Charles Dickens the younger on steam launches

This painting by the artists EJ Gregory dated 1893 rather tells the story – a steam launch would have to be very restrained to avoid causing accidents in such circumstances. There’s an analysis of the safety issues depicted in this painting here

A week or two back I promised I’d publish Charles Dickens the younger’s entry on steam launches in his wonderful Dickens’s Dictionary of the Thames from its Source to the Nore, and here it is, in all its furious glory! (See the earlier post excoriating the men who worked dumb barges on the river and praising sailing barge crews here.)

Steam Launches are too often the curse of the river. Driving along at an excessive rate of speed, with an utter dis-regard to the comfort or necessities of anglers, oarsmen, and boating-parties, the average steam-launch engineer is an unmitigated nuisance. There are some owners who show consideration for other people, but their number, unfortunately, is very limited, and for the most part the launches are navigated with a recklessness which is simply shameful. Perhaps the worst offenders are the people who pay their £5 5s a day for the hire of a launch, and whose idea of a holiday is the truly British notion of getting over as much ground as possible in a given time.

Parties of this kind, especially after the copious lunch which is one of the features of the day’s outing, stimulate the engineer to fresh exertions, and themselves considerably as template the anxiety and discomfort of the occupants of the punts and rowing boats which are left floundering helplessly in their wash. Should there be ladies on board a boat in difficulties, their terror proportionately enhances the amusement of these steam-launch ‘Arries. Unfortunately, these excursionists are not alone in their offences against courtesy and good behaviour. Too many people who ought to know very much better keep them in countenance by their selfish example. In 1883 an Act of Parliament, 46 & 47 Vict. cap. 70, was passed to make special provision with respect to steam launches navigating the Thames above Kew Bridge. Under this Act steam launches and their owners must be registered, and any owner or person in charge of any steam launch in course of navigation under steam or any other mechanical power is bound to produce the certificate of registration to any officer of the Conservators, under a penalty of 40s for non-compliance. The fine for using a steam-launch without certificate is not less than £5 and not more than £10 for every day on which the offence is committed. The name of the launch is to be conspicuously displayed, and the owner, in default, is liable to a penalty not exceeding £5.
Steam launches being navigated after sunset and before sunrise are to display, at least four feet above the hull, a bright white light behind a glass shade or slide, upon which the registered number of the launch must be conspicuously painted in black figures, as well as a green light on the starboard side and a red light on the port side. These lights must be of such a character as to be visible on a dark night with a clear atmosphere at a distance of at least one mile, and in default of the proper carrying out of this clause the person in charge is liable to a penalty not exceeding £5. Every person who knowingly causes or permits to be concealed the registered name or number of any steam launch, while such steam launch is used for the purpose of navigating the Thames above Kew Bridge, shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding £5.
If complaint is made to the Conservators as to the navigation of any registered steam launch, the owner is bound to give all information in his power as to the person who was, at any particular time, in charge of the launch, and, should he fail to do so, is liable to a penalty not exceeding £20.
Section 15 is particularly deserving the attention of boating men and anglers, and
runs as follows :

‘Every vessel navigating the Thames shall be navigated with care and caution and at a speed and in such a manner as not to endanger the lives of persons or the safety of other vessels or moorings or cause damage to any vessel or moorings or to the banks of the Thames or other property.
‘Special care and caution shall be used in navigating vessels when passing vessels of all kinds, especially those of the smaller classes and such as are employed in dredging or removing sunken vessels or other obstructions.
‘If the safety of any vessel or moorings or of any persons is endangered or damage is caused thereto or to the banks of the Thames by a passing vessel, the onus shall lie upon the person in charge of such passing vessel to show that she was navigated with care and caution and at such speed and in such manner as directed by this section.

‘The person in charge of any vessel who in navigating such vessel contravenes or fails to observe the provisions of this section shall for every such offence be liable to a penalty not exceeding twenty pounds.’

It will thus be seen that the public has now been armed with ample powers to protect themselves, and that it will be their own fault if the Editor of the Dictionary of the Thames does not find it necessary in revising the book for the season of 1885 to cancel the description of the average steam launch engineer with which this article begins.

It is understood that the owners of steam launches have formed an influential society to protect each other against possible groundless complaints, and also to keep an eye on such of their body as misbehave themselves. With the latter object the public will cordially agree, and there can be no objection to the former if it is honourably carried out.


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