The Swinging Cabin of SS Bessemer

Apr 9, 2024 0 comments

English inventor Sir Henry Bessemer, renowned for his groundbreaking steel manufacturing process that still bears his name, once lamented, “Few persons have suffered more severely than I have from sea sickness.” Despite being one of the foremost inventors of the Second Industrial Revolution, Bessemer's brilliance was not immune to personal trials. With over a hundred inventions in iron, steel, and glass to his name, most of which saw success, his endeavor to create a ship to alleviate his chronic seasickness, however, ended in failure.

After a particularly harrowing journey from Calais to Dover in 1868, during which time Bessemer was virtually incapacitated by seasickness, the inventor resolved to build a ship where the passenger cabin would remain unaffected by the vessel's rolling and pitching at sea. In order to achieve this, Bessemer devised a pioneering solution: suspending the cabin, dubbed the Saloon, on gimbals and mechanically maintaining its horizontal position using an intricate system of hydraulic cylinders. However, unlike modern stabilization systems equipped with automatic feedback mechanisms, Bessemer's design relied on a steersman to manually control the hydraulics while monitoring a spirit level.

After conducting successful trials with a scale model at Denmark Hill, Bessemer established the Bessemer Saloon Ship Company, a limited joint stock company tasked with operating steamships between England and France. Securing £250,000 in capital, the company financed the construction of the SS Bessemer, enlisting the renowned naval constructor Edward James Reed as its chief designer.

The steamship Bessemer measured 350 feet in length and 40 feet in width at the deck, with propulsion provided by two pairs of paddle wheels. Its internal Saloon, a spacious chamber stretching 70 feet in length, 30 feet in width, and with a ceiling soaring 20 feet high from the floor, was a testament to opulence. Adorned with Morocco-covered seats, ornate divisions, spiral columns of carved oak, and gilt-molded panels featuring hand-painted murals, the Saloon exuded luxury, offering passengers a taste of elegance for their Channel passage. Regrettably, Bessemer's ambitious vision remained unrealized.

Misfortune shadowed the ship from its inception. Shortly after its launch, a fierce gale drove the vessel ashore at Hull, necessitating a challenging refloating effort. In April 1875, during a private trial voyage from Dover to Calais, the ship collided with the pier upon arrival, resulting in damage to one of its paddle wheels. Despite these setbacks, the ship embarked on its first and only public voyage in May 1875. However, the famed swinging saloon, a key feature of the vessel, remained locked due to incomplete machinery. Upon reaching Calais, the ship once again collided with the pier, compounding its troubles.

The second catastrophe at Calais marked the final blow for the Bessemer Saloon Steamboat Company, shattering its credibility beyond repair. Disillusioned investors withdrew their support, precipitating the company's demise and eventual winding-up in 1876.

Following another grounding incident on the Burcom Sand in the Humber, upstream of Grimsby, Lincolnshire, the SS Bessemer was sold off for scrap, but not before its designer, Reed, orchestrated the removal of the Saloon cabin. This luxurious space found a new home at Reed's residence in Swanley, where it underwent a transformation into a billiard room. Later, when Reed's home became the Swanley Horticultural College, the Saloon found a new purpose as a lecture hall. However, tragedy struck during the tumult of World War II when the college suffered a direct hit during a bombing raid, resulting in the complete destruction of the once-grand Saloon cabin.

# Sir Henry Bessemer, F.R.S. An Autobiography


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