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The might of oars
Metal hulls
     Wilkinson's iron boat
     The Laird brothers

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Wilkinson's iron boat: 1787

In 1787 an unusual barge is launched on the Severn in Shropshire. John Wilkinson's successful manufacture of cannon, mortars and shells has been presenting him with transport problems. There are as yet no railways; the roads are almost impassable for such heavy items in bulk; wooden barges can be fragile.

The new craft has been designed and made at Wilkinson's own foundry at Coalbrookdale. It is the world's first iron boat. It seems to the onlookers inconceivable that such a heavy metal object should float even if empty. And loaded with cannon and shells? Ridiculous.


But Wilkinson is able to write soon after the event about his daring invention: 'It answers all my expectations, and it has convinced the unbelievers who were 999 in a thousand.'

His firm subsequently makes several other metal barges for transport on the Severn, but they are a long way ahead of their time. When iron first makes a widespread contribution to boat-building - in the 19th century, in the form of the ironclad - it is as an outer protection for wooden warships against enemy cannon and the danger of fire.


Sections are as yet missing at this point.


The Laird brothers: 1832-1839

The most extensive contribution to the development of iron steamships takes place in a Liverpool shipyard in the 1830s. It is owned by the Laird family.

In the early 1830s John Laird designs two paddle steamers which are sent from Liverpool in pieces to be assembled on site - in 1833 the Lady Lansdowne travels to Dublin, in 1834 the John Randolph goes to Savannah in the USA. But in 1832 John's younger brother Macgregor has designed an iron paddle steamer, the Alburkah, which is capable of making its own way to its destination - in this case to the Niger river in west Africa, where the Lairds hope to trade. Macgregor Laird takes personal charge of the expedition.


The Alburkah steams south from Milford Haven in July 1832 with forty-eight on board. She reaches the mouth of the Niger three months later, entering history as the first ocean-going iron ship.

After making her way up one of the many streams of the Niger delta, the Alburkah progresses upstream on the main river as far as Lokoja, the junction with the Benue. The expedition demonstrates that the Niger offers a highway into the continent for ocean vessels. And the performance of the iron steamer is a triumph. But medicine is not yet as far advanced as technology. When the Alburkah returns to Liverpool, in 1834, only nine of the original crew of forty-eight are alive. They include a much weakened Macgregor Laird.


In the second half of the 1830s John Laird designs and delivers an iron paddle steamer for the exploration of the Euphrates, another commissioned by Mohammed Ali for use on the Nile, and for the East India Company in 1839 the Nemesis, the first iron steamship to carry guns.

Meanwhile, in 1837, Macgregor Laird becomes one of the promoters of the British and American Steam Navigation Company, established for the purpose of running steamships across the Atlantic. He is therefore much involved in the dramatic adventure of the Sirius in 1838.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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