The very first ferries to France


190 three men in a boat by rob gallop

John Hillman looks back into history to the very first ferry crossings between Britain and France

While you are sitting on board your P&O ferry, perhaps reclining in the club lounge with a good book and a pot of tea, spare a thought for all those pioneers who risked life and limb to make such salubrious sailing possible.

149 years before Norwave became the first P&O ferry to cross the channel in 1965, there had never been a steam crossing of the channel, or indeed any other major sea. The year was 1816, it was just after Napoleon had finally been defeated at Waterloo and Britain was tottering on the brink of economic meltdown.

The prolonged revolutionary wars and the sudden demobilization of the entire male population into unemployment lead to depression, riots and political agitation, all of which would eventually persuade Castlereagh, the PM of the day, that the time had come to exit stage left, which he did by the rather expeditious route of plunging a knife into his own throat whilst sat at his desk.

It was a dark period of the 19th century and a long way from the more relaxed and genteel Victorian era for which these times are commonly remembered. But against this background of chaos a great feat of bravery symbolised the start of the spirit of adventure that would come to epitomize the next 100 years; a combination of British engineering and French reckless insanity was fused together to realize the first ever steam crossing of the channel, which paved the way for every modern vessel in service today.

M. Pierre Andriel came to England in 1815 and purchased the steam ship Margery, determined as he was to prove that steam-ships were ocean worthy. Wary of making sure that it was regarded as a solely French undertaking he quickly changed the 70 ton, 21 meter vessel’s name to the Elise and, on 17th March 1816, set out from Newhaven in East Sussex and headed towards the French coast.

Things did not go well from the start. That night the Elise ran into tempestuous high seas and with enormous waves crashing down around their heads the crew threatened mutiny unless the insane captain turned back. But Andriel, being your classic adrenalin junkie adventurer, was having absolutely none of it. He drew his gun and aimed it on his crew threatening death to anyone who disobeyed his orders, whilst at the same time offering 3 bottles of rum to the first man to spot the French coast.

This classy combination of carrot and stick just about did the trick, and 17 hours later they steamed into Le Havre victorious. From here the vessel made its way up the river Seine all the way to Paris, firing off rounds from its two cannons in honour of the Louis XVIII as it entered the city to the sounds of cheering crowds and brass bands. The great era of the 19th century adventurer had begun.

So remember that next time you settle back on the deck of your P&O ferry, casually debating whether to visit the tax-free shop or just stay where you are and order another drink. All these things that we take for granted were won by crazed adventurers, risking life and limb in the name of personal glory and human advancement.

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