Lady Mary Wood

The Lady Mary Wood was a 49-metre-long wooden paddle steamer launched on 16 September 1841 and registered in January 1842. It is said to be named after the wife of Charles Wood, who was England’s secretary to the Admiralty.The steamer had a gross tonnage of 556 and horsepower of 250.In 1845, the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) established the first regular monthly mail service under a new contract with the British government which required the company to convey mail to China via Ceylon, Penang, Singapore and Hong Kong. The Lady Mary Wood was the first mail steamer dispatched to Southeast Asia. It arrived in Singapore on 4 August 1845.3

First mail steamer
The P&O was a profitable business entity at the time when it was awarded the mail contract between England and Alexandria, and between Suez and Calcutta. Securing the contract to Singapore and Hong Kong further cemented its position in the region.4 At the time, steamers took 140 hours to travel from Ceylon to Penang, 45 hours from Penang to Singapore, where there was a 48-hour stopover, before completing its journey to Hong Kong in another 170 hours.5

The Lady Mary Wood began its maiden voyage from London on 24 June 1845 and arrived in Singapore on 4 August 1845, after an eight-day passage from Point de Galle, Sri Lanka. It brought mail from London in a record time of 41 days. On its return journey, the mail steamer carried a total of 4,757 letters from Singapore, the bulk of which were bound for Great Britain and Europe. By 1848, the standard practice was to raise a red flag on Government Hill (today’s Fort Canning Hill) in the day to signal the arrival of mail from Europe and a yellow flag for mail from China, while a gun was fired at night.6

The monthly arrival of letters made a significant impact on Singapore’s economic and social landscape, as it kept the British colony up to date with happenings on the other side of the world. In 1853, the frequency of mail increased to twice a month.7

Cruise ship
On its maiden voyage to Singapore, the Lady Mary Wood carried 60 first-class and 50 second-class passengers. P&O charged a passage fee of £160 on board the steamer, which included transit in Egypt and steward’s fees.8

To promote the new service, P&O invited English poet and writer William Makepeace Thackeray to an all-expenses-paid trip to the Mediterranean which he would write about. Thackeray was on board the Lady Mary Wood for a week, during which time he recorded his favourable impressions of the voyage from Southampton to Egypt. His resultant travelogue, Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, was published in 1846 under the pseudonym M. A. Titmarsh.9

Other uses
P&O’s eastern route between Point de Galle and Hong Kong via Singapore had commenced by 1845. Two vessels were used initially: the Lady Mary Wood and the Braganza.10

Besides functioning as a mail steamer and passenger cruise liner, the Lady Mary Wood was also used to ferry troops from India to control the 1848 rebellion in Ceylon. Four years later, the steamer deployed its two heavy guns in the rescue of two trading junks from pirates. The Lady Mary Wood continued to be used as a vessel under P&O for the delivery of mail until 1858, when it was sold to E. C. Wermuth, C. S. van Heeckeren & Co. of Samarang. It was renamed Oenarang when it sailed from Hong Kong to Samarang and ran briefly between China and the Dutch East Indies. In 1862, it was sold to W. C. de Vries of Batavia. Four years later, its engines were removed at Surabaya and it was reduced to a hulk until she was broken up in Batavia in 1867.11

Marsita Omar, Kartini Saparudin & Sharon Teng

1.  “Remembering the Grand,Old Lady,” Business Times, 4 August 1990, 11 (From NewspaperSG); “Lady Mary Wood,” P & O Heritage, updated November 2008.
2. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 426 (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Donald Davies, “G.P.O. ‘Missed’ the First Mail Steamer,” Straits Times, 18 August 1957, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Donald Moore and Joanna Moore, The First 150 Years of Singapore (Singapore: Donald Moore Press, 1969), 253 (Call no. RSING 959.57 MOO-[HIS]); Arnold Wright and H. A. Cartwright, eds., Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya (Singapore: G. Brash, 1989), 43. (Call no. RSING 959.5 TWE)
4. “A Tale of a Carrier and a City,” Business Times, 3 July 1990, 20 (From NewspaperSG); “Remembering the Grand,Old Lady”; John Bastin, Travellers’ Singapore: An Anthology (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1994), xiv. (Call no. RSING 959.5705 TRA-[HIS])
5. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 425.
6. Bastin, Travellers’ Singapore, xiv; Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 43: Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 425;  “Lady Mary Wood,” The Old Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company, n.d.
7. Bastin, Travellers’ Singapore, xiv.
8. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 425; The Old Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company, “Lady Mary Wood.”
9. “Remembering the Grand,Old Lady”; William Makepeace Thackeray, Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo (London: Chapman and Hall, 1846); The Old Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company, “Lady Mary Wood.”
10. A Tale of a Carrier and a City”; “Remembering the Grand,Old Lady”; Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 111–13. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
11. “Remembering the Grand,Old Lady”; Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 111–13.

The information in this article is valid as at 24 March 2021 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Paddle steamers--Great Britain
Paddle steamers--Singapore