Ships of the Milford to Waterford Mail Packet Service

An official mail packet service ran between Milford Haven and Waterford from 1787 to 1848.  The service often referred to at the time as the Southern Route, operated in competition with an earlier route between Holyhead and Dublin*.  Although the Southern route was shorter, it was never as popular.  This blog will concentrate on the ships that worked the service and share what little details I could find on those who crewed these vessels in the 61 years of the service.

Although there was packet communication between Waterford and the UK as early as 1600 this service was unofficial and sailings were irregular.  The only ship that I am aware of from this era was the Countess of Tyrone – a name we know from the writings of Arthur Young and specifically  “A Tour in Ireland 1776-1779”

The official service commenced on April 5th 1787 from Cheekpoint with one vessel.   But by June that year, the Post Office responded to the popularity of the route by asking the Packet Agent, Thomas Owen, to get sufficient vessels to allow for six days of sailing per week.[i]   

Cheekpoint 1799…called Chief Point in this engraving by J Storer from an original drawing by G Holmes. The village was then the base of the Royal Mail packet station to Southern Ireland. Interestingly, I found an old map reference from this era that suggests the village did not exist until the Mail Packet era – the quay was then called Faithlegg Slip – Cheekpoint as a name is listed, but it relates to where the Mount Tower stands.

One of the first vessels on the route was known as the Hopewell and in November 1787, this ship came to grief although the mail and passengers were saved. [ii]  The Hopewell was apparently lost off the Wexford coast under the command of Captain Morris.  No details of the saving of the crew, passengers, and mail are given[iii].  If I had to guess, I would imagine she ran ashore.  It would appear two new ships were secured in the summer of 1787, the Carteret and Walsingham.  Others who were on service included the Ponsonby, Clifden, and Tyrone.  In February 1795 another ship joined (perhaps another had ceased) called the Chesterfield.[iv]                      

The details of these vessels are scarce (I could find nothing on any of them in Lloyds List for example) but the description we have is of fast-paced cutters of 80-90 tons with a capacity for horse & carriage, packages, and parcels, accommodation, and even stewards to look after the guests.  The ships had to be fast, not just to fulfill the task assigned to them, but during the Napoleonic wars, they had the added excitement of trying to avoid French privateers who took every opportunity to disrupt trade.

an example of a cutter, a picture accessed from

Sailing ships had one major disadvantage – they depended on favorable wind and tide and the location at Cheekpoint, ten miles upriver caused many complaints.  In 1813 the service was moved to Passage East in preparation for another move to Dunmore East where a new harbour would open to facilitate the Packets in 1818.  But even at that point, a new complaint was emerging – steam-powered vessels were developing and their value to the service was apparent to all.

In 1819, a second packet ship was lost on the route, again on the Wexford shore. In June it was reported that the Earl of Leicester under Captain Steele which was sailing from Milford to Dunmore was driven ashore to the east of Hook Tower and was wrecked. The ship had sailed five days earlier, but had weathered some very bad weather, and been driven back on three occasions. (Based on the article it seems she sailed on Wed 9th and grounded on Sun 13th June). The crew, passengers, and mail were all landed safely at Slade and the post was forwarded on by Arthurstown Postmaster to Waterford PO. The ship was expected to be a total loss, the larboard (Port) side was stove in. [It does not sound too bad in fairness] (Source: Limerick Gazette – Friday 18 June 1819; page 3)

Another vessel on the route in 1819 was sailing packet Auckland, under the command of William Davis Evans. Evans had purchased the vessel from his predecessor on the station, Captain Richards. (Source: “Give Me a Light:” The Development and Regulation of Ships’ Navigation Lights up to the Mid-1860s. John Roger Owen – see my own notes for link)

In 1822 it was argued in a newspaper column that Dunmore required steam to give the service the same advantage then being offered on the Dublin route.  The positives of steam were laid out and a recommendation included the design of the ships – Stoutly built, 200 tons, two engines to provide 80HP and accommodation for at least 40 passengers.[v]     It would appear that the last sailing cutters employed on the route sailed on April 15th 1824 at which point four paddle steamers came into service.[vi]        

In May 1824 one vessel the Harlequin under captain Grey completed her journey to Dunmore in 8 hrs and made the return in 7.5hrs, the ships are described as very comfortable and commodious and the only noted difference to their rivals on the Dublin route was that the horses and carriages are accommodated below decks on the Dunmore run[vii] Private email correspondence with Roger Antell informed me that the Steam packets Meteor and Royal Sovereign operated from Dunmore around this time too – these ships had worked on the Dublin route but were replaced with faster and more powerful ships.

