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11 April 2022

This leaping Labrador carved out of wood was the figurehead of the famous paddle-steamer SS Sirius, appropriately named for the Dog Star which had aided sailors in navigation since antiquity.

Sirius, built in 1837 by the St. George Steam Packet Company, was one of the first vessels to complete a transatlantic crossing under steam power (Savannah and Royal William crossed earlier, but both were slower and relied on their sails for large sections of the voyage), completing her 1838 journey from Cork to New York in just 19 days, a record at the time and a far cry from the standard 40-day sail packet trip!

It was a prestigious achievement – Sirius made port only four hours before her rival, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s purpose-built transatlantic steamship SS Great Western, which set out from Avonmouth too late to catch up in spite of being a larger and faster vessel.

The race drew the attention of people the world over, and even influenced 19th century fiction – sensationalist stories of the crew burning furniture and spare parts to keep the engines running when their coal stores were dwindling directly inspired a very similar scene in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days (although in fact Sirius was deliberately overstocked with coal, and made it to New York with 15 tonnes to spare, only burning a few barrels of resin to supplement it).

It is astounding that a ship like the Sirius, built for short trips between British and Irish ports and certainly too small for regular Atlantic service, was able to make the crossing so quickly, and it is a testament to her surprising capability that the St. George Company later attempted – albeit without success – to have her serve on the Cork to Halifax mail route.

Sirius from the Hull Maritime Museum collection

Sirius arrived in Hull in November 1840 to be fitted with new boilers, a job that was due to be undertaken by Hull ironfounders T.&W. Pim and shipbuilder W. Gibson. The work would take place in Gibson’s Dry Dock in the North Bridge yard.

Unfortunately, the dry dock wasn’t actually large enough to accommodate a 57 foot long vessel – it had to be specially lengthened before the refitting could take place, and the ship had to remain in Hull for over two years! By the time it re-entered service, the struggling St. George Company had been refinanced and renamed to the City of Cork Steam Ship Company, which put Sirius to use closer to home.

In 1847, once more relegated to cruising the Irish Sea as she had originally been designed to do, Sirius met her end on a Glasgow to Cork voyage in heavy fog. Striking rocks in Ballycotton Bay, she sustained heavy damage, and a second collision only half a mile later finally finished her off.

Of the 91 on board, both passengers and crew, nineteen lives were lost. The rest were dragged by ropes to the shore, and the wreck prompted the construction of Ballycotton lighthouse in 1851.

Divers went down in 1904 to salvage what they could – which fortunately included our furry friend, who was subsequently donated by Alderman Thompson to Hull Museums and now stands proudly in the Maritime Museum. While the SS Sirius wasn’t the biggest nor technically the fastest of the early transatlantic steamers, like its celestial namesake this plucky little ship shone a little brighter than the rest, with its canine figurehead leading the way.