – which sends the passengers scuttling down below…

(continued in part 2)