A fourth steam vessel was the newly built Vixen, under the command of Captain Evans, mentioned above. ( new info 15/7/2024) At that time the packet commanders owned their vessels and acted as contractors to the Post Office, for which they received an annual fee, although their earnings came largely from the passage money paid by travellers and the fees they charged to transport carriages and horses. This route, however, was not well used, and on a number of occasions the Postmaster General (PMG) was called upon to top-up the earnings of packet commanders. Captain Evans was appointed to command a steam packet (Vixen) when they were introduced in April 1824; he then sold his sailing packet and became a salaried employee….Vixen was renamed Advice by the Admiralty in 1837, and Evans was appointed as an acting master on the active list of the Royal Navy, as were other civilian packet commanders formerly with the Post Office. Packet commanders who were half-pay naval officers were restored to the active list in their former ranks.)

Captain Evans is known to have invented the chess move the Evan’s Gambit while serving aboard the mail sips at this time. He is also responsible for our present ships navigation lights, developed and first trialled on the Dunmore to Milford route.

Paddle steam packets Meteor (on left) and Royal Sovereign which operated on the Milford Waterford route for a time circa 1824. Artist: William John Huggins.  Maritime Museum Greenwich, via Roger Antell. The scene depicted is the departure of George IV from Holyhead to Dublin in 1822. Interestingly, the Royal Sovereign, or to give her the full title Royal Sovereign George the Fourth, was called the Lightning up to this point but was renamed as the King traveled aboard to Ireland.

Of course, it’s an ill wind that blows no good!  In November 1824 Mr. Pim and Mrs. Mowlds of Dublin fled to Waterford and getting horses in town arrived in Dunmore to elope abroad.  Unfortunately for the lovebirds, the packet was delayed, and whilst staying at Mr. Cherry’s Hotel a certain Mr. Mowlds arrived and “…An unpleasant and rather violent rencontre took place between the parties…” The family Mowlds later returned to Dublin, Mr. Pim to court, and apparently, the packet limped into Dunmore not long after oblivious of its vital role in a love triangle.[viii]

A furious Waterford Mail article of August 1827 excoriated the Post Office due to the inability of the Meteor to sail during the week which caused a delay in information for the previous edition.  Although Meteor sailed, she had to put back into Milford where the newly arrived paddle steamer Vixen had to turn around to return to Waterford.  A new ship was expected on the route, but the Mail asks when, and very reasonably, why, a relief boat was not secured.[ix]

To get an insight into the pressures these packet captains were under the following article is instructive.  On the 8th April 1828, the steam packet Crocodile went to the assistance of the sailing vessel Fairfield close to the Saltee Islands en route from St Johns NB to Liverpool fully laden with timber.  The sailing ship had lost her rudder in a storm and was unmanageable.   The Crocodile took the vessel in tow and from 3 pm to 6 pm managed to reach a position about 7 miles off the Hook.  Because Captain Nuttall of the Crocodile needed to reach Dunmore, he then signaled the Fairfield that he was cutting the tow rope but would send assistance, and she dropped anchor.  At Dunmore Captain Hunt, the pilot master, sent the pilot boat Scott to assist. However, the anchor chains parted on the Fairfield and she was reported a total wreck on the Wexford shore.[x] A later edition of the paper confirmed that all aboard were saved.  (The Fairfield had left port on the 1st March, and lost her rudder on the 26th)

Dunmore’s East Pier and lighthouse Circa 1900 – originally built for the Mail Packets. Courtesy of Vinnie O’Brien

In November 1832 there was an announcement of the death, at Dunmore East, of Captain Charles Nuttall, commander of the Milford to Waterford packet Crocodile.  It also mentions that Nuttall was captain of the first vessel to land mail at Cheekpoint in 1787 and had served the station loyally in the intervening years.[xi] 

In 1835 the four steam packets were listed in a newspaper article.  Three vessels were of 80HP highlighting that despite the speed in advancement, the Dunmore route was not keeping pace.  These were the Sybil, Crocodile, and the Vixen.  A fourth vessel the Aladdin was 100HP.  The least powerful vessel on the Dublin route at the time was 140HP.[xii]

