Thames Ruby Lunch Report
On Saturday 20th October PSPS Patrons Timothy West CBE and Prunella Scales CBE joined many other PSPS members at a ‘sold out’ lunch to mark the 40th anniversary since Waverley first operated on the Thames.
Paddle Steamer Waverley first visited the Thames in April 1978 with her first sailing from the capital on Saturday 29th April. Since then the Thames has been a regular feature in Waverley’s cruising schedules. Her 2018 season ended just over two weeks ago where once again she attracted good loadings for her popular sailings.
John Allen as London Branch Chairman welcomed everyone to the lunch and commented on how much the river Thames has changed since Waverley’s first visit in 1978. He paid tribute to those who make it happen each year – directors, volunteers, crew and office staff, noting that a lot of hard work is involved behind the scenes to make sure the wheels keep turning.
Following lunch Timothy spoke and also noted the efforts of all those who work hard to keep Waverley sailing. He explained his disappointment on hearing the news that the HLF had not awarded funding to Maid of the Loch and he encouraged all involved to keep going with the aim of returning her to steam. Tim paid tribute to all the volunteers in Balloch who have worked hard over a long period of time and in particular he noted the commitment of John Beveridge, Chairman of Loch Lomond Steamship Co, and the time and effort he put in to secure stage 1 HLF funding and then the match-funding for the unsuccessful stage 2 bid.
Timothy concluded by raising a toast to absent friends with best wishes to John Beveridge and Jim MacFadzean in particular.
Initially the main guest speaker for the anniversary lunch was to be Waverley’s Purser of 23 seasons, Jim McFadzean, but owing to Jim recovering from a serious operation he was unable to travel south from Glasgow. Step forward PSPS Vice-President Douglas McGowan MBE as ‘understudy’!
Douglas noted how he could not think of a better person to play understudy to than Jim MacFadzean. Douglas then commented:
“Today we are marking 40 years of the Waverley coming south and in particular the Thames. Cast your mind back to 1977 and the Waverley’s grounding on the Gantock rocks at Dunoon. That event very nearly ended our dreams, it was only our third year of operation but nevertheless the considerable goodwill which had been generated in the community stood us in good stead and the business survived…..just and no more.
Following the Gantocks episode, we had managed to agree a moratorium with all our major creditors who were willing to wait until earnings in 1978 produced enough income to at least offer partial repayment. However, when plans were presented to the Board to take the ship south, there were looks of astonishment on the faces of Directors around the Board table. Astonishment and incredulity actually. I don’t mind admitting that to begin with, I was not in favour, along with the majority of Directors. Remember that this was only some 10 years after the spectacular failure of Queen of the South, ex Jeanie Deans on the Thames, despite lots of enthusiasm and bucketloads of money being thrown at the venture including a state of the art bow rudder being fitted for her second season 1967. So the ghost of Queen of the South was very much on my mind when I voiced my genuine concern.
Professor John Leech had recently joined the Board and said that he was prepared to financially guarantee the venture but immediate efforts had to be made to pre-book as much business as possible.This generous gesture provided a lifeline for the survival of the business and although there were clearly lots of literally uncharted waters ahead, we decided to proceed.
Various monthly accounts were set up with key suppliers including Esso, everything else would be dealt with by cheques issued by the Purser. For much of the trip two second mates would be carried to allow the Master to deal with a considerable additional administrative burden. Grey Green travel and A.T. Mays were appointed our agents for the Thames Estuary and did a splendid job in booking large parties, A.T. Mays even chartering the ship on two occasions. Numerous PSPS members assisted in a variety of ways, providing contacts and helping with stores etc.
Prior to her departure from Glasgow, the Department of Transport insisted on steel shutters to cover all the ship’s windows. In order to accommodate these, steel angles had to be welded round the outside of every window with great care being taken not to crack the glass as the original windows in the ship were only standard quarter inch thick plate glass, the same as many tenement houses had in Glasgow (but bear in mind tenement houses don’t normally sail round Land’s End!).
With a favourable forecast Waverley set off at 9am from Glasgow on Saturday 15th April bound for Newhaven. She was about to prove she really was the World’s Last Sea-Going Paddle Steamer! After fuel was taken at Bowling, next stop was Milford Haven where more bunkers were taken the following day. She left Milford at 3pm and rounded Lands End at 10:30pm that evening reaching Newhaven Harbour at 6pm the following evening. In those days we were allowed to carry 12 passengers during a positioning voyage so 12 brave PSPS members duly signed up at £100 per head for the voyage of a lifetime. The £100 was to cover all meals and a place to lie down at night in the lower bar. En-suite facilities were not included! I can remember being in Glasgow that morning to wave the steamer off on this epic adventure. Just imagine the excitement, this proud little paddle steamer, reincarnated by preservationists just 3 years earlier, about to set sail for the south coast and London for the biggest adventure of her life! Now the years play tricks with the memory but I think I’m right in saying that amongst the gallant 12 passengers were Margaret Russell, Basil Craggs, complete with tape recorder, John Grant, complete with 16mm video camera, Peter Stocker, Reg and Bunty Collinson, our trusty volunteer shopkeepers and John Easton, Reporter for the Glasgow Herald who had morphed from a very hard nosed sceptical journalist who had interviewed me on numerous occasions into one of the Waverley’s biggest fans, ultimately editing the Waverley Times.
