19th September 1959 River Dart Paddle Steamers
On Saturday 19th September 1959 there were two round trips scheduled from Dartmouth at 9am and 3.45pm to Totnes returning at 10.45am and at 5.45pm.
Totnes is tidal and cannot be served around low water with the first departure from Dartmouth possible being around one hour after low water to carry the tide up the river so that arrival at Totnes would be about two and a half hours after low water. Again the last departure on a falling tide had to be about two and a half hours before low water to reduce the risk of grounding on the way down the river on the falling tide.
On this Saturday the schedule could have been managed by just one vessel but if demand was great then a second could have been rostered to shadow her to carry the overflow.
When two of the paddle steamers were at Totnes at the same time they sometimes moored alongside each other as in the picture above. One put her engine ahead and the other astern so they twizzled round just like a twin screw ship.
On busier days two and sometimes three vessels were needed in the schedule. For example on Friday 11th September one was rostered to leave Dartmouth at 9.30am and the second at 10.30am with returns from Totnes at 11.30am and 2pm plus a third departure from Dartmouth at 1.30pm with return at 3.30pm. This third departure could have been taken by the boat which took the 9.30am departure giving her two round trips to Totnes in the day or by the third depending on the level of business expected and presenting that day.
Sometimes a vessel sailed light ship from Dartmouth to Totnes or vice versa to fit in with expected demand. For example on Monday 10th August one was scheduled to leave Dartmouth at 9.30am returning from Totnes at 11.30am. The second left Dartmouth at 11.30am with return from Totnes at 1.30pm. But there was also a scheduled departure from Totnes at 12.30pm so a third vessel would have had to have left Dartmouth around 10.30am and sailed up to Totnes light ship to be positioned to take this sailing.
I don’t know which, if any, of the three paddle steamers were rostered on this day Saturday 19th September as the company also had smaller motor vessels which could have been scheduled if the demand was slack. They had a sort of ideal fleet really with smaller boats for quieter times and the larger paddle steamers with their capacity for over 400 passengers each to mop up the crowds when it was busy. And there were days when, even at this late stage in their careers, the full passenger capacity of 400 for each of the three paddle steamers was needed to shift more than a thousand passengers up and/or down the River Dart in any one day.
I recall the son of Mr Hobbs, the company’s General Manager in the post war years, recounting that his Dad could never settle of an evening until all three paddlers were back at Dartmouth. And with the last departure from Totnes sometimes as late as 7.45pm that meant a return to Dartmouth of 9.15pm.
Of course Mr Hobbs Senior knew that he had an expert team and crews working for him. But he also knew that things can go wrong and if one of them had got stuck on the way down on a falling tide then he wanted to know about it if only to organise sandwiches to keep the passengers fed whilst they waited for the tide to come back in and float them off again. So his concern is entirely understandable and indeed highly commendable in such an experienced manager.