Updated: 20 May 07



History of the Communication by the Isthmus of Suez

Beginning of the Age of Steam Navigation

The Honourable East India Company and Far East Trade

Rise of the Peninsular and Oriental (P&O) Steam Navigation Company

Thomas Waghorn's Naval Career

Origins of Waghorn's Idea for Reducing the Transit Time for Mails to India

Waghorn Promotes Steam Communication

Waghorn's Overland Route

Mails Across Egypt

Waghorn After Egypt

Egyptian Railway

The Suez Canal

Waghorn's Place in History


Origins of this material


"I write to inform you, and other business men having relations with India, that I am leaving England the 5th and Falmouth the 8th of February, by the Postal Steamer for Malta. On arriving there I shall leave Alexandria, thence by land to Suez, thence down the Red Sea and hope to arrive at Bombay seventy days after leaving England. On this occasion I shall take charge of any letters given me at five shillings each. I shall be happy to accept all letters which your company or your friends wish to send by this rapid route. I shall return to England in November and in all probability I shall travel this route each year in February so that once a year you can count on rapid communication with India, on condition, however, that a postal steamer service is not established."

So reads a circular dated, January 8, 1835 issued by Thomas Waghorn, the exponent of rapid and efficient mail service between England and its Far Eastern Territories. Before Waghorn, the customary flow of mail, traveller and goods between India and England was by way of the Cape of Good Hope. Waghorn developed a route through the Red Sea, Egypt, the Mediterranean and Europe which shortened the journey by over 5,000 miles and cut months off the journey.

Ferdinand Marie Vicomte de Lesseps
(Nov. 19, 1805–Dec. 7, 1894)

Baron de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, nearly twenty years after Waghorn's death, said of him in a speech at a Paris celebration of the completion of his canal:

"He it was who first conceived the idea; it was his indomitable courage and great perseverance, which led him on to prove its practicability ... but he was in advance of his age, and the very plans that were scoffed at when first mooted were those which, in my position as engineer of the works, have enabled me to carry them through."

This was the influence of a down-to-earth man whose's obsession was to prove that the route to India via Egypt and the Red Sea was a practical and much desired alternative to that around the Cape of Good Hope. He toiled most of his life to fulfil this pressing and practical need. One gets a measure of the man from a letter he directed to His Majesty's Ministers and the Honourable East India Company, in 1830:

"Of myself I trust I may be excused when I say that the highest object of my ambition has been an extensive usefulness; and my line of life - my turn of mind - my disposition long ago impelled me to give all my leisure, and all my opportunities of observation, to the introduction of steam-vessels, and permanently establishing them as the means of communication between India and England, including all the colonies on the route. The vast importance of three months' earlier information to His Majesty's Government and to the Honourable Company, whether relative to a war or a peace; to abundant or to short crops; to the sickness or convalescence of a colony or district, and often-times even of an individual; the advantages to the merchant, by enabling him to regulate his supplies and orders according to circumstances and demands; the anxieties of the thousands of my countrymen in India for accounts, and further accounts, of their parents, children, and friends at home; the corresponding anxieties of those relatives and friends in this country; in a word, the speediest possible transit of letters to the tens of thousands who at all times in solicitude await them, was a service to my mind, of the greatest general importance and it shall not be my fault if I do not, and for ever, establish it."

Waghorn met with countless obstacles from jealous government officials and businessmen who feared a threat to their profits by the connection of India and England via Egypt. This was due to several facts: the route around the Cape of Good Hope was well established and it was viewed as being comparatively safe; sail seemed still more reliable than steam because of the lack of coaling sites especially on the Suez side of the route; and, the desert passage was often unsafe and inhospitable. However, we will see that Waghorn's success was due as much to his personal attributes as to technological advancement, expansion of trade and the history and politics of the region: his naval experiences caused him to know about steamships, navigation and geography; he saw the potential of the early steamships and realised that it was only a matter of time before they changed fundamentally the communications between England and its Empire in the East; British trade with the Far East was expanding and this demanded faster means of communications; and, Egypt had become a strategic area for the European powers particularly England.

History of the Communication by the Isthmus of Suez

The favourable geographical position of Egypt, placed as it is between the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean by way of the Red Sea, has always made it a desired possession of nations seeking a trade and communication route to the Far East. When Alexander the Great concurred Persia in 332 B.C., Egypt became part of his empire and in the same year, Alexandria was founded. Under the Persians, Alexandria became the centre of commerce and learning in the Mediterranean. After Cleopatra's death, in 30 B.C., Egypt was a Roman Province for the next seven centuries. It was not until after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 A.D., that the Romans were finally driven out by the Arabs ten years latter. Cairo was founded in 969 and latter members of the Egyptian military class, the Mamelukes, ruled from 1250 to 1517 and continued to flourish until the French invasion of 1798.

