From Scotland to Mesopotamia and Pakistan: The story of a veteran paddle steamer

Tim Wilsey is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King's College, London and an Assistant Editor of Victorian Web. He is a former British diplomat who served in Pakistan.

Dera Ismail Khan (known locally as DIK) is a hot dusty Pakistani town close to the wild and dangerous tribal areas of the Afghan border. It is a sleepy and tranquil place, made all the more attractive by the wide Indus River flowing almost due south from the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea near Karachi. When I last visited, back in 1994, there was an old paddle steamer moored by the bank. She was called the Jhelum with her name stencilled on her paddle boxes in red letters. She had a tall funnel at her bow and paddles at the stern; making her "a sternwheeler" or more correctly, in her case, "a quarter wheeler". She was built in Glasgow in 1917 and I calculated that she was about 150 feet long with wide spacious decks and small cabins fore and aft. For her age she was in remarkable condition although large areas of the upper deck planking were missing. According to my Pakistan handbook by Isobel Shaw (page 302) she had served at Basra in Iraq during the First World War.

Twenty years later I dug out my photographs and turned to Lieutenant Colonel L. J. Hall's fascinating record, The Inland Water Transport in Mesopotamia, the story of how the British built up a huge river fleet as a means of winning the war against the Turks in what is now Iraq. In November 1914 near the start of the war there were only three operational paddle steamers on the Tigris. The Army immediately telegraphed to India and England to send extra vessels urgently. Initially some were sent from India, Burma (by the Irrawaddy Flotilla), the Malay States and the Nile, but later the vast majority were built new on the Clyde. They were either towed out from the UK or shipped to Bombay or Basra for reassembly.

The key requirements for operations on the Tigris (and later on the Euphrates) were a shallow draft because of the constant danger of running aground and incurring damage on the numerous sandbanks; strength for towing barges full of stores and troops; power to compete against the strong river currents; and large capacities for both fuel and cargo.

The Inland Water Transport (IWT) in Mesopotamia run by the Royal Engineers became a massive venture eventually comprising 1,634 vessels and nearly 50,000 men of all nationalities including men from the West India Regiment, the Nigerian Marine, the Mauritius Labour Battalion, the Egyptian Labour Corps and the so-called "Coloured Section" of the Royal Engineers. The IWT was later credited with having been critical to the eventual success of the campaign and the capture of Baghdad.

Towards the end of Hall's book (in the plates after page 214) is a photograph of S47, which is clearly identical to the vessel in DIK. The caption provides a few more details. She was 150 feet long with a breadth of 34'10" and a draft of just over 4 feet. She could carry 46 tons of fuel, 100 tons of cargo and 150 troops. Eleven of the S40 class were built.

S47 - The Inland Water Transport in Mesopotamia
Photograph of S47, The Inland Water Transport in Mesopotamia, from archive.org
(Click for a larger view.)

Hall says of the S40 class of quarterwheeler "The difficulty of getting a suitable vessel to meet all conditions was at once recognised by [a] Commission which came out in July 1916, and the result of their representations to the War Office was the arrival, in due course, of the S40 and HS13 Classes of quarter wheelers. These vessels were modifications of the quarter wheelers of Richard Lander type in use on the River Niger, and were designed by Colonel Ratsey. They are of strong build, light draft, have high-power simple machinery, carry a large supply of oil fuel, a fair amount of cargo, and accommodate a considerable number of troops. The S40 Class, which may properly be called "tugs," have fixed floats on their paddles, which though it detracts about 10 per cent from their speed, considerably reduces their repair bills as there are no bushes to renew. The upper deck of this class of vessel is "Tumbled Home" [inset] 1 foot 9 inches each side, thus obviating damage to upper works by contact with barges." (p 211).

I then turned to the Clydesite website which provides details of the ships built in the Glasgow area. On this site I was able to identify nine of the S40 class. Four of them (S44, 45, 46 and 47) were built by the Ailsa Shipbuilding Company which had yards at Ayr and Troon. S48, 49 and 50 were constructed by Bow McLachlan and Co of Paisley whilst S51 and 52 were made by George Brown and Company of Greenock. Checking each of the vessels individually I found that S46 was built for service in Mesopotamia but "reported sold [in the] 1920s and operating as Jhelum in 1949". All the details closely matched those mentioned by Hall but there was some useful additional detail. Her engines were made by Rankin & Blackmore, of Greenock and developed 63 nominal horsepower (nhp).

