To Margate by steamboat in verse, 1828

In the decades following the Napoleonic Wars, Margate's tourist traffic was boosted by the introduction of steamboat services which brought visitors from London in large numbers. A jaunty piece of verse published in an Australian newspaper in 1828 captured the flavour of the excursion down the Thames.

The Kent seaside resort was already well established in the eighteenth century, but steamboat traffic was largely responsible for the quadrupling of visitor numbers between 1817 and 1835.[1] The construction of a wooden jetty in 1824 was "a great improvement to Margate, but a great loss to its fishermen, who have no longer the privilege of bringing the ladies ashore a pick-a-back at one shilling a head, and bitterly do they exclaim against it." However, visitors were attracted in increasing numbers by "the great facility for landing afforded by the jetty": the following  autumn, a London newspaper reported that one steamboat had "conveyed upwards of 700 passengers to Margate" in four days, "and one or two vessels of this description arrive every day with from 200 to 300 persons on board". At the end of August 1828, a correspondent noted that Margate was " all bustle and gaiety: we had yesterday the novel sight of the arrival of five steamboats from London, with upwards of one thousand passengers."[2]

Before the introduction of steamboats, Londoners who could not afford the stagecoach fare had travelled to Margate on sailing barges, known as "hoys".[3] The steamboats had several advantages over the hoys. They were not only faster but effectively ran to timetables: the 72-mile voyage from London to Margate could be relied upon to take seven and a half hours. By contrast the hoys were at the mercy of wind and tide, and were much slower.[4] Steamboats also gave passengers a much easier ride. Equipped with boilers and bunkered coal, they sat more deeply in the water. Although in the early years they carried masts, to use wind as supplementary power or to provide emergency back-up should they run out of fuel, sails were usually furled, and hence unlikely to be destabilised by sudden crosswinds. In February 1802 – well outside the normal holiday season – a Margate hoy carrying 30 passengers to London was "overtaken by the violent gusts of wind" and driven aground on the north Kent coast. The captain, who had locked the passengers below decks for their safety, was killed by the swing of spar, and 26 lives were lost in the sight of helpless spectators on the beach.[5] This was an extreme tragedy, but sea-sickness was regarded as a standard hazard for passengers on the hoys – as a cartoon of 1804 makes gruesomely clear.[6] In 1823, the essayist Charles Lamb hymned the Margate hoy and bemoaned its supersession: "to the winds and waves thou committedst thy goodly freightage, and didst ask no aid of magic fumes, and spells, and boiling caldrons. With the gales of heaven thou wentest swimmingly! or, when it was their pleasure, stoodest still with sailor-like patience. ... nor didst thou go poisoning the breath of ocean with sulphureous smoke".[7] But Lamb's perverse intellectual pretension was evidently not shared by London holiday-makers.

"A Trip to Margate in the Steam-boat" was published in March 1828 in the Tasmanian, a newspaper published in Hobart, the principal town in the island colony of Van Diemen's Land. In 1828, about half the 18,000 European population were convicts, although a small but fractious element of adult free settlers was increasing rapidly: as the title of the Tasmanian indicated, they sought to shrug off the colony's evil reputation by renaming it, an objective that would be achieved in 1856. The predominance of convicts largely explained the 7:2 male-female imbalance in the population, which was reflected in the mild male chauvinism of the Margate poem. Both transportation and immigration were rapidly increasing settler numbers, making the eighteen-twenties a crucial decade in the transformation of much of the local landscape into European-style farming. Although only fifty square miles were under cultivation – mostly growing wheat –sheep numbers had tripled to over half a million in the seven years before 1828, with a similar increase in cattle to around 100,000.[8] Grazing required control over much larger areas, a process that increased friction with the already hard-pressed Aboriginal population. By 1828, Van Diemen's Land was locked in frontier conflict which, in the early eighteen-thirties, flared into full-scale warfare, an episode deplored modern-day Australians as genocidal. The publication of a poem about a holiday trip to Margate might be interpreted as part of a concerted effort to impose an alien culture in an antipodean environment. However, throughout the nineteenth century – and beyond – Australian newspapers frequently reprinted material from British and Irish publications.[9] Most of their readers were exiles who wanted news of their homelands, local events did not always generate much interest and even the heroic scribbling of colonial journalists could not fill four to eight pages of a local newspaper week after week. Although the source of the Margate steamboat verse has not been traced, it is overwhelmingly likely that it had originally appeared in a British publication: the Tasmanian occasionally published verse by local contributors, but their sources were generally identified, even if only by pseudonym, and their effusions usually referred to colonial life.[10] Given the length of voyages from Britain, the Margate steamboat verse was almost certainly originally published in the second half of 1827.[11] The editor of the Tasmanian, Joseph Tice Gellibrand, was a London-born and -trained lawyer who had arrived in Van Diemen's Land in March 1824 after practising in the capital for eight years: it is very likely that he had travelled on a Margate steamboat himself.[12] As explained in an endnote below, the single emendation that I have made to the text suggests that it was read aloud to a compositor from the original source.


