190 Years: A Look Back at Nine Key Moments in the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company’s History

This year, 2020, marks 190 years since the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company was established. In this milestone year, we feel it is only right to mark the commemorative occasion with a look back at some of the Company’s most significant moments, from our early days to more recent times.

Isle of Man Steam Packet Company vessel Ben-my-Chree in Douglas Harbour as the sun sets with a calm sea in the foreground

Isle of Man Steam Packet Company vessel Ben-my-Chree in Douglas Harbour.

As the oldest continually operating passenger shipping company in the world, there have been many highs and lows over the past 190 years. From the devastating impact of two world wars to the exciting introduction of car ferries, let’s take a look back some of the most pivotal moments in the Company’s history.

Our Launch: 1830

The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company was formed following a growing demand for a stable, dedicated and reliable Manx ferry service. Island residents got together to form a committee and give the Manx people what they wished for, although in the very early days the Company was actually called Mona’s Isle Steamship Co., before being officially changed in 1831 to what it is known as today.

In June of 1830, the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company’s first wooden paddle steamer – named Mona’s Isle – was launched from John Wood & Co’s yard in Glasgow after being built on the River Clyde. She arrived in Douglas 46 days later on 15th August 1830, ready for her first passenger sailing.

A painting of Isle of Man Steam Packet Company's first vessel, Mona's Isle, in very stormy waters

Mona’s Isle was the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company’s first vessel. © Manx National Heritage (1956-0405)

First Crossing: 1830

The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company’s inaugural crossing took Mona’s Isle from Douglas to Liverpool on 17th August 1830, under the command of Captain William Gill, carrying a total of 15 saloon and 17 steerage passengers. At a cost of £7,052, with a speed of 8.5 knots and weight of 200 tons – she was a considered quite a fine vessel for her time!

Mail Contract: 1831

Competition was fierce on the Irish Sea, particularly between those serving the Isle of Man – Liverpool route. At the time, rival firm St George Steam Packet Company Co. was contracted to transport mail between the two ports. Unfortunately, this ended in disaster when the flagship of St George Co. – the St George – was wrecked in Douglas Bay on a stormy night in 1830.

The loss of the vessel was a major blow to the company and, not long after in 1831, the Royal Mail contract was transferred to the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company. This remains a meaningful partnership, unbroken to this day. 

Victoria Pier, Douglas: 1872

On 1st July 1872, Victoria Pier – which is still in use by the Company today – was formally opened by Lord Loch. This was a significant development for the Company, overcoming a number of issues including berthing difficulties and embarking large numbers of passengers in Douglas.

A number of years later, Victoria Pier was granted a 400ft extension by the Isle of Man Government, and remains the same length to this day.

An old photo of Victoria Pier in Douglas with crowds of people milling around and a couple of boats in the background
Victoria Pier, Douglas. © Manx National Heritage (PG/4933).

First World War: 1914 – 1918

Between 1914 and 1918, many of our ships were requisitioned for the war effort.

By the end of the war the fleet had diminished to just three vessels suitable for service – Fenella [1], Tynwald [3] and Douglas [3] – compared to 15 at the outbreak. This increased to four when the Company purchased back the Viking shortly after the war ended. Four ships were kept under requisition, four ships were lost and three were damaged beyond repair in combat. 

A black and white image of Steam Packet Company vessel Fenella on a calm sea with black smoke coming out of her engine
 By the end of the First World War, Fenella [1] was one of only three vessels suitable for service.  © Manx National Heritage (PG/13621/18)

Second World War: 1939 – 1945

Ships were once again requisitioned for the war effort during the Second World War, and many will be especially familiar with the great efforts of those involved in the historic evacuation of Dunkirk.

This year marks 80 years since Operation Dynamo, an operation involving a total of eight Steam Packet Company vessels. Of some 340,000 servicemen rescued from the French coast, an estimated 25,000 troops returned to Dover via our vessels.

Devastatingly, three of our ships – Mona’s Queen, King Orry and Fenella – were lost within 24 hours on 29th May 1940. One of the vessels, Mona’s Queen, was struck by a German mine and sank, causing the loss of 24 men, 17 of them from the Isle of Man.

A black and white image of Steam Packet Company vessel Mona's Queen on the water.

Mona’s Queen, one of the vessels lost during Operation Dynamo

The first car ferry – 1962

The Manx Maid [2], the Steam Packet Company’s first car ferry, was launched on 23rd January 1962, with her maiden voyage from Liverpool to Douglas on 23rd May the same year. For the first time in the Company’s history, vehicles could be driven onto the vessel on arrival and off at their destination port.

A black and white photo of Norman Wisdom posing happily next to Steam Packet Company vessel Manx Maid in Douglas Harbour

Norman Wisdom next to the Manx Maid [2], July 1977. © Manx National Heritage (PG/13633/1/1977/593/1)

Retrieval of the anchor of Mona’s Queen – 2011

It was discovered that the anchor of Mona’s Queen – one of the vessels lost during Operation Dynamo – had become detached, meaning it did not become part of the war grave, nor part of the wreck site. This prompted the decision to recover and restore the ship’s starboard anchor, before returning it to the Isle of Man as a permanent memorial in 2011.

It now rests in the south of the Island at Kallow Point, Port St Mary. The memorial was unveiled on 29th May 2012 and each year a poignant service takes place to mark the heroic efforts of those involved.

The memorial anchor of Mona's Queen at Kallow Point in Port St Mary on a sunny day, with red wreaths lay on the ground

The anchor of Mona’s Queen at Kallow Point, Port St Mary.

Government Ownership – 2018

In May 2018, the Isle of Man Government agreed a deal to buy the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company. Day-to-day operations remain largely the same, but the deal created a strong long-term platform – enabling the Company to deliver continued investment in sea services that meet the needs of our Island.

Looking ahead

We thank you for taking time to reflect with us on this special 190th milestone. It’s important to look back from time-to-time and reflect on how far you have come and the challenges you have faced, and of course just as important to look ahead to what the future might bring. We’re looking forward to our next chapter, and welcome you – our customers, partners and friends –  to join us on the journey.

The view from Douglas Head with the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company fleet in Douglas Harbour

Isle of Man Steam Packet Company fleet in Douglas Harbour.

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