Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

‘SS Royal William,’ First Ocean-Going Steamship Built in Canada

Constructed in 1831 at Quebec City, Royal William‘s steam engines powered paddle wheels. The vessel plied the St. Lawrence River and the Atlantic Ocean.

Royal William paddle wheeler

Royal William paddle wheeler

Churning through the brisk waters of the St. Lawrence River and later the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, the Royal William was an impressive vessel, using only her steam engines to propel her large paddle wheels. The masts, rigging and sails were part of the ship’s construction, but were not used as the Royal William’s main source of power.

Ship Draftsman James Goudie

Built at Quebec City, the Royal William was designed by 21-year-old James Goudie. A Scotsman already experienced in shipbuilding at his young age, Goudie drafted a ship design “at the time a novelty in construction,” said The Ships List in “Royal William of 1833.” Before building got underway, the youthful professional made changes to his plan by expanding “the draft to its full dimensions on the floor of the loft, where I made several alterations to the lines as improvements.” The keel was begun in the fall of 1830 by shipbuilders John Saxton Campbell and George Black, and the ship completed in the next spring.

The deck measuring 176 feet, the hull of the Royal William was 146 feet in length. The paddle wheels were broad at 43 feet 10 inches across; the “builder’s measurement, 1370 tons; steamboat measurement, as per Act of Parliament, 830 tons,” noted The Ships List. The steam engines were built and installed aboard the vessel in Montreal, and were fuelled by coal. The steamship was launched to great fanfare on April 29, 1831 at Cape Cove, Quebec. The harbour was decorated in festive bunting and thriving with crowds and music. Lady Aylmer, the wife of Governor-General Lord Aylmer, officially christened the ship “Royal William.”

Royal William Fostered Intercolonial Trade

Royal William steamed often between Quebec City and Halifax in 1831, and the next year made her first trip to Massachusetts. “When she visited Boston on 17th June, 1832, the Royal William was the first seagoing steamer to fly the British flag in a United States port,” said “Royal William, 1833-1933” in the Canadian Postal Archives Database of Library and Archives Canada. “In addition, it was the first steamship built for fostering intercolonial trade between ports in British North America.”

On one occasion in Halifax, the Royal William was observed by Samuel Cunard, later the founder of the renowned shipping company, Cunard Steamships Limited. Cunard was intrigued by the innovative steam-powered design. Recognizing the future significance of such type of power, Cunard became an investor in the Royal William. Unfortunately, the cholera epidemic of the mid-1830s caused great financial harm to the boat’s owners, as the vessel could no longer visit ports with travellers for fear of spreading the dreaded disease. Subjected to economic losses, the Royal William had to be sold.

Nova Scotia to England in 25 Days

SS Royal William anniversary postage

SS Royal William anniversary postage

Steaming from Pictou, Nova Scotia to England in August 1833, the Royal William made the transatlantic trip in only 25 days under the command of Captain John McDougall. “Eventually Spanish interests purchased the ship,” said Canadian Postal Archives Database, “but it came to an inglorious end at Bordeaux, France, in 1840, when her engines were removed.”

Although she was the first ocean-going steamship built in Canada in 1831, the Royal William was not the first steamer constructed in the country. Built to ply the Great Lakes, The Frontenac was the first passenger steamship made at the village of Bath at Upper Canada in 1816.

The construction of the SS Royal William provided an auspicious beginning to Canadian ocean-going shipbuilding, the first of many grand historical moments. Commemorated in 1933 on its centennial anniversary, the Royal William was featured on a five-cent postage stamp by Canada Post Corporation.


This article first appeared on in 2011.  Copyright Susanna McLeod

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