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Design & Construction of Steam Yacht Gondola

Passengers aboard the Gondola, a rebuilt Victorian steam-powered yacht, Coniston Water, Lake District, Cumbria
Passengers aboard the Gondola, a rebuilt Victorian steam-powered yacht, Coniston Water, Lake District, Cumbria | © National Trust Images/Paul Harris

The vessel ….. is a perfect combination of the venetian gondola and the English steam yacht – having the elegance, comfort and speed of the latter and the graceful lightness and quiet gliding of the former. It may be said to be the most elegant little steam vessel yet designed, and is especially suitable for pleasure excursions on lake or river, Illustrated London news, 7 July 1860.

Original Construction

Gondola was built in 1859 in Liverpool by Jones, Quiggin & Co., who later became the Liverpool Shipbuilding Co. The original design was conceived by Sir James Ramsden, Secretary and the General Manager of the Furness Railway Company. Her hull was envisioned after a visit to Venice in the early 1850s. He commissioned the then well-known Liverpool-based naval architect Douglas Hebson to design a hull of beautiful, yet practical, form for use as a passenger boat on Coniston Water.

Gondola was decorated with delicate carvings on the bow; 3D renditions of the Duke of Devonshire's coat of arms (the VII Duke being major shareholder on the Furness Railway Co.), and a twin-tailed sea-serpent; acknowledging the Duke of Devonshire's armorial history.

Once built, Gondola was transported in sections to Coniston by rail and horse and cart.

Technical Data

Length 84ft (25.6 metres)
Beam* 13ft 6in (4.1 metres)
Draught** aft, 4ft 6in (1.4metres); forward, nil
Speed 10-12 mph

*Beam: The breadth of the ship at the broadest point is called the beam.
**Draft: The vertical distance between the waterline and the deepest part of the ship at any point along the length is the draft.

Original Build (1859)Rebuild (1979)
Tonnage70 72/94 Thames Tonnage*c. 42 gross tonnes
HullLow Moor 1/8 in wrought-iron plates, flush riveted¼ mild steel plates, welded. Gunwhale angle from the original and riveted to new hull
Cost1,000 guineas£400,000

*Thames Tonnage is an old measure and calculates the volume of small boats and yachts from a formula created by the Thames Yacht Club; gross tonnage is the capacity in cubic feet of the spaces within the hull, and of the enclosed spaces above the deck, divided by 100.

Gold painted serpent and Pilot Jack flag of Gondola, a rebuilt Victorian steam-powered yacht on Coniston Water, Lake District
Gold painted serpent and Pilot Jack flag on the Gondola's bow | © National Trust Images/Paul Harris


Gondola was originally constructed with 1/8" thick steel plates, flush riveted to wrought iron frames, which was unusual in a steam yacht from this period. The skill employed in her original construction can still be clearly seen in her preserved original rudder (no longer on the boat), which is hollow in section with steel plates flush riveted onto a hand-beaten wrought iron frame with tapering fore and aft and integral rudder stock.

But in 1978, her original hull was found beyond repair, sectioned and used in the construction of a new, welded hull and wooden superstructure, which incorporated some of the barley-twist wrought-iron handrails, railings and the gunwale plate. A new steam engine and boiler were also installed at this time, built as close to the original specification as possible.

Her first-class saloon is based on the interior of Queen Victoria's royal carriage, and is almost identical in every way, with gilded Corinthian capitals on mahogany columns surrounding each window, intricately carved mahogany mouldings and a mahogany 'vaulted' ceiling. The upholstery would originally have been deep blue crushed velvet, with buttoned cushions, gold braid and tassels. The ceiling was restored to its original design after a plate negative c.1905 was found in a loft in Coniston village showing Gondola's Captain, Felix Hamill, along with another crewmember, in the first-class saloon.

Gondola was rebuilt by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. Of Barrow-in-Furness and was transported by low loader in four sections for assembly at Pier Cottage on 20 March 1980.

Gondola’s shape

Gondola has an unusual hull design being built with almost no depth below the waterline forward: for the first 30ft of the hull, the hull increases in depth from 0-2.5ft in depth only below the waterline. Originally this allowed her to be beached on any of the shallows around Coniston Water and land safely but did cause steerage issues in high winds with so much windage at the bow and no keel in the water to stop the boat shifting. She now has weights in the bow to give more control.

Her steam plant, with associated noise and smoke, is situated aft of the saloons to ensure a smooth passage for passengers in the bow, who would only hear the sound of the water and experience no vibration. The bridge was also located on top of the engine room, and the wide side-deck that runs around the boat was designed so that crew could run the boat entirely without disturbance to the first-class passengers.

Close view of pressure gauges on Gondola, Lake District, Cumbria
Close view of pressure gauges on Gondola, Lake District, Cumbria | © Paul Harris

The Boiler

The engine room is dominated by the boiler, which is of the Ffestiniog standard, narrow gauge locomotive design. Gondola’s boiler is defined as a ‘fire tube’ type because hot gases from the fire in the furnace flow through the tubes and the energy transferred through the tube walls heats up the water around them and converts it into steam. These gases then pass up the funnel into the atmosphere. When the furnace is at its most efficient, the emissions should be almost clear, not to be confused with white steam from the engine, which makes her a familiar site on Coniston water.

Boiler specification
Pressure up to 150psi
Barrel diameter 2ft 8in
Fire tubes 90 @ 1.5in dia x 7ft 6in
Total heating surface 3oo sq ft
Grate area 6,25 sq ft
Water capacity 200 gallons (900 litre)
Fuel consumption:
Crusing 40psi on engine) 8mph
Approx 110 pounds (50kg) per hour
Full Power (80psi on engine) 10 - 12mph
Approx 220 pounds (100kg) per hour

The Engine

Looking into the engine room it is easy to miss the engine as it is so neatly installed under the barrel of the boiler. The engine is behind the furnace, to the aft (or rear) of the boat. It has two cylinders arranged in a v-shape on either side of the boiler, with connecting rods driving the single propeller shaft via a single crank beneath the boiler.

The helmsman controls the throttle valve on an extended spindle and the rudder with the ships wheel. Visitors will be surprised just how silently Gondola moves through the water. She really is a unique experience.

The machinery sadly is not original, but the engine is almost identical to the original and is a historic engine from a railway steam crane. The boiler is copied from a locomotive built in 1863. Gondola burns carbon-negative biomass fuel.