The Venetians who sought to preserve their monopoly on the Far Eastern trade by assuming a protectorate over Egypt. However, their commerce was seriously injured by the discovery of America in 1492 and it was finally destroyed by the opening of the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope in 1497. Simultaneously, the economy of Egypt suffered greatly since up till before the diversion of this trade, the Mamelukes received a quarter of the value of the merchandise passing through Egypt. This commercial downturn continue for the next three centuries and lacking the protection of Venice, Egypt eventually became a Turkish Pashalik with the fall of Cairo on January 22, 1517.

Near the end of the seventeenth century, English sailing ships were crossing from India to the Arabian Sea and trading at the Red Sea port of Mocha for Arabian coffee. It was this situation which first hinted at the possibility of setting up a route across Egypt to connect England and Asia.

In 1698, Henry Tistew, who had been the English Consul at Tripoli, journeyed through Egypt and down the Red Sea and on to Surat with the idea of setting up a trade route. However, he was unsuccessful owing to the Ottoman ban on sailing, by Christian ships, in the Red Sea north of Jeddah near the Holy Cities of Medina and Mecca. However, the English were masters of the Cape route to India which worked well for communications of dispatches and the transport of personnel and goods. Early in the 17th century, this route became virtually closed to all but the East India Company and as long as the Ottoman rulers kept Christians out of the northern part of the Red Sea, England was not overly concerned about the presence of the French in the eastern Mediterranean.

In 1766, Ali Bey, drove out the Ottoman rulers and set himself up as Sultan. Around the same time, Turkey became involved in wars with European countries. France and England renewed their interest in Egypt as a route to the riches of the East owing to the Turkish decline and there being new rulers in Egypt. England hoped to be able to negotiate with the Beys, a route through Egypt and the Red Sea. In June of 1768, the former English Consul at Algeries, James Bruce, arrived at Alexandria on his way to Asia by way of Egypt. He travelled in Egypt, studied its potential as an English commercial route to India and consulted with Ali Bey. The Sultan was so hopeful for renewed trade income that he dispatched a letter to the Governor of Bengal listing the advantages to opening a trade route through Egypt. Governor Warren Hastings of Bengal eagerly replied with a letter and presents in appreciation for Ali Bey's offer to trade and saying that a ship would be sent to Egypt the next year. In fact two ships left Calcutta for Egypt in 1774 only to meet with disaster at sea. This did not deter Hasting and in 1775 he sent agents to Cairo to arrange a trading agreement.

These arrangements were criticised in England on the grounds that it would weaken the East India Company's monopoly by placing the trade out of their control. Also, the commerce was thought to be dangerous because it was opposed by the Ottoman officials in Turkey. In India it was a totally different matter for Indian ships made their appearance at Suez soon after the signing of the agreement.

An English merchant and adventurer in the Levant since 1760, named George Baldwin, realised the great resource potential of Egypt as well as the advantages of a line of communication across the country. On a visit to England he obtained the consent for his plan from the Levant Company who held the monopoly to the area. Upon hearing this the East India Company Directors empowered Baldwin to be their commission agent in Egypt and payed him a small salary, and a bonuses on each packet of correspondence safely expedited through Egypt. Baldwin began his duties in the summer of 1775. He spent the next two years perfecting and co-ordinating the arrival of ships from both sides of the Egyptian Isthmus. His chief concern was that the Monsoons made it such that a window of approximately two months each year allowed sailing ships to arrive and depart from Suez and exchange dispatched with those at Alexandria. It was found that ships were able to travel from Alexandria to England in 25 days and that during the "open season" a ship from India could safely await, at Suez, for replies from England before returning. This scheme worked so well that by 1777 the East India Company was depending on it for their urgent dispatches. A report prepared about this time mentions how the mails took advantage of this situation:

"Packets and dispatches, brought on nearly every vessel, were promptly transported from Suez to Cairo and thence to Alexandria by special messengers. They reached Europe in some of the many vessels annually attracted to Alexandria, and reached England by a route leading from Triest to the Channel ports. ... During each of the three or four years following the Treaty of 1775, sailing vessels frequently arrived at Alexandria from England and at Suez from India at the same time."

