Historical Background

The Paddle Steamer Compton Castle owed her existence to the River Dart, and her name to a fortified house nearby. 800 years earlier, when the riverís commercial value was first recognised, cider, tin, granite and slates carted to Totnes were shipped down the Dart and on to London. The small port of Dartmouth was also becoming increasingly important to pilgrims. The disciple James was the first apostle to be martyred in AD 44. Earlier, according to tradition, James had preached in Spain. Legend has it his body was taken by angels who placed him on a rudderless unmanned sailing boat which shipped him to Galicia, that part of north-west Spain above Portugal. His remains were discovered and because he was the first martyr the area became, in the Middle Ages, the third most important pilgrimage route for Christians behind Jerusalem and Rome. About half a million people a year flocked to the sacred place known by then as Santiago de Compostela . Many sailed from Dartmouth. Whether the Bishop of Exeter made this pilgrimage is not recorded. However there is a record of him granting 124 acres of land in the 12th century to Aluric the son of Seric de Compton. It took several generations before they got round to building their house, Compton Castle, and a further 600 years or so before the name would proudly adorn a small paddle-steamer . After a few generations the Comptons found themselves with no male heir. Daughter Joan married, and by so doing the Compton estate passed to Geoffrey Gilbert her new husband. By the end of the century Geoffrey's grandson William was in residence. Pilgrims continued gathering in Dartmouth many wearing the costume associated with St James, cape, large floppy felt hat and long staff. William had already spotted a commercial opportunity and many would soon be boarding Charity amongst other vessels for the journey to Spain. William Gilbert had a licence dated 8th May 1394. It read, “to receive in his ship called Charity in the port of Dartmouth, 100 pilgrims and ship them to Santiago to pay their vows and bring them back to England”. In this year 20 such ships had similar licences.

P S Compton Castle was built towards the end of the era of river transport as trains and roads were taking away the economic value of the River Dart. In 1834 however water transport was still of sufficient importance to warrant an Act of Parliament whereby the river was widened and deepened.

The Dart has a number of inlets as it meanders the navigable route from the sea up to Totnes. At itís mouth Warfleet Creek, opposite Dartmouth, then Waterhead Creek, and to the north Old Mill Creek. Then up past Greenway Quay and Dittisham, to Galmpton Creek and Bow Creek. Northwards then looping to the west before swinging back to the north finds Sharpham Reach the point where many of the sailing ships of the 19th century had to anchor, the river being too shallow to venture further upstream. So between here and Totnes small flat-bottomed boats would ferry cargoes back and forth. Known as Lighters, around 50 were in use in the 1830ís.

Steam power had yet to come to the Dart.

In 1801 William Symington built Britainís first successful steamboat with a paddle wheel at the stern but he ran out of money developing it.

In 1819 the first vessel fitted with steam power crossed the Atlantic. The Savannah was not really a steamship more a sailing ship with a small single cylinder auxiliary engine. She also had collapsible paddle wheels which could be bought out of the water so as not to interfere with her sailing quality. She took 27 days to cross the Atlantic of which only 85 hours were under steam.

Even by 1835 steam vessels had made little impression on sail. Early boats were built of wood but iron gradually took over. And the first steel steamboats were built in the 1850ís mainly for exploration of African rivers. Iron in ships saved over 30 % in weight and steel even more, with welding giving extra solidity.

Paddles were soon replaced by screw propellers for ocean going ships, appealing to naval authorities, as paddle wheels were thought an easy target for an enemy in war. But on rivers like the Dart paddle steamers lasted much longer.

Robert Fulton successfully built steamboats in America. His first, Clermont, steamed up the Hudson River in 1807 from New York to Albany. It took 32 hours for the 150 mile journey. His steam-engine came from James Watt's factory. Clermont was 140 ft long, 15 ft wide., her paddles were 4 ft wide and 15 ft in diameter. Fulton had visited Scotland in 1804 where he met Symington.

In 1838 Isambard Kingdom Brunel built The Great Western in Bristol, the first paddle-steamer designed especially for Atlantic crossings 236 feet long, almost 60 ft wide, made of oak, trussed with iron, a hull sheathed in copper, and engines by the best marine engineers of the day, Messrs Maudslay, Sons and Field. She set off on her maiden voyage from Bristol early in the morning of the 31st March 1838. She had the misfortune to have a fire such that when she set sail to New York on her first transatlantic trip on the 8th April enthusiasm for the journey had waned. 50 people had cancelled their 35 guinea trips leaving just seven passengers.

And who remembers Sirius? The record books do, for she had slipped away a few days earlier on the 20th March and with 40 passengers for New York. She was half the size of The Great Western and her bunker space had been modified to carry extra fuel. She had been built built for Anglo - Irish service. Despite departing several days later the Great Western almost made up the lost time arriving in New York on the afternoon. Sirius had arrived only hours earlier but the record of first steamship crossing was hers.

The earliest river steamer on the Dart arrived while The Great Western was under construction. She was built by Andrew Ball of North Shields, named The Dart, was 66 ft long with three masts for sail assistance. Owned by The Dart Steam Navigation Company and advertised to convey, “goods and passengers to and from Totnes everyday”, she lasted just three years before being sold to The Truro and Falmouth Steam Packet Company, and left the Dart.