The following video records Waverley’s journey from the Clyde to the South Coast.
The voyage south was without incident and the weather was fairly calm. Remember this was when Waverley still had her original 1947 double ended Scotch boiler and mobile phones and the high tech world were still a long way off. So the entire venture was very courageous to say the least and not without significant risk. Terry Sylvester’s marketing machine had been spun into action several weeks earlier and schools and group bookings were targeted. Many PSPS members assisted greatly, providing contacts and running errands which was invaluable. Grey Green coaches were used for most of the coach connections on the Thames and one of their Directors, Mike Kay, became totally “hooked” on the Waverley and assisted with commentaries on board and even helped out in the dining saloon at busy times. Isn’t is funny how some people just get the Waverley bug? Even our own Grandchildren. I was recently accused of being responsible for radicalising them all!
At this point I must pay tribute to Terry Sylvester whose efforts helped ensure the success of the Thames and south coast adventure. Terry and the Master both worked tirelessly despite numerous setbacks to make sure the ship sailed on time to wherever she was supposed to be going on that particular day. Yes, the logistics were an absolute nightmare, a vast new sailing area for us where pilotage, piers, rope handlers, fuel, water, catering and shop stores all had to be carefully planned in advance. But it was worth it. I don’t mind telling you that when that cheeky wee Clyde paddler went through Tower Bridge for the first time, whistle sounding and crammed with passengers, Jean and I shed a tear or two, tears of bursting pride.
1978 was my final year on the Board of WSN Co although I did another stint as Chairman of Waverley Excursions in the mid 1990’s. When Waverley came to London, one of my roles was to do all the local PR, writing and issuing Press Releases, arranging local press conferences and inviting VIP’s and local dignitaries on board. I tried inviting the Lord Mayor of London on board on the day we first arrived in the Capital but as he was otherwise engaged, I had to made do with the Mayor of Tower Hamlets. Well, beggars can’t be choosers but as he introduced himself, I’m sure that he was closely related to Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses. I gave him a tour of the ship and he appeared to be moderately impressed. Pausing briefly at the engine room, he took a cursory glance at the gleaming crankshafts, turned to me and asked, “Is it diesel then mate?”
During the south coast and Thames visit, the ship sailed for 36 days, and steamed 7,186 miles carrying 54,185 passengers, she made 123 passenger carrying calls at piers or harbours and was in operation for 408 hours. Not a minute was lost in this exhaustive programme through mechanical defect, a tribute to the efforts of a fantastic team of engineers, probably the very best we’ve had during the steamer’s preservation years. During the visit, the ship earned £92k of passenger revenue, with a further £10k from the souvenir shop and over £28k from catering. Overall, we made a profit on the venture of over £34k, a remarkable result, one which had paid back the Company for the lost revenue the previous year when the ship was being repaired following the Gantocks accident.
So………the moral of the story? Nothing ventured, nothing gained!”
Following Douglas in making a speech was PSPS Chairman, Paul Semple, who thanked Douglas and Jean for their continued commitment to Waverley and the Society for well over 40 years. Paul remarked on the fact that Waverley’s operation today relies on revenue earned on her annual visits south. He also noted that the success of Waverley had resulted in the Society developing which also aided the restoration of Kingswear Castle.
Paul gave an update on Jim in that he is improving and building back some strength after a period in hospital with follow up visits. Jim had asked for Paul to pass on his good wishes to all attending. Paul then paid tribute to Jim as Purser on Waverley for 23 seasons. Jim was described as the “voice of Waverley” and the “greatest ambassador” the ship has ever had. Paul commented on Jim’s qualities as a “people person” and how he could relate to passengers, pier staff, coach drivers and crew. In particular Jim would frequently offer advice and support to other crew members.
In concluding Paul thanked all those who had arranged the lunch, in particular, Chris Larkin, David Green and former PSPS Chairman Iain Dewar. All PSPS members present were also thanked for their on-going support.
A raffle took place following the speeches to raise some funds for the Society and Kathleen O’Neill was thanked for donating prizes from Waverley Excursions. Charles Turner also donated prizes with David Green producing posters using originals held in the PSPS Collection.
The next meeting of the London Branch will be on Saturday 19th January at 1:30pm when Martin Oatway will present a selection of films including material from PSPS Founder Prof. Alan Robinson’s extensive 1959-1964 collection.