Despite its success, the route was closed owing to political and commercial jealousy. Firstly, the Turks opposed the route because they wanted the wealth it generated for themselves and because it strength the position of the Beys in Egypt. In addition, the East India Company disfavour the route because they feared that goods from the Indo-Egyptian trade might be carried to European markets by the Levant Company thus seriously competing with their monopoly of goods by way of the Cape of Good Hope. Consequently, on the 4th of July 1777, the Court of Directors of the East India Company issued an order prohibiting the navigation of the Red Sea north of Jeddah. Despite this, Indian ships continued carrying dispatches and trade goods to Suez for a further three years.

While the English ceased their interest in Egypt, the French saw an opportunity to increase theirs. France clearly realised the advantages of Egypt for communication and trade with India and the opportunity for developing this trade route as a means of undermine the English trade in Indian goods in Europe. The Egyptians were eager to enter into an agreement with the French to preserve their source of income from the trade through their country. Thus on February 7, 1785, the Chevalier de Truguet signed, for France, a very favourable treaty with the current Bey ruler at Cairo.

Many Britons remember the convenience of being able to communicating with Indian in a half to one-third the time it was now taking by the Cape route and they longed to re-establish this situation. After leaving Egypt for England in 1781, George Baldwin devoted himself to reestablishing the use of the Egyptian route. He showed the dangers to England's interests East of Suez if France was allowed control of Egypt. To some extent his persuasion must have been effective for in 1786 the English were ready to risk compromising their earlier policy towards Turkish interest in Egypt and re-established a consular office in Cairo with Baldwin as Consul. He was: "... to endeavour to obtain from the Government of Egypt by proper and discreet means, a secure and regular passage through their country for His Majesty's subjects and dispatches - going and coming between England and the East Indies by the Red Sea." Owing to the political instability in Egypt and the lack of co-operation from some key British officials, Baldwin was not able to conclude a treaty until May of 1794. However, after 1786, the British government had begun to loose interest in Egypt because of the unreliability of this communication route owing enduring political instability and the lack of lucrative trading opportunities in Egypt. Hence, on February 8, 1793 the Foreign Office ended Baldwin's appointment as British Consul. Just 9 days earlier the French Consulate at Cairo, which had been closed since 1777, was reopened and by 1797, the French had developed plans to send an expedition via Egypt to India and strike a blow at England.

The France Republic declared war on Great Britain on February 1, 1793 and began plans for its invasion. However, by 1797 it was realised that an invasion across the Channel was impractical. The French still wanted to strike a vital blow at Great Britain and thus they revived their earlier plan to invade Egypt since they thought that Egypt offered them "... the means of ousting the English from India by sending a body of 15,000 troops from Cairo by way of Suez." On April 12, 1798, the French Directors and Napoleon agreed to place the plan into motion immediately. From that moment on things moved quickly, and on 19th of May 1798 a large French fleet sailed from Toulon with 35,000 men. June 12th Malta fell and on July 2nd 1798, so did Alexandria. The French made quick work of the Mamelukes cavalry in the Battle of the Pyramids on July 21, 1798 and went on to take Cairo the next day.

The French had hoped to build a sea-level canal joining the two seas giving them the exclusive use of the shorter route to India and control of the Red Sea. However, Napoleon's engineers made an error in calculation which placed the difference in sea level between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea at 15. meters. This in effect put a stop to these plans for nearly the next 60 years.

On August 1, 1798 the British fleet found the French fleet in the harbour at Abukir, near Alexandria, and destroyed it in what has been called the Battle of the Nile ever since. This cut off the French's escape. The Turks, who were supported by the British, landed near Alexandria but were defeated by Napoleon in the Battle of Abukir on July 25, 1799. Owing to growing disorder in France and the many defeats of the army in Europe, Napoleon left Egypt for France on August 24, 1799.

After the Turkish defeat at Abukir, the English landed 18,000 men there on March 8, 1801 and finally defeated the French army at Alexandria thirteen days latter. As a condition of surrender, the remaining French troops were repatriated. The Treaty of Amiens (March 27, 1802) was signed between England and France and the English evacuated their troops in 1803 leaving Samuel Briggs as the British Proconsul.

C;iock to see a larger version.

ALEXANDRIA - Monument to Mohamed Ali


First School of Medicine in Egypt
Inaugurated in 1827 by Mohammed Ali

Through political intrigue, Mohammed Ali succeeded (1805) in driving out the Turkish governor of Egypt and having the Sultan appointed him as governor. Mohammed Ali was a soldier of fortune who had been a tobacco merchant in the Greek sea port of Kavalla before going to Egypt (1799) in the service of the Turks. His power was finally made supreme when in 1811 he annihilated the Mamelukes in a massacre at a banquet to which he had invited them at the citadel of Cairo. He was open to western ideas and adopted many of them in his efforts to develop his country.

