London’s Short-lived Paddle Steamer Fleet

Supporting the preservation and operation of paddle steamers Waverley and Kingswear Castle

London’s Short-lived Paddle Steamer Fleet

Clyde-built PS Earl Godwin of the London CC fleet leaving the berth on the Thames just downstreamof Hungerford Bridge (Photo from the collection of Dr J Meister, Basel,Switzerland)

In 1905 London County Council began operating a river service, to use the modern term, between Hammersmith and Greenwich. Interestingly, this was two years after the Clyde Navigation Trust ceased operating their Clutha steamer service along the Clyde from the Broomielaw to Whiteinch. The Clutha’ had been successful for a number of years and would probably have continued to be so had it not been for the arrival of Glasgow Corporation Transport’s new fleet of electric tramcars or the ‘Caurs’ as the Glaswegians called them with great affection. The ‘Caurs’ ruled the roost on the city streets for the next 6 decades before they succumbed to the joint pressure of the motorbus and the private motor car. In contrast the London service was never succesful and lasted just 2 year managing to build up an enormous debt in such a short period. The fleet of 30 paddle steamers was old off in 1909. A fair number remained on the Thames and were operating successfully by the City Steamboat Company until the start of the Great War in 1914. 

The fleet of 30 almost identical paddlers were built in 4 UK Shipyards. Originally ten vessels were allocated to three shipbuilders, namely:

Thames Iron Work
J I Thornycroft & Son, Chiswick, Chris London
Napier & Miller Ltd, Yoker, Glasgow.

Thames Iron Work also built the compound diagonal reciprocating engines and boilers boilers for the vessels that they supplied but the machinery and steam-raising plant for the 20 ships allocated to Thornycroft and to Napier & Miller were supplied by the world’s oldest shipbuilding company, the Scotts Shipbuilding & Engineering Company (founded 1790) of Greenock on the Clyde. 

By the early 1900s, hipbuilding on the Thames was on the wain and between 1905 and 1907 two of the principal shipbuilding firm on the River had moved to pastures new. Thornycroft moved to Woolston on the River Itchen at Southampton while Alfred Yarrow moved his operation over 400 miles north from Poplar to a brand new yard at Scotstoun on the Clyde. As a result of the Thornycroft move four of the paddlers originally allocated to them were built by a smaller Thames builder, G Rennie & Co. 

Following the collapse of the LCC venture the 30 paddle steamers were dipersed far and wide destinations including the German rivers, Belgium, Rouen, Belgrade, Dundee, Portmouth and Bari. Two of them went to Lake Lugano where they were renamed Lombardia and Svizerria. On of them, originally named Ben Johnon (originally built by Thornycroft in Southampton) went to the Lake of Lucerne in Switzerland, becoming the PS Rhein. After WW2 he wa rebuilt a the MS Waldstatter and he remained in service until 1995. I made a point of ailing in her each time I visited Luzern. Sadly he was scrapped on the lake at Beckenreid in 2001.

Two of the LCC paddlers, the Shakespeare (built by Thornycroft) and the Clyde-built Earl Godwin came north to Loch Lomond in 1914, being renamed Princess Patricia and Queen Mary respectively. Sadly the Napier & Miller craft Queen Mary ex Earl Godwin was destroyed by a fire at Balloch before he even entered service. Princess Patricia erved on Loch Lomond until 1938 when she wa crapped at Balloch. The view below show the Yoker-built Earl Godwin leaving the berth on the Embankment (Cleopatra’ Neddle behind) near Waterloo Bridge (where another steamhip named Queen Mary, with Clyde connections, lay until recent times. 

The fascinating story of the LCC’s impressive but unsuccessful fleet of 30 paddlers and their ultimate fates has been extensively researched by Swiss steamship enthusiast Dr Jurg Meister of Basel and published in an extensively illustrated book. I am grateful to Dr Meister for sending me a copy of such and impressive and informative piece of maritime heritage research. The text is Swiss German. The view below is the front cover of the book and the picture in the bottom right corner is the MV Waldstatter ex PS Ben Johnson, on which I enjoyed many sailings in the 1980s and early 90s. Note the text of the book is written in German.

Stuart Cameron