Once the war was over several of the IWT vessels including 9 paddle steamers were sent to Russia to take part in operations against the Bolshevik government. However no sternwheelers were selected. S44 and S45 were sold in Bombay in 1923. S48, 49 and 50 had been built slightly later (in 1918) and were duly diverted to Egypt for service on the Nile. S50 was "disposed of" according to Hall. S51 was working for the North West Railway, Karachi in 1919. S52, by then known as the Kalgah was destroyed by fire 40 miles below Ahwaz, on the Karun River in Persia (Iran) in September 1942 after having been operated by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company since 1924.

S47 remained in Iraq. In 1924 she was renamed Ihsan and operated by the Euphrates & Tigris Steam Navigation Company and in 1951 by Hanna Shaikh River Transport Company of Basra. In 1955 S47 was deleted from the Lloyds Register. Hanna Shaikh still operates today. According to their website "In World War 1, the British Armed Forces invaded Iraq and contracted with the Hanna-Sheikhs to provide them food, provisions and services. Present day Iraq emerged in 1923 and the Hanna-Sheikhs became the biggest employer in Iraq after the government. In 1927, a marine company was created and since then HSG had grown this company to be one of the biggest in the Arab World". Their website shows a picture of HS10, one of three hospital ships (with HS11 and HS12) based on a similar design as the S40 class and built by Yarrow of Scotstoun.

So how did S46, Jhelum come to be moored at DIK as late as 1994? We cannot know for certain but can make some educated guesses. She either went to Karachi with S51 or to Bombay with S44 and S45 at the end of the war. A number of paddle steamers from Mesopotamia were auctioned in Bombay in the early 1920s. In 1923 it was decided to build the world's biggest irrigation project at Sukkur some 300 miles north of Karachi, constructing a barrage on the Indus River and seven canals to provide for the agriculture of the Punjab and Baluchistan. The building of the Lloyd Barrage (as it would be known) was an enormous venture which was eventually completed in 1932. The 1923 requirements stipulated a fleet of 2 dredgers, 5 steamers, 6 motor boats, 85 barges and pontoons needed to ferry building supplies, equipment and workers to and from the site. Once the barrage was completed

Jhelum would have been marooned on its northern side. Downstream of the barrage Hyderabad and Karachi the river became increasingly short of water and the Indus nowadays barely even reaches the sea, except when flooding requires the sluices to be opened to disgorge large quantities of water downstream. Furthermore there are no locks at Sukkur (not even a fish-ladder) and so Jhelum was now trapped in British India (and, after 1947, in Pakistan) forever.

According to Jean Fairley in The Lion River, Jhelum operated for some years at Kalabagh until the rail bridge was completed in 1931. There was certainly a steam ferry operating across the river linking the two sections of railway line. Here passengers would change from the main line from Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi or Attock onto the narrow gauge railway to Bannu and Tank. Sometimes freight wagons were transported across the Indus on barges with the paddle steamers providing the power.

The bow of the Jhelum
The bow of the Jhelum at Dera Ismail Khan
(Click for a larger view.)
The stern of the Jhelum
The stern of the Jhelum at Dera Ismail Khan
(Click for a larger view.)
Aboard the Jhelum
Aboard the Jhelum at Dera Ismail Khan
(Click for a larger view.)

In addition to the Jhelum a second old paddle steamer (a sternwheeler with two funnels) shared the task at Kalabagh. What appears to be its wreck can now be seen on the banks of the Indus at Mithan Kot. This must have been the old British steamer which Isobel Shaw describes on page 151 of her Pakistan handbook. It now shares its last resting place with the Indus Queen, a rather fine-looking, vessel which apparently once belonged to the Nawab of Bahawalpur and was later used to ferry pilgrims across the Indus from Mithan Kot to Chachraan Sharif. Isobel Shaw (p 152) saw her berthed near the Ghazighat Bridge between Dera Ghazi Kan and Multan and Salman Rashid tells us more about the Indus Queen's story in his article FerryTale.

When the Jinnah Barrage was completed to the south of Kalabagh in 1946 the Jhelum had to move even further south. When the previous DIK ferry had to be scrapped the Jhelum acquired her final task. Some years after my 1994 visit she broke her moorings in a storm and was wrecked.

Ayub and Lansdowne bridges at Sukkur
The Ayub and Lansdowne bridges at Sukkur
(Click for a larger view.)
Plaque at the Lloyd barrage
Plaque at the Lloyd barrage
(Click for a larger view.)

Further reading

Material provided by Tim Willasey-Wilsey, Copyright © 2015
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