After defeating the French in Egypt, the English had little interest in the country since it had not yet become important as a route to India and the Far East. But, the power of the Mohammedan nations was fading as European Imperialism was expanding and developing a requirement for highways for commercial and military purposes to the riches of the Far East.

Beginning of the Age of Steam Navigation

Before steam, navigation in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea depended on the monsoon wind regime. The southwest monsoon dominates in the Indian Ocean from the east coast of Africa and the coasts of India from May to October being strongest from June to August. From October to May, the weaker northeast monsoon prevails. Vessels heading to or from Bombay would have to plan their passage to conform to the monsoon. Sailing vessels would leave from England, or other places in Europe, so as to take advantage of the southwest monsoon; and those sailing from Bombay for Europe would take advantage of the northeast monsoon. With time the ocean-going steam-vessel would liberate the communication between India and England from its slavery to the seasonal monsoon.

By 1815 steamboats were being used on the canals of England and by 1820 some foresaw their inevitable use for ocean transit. However, the technology was in its infancy. The early marine steam-engines were flimsy, needed to be shut down for frequent cleaning and used coal so inefficiently that the early steamships were constrained to navigating close to ready supplies. A further disadvantage was that their paddle boxes were prone to being washed away by waves. For these reasons, the early steamships operate mainly in inland or coastal waters that offered a series of ports such as the English Channel, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

The early steamships were very costly to build and to run: they were fully rigged sailing ship besides having added the engines and hardware for steam. They had a full sailing crew and added steam personnel. Whereas sailing ships got their energy free, streamers burned mountains of coal in inefficient engines.

The Honourable East India Company and Far East Trade

On December 31st, 1600 the Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading in the East Indies, latter known as the East India Company was granted its charter by Queen Elizabeth I. This gave them a monopoly on trade East of the Straits of Magellen (Cape Horn) and the Cape of Good Hope. By 1612, the Company had obtained permission from Emperor Jahangir to set up a trading post at Surat in India. There followed post at Madras (1639), Bombay (1651) and Calcutta (1696) and in 1699 the East India Company established trade with China. From the start of its Far Eastern operations, it was apparent that its success required sustained communications between these posts and the Home Office in London.

From 1600 to 1813, trade in India was the sole domain of the East India Company. However, the Charter Act of 1813, marked a turning point for the trade in India. This Act renewed the Company's charter for 20 years, but its monopoly on trade with India was abolished including that on the mails with the exception of the service from Bombay which continued in their hands until 1854. Once India was opened to British private traders thousands flocked to the country.

Twenty years later, the Charter Act of 1833 renewed the East India Company's charter for a further 20 years and this time it lost its monopoly on trade with China and again merchants flocked into the void. After this date, the Company was reduced to being mainly a political and governmental organ representing Britain. On the first of September 1858, the East India Company ceases to exist. Its duties and treaty obligations were taken over by the British government. And finally, on April 1, 1867, the Straits Settlements became a crown colony thus ending the rule of the British East India Company.

Rise of the Peninsular and Oriental (P&O) Steam Navigation Company

This famous shipping company, still in operations to this day, had its beginnings in 1815. In that year, Brodie McGhie Willcox set himself up as a shipbroker and commission agent in London and took on Arthur Anderson, first as clerk and then, in 1822, as a partner. Because the transport of letters by private ship was not adequately controlled in spite of the creation of a the Ship Letter Office in the late 1700s and only after much criticism, the packets service had become the responsibility of the Admiralty in 1837. In September 1837, Willcox and Anderson's Company, then called the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company, began a contract for a weekly mail packet service, for the Admiralty, from England to Gibraltar. The leg from Malta and Alexandria continuing to be serviced by the Admiralty.

Theirs was the first mail contract accorded to a shipping line. Once they showed that they could deliver the mails more swiftly and economically than the Admiralty, the system for contracting out to private companies became the norm.

The P&O had to work hard to gain their mail contracts. They had to concur the established interests and methods of government, the Admiralty and the Honourable East India Company, which controlled affairs East of Suez. However, they had the support of influential merchants in both Britain and India who wanted faster mail service than that provided by the East India Company.

Click to see the entire image and source.The Admiralty ships were not adequate for the packet service and the overland service via France was not adequately developed, thus in 1840, Willcox and Anderson's much expanded, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., won the Admiralty contract for a monthly packet service from England to Alexandria. An agent from the Admiralty was aboard each ship and took charge of the mails. The contract called for the P&O to provide service East of Suez however it took until September 1843 before the service from Suez to Ceylon, Madras and Calcutta could begin. The reason for this was that first the P&0 had to establish a fleet and support facilities on either side of the Isthmus of Suez which was across the most direct route. In 1845 the service to Penang, Singapore and China began and in 1848 it was extended to Hong Kong. Because the East India Company adherence firmly to the last vestiges of its monopoly, the service from Bombay continued in their hands until 1854 when the P&O finally took over.