The article went on to give some valuable insights into the route – The Dunmore route was constantly being attacked as slow and of poor value.  This impacted mail delivery times, passenger comfort, and the major point with all travel to this day – speed.  However, the article pointed out that the distance from Milford to Dunmore was 81 nautical miles.  Dublin to Liverpool was 125.  Although the Dunmore ships were vastly underpowered in comparison, the speed of the journey despite the negative coverage was favorable.  For example in looking at the month of April; the fastest journey was April 21 – 8 hrs 30mins, whilst the slowest was April 1st at 12hrs 25 mins.  The fastest journey that month from Liverpool to Kingstown was 10hrs 39mins.[xiii]

Earlier in 1833, the Waterford Chronicle had boasted that the local Waterford Steamship Company which sailed from Bristol to Waterford was wiping the eye of the Royal service.  A new steamship the Waterwitch had taken 24hrs to reach Waterford in a storm but had still beaten the Crocodile by 10 hrs notwithstanding the greater distance she had covered.  The article also mentions an older sister ship Norah Creina a firm favourite with passengers.  It concludes with a very fair question 

“But why, again, let us enquire is not the post office, which surely, has ample funds at its disposal, able to compete with private a company? This is a subject which, claims the prompt attention of all mercantile and commercial men, not only of this city, but also of Cork, Clonmel, Dungarvan, and Youghal. Strong and pressing representations of the miserably official condition of the mail-packets should be made without delay, and if these remonstrances are not duly attended to, the subject should be early brought under the notice of Parliament”[xiv]

In September 1836 Edward Rose, commander of the Aladdin was moved to write a rebuttal to the Waterford Chronicle after an article appeared criticising his vessel.  At issue was a recent sailing, which Rose pointed out was very misleading both in the time taken for the trip but also in describing the sea conditions as “smooth as oil” when in fact there was a “strong, treble reefed topsail breeze from the NE which occasioned the sort of short choppy seas most unfavourable to [paddle] steamers” [xv]

A Waterford postmark from October 1837. Source: Roger Antell.

A comparison between the two routes is very informative.  For example in 1835 on the Milford to Dunmore route – 2,199 passengers were accommodated but over 11,000 traveled from Holyhead to Dublin, 21 carriages arrived at Dunmore – 563 to Dublin, 8 horses to Dunmore against 214 and 46 dogs to Dunmore against 270 to Dublin.[xvi]

There were major changes to the service in early 1837 when the management was taken over by the Admiralty and the base was moved from Dunmore East to the Adelphi Wharf in Waterford City.  The earliest mention of this was an article in June, although the article expresses strong reservations about the move – suggesting that it may not meet the concerns of the Post Office[xvii]   According to Roger Antell the first vessel to use the Adelphi Wharf was the steamer Pigmy and another vessel Jasper is mentioned.  An interesting point that I found (but can’t be sure of) stated that when the Admiralty took over, they did not employ new ships but simply renamed the older vessels that were on the route.  [I since located information that the Vixen was certainly taken over and renamed as the Advice – see my notes under Captain William Davis Evans] Whatever the situation the Post Office continued to favour the Dublin route and when rail finally made its way to Holyhead the speed and efficiency of that route were obvious to all.  On the 2nd August 1848, the Milford to Waterford Packet ceased, bringing to a close what can only be described as a controversial route from outset.[xviii]

At the time it ceased there were five vessels employed.  Pigmy commanded by Lieut. Darby RN, Advice under Lieut. Petch RN, Jasper under Mr Edward Rose RN, Adder under Mr John Hammond Acting Master RN, Prospero under Acting Master Rundle RN. [xix]

The SS Great Western the Adelphi Wharf in WWI

Some years back the late Brian Goggins, who occasionally corresponded with me on blog topics, wrote to me that he was of the opinion that the major reason the route failed was that the public was not prepared to travel on the poor roads to Milford once they got to Bristol.  He believed that the public at that time felt it was so much easier to take a steamship from Bristol to Waterford, despite the greater distance by sea.  It’s a reasonable theory because within less than ten years of the route ceasing the Great Western Railway Company would have built a rail line to Milford and reinstated the Waterford connection at Adelphi Wharf, something that would continue up to the 1960s. 

*Although I mention Holyhead to Dublin, there was much chopping and changing on this route too including Liverpool to Dublin and various locations around Dublin including Howth and Dun Laoghaire.

I drew on contemporary newspaper reports, my second book, and also the work of Roger Antell for this piece. Antell. R. 2011.  The Mails Between South Wales and Southern Ireland.  Welsh Philatelic Press.