SS Agamemnon (1865)

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StateLibQld 1 133053 Agamemnon (ship)
SS Agamemnon
Name: Agamemnon (1865)Civil Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg
Owner: Blue Funnel Line
Route: Liverpool to China and the Far East
Builder: Scotts of Greenock, Scotland
Yard number: 116
Launched: 6 October 1865
Fate: broken up 1898
General characteristics
Type: cargo and passenger steamer
Tonnage: 2270 Gross Registered Tonnage
1550 Net Registered Tonnage
Length: 309.3feet
Beam: 38.8 feet
Depth: 20.6 feet
Installed power: 300 hp
Propulsion: Compound steam engine, single screw
Auxiliary sail, barque rig
Speed: 10 knots

SS Agamemnon was one of the first successful long-distance merchant steamships. She was built in 1865 for the China trade and competed with Tea Clippers before and after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. She brought together three improvements in steamship design: higher boiler pressure, an efficient and compact compound engine, and a hull form with modest power requirements.

Before Agamemnon, steamships were not a practical commercial option for trade between Britain and the Far East. The amount of coal that they needed to carry left little space for cargo. Agamemnon could steam at 10 knots, consuming only 20 tons of coal a day. This fuel consumption was substantially less than other ships of the time - a saving of between 23 and 14 tons per day was achieved.[1] This enabled her to steam to China. with a coaling stop at Mauritius on the outward and return journey.

Construction and Performance[edit]

SS Agamemnon was one of three sister ships, the others being Ajax (1867) and Achilles (1866). They were built of iron in Greenock for the Blue Funnel Line, run by Alfred and Phillip Holt. They were all of 2,270 tons gross and 1,550 net register tonnage. Overall length was 309 feet and beam 38 feet.[2]

Agamemnon (and her sister ships) combined three important features.

The first was a higher boiler pressure than was normally used on British merchant ships. Alfred Holt had experimented with a boiler pressure of 60psi in the Cleator, a ship he used as a floating test bed. Holt overcame the Board of Trade's objections to boiler pressures above 25psi in seagoing vessels.

The second feature was the compound steam engine that she had, designed by Alfred Holt. As well as being more efficient than others of the time, this was a relatively compact engine, so used less valuable cargo space.

The third was a hull that was strong in relation to its weight and cost and with modest power requirements - again developed by Alfred Holt.[1]

The fuel efficiency achieved allowed her to compete successfully with Tea Clippers in the China trade. She could steam from London to Mauritius, a distance of 8,500 miles (roughly half the distance to China via the Cape of Good Hope) without coaling and could achieve a speed of 10 knots. The fuel consumption was 20 tons of coal a day. This was a saving of between 14 and 23 tons per day, when compared to contemporary steamships.[1]

Her normal journey time from China (Foochow) to Liverpool was 58 days[3][2] - which compares with Clippers which could take anything from a record-breaking 88 days to 140 or more - averaging 123 days in 1867-68.[4] Furthermore, her cargo carrying capacity was 2 or 3 times as much as these sailing ships.[2]

Maiden Voyage[edit]

The newly built Agamemnon arrived in Liverpool from Greenock on 1st April 1866. She sailed for China on the 19th.[5] Her outward passage was the quickest recorded to date. She reached Mauritius in 40 days, and Singapore in 60 days. The whole journey from Liverpool to Hong Kong took 65 days.[6] This compares with the fastest Tea Clipper outward passage of 77 days by the Cairngorm in 1853.

This happened to be the year of the Great Tea Race.

Later Voyages[edit]

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 guaranteed the success of the Agamemnon and her sister ships, by shortening the route that a steamship could take from Europe to China - whilst sailing vessels still had to travel via the Cape of Good Hope. In a few years, the predominance of Tea Clippers in the China trade had ceased. Competitors of the Blue Funnel line built similar ships and the nature of long distance maritime trade had taken a major technological change.


The Agamemnon was owned by the Blue Funnel Line, run by Alfred and Phillip Holt. In 1897 she was transferred to a sister company. She was scrapped in 1899.

  1. ^ a b c Jarvis, Adrian (1993). "Chapter 9: Alfred Holt and the Compound Engine". In Gardiner, Robert; Greenhill, Dr. Basil. The Advent of Steam - The Merchant Steamship before 1900. Conway Maritime Press Ltd. pp. 158–159. ISBN 0-85177-563-2. 
  2. ^ a b c National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK,
  3. ^ <Clark, Arthur H. (1911). The Clipper Ship Era 1843-1869. New York: G.P. Putnam Sons. 
  4. ^ MacGregor, David R. (1983). The Tea Clippers, Their History and Development 1833-1875. Conway Maritime Press Limited. ISBN 0 85177 256 0. 
  5. ^ "Shipping Intelligence", 21st April 1866, Liverpool Daily Post pg 8, column 4
  6. ^ "The Great Ocean Race from China", 25th August 1866, Liverpool Daily Post pg 5, column 1