Home » Human Life » The Strange Story of the Cigar Ship on the Isle of Dogs – 1866

The Strange Story of the Cigar Ship on the Isle of Dogs – 1866

Ross Winans -William Foster 1866 (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

The Isle of Dogs was known for its shipyards in the 19th century and hundreds of ships were launched, however one of the most remarkable was the Ross Winans launched from the Messrs. Hepworth’s yard in the Isle of Dogs. It was the fourth ship of a revolutionary design that resembled a cigar, hence they became known as Cigar Ships. The ships were designed and built for the Winans family, a very wealthy family from Baltimore in the USA. The first Cigar ship called Winans was launched in Baltimore in 1858, followed by the second launched in St. Petersburg and a third built and launched in Le Havre.


First Cigar Ship (Baltimore 1858)

There was great interest in the design, however the Winans were often ridiculed by the press for wasting their money on the ships. An article by the Engineer magazine in 1866 gives us more details.

On Monday afternoon at four o’clock Mr. Winans’ yacht, better known as the ” cigar ship,” was launched privately from Messrs. Hepworth’s yard in the Isle of Dogs. Sometime must elapse ere she is ready for sea, and meanwhile we propose to lay before our readers a fuller and more accurate account of this remarkable vessel than has yet appeared in print.
A ” cigar ship ” is no longer a new thing under the sun. Three have been actually constructed, and launched, and tested, while a fourth,the subject of the present article is approaching completion as we write. Therefore, we shall not assume that engineers are ignorant of the popularly received notions regarding the principles which these vessels are intended to embody, nor that they are utter strangers to their history and general construction.


The Ross Winans being launched at Messrs. Hepworth’s yard in the Isle of Dogs.

The Engineer had been given permission to inspect the ship and was generally quite enthusiastic about the design.

Messrs. Winans’ last yacht, to which we have now fairly come. This vessel was commenced nearly two years since by Mr. Hepworth of the Isle of Dogs. After she had made some progress, however, Messrs. Winans deemed it best to complete her themselves, and for that purpose they made the necessary arrangements with Mr. Hepworth for the use of his yard and plant. Nothing can so effectually dispel preconceived notions regarding Messrs. Winans’ theory as the actual inspection of this vessel. Every facility for this purpose has been courteously placed at our disposal by her builders, and we have been through her, as she lay on the stocks, from end to end.

The Winans yacht is as strong, perhaps, as it is possible to make a vessel;before we have done, our readers will have an opportunity of judging of the merits of the precautions taken to avoid risk of foundering; and her saloons and state rooms exceed in comfort those of any ship of her displacement (500 tons) whose decks we have ever trod.

The Ross Winans was 256 feet long with a 16-foot diameter, it had superstructure on top of the the hull which was 130 feet long and ten feet wide. The ship  was powered by a 22-foot diameter propeller at each end.

For all of its revolutionary design, the ships did not seem to have any real practical use, they were too small for carrying lots of passengers and had not proved they could travel long distances. In fact, the third ship the Walter S. Winans was towed from Le Havre to West India Docks. The Winans would sometimes take the Ross Winans to the Isle of Wight but other than the novelty value were generally ignored. Eventually, in the late nineteenth century, the Ross Winans and Walter S. Winans were moored near Southampton for many years before they were sold for scrap. This was a sad end to ships that to the modern reader resembles submarines and it is surprising that the Winans did not pursue that line of development. It has been reported that the ‘cigar ships’ inspired  Jules Verne in his creation of the submarine Nautilus in his novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea but there is no evidence to support this claim.


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