SS President was a British passenger liner that was the largest ship in the world when she was commissioned in 1840,and the first steamship to founder on the transatlantic run when she was lost at sea with all 136 on board in March 1841. She was the largest passenger ship in the world from 1840 to 1845. The ship's owner, the British and American Steam Navigation Company, collapsed as a result of the disappearance.
President was the second liner owned by British and American and was noted for her luxurious interiors. Designed by Macgregor Laird and built by Curling and Young of London, she was fitted for 154 passengers. President was over 25% larger than the British Queen, the previous holder of the size record, and over twice the size of Cunard’sBritannia Class, the first three of which were also commissioned in 1840. This was accomplished by adding a third deck to the design of the British Queen. As a result, President was top heavy. She was also under powered and had the slowest passage times of any transatlantic steamer up to that point. To avoid litigation, changes were made to her paddle wheels after her second round trip that further complicated her lack of power, especially in rough weather.
On March 11, 1841, President cleared New York bound for Liverpool on her third eastbound voyage. She was overloaded with cargo to compensate for her roll.President was last seen the next day struggling in a gale. Her disappearance was major news for several months and even Queen Victoria followed the story
Her opulent interiors were in sharp contrast to the sparse accommodations of Cunard’s fleet. Great American wanted passengers to feel they were in a luxury hotel rather than at sea. The saloon measured 80 feet by 34 feet and was in Tudor Gothic style. The corridor aft to the regular staterooms was a picture gallery, with ten oil paintings depicting scenes about Christopher Columbus. The regular staterooms could accommodate 110 passengers and another 44 forward in Servants cabins. The two berth regular cabins were seven feet by seven feet. Her exterior decoration included a figurehead of George Washington.
President’s wooden hull was subdivided into watertight compartments. However, it was not as robust as Great Western or the new Cunard vessels just entering service. After just two round trip voyages, she required refit after stormy seas weakened and twisted her hull. President was top heavy and rolled excessively because she was constructed with a third deck on top of a hull with almost the same waterline dimensions as British Queen.
Relative to her size, President was significantly less powerful than her rivals. As a result, her 1840 times were disappointing. This problem was compounded in 1841 when President’s paddle wheels were modified with non-feathering paddles. Tests in 1830 demonstrated that feathering paddles improved speed by 25% in smooth water and over 50% in rough seas. British American failed to secure the rights to use the patented design and removed the feathering paddles before President left on her first 1841 voyage in order to avoid litigation.
Departing Liverpool in February, under Captain Richard Roberts, President’s third westbound voyage to New York lasted 21 days. She sailed for her return voyage on March 11, 1841 with 136 passengers and crew along with an extensive cargo manifest. President encountered a gale and was seen on her second day out laboring in heavy seas in the dangerous area between Nantucket Shoals and Georges Bank. She was not seen again. Among the passengers was the Rev. George Grimston Cookman, who had served as Chaplain of the Senate, and the popular Irish comic actor Tyrone Power, who was the great-grandfather of the film star of the same name. The late ship deathwatch stretched out for months. Queen Victoria asked that a special messenger be sent to her if there was news about the ship.
The President shared some similarities with the Waratah. She was based on the British Queen, but supporting an additional deck. History repeated itself when Waratah was based on the Geelong, again with an additional deck. Both vessels were essentially top heavy, which required overloading to compensate for the tender rolling pattern. The President exhibited evidence of hull strain and my contention is that Waratah's hull suffered similarly excessive forces. The President was underpowered and so was the Waratah relative to other similarly sized vessels of the time - 5500 ihp compared to 8000 ihp and greater.
The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser, Wednesday 27 October, 1841.
THE PRESIDENT STEAMER.
