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  • Jacob Lyngsøe

The Lost Origin

Updated: 8 hours ago

How old is cruising as a leisure travel product? – When did the first paying guests venture out to sea for no other reason than the pursuit of leisure and exploration?’


That is a question I frequently start out with when ‘talking cruise’. Many laymen answer ‘In the sixties’ which would be true if I had asked about the origins of the modern cruise industry, but to find the genesis of cruising as a commercial leisure travel phenomenon, you need to go further back … much further back.


SS Tagus off Gibraltar, Samuel Owen, ca. 1844, Southampton City Museum

INTERESTING and CLASSIC EXCURSION Steam to Constantinople, calling at Gibraltar, Malta, Athens, Syria,

Smyrna, Mytilene and the Dardenelles


These were the words that heralded a new vacation experience in the London Times on 14. March 1843. And it stirred enough interest in early Victorian England for Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (today's P&O) to go ahead with their plan to dispatch the paddle steamer Tagus in the spring of 1844 on the first dedicated leisure cruise in history. So take a moment to absorb that cruising as a leisure travel phenomenon is actually more than 175 years old today.


At this time individual travellers and groups under travel operator lead had already successfully used the Royal Mail Steamer network (instituted in 1840) to go exploring by ship, but this was the first time an entire sailing was dedicated to nothing but the pursuit of leisure and discovery by paying passengers.


SS Great Britain mail steamer off Avonmouth, Bristol 1845, artwork by John Norris

Remarkably, as precisely as we can place the ad in history, most other details about the sailing remain sketchy or lost at depths of history I have not uncovered yet. I know it took place sometime in the early summer of 1844, but sources disagree on the departure point; some say London, some Southampton. Details on the cruise duration are also unknown (although based on the itinerary and travel speeds involved, an educated guess would be at least two months), as are details on pricing but it is fair to surmise that it would have been accessible only to the very wealthy of the age.


While the price alone would have characterised it as a luxury product, the actual experience would have been a far cry from today’s luxury cruise experiences. Now, I don’t know much about the Tagus specifically, but I know enough about maritime affairs of the age to be able to extrapolate to some extent what on board life would have been like.


Welcome on board the Tagus

At 55m / 182ft length and a beam of 8m / 26ft. the Tagus was only about the length of two tennis courts, laid end to end, and the width of one across. She was seven years old at the time of the cruise, barely a third of the way through her commercial lifespan, but plenty old to show the wear of every ocean crossing. She was built as a long-range auxiliary paddle steamer, meaning she had steam engines as well as the masts and rigging of a sailing ship, enabling her to switch between the two means of propulsion to keep to schedule. As a mail steamer she was built for speed and endurance – to deliver mail and cargo to the far-flung reaches of the Empire as fast as possible. Her passenger capacity would have been small (likely between 30 or 40 pax) and the comfort and enjoyment of said passengers would absolutely have been a secondary consideration – as would have been apparent from the cabins already.


A standard mail steamer cabin layout, ca. 1842

Your ‘stateroom’ would have been a dim and damp rectangular wooden box, likely no more than 6 sq. m. / 60 sq.ft., lit by flickering oil lamps. Furnishings would have been sparse and basic; bunk beds, washstand, closet, seat and little else. Forget about a balcony – at best you would have had a small, sealed porthole, offering no ventilation and probably very little view due to grime and algae . No electricity (as this would not be introduced on ships until 1880) and no in-cabin toilet or bathroom either – there’d likely be a communal latrine along the corridor or maybe just a board with a hole in it, suspended over a gutter or even the open ocean. Devoid of air-conditioning, the room would have been freezing cold or stiflingly hot, depending on the region and season, and the air stale and damp.


In terms of public spaces below decks, there’d be only one: the ‘dining room’, located amidships. Lit by oil lamps and overhead skylights, the long room would have featured a long wooden table with bench seating where passengers would have taken their meals and congregated when not out on deck or in their cabin. The meals would have varied in freshness and diversity, depending on when the ship was last able to take on fresh supplies. With no refrigeration on board, fresh produce, meats and dairy have a limited shelf-life, especially in warm Mediterranean climates, and with travel times of up to 5 days between ports it would not have taken long for the cook to fall back on preserved goods for cooking. On the plus side wines and spirits kept quite well on board and were - up until the 1870’s - part of the complimentary provisions, so if you didn’t care for the food, you could always enjoy a drink… and many did … all day long.


