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The Life and Work of James Abernethy, C.E., F.R.S.E
The Channel Ferry, 1870-2

THE troubles and miseries of a passage in the small and stuffy boats across that short but uncomfortable strip of seas, known as the Straits of Dover or Pas de Calais, had so far successfully aggravated the feelings of the daily and nightly victims of business or pleasure who traversed to and fro in the year 1870, that there arose what might be termed a general outcry for something better. “Rude waves” far too frequently, irrespective of age, infancy, or sex, dashed over the unfortunate passengers on such boats as “the Petrel, the Wave, and the Foam," who shunned the proffered saloon accommodation below, preferring what rough shelter they could find on deck. One writer to the papers at this date, possibly an American, gives expression to his feelings by saying, “The way in which that passage across a strip of water is conducted in these days of incessant international communication, is one of the wonders of the age.” On clear days the opposite coast of France loomed clearly and hospitably to the eye, but the problem as to how the horrors that lay between were to be lessened or overcome, remained and still remains unsolved.

The traveller descending from the train upon its arrival at the Admiralty Pier at Dover stills feels only too frequently:—

“Like one that stands upon a promontory,
And spies a far off shore where he would treat,
Wishing his foot were equal with his eye;
And chides the sea that sunders him from thence,
Saying, he’ll lade it dry to have his way.”

3rd Part King Henry VI., Act 3, s. 2.

The sight of the cliffs of two great and wealthy nations but seven leagues distant from each other has long since suggested to the people of both various schemes of different degrees of practicability, but all of them probably more practical in their conception, and feasable of execution than that suggested by the quotation. There have been the submerged tube lying on the bottom, the submarine shield, the bridge of M. Charles Boutet, the tunnel, first advocated by M. de Gamond in 1838, and the ferry plying between piers. But it is the latter scheme only, put forward by Messrs. Fowler and Abernethy that need be, and the only one probably that should be described In this biography. The requirement of larger boats and of greater power which would make the passage quickly and give plenty of room and comfort to the passengers, in place of the existing packets, was widely recognised, and to the many who were of opinion that the other schemes aimed at too much, and were convinced that the then existing service with the Continent aimed at too little, the Channel Ferry scheme found favour as a happy medium. But the dimensions of the packets have to be determined by the exigencies of trade and harbours. Calais and Boulogne were ports so small that only small steamers could enter, and Dover was not much better. Here was the foundation of the difficulty. Packets of greatly increased size could not run nto the ports on the French coast, even if they could at Dover, and so before the boats could be enlarged, the ports required to be first enlarged to receive them. Much bigger boats were considered as the first essential, but before that first essential, came the necessity for larger harbours to receive them.

It was in 1870 that Mr. (now Sir) John Fowler and Mr. Abernethy brought forward their scheme for a new International Communication between England and France. They suggested in the first place further protection and accommodation at Dover by lengthening the Admiralty Pier 300 feet, and constructing a second pier or breakwater, projecting from the southern end of the Marine Parade for a distance of 400 feet in a southeasterly direction, so as to ensure a large enclosure of smooth water in which the proposed steam ferry boats, which will be referred to shortly, would find a harbour in any weather and at any state of the tide, while a huge water-shed was to be erected with a glass roof into which both train and boat were to run, and these works would have had the further effect of rendering the harbour a harbour of shelter to vessels running in from stress of weather. The necessity of improving Calais or Boulogne Harbour simultaneously with Dover involved the conscnt and co-operation of the French Government, all harbours in France being under direct State control, but the French Government were much in favour of the project, the Emperor Napoleon III. especially so, and the improvement of the selected port on the French coast was to be entrusted to French engineers. No little diplomacy was required, however, in successfully representing the scheme to the French Government, and the two English engineers who brought it forward, and made themselves professionally responsible for its design, were several times summoned to Paris between the years 1869 and 1872. In December, 1869, the late Right Hon. Ward Hunt, then First Lord of the Admiralty, who took much interest in the proposed scheme, accompanied by the two engineers, had a long interview by appointment with the Emperor at the Tuileries.

Ushered by an aide-de-camp through several apartments, the visitors found the Emperor in a small room, wearing a plain brown tweed suit and devoid of anything in the way of Orders. He at once rose to meet them as they entered, shook hands heartily, and requested his English guests to be seated at a small table with him. He listened to the proposed schcme with great interest, and after it had been represented to him, expressed his desire to do all in his power to support it. He also stated that to the best of his recollection a somewhat similar project had been submitted to him some time back, and rang for his secretary, to whom upon his appearance he gave instructions to search for the papers referring to it ;n the adjoining horary. After some time the secretary returned and stated that he was unable to find them. “Then I will try myself,” said his majesty, and returned after a short interval with his hands soiled with dust, but without having found what he wanted.

