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The First Blue Riband Winner built in Leith.

Niamh Wood

The fastest steam powered crossing of the Atlantic, burnt furniture, a shipwreck & lives lost at sea. All from one small(ish) boat built by the oldest shipbuilders in Leith. All within a short life of only 10 years.




Sirius (1837)


Sirius was a 703-ton steamboat built-in 1837 by the company Menzies & Co. Ltd, the oldest shipbuilders in Leith, Scotland. She measured 178 and four inches long. The hold measured 18 feet, 3 inches in depth, and she had a tonnage of 703 tons. The two-cylinder steam engine drove two paddle wheels that delivered 380 horsepower and gave a maximum speed of 12 knots. Although she was originally built for service in the Irish sea, she was instead chartered by the British and American steam navigation company. The following year she had her first voyage set to sail from Cork, Ireland on the 4th of April to New York with around 45 passengers.



Around the time Sirius was completed, two other companies were building steamships for transatlantic passenger service. Rival ‘Great Western’ being one of the ships that were built was also set to sail around the same time as Sirius. With shipbuilding technologies advancing at a steady pace, there was an unofficial competition amongst shipping companies to see who would be the first to travel from Europe to New York using steam power alone and subsequently establish the transatlantic route.


Just short of reaching New York, towards the end of the 18-day voyage, Sirius’ fuel ran out. Despite this, the captain determined to complete the passage under steam alone refused to stop and instead fed spars and furniture into the furnace. Regardless of this problem, Sirius still managed to beat the much larger Great Western ship by just a few hours and was officially the first steamship to cross the Atlantic from east to west, against the flow of the golf stream using only steam power. Her voyage lasted a total of 18 days, 4 hours, and 22 minutes.


The captain and crew of 38 celebrated on arrival and the captain, in recognition of his achievements was awarded the freedom of New York, Cork, and London. The ship’s accomplishments captured the public on both continents. Newspapers wrote about it, one article even read ‘Nothing is talked of in New York but about this Sirius’. The New York mayor even visited the ship itself along with some US army and navy officials to pay their courtesy to it.


The building of the Sirius also helped to pave the way for many other ship makers. After her success, many wanted to take up the challenge of making engines for ships in Leith. The irony would come later, in that the steamship, with its ability to go anywhere at any time, would lead to the eventual demise of the busiest port in Scotland. Sirius was listed as the first holder of what became known as the Blue Riband, awarded for the fastest crossing.


She only completed one additional round trip before she was returned to her owners as it was clear she was too small for the Cork - New York crossing. She resumed her regular St George Company service now doing a Cork – Glasgow route. The St George company did bid for a monthly Cork - Halifax service which included Sirius and another for a monthly Cork - Halifax – New York service in 1839 for the British Admiralty. However, she was rejected, as was Great western, and the contract was finally awarded to Cunard.


In 1847, Sirius went on a voyage departing from Glasgow, going via Dublin, and ending up in Cork. It was on the voyage where she was wrecked. She was holding cargo and passengers when she struck rocks during a foggy night in Ballycotton Bay, Ireland. The only lifeboat launched was heavily overloaded and in the rough seas, twenty lives were sadly lost. In response to the loss of Sirius, the need for a lighthouse between old house Kinsale and hook head-on Irelands southern coast was recognized. Over the following years Ballycotten lighthouse, on Ballycotton island was constructed and it was finally lit in 1851.

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