Main saloon (dining room) on a mail package steamer, ca. 1845

An experience for the senses

Once underway, the din of the steam engine and the splashing and creaking of the paddle wheels and hull would have been constant, except when at anchor/docked. For those prone to motion sickness every moment at sea would have been insufferable, as the small vessel would have been very susceptible to wind and waves. The smells would not have helped – the ocean breeze on deck may have been delightful, but below decks you would be met by a barrage of smells; from the galley, from the latrines, from the engine room etc. A melange of tar, creosote, oakum, bilge water, kerosene, oil, coal and more would have exuded from the hull and mixed in with all the smells of human activity on board, including the body odours of your fellow passengers who had been unable to bathe properly for weeks on end.


Oh, and did I mention the sturdy rat population, that a ship of this size and age would undoubtedly have had?


Travel fashion 1844, Corriere Delle Dame

Out on deck would have been the place to be, but space was at a premium. Between masts and rigging, two massive 7 m / 24 ft diameter paddle wheels, twin funnels, bridge, lifeboats and miscellaneous machinery, little space would have been available to the passengers. Since suntans were still considered marks of peasantry in Victorian England, no one was eager to expose themselves to the sun and would likely have sought shelter from the sun under a large awning somewhere aft. Those that went for promenades would have done so with hats or umbrellas and with multi-layered, heavily pleated Victorian suits and dresses (as was the fashion) providing ample protection from the sun, though perhaps little comfort in the heat. The real downside to the deck was the copious amounts of smoke and coal dust that would descend from the smoke stacks whenever the wind lulled or changed direction.


Pastimes and shore time

On board entertainment would have consisted of whatever books or creative pastime you could pack or whatever talent you and your fellow passengers brought to the party. In Victorian times game play, musical performances and talent shows quickly became the preferred sociable way of staving off boredom on long voyages and it was not unusual for the more extrovert, attention-loving passengers to practically take on the role of ‘cruise director’, whether encouraged to or not. And if you could entertain your fellow passengers with a musical, thespian or other artistic talent, you would have been in high demand for some surprisingly entertaining and jovial soirees in the dining room (fuelled by the free booze policy). There would have been no activity program (save for perhaps Mass and meal times) and no cruise staff to provide diversions, and given rigid Victorian class divisions it’s unlikely the passengers would even have socialised with crew, save for the Captain and highest-ranking officers.


RMS Trent in the port of Malta, ca. 1855, artist unknown

As for port calls, I admittedly know very little about how these played out, except to speculate that the calls would probably have been longer than the standard half day / full day routine of today’s cruise ships. Partly because the process of servicing and supplying a steam ship would have taken longer and partly because passengers would have needed more time to visit the local sights, with only horse and carriage transportation at their disposal. Sightseeing in port was obviously a popular activity from the beginning, but it would likely have been ad hoc arrangements cobbled together on arrival with entrepreneurial locals. Organised Shore Excursion programs offered by the shipping company wouldn’t be a thing until decades later. While electrical telegraphs were in common use in the 1840’s, wireless telegraphy between ship and shore would not come along for another 50+ years, so any request for local services would have had to have been communicated weeks, if not months in advance of arrival in port.


The big question

You’ll notice that I am not putting a whole lot of effort into romanticising the experience – that’s because it wasn’t particularly romantic. Granted, 19th century travellers would have had less refined sensibilities than today’s cruise guests, but even so – this was a basic, arduous and, not to mention, dangerous way to travel. Ocean-going steam ships had only entered widespread commercial use over the last decade and while they had improved crossing speeds and enabled liner scheduling, they were not much safer than their wind borne predecessors – a long sea journey was not necessarily something you returned from alive.


Royal Mail Steam Packet Co's SS Atrato in dire straits 1864, William Frederick Mitchell

So why go then? Why embark on a leisure cruise that was by all accounts, more trial than pleasure? Well, therein lies the answer to why we have a global multi-billion dollar tourism industry that includes not only a booming cruise industry, but also a fledgling space tourism industry. Because humans want to discover and experience the world, as much of it as they can. They want to see what’s beyond the horizon and nowhere is the horizon more clearly defined and more beckoning than at sea. So consider this the first time that desire was given a convenient and dedicated format to occupy.


From this point on, ‘cruising’ was here to stay - it would take another 120 years and the demise of ocean liner shipping before it turned into an industry in its own right, but that’s an entirely different story. For now, let’s just congratulate cruising on its remarkable 175+ years since its origin and wish it many more to come.


This is the first article in a series of historical retrospectives on the history of cruising prior to the industry formation in the mid-1960's. Although not academic papers, the articles are researched to the extent of my resources and ability and strive to be as historically factual as possible. If you enjoyed it, feel free to like, share or comment and follow me (or The Cruise Insider) for more instalments.


#cruiseships #historyofcruising #cruiseindustry

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