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Packet Boats to and from America

By Cheryl Bolen

The quickest way to cross the Atlantic during the Regency was by packet boats that were designed, built, and operated by the British post office and harbored at the port in Falmouth.

In 1755 packet boats initiated service between Falmouth and New York, and by 1764 the routes had been extended to include several ports in the colonies.

The swift packet boats had been commissioned by the post office to transport mail, which could also include shipments of bullion, official dispatches, and the transportation of money from merchants.

This important mail was delivered to Falmouth by post coaches, and at the packet ship's final destination, British agents or consuls distributed it.

Cargo was not permitted aboard these ships, and only a few cabins were available to paying passengers.

The packet service had begun in 1689 and ran between Corunna, Spain, and Falmouth. Falmouth was selected because of its well situated harbor in southwest England. The mouth of Falmouth Harbor was protected on each side by fortified castles.

Not long after the packet service was launched, Lisbon became the most important destination for English mail. In the latter part of the eighteenth century the West Indies were more vital to the British than the American colonies. Other principal destinations for the mail were Halifax, India, and European ports. The Indian-bound mail would be transported through the Mediterranean to Alexandria, Egypt, and then would be conveyed overland to India.

In 1793 the post office designed special packet ships that were light, with only two masts and a small crew of 22. These ships weighed less than 200 tons. (By comparison, Lord Nelson's HMS Victory weighed 3,500 tons and could accommodate a crew of 850.)

Paid by the post office, crews aboard the packet boats knew how to operate the ship's seven guns. The most well known packet captain, John Bull, commanded his The Duke of Marlborough against the French at Falmouth's Pendennis Castle in 1814. Another famous packet captain was William Rogers, who skippered the Windsor Castle in 1807. Other packet boats were Fox, Swiftsure, Francis Freeling, and Speedy.

Many of these captains spent time at the Green Bank Hotel, an establishment still in operation today in Falmouth.

Accommodations on board the fleet ships were much smaller and more spartan than at the hotel. A passenger's windowless cabin measured approximately five feet wide and six feet deep, with ceiling height too low to allow most men to stand. Passengers were also required to furnish their own bedding. Drawers beneath the sleeping berth held the passenger's possessions. The wearing apparel, books, and linen stowed there could not exceed 400 pounds. The small cabin also had a candle shelf beside the bed, wall hooks for clothing, a bucket of water, and a chamber pot.

Only the financially well off could secure one of the few available cabins. In 1811, the cost for passage from Falmouth to New York was 54 pounds, and the journey averaged 40 days. Servants, such as a lady's maid, were charged the full fare. Those passengers coming from England had meals furnished; those whose journeys originated elsewhere had to provide their own food. Meals were taken in the officers' dining room.

Up to five tiny cabins were available for passengers, who shared the same deck with the master, mate, surgeon, and boatman. Also on that deck were the galley, carpenters, pantry, and a water closet.

Though these speedy ships served their purpose for almost 150 years, they were replaced by steamships in Falmouth in 1837, and none of the earlier sailing vessels have survived.

Author of October's One Golden Ring (Zebra historical), Cheryl Bolen gleaned the previous information on a recent trip to England's National Maritime Museum in Falmouth and to the Historic Dockyards in Portsmouth, England.  This article first appeared in The Quizzing Glass in September 2005.

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