An abbreviation of packet boat, which was originally a vessel plying regularly between two ports for the carriage of mails, but available also for goods and passengers. The sailing packets of the early decades of the 19th century carried migrants to the USA and elsewhere for some years after the introduction of the early ocean liners as they were much cheaper.
In the 16th century, state letters and dispatches were known as ‘the Packet’, and a Treasury account of 1598 gave details of ‘Postes towards Ireland, Hollyheade, allowance as well for serving the packette by lande as for entertaining a bark to carie over and return the packet, x pounds the moneth’. They were essentially mail boats, and were also known as post-barks.
By the 18th century they were built with a finer hull than average in order to give extra speed; still designed primarily for the carriage of mails, they were plying regularly as far from England as America, the West Indies, and India. They were armed with ten or twelve small guns, and also carried official passengers and special cargo for important persons such as ambassadors, commanders-in-chief, etc. They lost their role as mail carriers in the mid-19th century when, with the introduction of steam propulsion, many governments gave contracts for the carriage of mails to private steamship owners. Soon after they lost their only other role, that of carrying migrants, when steerage class was introduced aboard liners.
The name, however, in the form ‘steam packet ship’, remained for a few more years to describe those ships of a shipping line which made regular voyages between the same ports carrying passengers and cargo.
Subjects: Maritime History.