Street Views: 17, 25 and 2 Suppl.
Address: 37 Regent Street
The General Steam Navigation Company had their office at 37 Regent Street, one of the houses of Piccadilly Circus, which was still called Regent Circus (South) when Tallis produced his booklets and looked similar to how Oxford Circus (Regent Circus North) still looks today, but it lost its complete circular form in 1886 with the construction of Shaftesbury Avenue. The Ordnance Survey map of 1893-95 below shows the changes in progress. The north-eastern corner of the Circus has already disappeared and the rounded off corners of the three remaining sections were to disappear over time when streets were widened and houses set back.(1) Number 37 is indicated by the arrow.
In February 1823, a meeting took place at the London Tavern, Bishopsgate Street, to see whether enough interest (read: money) could be raised to form a General Steam Navigation Company (GSNC). The idea was to raise a capital of £300,000 by issuing 150 shares of £2000, a large sum to fork out, but individual shares could be divided into halves or quarters. With the money raised steam ships were to be purchased or ordered to be built. It was envisaged that these ships would provide a regular service from London, Dover, Brighton, Southampton and Plymouth to various destinations on the Continent.(2) The official year for the start of the Company is 1824, as was proudly displayed on their flag. A notice in the papers a year and a half after the meeting in Bishopsgate Street, showed that the activities and the capital were to be increased considerably by issuing 20,000 shares of £100.(3) The GSNC initially had their office at 24 Crutched Friars, and later in Lombard Street, but certainly by 1834 they also had an office at 37 Regent Street.
After only a year in business, the Company announced that they were so successful that a dividend of eight per cent could be paid out to the shareholders and that fifteen vessels had been bought or built.(4) The company initially concentrated on passengers, but from the late 1820s they also transported livestock. By 1833, the company ran regular mail boats to Hamburg, Ostend, Boulogne and Rotterdam. In 1836, they acquired the six steam ships of the London and Edinburgh Steam Packet Company and the steamships of the rival Margate Steam Packet Company. Some of the GSNC’s personnel managed to be singled out for their achievements, such as, in November 1836, when one of the Company’s captains, W. Norwood of the Sir Edward Banks, was presented with a gold medal by the Emperor of Russia for rescuing some Russian citizens from the shipwreck of The Neptune on the Hinder Bank. To ditribute among the crew, £40 was given.(5) And one Henry Cobby, of the GSNC’s Kingston-upon-Hull office, listed a design for “an apparatus for causing the paddle-wheels of a steam-vessel to revolve in a contrary direction to each other at one time, and thereby to turn the vessel round”.(6) I wonder how they managed to do that before Cobby’s invention.
Pleasure boats, ferrying people for trips to Southend, Margate or Ramsgate, were very popular, but after the SS Princess Alice disaster in 1878 (see here), the market slumped considerably and it took all the efforts of the company to restore public confidence. The Continental cattle trade was also in trouble due to the Franco-Prussian War, a cattle plague on the Continent, and some severe winters blocking traffic to northern harbours, forcing the company to decommission some ships.
Changing holiday destinations, the railways and cheap flights all contributed to the decline of the Steam Company and they were taken over in 1920 by P&O, although remaining under own management till 1972. More on this later part of the history of the GSNC is to be found here.
A list of all the ships that have been owned by the General Steam Navigation Company can be found here. And if you want to know more about the history of the GSNC, have a look at Sarah Palmer’s “‘The most indefatigable activity’: the General Steam Navigation Company, 1824-50” in The Journal of Transport History 1982.
(1) Changes described in Survey of London, vols. 31-2; online here and here.
(2) The Morning Post, 12 February 1823.
(3) The Morning Post, 19 August 1824.
(4) The Morning Post, 12 August 1825.
(5) The Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle for 1838, p. 628 and List of Shipwrecks in 1836.
(6) Newton’s London Journal of Arts and Sciences, 1843.
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