It was in 1824 that 18 directors were elected to the board of what was soon to become the famous GSN Co. One of them owned the packet “Eagle” which plied between London and Margate and was truly the first of the Eagle steamers. By 1837 the company owned 40 vessels and ran to most near continental ports as well as coastal trade. In 1856 the second Eagle was purchased – an elegant vessel with black funnel, white lifeboats red wheels and gold filigree work at her clipper bow. The third Eagle arrived in 1898. Some 40 ships were added to the fleet in the ten years after the first war. PS Royal Eagle, launched in 1932, was the last of the true “Eagle Steamers” – she could carry 2000 passengers. Eleven vessels were lost in the second war including Crested Eagle. Their replacements were to form, together with Royal Daffodil and Medway Queen the nucleus of the post-war “Eagle and Queen Line” steamers. After the war the steamers returned to their old runs but somehow never regained their former popularity.
The river trade ceased in 1966. No longer could Londoners return up river, ruddy-faced to the setting sun after a glorious day out. At one time the GSN fleet numbered over 80 vessels and was one of the few companies to maintain a prominent position for such a long time – part of shipping history itself.
It was not all plain sailing – The late WG Peake served his engineer apprenticeship with GSN and in 1919 had his first experience of a paddle steamer.
Golden Eagle was at our repair yard at Deptford. One of her paddle wheel bosses was slack. I had to mark all the parts, bolts etc so that on reassembling, all the parts went back with the same bolts. In 1923 I was appointed second engineer of the old PS Eagle. I spent my days in the stokehold gently persuading the firemen to keep steam. Eagle was excursion boat to Margate via Woolwich, Southend and an afternoon sea trip from Margate. We were back at Deptford Buoys at 10pm and opened up at 5am for washing down etc. During the night the coalies would walk 25 tons of coal in sacks aboard and the night firemen would clean the fires of clinker and dump it in the ash barge – all whilst we were trying to snatch a few hours sleep.
In my first season as Chief Engineer with Golden Eagle in 1928, we had a lot of trouble with bracket pins in the paddle wheels fracturing. We used to try and beat our own record of 55 minutes for changing them at night. In the winter of 1929/30 this ship was converted to oil firing and I had to stand by to carry this job out.
When the Royal Eagle was built, I moved to the Crested Eagle on the Felixstowe service. The snag was the shallow water over the Wallet to Clacton. Only very limited speed could be obtained, and at nearly low water the vessel’s bottom would almost touch, and then the trouble would commence. The vacuum would go back from 25in. to say 10in. and we knew we had a night job to do. Vast quantities of seaweed and mussels would get across the condenser tubes, and after a slow passage home we had to clear all the stoppages and box up again. Also we stirred up the sand and ground the lignum vitae bushes out of our floats and these had to be renewed at night.
In 1937 I was appointed Engineer Superintendent of the New Medway Steam Packet Co. and moved to Rochester. One of my first jobs was to put a new boiler in Medway Queen and fit her with oil burning. Looking back, I must pay tribute to the engineers, greasers, and firemen, they never minded hours of work, their heart and soul were in the job. Crested Eagle’s engine would look almost chromium plated and was a wonderful sight.
These pieces actually appeared in Spring/Summer 1975, PW 59 and 60 and were used to fill the gap in 1974 when only 3 editions of PW were published.