The P&O flourished and its fleet grew from six paddle-wheel steamers in 1835 to fifty five in 1860, some of which were over 2000 tons and more than half of which were screw driven. Because of the increased cargo and passenger traffic across Egypt, by 1850 the P&O had built warehouse, stores, wharves, workshops and fresh water plants and coal depots at Alexandria and Suez.

Thomas Waghorn's Naval Career

The stage was no set for entrance of Thomas Fletcher Waghorn. He was born in Chatam in the county Kent on the 20th of June 1800. Master Thomas entered the Navy on November 10th, 1812 at the age of twelve and was appointed midshipman. The young Waghorn must have been on extraordinary individual right from the start because sixteen day before his 17th birthday he passed the examinations in navigation for Lieutenant thus being the youngest midshipman that had ever done so. However, this examination only made him eligible for the rank of Lieutenant and because of his young age he was not promoted immediately.

His naval career seemed closed when at the end of 1817, owing to the reduction of the British Navy after the Napoleonic Wars, he was paid off and returned to England. He was soon offered a job as the third officer on a merchant ship and sailed for Calcutta.

Two years latter, in 1819, he got appointed to the Bengal Marine Pilot Service on the Hooghly River. He served there until 1824 when the First Burmese war erupted. Waghorn volunteered for active service with the East India Company and was appointed to a Bengal Marine division of gunboats in connection with the army and flotilla as Captain of the cutter Matchless. He was in action on five occasions and was wounded in the right thigh. Like many others, he contracted fever. After the war end in February 1826, Waghorn returned to Calcutta and his post with the Pilot Service.

Origins of Waghorn's Idea for Reducing the Transit Time for Mails to India

Two events influenced Waghorn's ideas about speedier communications between India and England. The first occurred during his participation in the First Burmese War. He was impressed by the accomplishments of a small steamship - the Diana. This 32 horsepower, 89 ton river and coastal passenger steamer was the first of its kind in Indian waters. Launched in 1823 at Kidderpore, she was bought by the Bengal Government for use on the Arakan coast for towing men-of-war into place for attacks and for the transport of passengers up the Irrawaddy. The ever practical Waghorn, noted the tremendous advantage derived by the expedition from the steamer.

The second event occurred when he met Captain James Johnston of the steamer Enterprize at the conclusion of the first steam voyage from England to Calcutta via the Cape. Waghorn was the pilot who brought the Enterprise up the Hooghly to Calcutta on her arrival in India.

Click to see the whole image & source

Paddle Steamer Diana


Paddle Steamer Enterprize
[National Maritime Museum, London]

Captain Johnston had journeyed from Calcutta to England by sailing ship up the Red Sea and then overland through Egypt. He was an advocate of steam navigation and personally favoured the Red Sea route to that by way of the Cape of Good Hope.

In 1825, the Calcutta Steam Committee offered a prize of 20,000 rupees to the first steam vessel that could make the 17,700 kilomtre trip from England to Calcutta and back twice at an average rate of 70 days or less. Captain Johnston journeyed to 67.7 meters long, displaced 479 ton, was equipped with two 60 horsepower steam engines and collapsible paddles to allow her to take advantage of favourable sailing conditions.

The Enterprize left Falmouth on the 16th of August 1826 carrying 17 passengers, dispatches and mail and arrived at Calcutta on the 7th of December after a journey of 113 days. She had used her engine on 62 days and sail on 40 days and had been at coaling stations 11 days. She burning over 10 tons of coal a day to put out 6 knots. Considering that sailing ships were commonly making the trip in 90 day, the Enterprize experiment was a failure. Despite this, Captain Johnson was granted half the prize in recognition of his work in furthering steam navigation between England and India and proving that steamers were capable of long ocean voyages.

Waghorn Promotes Steam Communication

Still recovering from the fever he had contracted during the Burmese campaign, Waghorn began preparations for his departed on furlough to England. Before leaving he had communicated his idea for "A steam communication between our Eastern possessions and their mother-country, England" to the Marine Board at Calcutta. The Board favoured his plans and forward them at once to the Bengal Government who issued him with letters of recommendation to the Honourable Court of Directors of the East India Company as a fit and proper person to open steam navigation with India. At every opportunity on his journey home and once arrived in England, he promulgated his plan. Unfortunately, the P&O and all but Mr. Loch, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the East India Company, were opposed to steam navigation on the open ocean.