Now many a City wife and daughter

Feels that the dipping rage has caught her;

Scarce can they rest upon their pillows,

For musing on machines and billows;

Or, should they slumber, 'tis to dream

All night of Margate and of Steam.

Of Steam – which, stronger than a giant

Duly invoked, is more compliant.

At half-past Eight (propitious hour!)

He's at their service at the Tower;[14]

Embark'd, they catch the sound, and feel

The thumping motion of its wheel;

Lash'd into foam by ceaseless strokes,

The river roars; the funnel smokes

As onward, like an arrow, shoots

The giant with his seven-leagued boots;

Spite of their crowded sails, outstripping,

With ease, the speed of all the shipping.

Through every reach, mast following mast,

Descried – approach'd – o'ertaken – past;

Look where you will, you find no traces

Of qualm-anticipating faces,

From shifting helm or thwart lee braces;[15]

(Ills with which fate the bliss alloys,

Else perfect, of the Margate hoys.)[16]

No calm so dead that nothing stirs,

Baffles the sea-sick passengers,

With ecstasy no tongue can utter,

They take to tea and bread and butter.

On the smooth deck some stretch their legs,

Some feast below on toast and eggs,

As, cheered by clarionet and song,[17]

Ten knots an hour they spank along,

Sure at their destined port to sup,

(Unless perchance they're all blown up,)[18]

By Gravesend, Southend, through the Nore,

Till the boat lands them all at four,

Exulting on the Margate shore!

Charles Dibdin's eighteenth-century song, "The Margate Hoy", inspired this caricature of 1804. The vomiting figure is a City alderman, identified by his obesity. In the bottom right, bearded and wearing a flat hat, is a Jew. In Dibdin's song, he is given a German accent and subjected to anti-Semitic abuse. The artist portrays him as a pedlar, carrying a box of trinkets or samples and presumably hoping to find customers among the Margate trippers. The Black youth in the bottom left is not mentioned in the song. The alderman was obviously a poor sailor: seasickness engulfed him at Rotherhithe, only a couple of miles downstream from the Tower. There is a longer stomach-churning extract from the song in endnote 16 below.

The 1828 verse celebrates the success of the steamboat in making such ordeals a thing of the past.


[1] J.K. Walton, The English Seaside Resort: a Social History, 1750-1914 (Leicester, 1983), 18. As shipbuilding technology developed, so it became possible to carry more passengers. In 1891, a steamboat owner challenged legislation that limited the number of passengers a vessel could carry on the Thames, arguing that Parliament had never envisaged the use of steam. The Times, 21 July 1819.

[2] North Wales Gazette, 29 September 1826; Morning Post, 10 September 1825, 26 August 1828.  Pickpockets were by then active on Margate steamboats: Cambrian (Swansea), 20 September 1828. (Welsh newspapers consulted via The downside of the influx was that the sheer number of Londoners made Margate less attractive to the nobility and gentry. The town attempted to defend itself against the influx by ensuring that its "fashionable promenade" remained "very select in the summer, in consequence of a toll being exacted at the entrance". The introduction of this charge in 1812 provoked a riot: The Times, 8 August 1812; Pigot's Directory of Kent, 404, consulted via the University of Leicester's online historical directories collection:

[3] In1824, coaches served the town "almost hourly during the season": Pigot's Directory of Kent, 404.

[4] A hoy took just over 12 hours to reach Margate in the summer of 1798, probably a typical journey time in good weather: The Times, 5 September 1798.

[5] The Times, 12 February 1802.

[6] See end of text. In August 1786 – the height of summer – a woman travelling on a Margate hoy was "overpowered with sea-sickness" and evidently vomiting at the rail when "a sudden motion of the vessel" threw her overboard. She was rescued but could not be revived. The Times, 8 August 1786.

[7]  C. Lamb, The Essays of Elia (London, 1927 ed., cf. 1st ed. 1823), 258.

