SS President

SS President was a British passenger liner that was the largest ship in the world when she was commissioned in 1840,[1][2] 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 1841.[3] The ship's owner, the British and American Steam Navigation Company, collapsed as a result of the disappearance.[1]

SS President
Owner: British and American Steam Navigation Company
Port of registry: United Kingdom
Route: Atlantic crossing
Builder: London, Curling & Young
Maiden voyage: 1 August 1840
Out of service: March 1841
Fate: March 1841, lost with all aboard under unknown circumstances
General characteristics
Tonnage: 2,350 GT
Length: 243 ft (74 m)
Beam: 41 ft (12 m)
Sail plan: 3 masts

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’s Britannia 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 underpowered 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.[1]

On 11 March 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.[1] Her disappearance was major news for several months and even Queen Victoria followed the story.[4]

Development and design

British and American recognized from the beginning that frequent sailings were required and that the line needed a fleet of steamers for its new transatlantic service. As soon as the line’s first unit, British Queen was delivered, British and American ordered the President. The plan was that by 1840, either President or British Queen was to depart each month for New York.[1]

As designed by Macgregor Laird, President was 500 GRT larger than British Queen, then the largest ship. 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.[4]

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.[4]

Relative to her size, President was significantly less powerful than her rivals. As a result, her 1840 voyage 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 .[1]

Service history

President’s maiden voyage in August 1840 lasted 16.5 days and averaged only 8.4 knots (15.6 km/h)[1] as compared to the then record of 9.52 knots (17.63 km/h) posted by Great Western.[5] President left the Mersey with few passengers because both Great Western and Cunard’s Acadia sailed the previous week.[4] Her return trip also averaged only 8.4 knots (15.6 km/h)[1] as compared to Great Western’s eastbound record of 10.17 knots (18.83 km/h).[5] President’s captain was blamed for the poor performance and replaced. However, her times were no better on her second round trip. Leaving New York City, President was only able to complete 300 miles in four days and returned to the Hudson to refuel. Upon arrival in Liverpool, her December voyage was cancelled and she was refitted. Again her captain was replaced.[1]

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 11 March 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.[6] 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.[4]


  1. Gibbs, Charles Robert Vernon (1957). Passenger Liners of the Western Ocean: A Record of Atlantic Steam and Motor Passenger Vessels from 1838 to the Present Day. John De Graff. pp. 37–41.
  2. Roland, Alex; Bolster, W. Jeffrey; Keyssar, Alexander (2008). The way of the ship: America's maritime history reenvisioned, 1600-2000. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 9780470136003. Retrieved 27 December 2009.
  3. Robinson, Robb (January 2009). "The Cookman Story: Reform in Hull and the United States" (PDF). FAR HORIZONS – to the ends of the Earth. Maritime Historical Studies Centre, University of Hull. Retrieved 27 December 2009. In March 1841 the liner, SS President, then reputedly the largest steamship in the world, disappeared without trace in the vast tracts of the still wintry Atlantic, sometime after leaving New York en route for Liverpool. The SS President was the first steamship to founder on the transatlantic run and there was universal lamentation for the 136 crew and passengers.
  4. Fox, Stephen (2004). Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel and the Great Atlantic Steamships. Harper Collins. ISBN 0-06-095549-X.
  5. Kludas, Arnold (2002). Record breakers of the North Atlantic, Blue Riband Liners 1838-1953. London: Chatham. ISBN 1-57488-458-1.
  6. Northern Mariner Volume 15 (2005) pg 65 (Canadian Nauatical Research Society)

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