Two years latter, Waghorn's efforts payed off when in October 1829, Lord Ellenborough, president of the Court of Directors and Mr. Loch engaged him to carry dispatches to Sir John Malcolm, the Governor of Bengal, by way of Egypt and the Red Sea. The main purpose of the mission was to make a report upon the navigation of the Red Sea, with the view of establishing an overland route for the mails. With just four days notice and taking only 20 pounds of luggage, Waghorn departed from Gracechurch Street on October 28, 1829. He went by way of Trieste and reached Alexandria in 26 days. He crossed the desert to Suez where he was to join the Enterprize. However, she did not show because of having had mechanical troubles. Waghorn would not be stopped, he boarded an open native boat and proceeded down the Red Sea to Jeddah, a distance of 620 miles, which he traversed in six and one half days. He completed the trip by man-of-war and reached India on March 20, 1830 having been en route four months and 21 days. His actual travel time had been 84 days. The trip had taken longer than foreseen because he had fallen ill at Jeddah for a month. In his own estimation, under favourable conditions and steamer connections, the trip could be concluded in 55 days. This journey had convinced him to change his plans from the Cape route to that through Egypt.

While in India he called meeting in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta to advance his ideas to establish steam communication between England and the Far East and was well received. With the thanks of the Governor of Bengal he returned to England. At a meeting with the Mr. Loch's successor, Waghorn was told that the East India Company needed no steam communication with the East at all. Waghorn says that the new Chairman of the Board of Directors to him:

"that the Governor-general and people of India had nothing to do with India House; and if I did not go back and join their pilot service, to which I belonged, I should receive such a communication from that House as would be by no means agreeable to me!"

Waghorn's reaction was, by now, predictable:

"On the instant I penned my resignation, and placing it in his hands, then gave utterance to the sentiment which actuated me from that moment till the moment I realised my aspiration - that I would establish the Overland Route, in spite of the India House."

Waghorn's Overland Route

Initially, the British Government and the East India Company were content to leave the overland portion of the route through Egypt to private enterprise because, for the time being at least, neither wanted to risk becoming entangled in political complications with the Pasha of Egypt or the Government of Turkey.

One reason why the East India Company did not support Waghorn's idea was the difficulty of obtaining an adequate supply of affordable coal East of the Mediterranean. It had cost the East India Company 20 a ton to deliver coal to Suez and had taken as much a 15 months to convey it there. Waghorn applied his philosophy of proving-by-doing and set out to demonstrate that it was possible to transport coal to Suez economically. With the help Pasha Mohammed Ali, 1000 tons of coal were delivered to Suez. Waghorn accomplished this by shipping English coal first to Alexandria then by native vessels along the 48 mile Mahmudieh canal connecting Alexandria and the Nile, next the coal was shipped to Cairo and from there it went by caravan to Suez. The total cost at Suez was 4.3s.4d per ton. With this impediment remove, in 1835, Waghorn began his efforts to set up his express business for mails by the overland route. By 1837, he had been appointed the Deputy Agent of the East India Company in Egypt for the supervision of the mails.

The challenge he faced was reducing what had up to that time been an experimental service, to a system that would ran reliably. Steamer service to Cairo was well established. Service in the Red Sea was supplied by steamers of the Bombay Marine until 1840 and by the P&O after that date. It was left to Waghorn to provide the transit across the desert.

Click to see the full map.
Location of the Rest Stations Between Cairo & Suez.

Waghorn lived with the Arabs for three years and showed them the benefits of his scheme. He wrote that "Once in the enjoyment of the Pasha's friendship I was enabled to establish mails to India and to keep the service in my hands for four years. On one occasion I succeeded in getting letters from Bombay to England in 46 days..." He set up a regular caravan service and built eight stopping stations, along the 80 miles from Cairo and Suez, for changes of horses teams and for the provision of meals for passengers.

Click to see the full image.
Click to see the full image.

His friendship with the Pasha and his services had made the journey safe and dependable. In time, three hotels were built to service the passenger route. Mohammed Ali opened a house of agency (outpost) in Suez, Waghorn built one at Cairo and another was built at Alexandria for receiving the mails. By the time Waghorn left Egypt, in 1841, he had organised a service using English carriages, vans and horses to transport travellers and had placed small English steamers on the Nile and the canal of Alexandria.

