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How the tramp steamer evolved

The growth of export

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the UK had a thriving coal export trade.  Much of this coal originated in the Rivers Tyne and Wear, and also in South Wales, particularly Cardiff.  The people like Charles Palmer who had built and owned screw colliers quickly realised that these vessels could efficiently deliver coal to ports much further afield than London.  Their steamers began exporting coal to France, Holland, Belgium, Scandinavia, Germany, and Russia.  Soon, they were trading across the Bay of Biscay to Spain, and then into the Mediterranean.  As no owner likes to make a voyage without a paying cargo, they sought commodities to fill their holds for the return voyage.  At that time, the part of Russia bordering the Black Sea was a major producer of grain.  The increasingly industrialised UK could not grow enough grain to feed its increasing population, so grain from the Black Sea ports such as Odessa became important back cargoes for steamers taking coal out to the Mediterranean.

This became one of the most important trades for the steam tramp.  As South American countries like Argentina, developed their farming to grow wheat, the trade to the River Plate became important. Coal was shipped out from the Welsh valleys, Durham or Northumberland to power railway locomotives, mills and meat processing plants.  When the coal was unloaded and the holds washed out, grain would be loaded for Europe.

There were many other trades for the tramp steamer, and of course they faced competition from the sailing ship, whose design was also changing. But by 1914, the ocean-going tramp steamer had so far evolved from the screw collier in size and efficiency that it could offer freight rates at least as low as the sailing ship, with a guaranteed date for delivering its cargo which the sailing ship could never offer with any confidence.  Never as ‘romantic’ as the big passenger ships or even the cargo liner, the humble tramp steamer carried a significant proportion of the world’s trade.

The tramp kept evolving, becoming bigger and more economical, and often propelled by oil engines rather than steam. By the 1960s, however, many of the cargoes to which the tramp was best suited began to be conveyed in bulk carriers.  


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