[8] W. Vamplew, ed., Australians: Historical Statistics (Broadway, NSW, 1987), 29, 115, L. Robson, History of Tasmania (Melbourne, 1983), 168. The 7:2 gender imbalance was even more pronounced among the adult population, since boys and girls were roughly equal in numbers among locally born children.

[9]  Thanks to the National Library of Australia's online newspaper archive, Trove, and its New Zealand counterpart PapersPast, these pirated articles are often the most accessible form of many British publications, some of which have left little or no trace. I discuss this in:

[10] E.g., on 18 July 1828, the Tasmanian published verse in honour of friendship, written by a British Army officer "From this unsocial and sequester'd spot / Reckless of fame and by the world forgot". They were supplied by a reader who assured the editor that " if you think them worthy of a place in your excellent Journal, they are at your service".  The submission came from A***n in the village of Oatlands. This was probably a Scotsman called John Aitken who had arrived in the colony around 1825 and had certainly acquired a sheep farm at Oatlands by 1833: He would have been easily identifiable in a small colonial community.

[11] One month earlier, on 8 February 1828, the Tasmanian reported items from the September 1827 issue of the New Monthly Magazine.

[12] P. C. James, "Joseph Tice Gellibrand (1792–1837): Gellibrand had been appointed attorney-general of Van Diemen's Land in August 1823. He soon clashed with the governor, Sir George Arthur, who succeeded in ousting him in 1826. Gellibrand contested his dismissal, and became a critic of the autocratic governor. However, colonial politics played no role in the selection of the Margate steamboat poem.

[13] Tasmanian, 8 March 1828, via Trove.

[14] The Tower Slip, close to the Tower of London, was a principal departure point for Thames passenger services.

[15] The Tasmanian printed "taught lee braces" and I have emended "taught" to "thwart". The phrase is not entirely clear, partly because the versifier appears to have applied the word "braces", which applies to rigging (as in "mainbrace") to the adjustable sails generally. The nautical term "athwart" (from the side) was in general use in the early 19th century, both as a preposition and as an adverb. But the related adjective "thwart" had become obsolete, although it survived (as here) in poetry: e.g. the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.) quotes Swinburne in 1865: "A thwart sea-wind full of rain and foam." A hoy sailing downstream from London might benefit from prevailing westerly winds for most of its passage, but the Thames does not follow a canal-like west-east course. Below Gravesend, the four-mile stretch of the Lower Hope flows almost directly south-north, so that a west wind would be on the port bow. Furthermore, winds were likely to change direction in local bursts, hence the reference to unexpected and destabilising gusts on the sheltered (lee) side of the hoy that would cause sudden movement of the sails and the heaving of the vessel. Beyond the Nore, the small sailing barge would of course be on the open sea for the last 20 miles of its voyage. It seems likely that the compositor on the Tasmanian was puzzled by the phrase or perhaps misheard it when dictated by an assistant (an Irish accent might of course have provided a further complication).

[16] A late-18th century popular song by Charles Dibdin graphically described seasickness among passengers on a Margate hoy (in a passage that was even more vividly illustrated in the caricature):

"And  now  'twould  have  made  a  philosopher  grin,

To  have  seen  such  a  concourse  of  muns;

Sick  as  death,  wet  as  muck,  from  the  heel  to  the  chin,

For  it  came  on  to  blow  great  guns;  

Spoil' d  clothes  and  provisions  now clogg'd up the way,

In  a  dreary  and  boisterous  night;

While  apparently  dead  ev'ry  passenger lay

With the sickness, but more with the fright."

However, the voyage ended happily:

"At last, after turning on two or three tacks,

Margate lights soon restor'd all our joy;

The men found their stomachs, the women their clacks.

Sing who so blithe as we, 

Who take a voyage to sea,

Aboard of a Margate Hoy."

"Mun" was a dialect term for a man, used as a form of address (cf. the Scots "mon"). It is awkwardly used here as a plural to manufacture a rhyme. The expression "great guns", perhaps now dated, was in use until recent times to indicate energetic and relentless effort, usually (although not in this example) with a positive implication. "Clacks" is a term for chatter, and reflects the same patronising attitude to women that infused the Margate steamboat poem. The Selected Songs of Charles Dibdin... (Blackfriars, London, 1845), 429-31.

[17] "Clarionet" is, of course, an archaic spelling of clarinet.

[18] There were some spectacular (and widely reported) early steamboat explosions in the United States. In 1817, a Margate steamboat caught fire after a smokestack collapsed. The captain saved the lives of the fifty people on board by running for Whitstable. Scots Magazine, 1 September 1817.