Mails Across Egypt

By the Convention of March 30, 1836 between England and France for the transport of the East Indies mail, to spare this mail from having to undergo fumigation and being thus delayed, it was to be sealed in airtight iron boxes. The letters were loaded into 2 by 2 by 1.5 foot boxes which were then sealed with lead. These were bound and stamped with a crown and "General Post-Office, India Mail". A shipment might contain 30 or more such boxes.

Waghorn had agents in the major English cities and in India. The procedure for using his service was as follows: addressed letter were taken to a one of his agents and the sender paid the required fees, the agents applied the handstamp, "Care of Mr. Waghorn etc." and the letter was left with them to be forwarded by the fastest route. John Sidbottom's, "The Overland Mail", published in 1948 remains the outstanding reference on Waghorn's service. Sidbottom illustrates over ten types of handstamps that Waghorn and his agents used to mark letters between 1836 and 1841.

As the steam service to and from Egypt improved and faster routes through Europe were developed, so did the speed of the mails between England and India.

Agents of the Bombay Steam Co., Hill and Raven, set up an express business in competition with Waghorn. They also built hotels at Cairo and Suez and operated a number of rest houses along the desert route for their patrons. Because of financial difficulties, the two competitors were forced to amalgamate in 1841 and became J.R. Hill and Co.

In 1837 the mail system was taken over by the English Government to Waghorn's great loss. In 1843, Arthur Anderson described how the mail cross the desert:

"Indian mails are taken charge of on their debarkation at Alexandria, and until their arrival there from India, by agents of the East India Company. The steam vessels on the Nile and Alexandria are not availed of for the transit of the mails, which are conveyed overland between Alexandria and Cairo on the backs of donkeys, each donkey carrying two boxes of letters. Between Cairo and Suez, across the desert, dromedaries are employed. The average of one monthly mail somewhat exceeds one hundred boxes each way, being upwards of two hundred crossing Egypt to and from India, and containing about one hundred thousand covers."

The mail made the crossing in less time (64 hours) than the passengers and their baggage since it did not require rest stops. The steamer at Suez had to wait 24 hours after the arrival of the mail on board before it could leave to allow passengers time to cross the desert and reach Suez.

Click to see a larger copy.

Once the P&O had established steamer communications on both sides of the Isthmus they sought the control of the overland route because passengers were dissatisfied with the existing service. They felt that Hill & Co. could not handle the increasing traffic and this would compromise their profits. With the help of the Pasha, the P&O formed the Egyptian Transit Company and on the 26th of May 1843, this newly formed Company bought out Hill and Co. The handstamp "EGYPTIAN TRANSIT COMPANY SUEZ" appears on covers dated between 1843 and 1847. Most of these covers show that they went to Alexandria via the British Post Office and from there, by the Austrian Post Office in Alexandria via Trieste, a route which Waghorn had pioneered.

The P&O had made many improvements to their transit system on the Mahmoudieh Canal and the Nile, they introduced improved six passenger carriages on the desert route, the rest-house were upgraded and that at the midpoint was enlarged with clean bedrooms with beds and a dining room with cooks and servants. By 1846 the P&O was carrying mail the 250 miles from Alexandria to Suez in 64 hours, steamer to steamer, and passengers in 12 hours more owing to a rest stop in Cairo. The Egyptian Transit Company was itself taken over by the Pasha's government in 1846.

Waghorn After Egypt

In 1838 Waghorn and George Wheatley set up a shipping and forwarding agency in London called Waghorn & Co., which latter became G. W. Wheatley & Co. In their function as forwarding agents for the Overland Route to India and China, they used the name Global Express. The story of Waghorn after 1841 is more concerned with Europe than Egypt and he spent his time building his business in London but he continued to visited Egypt often.

After his resignation from the Bengal Marine Pilot Service, Waghorn felt that rank of Lieutenant would aid him in his efforts in India so from 1832 to 1842 he made repeated application to be granted his rank. Finally on the 23rd of March 1842, he was given the honorary rank of Lieutenant for his efforts in establishing the overland route, by Lord Haddington, Head of the Admiralty.

Waghorn continued to experiment with finding better routes through Europe for the mails: in 1845 he experimented routes via Genoa; the Papal States and the port of Ancona; in 1846 he lobbied for the Triest route; and, in 1847 he was able to save 13 days by travelling via Triest instead of Marseilles.

His 1846 experiments with the Triest route caused him to go into personal debt from which he was unable to recover despite the liquidation of his entire estate. He was deprived of all hope of regaining his losses when finally the P&O packet company seized the entire overland carrying business.