The chief features in the proposed channel communication were these: The ferry boat, of 5000 tons burden, measuring 450 feet in length, 57 feet beam, and 95 feet over the paddle-boxes, with a draught of 12ft. 6in., a foot less draught than the Dublin and Holyhead boats of that time, and with engines of 1400 horse power, capable of giving a speed of 20 knots an hour, and driven by four independent oscillating cylinder engines, was to await the arrival of the trains in the large water-shed under cover of a glass roof. The trains of the South-Eastern and London Chatham and Dover Companies were to be joined together at Dover, and run direct on to the ferry boat. A great feature in the scheme, was the method proposed of taking the train on board by hydraulic lifts and raising it to the requisite level, and Mr. Abernethy thus described the process in his evidence before the Committee of the House of Lords :—“The railway carriages will pass from the level of the rails on to the hydraulic lift, and according to the state of the tide, the lift will be lowered to any required level to enable the carriages to be passed directly on to the midship deck of the steamer. The lift itself will always be on the level, and will be lowered to any requisite extent by hydraulic power.” Sir William (now Lord) Armstrong calculated that the time occupied in putting the passenger trains on the upper-deck would be five minutes. It was estimated that 12 coaches on the upper-deck, with the means of placing either 12 goods trucks or 8 additional coaches on the lower-deck, which would then accommodate 28R passengers, would be sufficient, and either could be done in five minutes.

The idea of being able to take a seat in a railway carriage in London, and not leaving it save by choice, until arrival eight hours later in Paris, found favour with a large section of the public, while the offered facility of despatching a railway truck full of goods direct from London to Berlin or Vienna, without breaking bulk, appealed forcibly to merchants and to the railway companies. The train once on board, a passenger could open his carriage door, betake himself as he felt disposed (or indisposed), to a private cabin at its side, walk to a handsome refreshment room, or mount to the outer deck, (for the train occupied the centre of the deck saloon, exactly as a dinner table does in ordinary steamers.)

The train would thus pass from London to Paris as unbrokenly as from London to Dover, the only difference being in the motive power while crossing the Straits, and on arrival, the bow or the stern of the boat would be again opened in the same manner as lock-gates, the hydraulic lift lowered to the requisite level to receive the train, raise it to the level of the permanent way, and the journey to Paris could then be continued. As a further convenience to passengers, in addition to not having to change carriages, with the sole result of exchanging one seat for another exactly similar, all the incidental trouble of looking after luggage would be avoided, and to secure despatch, it was intended that the luggage should be searched during the passage.

The proposed powerful boats were obviously intended to save time, and in those days, when the average passage was about one hour and three-quarters, they would certainly have fulfilled the object of their design. There would as certainly have been a saving of temper with respect to the luggage. Safety in bad weather was a second feature in the design of these monster ferry-boats, and as a corollary to their hugeness, it was confidently anticipated by many, both experts and non experts in seamanship, that sea-sickness would be reduced to a minimum by the steadiness with which they would travel. Many were to be found, no doubt, who took this assurance cam gram salis, for there are many people who exhibit almost a pre-disposition to be ill as soon as they step on board, and make preparations for their coming misery before the steamer is under weigh. The late Six Luke Smithett, who was engaged :n the service between Dover and Calais for thirty years, in his evidence before Parliament, offered hope even to such as these. “There would,” said he, “be much less motion in these boats, and consequently much less sea-sickness. There would be no pitching, and, if they went at the speed proposed, they would not have time to roll.”

The harbour of Calais, however, not being considered capable of the required improvement for this traffic, a site for a new deep water harbour was selected at Andresselles, a little to the south of Cape Grisnez, which was thought to possess considerable natural facilities, and had been well reported upon by French engineers to their Government. While on a certain visit early in the year 1872 to this spot, he met his old friend Mr. George Hudson, the deposed railway king, for whom he ever entertained feelings of respect, and whom, though he had fallen from his high estate into one of poverty, he continued to regard as an unfortunate catspaw of others, who better deserved to be in his then reduced circumstances. Mr. Hudson, whom he met at the railway station on the arrival of the boat at Calais, joined him, by invitation, at dinner that evening, at Dessien’s Hotel, and during the dinner, gave a graphic description of his fetes at Albert Gate, and of the many who toadied to him, with a view to their own advantage, and their very different behaviour when misfortunes began to overtake him.

The Bill passed in 1870, but was withdrawn in consequence of the Franco-German War, and on its renewal in 1872, it was unexpectedly thrown out by a Committee of the House of Lords, presided over the late Lord Lawrence, ex-Governor-General of India.

The cost of the works on this side of the Channel was put down in the Parliamentary estimate at 890,000, and the time within which the works would be completed, three years. With the rejection of the Channel Ferry scheme by the House of Lords, attention was diverted again to the proposed tunnel, advocated by Sir James Brunlees, and at length authorized and commenced by a company, of which Sir Edward Watkin, was chairman. With the subsequent history of this gigantic work, its stoppage, abandonment, and utilization of the site of the approach to the Tunnel as an approach to the Kent coal fields, all readers are familiar. None of the rival schemes have been carried out. The railway companies’ new boats have no doubt vastly improved the service in recent years, and there is no longer the same occasion for complaining of the service. Great improvements have been effected at Dover, Calais, and Boulogne harbours, but the remarks in Mr. Abernethy’s presidential address to the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1881,—eleven years after the rejection of the Channel Ferry scheme—were true when spoken, at Dover the single pier affords no adequate shelter during on shore gales; the entrance to the harbour and the anchorage are entirely unprotected. On the French coast, at the nearest point to our own, nature has provided great facilities for the construction of a deep water harbour, but local interests have hitherto prevailed over national interests, and nothing effective has yet been done, nor is there much promise in the immediate future. The entrance to Calais harbour is, if anything, in a worse condition than it was in past years, and the problem of forming a deep water harbour at Boulogne, on an extensive range of sandy foreshore, by enclosing a large space with backwater, remains to be solved.” The large scheme now being carried out by the Government will far more than embody the proposals of 1870, as regards improving and sheltering the harbour.



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