The New York papers received by the ' George
Washington,' contain the particulars of a long
investigation into the fate of this unfortunate
vessel, instituted by Mr. Buchanan, the British
Consul for the port of New York. He convened
a meeting at the office of his consulate,
for the purpose of inquiring into the condition
of this steam-ship when she put to sea last from
New York, what cargo she had, how her coal was
stowed, whether there was any deficiency of spare
yards, &c., whether or not she was logged or
strained by previous storms, and every articular
connected with her.
The meeting was attended by Jacob Walton,
Rear Admiral of the White, George
Barclay, Esq., the agent for Lloyd's in the port
of New York; Thomas W. Moore, Esq., Her
Majesty's packet agent, Mr. Henry Smith, of
the firm of Wadsworth and Smith. the agents for
the steam-ships President and British Queen;
Captain Benjamin Waite, of the packet-ship
England; Captain Cole, of the packet-ship
Orpheus; Captain Bell; and several other gentle
men eminent for experience in nautical matters.
The pilot who took the President to sea, Mr.
Lockman, one of the New York pilots, was not
present; but a person was there to represent and
speak for him. The meeting was organized by
calling Rear-Admiral Walton to the chair, and
appointing George Barclay, Esp., secretary.
The gentleman who appeared for Mr. Lockman,
the pilot, said that when the pilot left the
President, Captain Roberts felt satisfied of making
a quick passage; that his vessel was in good
order; he had abundance of fuel, &c.; and that,
with regard to her trim, she was only about one
and a half inches by the head. Captain Cole, of
the ship ' Orpheus,' stated, that he left New York
In company with the steam ship ' President,' on
the 11th of March last, and that he was in sight
of her until about sundown on the evening of the
12th. The captain farther stated, that when he
last saw the President rising on the top of a
tremendous sea, she appeared to. be pitching
heavily, and labouring tremendously. She was
then situated in that dangerous part of the Atlantic Ocean,
about midway between the Nantucket
Shoal, and the Saint George's Bank. just where
the Gulf Stream strikes soundings, and where the
waves rise straight up and down as high as a four or
five storey house; that the President then must have
been shipping seas heavily and fast; that, probably
these large bodies of water worked through into the engine
room or fire-room, and extinguished the fires, in which
case the steamer would have been comparatively
helpless; that the storm was terrific all that
night; that next morning the wind lifted
suddenly from N. E. to S. E. knocking up a
still more tremendous sea, and that the gale
continued with unabated fury till midnight of the
13th; and that it is his belief, that the President
did not survive that gale, but foundered with all
on board and that all perished before sundown on
the 13th, or in less than twenty-four hours after
he last saw her, and, most probably, in the
terrific night of the 12th of March.
In this opinion Captain Waite and the other
nautical gentlemen seamed to coincide.
After this the meeting broke up, and the following
statements was drawn up for publication by
the gentlemen whose names are here-unto attached.
STEAM PACKET SS PRESIDENT.
British Consulate, New York
11th June 1841.
That there was no coal on deck, and that the
ship was in proper trim, drawing 17 feet 9 inches
abaft, and 17 feet 6 inches forward.
That she was not fully loaded, having spare
room for about four hundred barrels.
That the statement of deficiency of sails and
spare has been satisfactorily rejected by the letter
of Julius Smith, Esq,, of London, which has
That when last seen by Captain Cole, of the
Orpheus, was during the storm on the
12th March. between Nantucket Shoals and
George's Bank, at which time the ship Orpheus
who labouring heavily, and shipping large quantities
of water on her deck.
Rear-Admiral of the White
It is interesting that coal on deck was also identified as a possibly weak link in the stability of the President, with her additional deck. Overloading was denied (or ignored in the case of the Waratah) and I am sure that the Inquiry had difficulties establishing the full extent of the cargo manifest. The issue is not whether there was room for additional barrels but rather the density of loading in terms of cubic feet to the ton. Both the President and Waratah had to be functionally overloaded in order to establish GM stability. Waratah was also relatively underpowered compared to equivalent steamers and I shall return to a more detailed comparison in due course.