Ruined in health and financially, he applied for a pension to the East India Company and the British Government. It granted him one quarter of his Lieutenant's pay and from the minutes of the East India Company court of Directors for April 12, 1848 we read:

"Adverting to the merits and services of Lieutenant Thomas Waghorn of the Royal Navy in the Establishment of Steam Communication with India, and to the great benefits which have been derived therefrom, Lieutenant Waghorn be granted as a further mark of the sense entertained by the East India Company of those services, an annuity of One hundred pounds (100)."

Waghorn asked for and was granted the payment of the pension in advance. In 1849, he broke down while attempting to improve the route by Trieste and he felt obliged to request for a grant. Subsequently, his pension was increased to 200 per year. He asked to receive this in advance and when this was allowed, the sum was impounded by his creditors. Lieutenant Thomas Fletcher Waghorn lived to see only the first quarterly payment from his pension: He died in London at Golden-square, Pentonville on January 7th, 1850, at the age of 50. His remains were placed in the church of All Saints' at Snodland near Rochester in Kent.

Waghorn had married late in life and Harriett and he never had children. Initially, his widow was granted a pension of only 75 a year. Despite complaints in the press of the day the Government was unwilling to increase this beyond 90 a year. Harriett died in poverty on January 19th, 1856.

Egyptian Railway



1852 locomtive

Waghorn convinced the Pasha (1832) of the advantages of a railway connecting Suez to Cairo, across the mainly flat desert. Two years latter, the Pasha contracted Galloway Bey to survey the desert route and estimate the cost of building the railroad. The death of Galloway and antagonistic political interest of the European powers delayed its building. However, in 1851, the Pasha was finally able to start the construction of the section from Alexandria to the Nile and completed it two years latter. The portion linking Cairo and Alexandria was concluded in 1855 and that from Cairo across the desert to Suez in 1858. In February 1858, the English Post Office sent Anthony Trollop to negotiate an agreement with Egypt for the transport of the mails by rail. The agreement was signed in June of 1858 and called for the trip to take no more that 24 hours from ship to ship. There was to be a Post Office messenger accompanying the mail and the Post Office was to pay 12000 per year for the service.

The Suez Canal

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Work officially began on building the Suez Canal on August 29th, 1859 and it opened a decade latter on November 17, 1869. However, not everyone was thrilled with its construction. The British did not relish the idea of a canal under French control because they feared French interference in their commercial and maritime affairs. The P&O had reason for opposing its building for the day it would open their capital investment in Egypt, developed for the overland route, would be lost and their monopoly on eastern mail and passenger services would be swept away. Their eastern stations, dockyards and shops would become redundant. They had a large establishment at Suez with condensers supplying fresh water, an ice making plant, stores, repair shops, a coal station, lighters and tenders. At Alexandria they owned offices, warehouses, docks, coal stocks, coal hulks and many service vessels. Near Cairo and Zagazig the company had farms producing chickens and eggs, vegetables, fruit and sheep to supply their steamers at Suez and Alexandria. All of this would become obsolete once the ships built to take advantage of the canal and navigate non-stop between England and India became available.

Suez Canal


Suez Canal from a NASA image

The Post Office, seeing an opportunity to press the financially troubled P&O to accept a reduction in its subsidy, insisted that it observe the terms of the contract to the letter, despite the opening of the canal, and obliged them to continue carrying the mails overland! So the foolish situation developed where at Alexandria a ships carrying mail, transferred it to the waiting train, then it steamed through the canal to Suez and waited for the slower train to arrive at which time the mail was transferred back to the same ship. This stupidity continued until 1874 when a revised contract allowed the mail to go by canal however, the P&O had to sacrifice 20,000 of it subsidy.

Waghorn's Place in History

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Despite begrudging official recognition for his heroic work, countless millions of his countrymen, and others, understood that he had realised his aspiration to "... establish the Overland Route, in spite of the India House." His overland route had a life of close to thirty years before being supplanted by a rail link in 1858 and the Suez Canal in 1869. His tireless efforts had made it plain that a link between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea was a necessity in the age of steam.

On November 20, 1859 Ferdinand de Lesseps erected a bronze bust of Waghorn overlooking the mouth of the Suez Canal at the port of Tewfik. On the base, he inscribed these words of admiration:

"In homage to the memory of a generous though unfortunate man, who alone, without any help, by a long series of labours and heroic efforts, practically demonstrated and determined the adoption of the postal route through Egypt, and the communication between the East and the West of the world; and this was the originator and pioneer of the great Egyptian maritime commerce completed by the canal of the two seas."


Michel Houde

A version of this appeared in the book The Mediterranean Mails [which you can download as a pdf HERE] and in
the Journal of the Hong Kong Study Circle October 2006 No. 339.

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