Spring 1994

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

Spring 1994

1994 – Make or break year – Our ships have to comply with new regulations from 1st April 1995. By the end of 1993, we had raised a total of over £200,000 for essential new life-saving apparatus, new radio equipment and inflatable liferafts. In 1993, the ships’ operating companies produced record revenue in a season made unusually difficult both by the recession and by the weather,. We owe those who worked to achieve this – the company directors, ships’ officers and crews, and office staff a massive debt of gratitude. It must never be forgotten that our operating companies are, with our help, keeping successfully alive businesses which, in purely commercial terms, have been unviable for the past thirty years or more. Nor should it be forgotten that those who achieve this are either unpaid or underpaid.

The Waverley timetable was, without doubt, one of the best ever. The addition of many more ‘complete package’ days brought many extra passengers. We connected with 11 steam railways. In particular in the Bristol Channel added a number of other attractive extras to the cruise.

Kingswear Castle’s 10th anniversary cruise – Not one of us who sailed on Kingswear Castle’s 10th Anniversary Cruise last Autumn could avoid feeling some degree of pride when we re-visited the site of her restoration at the Medway Bridge Marina, where it all started. The ship left Rochester Pier at 12.30pm on 31st October with many who had taken part in the restoration. We got as near to her original berth as possible. We then carried out the exact manoeuvres made on 3rd November 1983. An excellent buffet lunch was served. All the society’s officers were aboard and cheques were presented to the two Society Ships.

And 50 years ago… Kingswear Castle’s expected steam raising; Hovercraft services started between Grimsby and Hull; Tattershall Castle aground with 500 passengers. Read more…

Plus 140 years ago, quiz answers from last edition and more… Rosherville Gardens just upstream of Gravesend was a popular 19th century pleasure garden. Londoners flocked there on the steamers. The Gardens were laid out in a disused chalk pit and named after the owner of the land, Jeremiah Rosher. Entertainments included an open-air stage, fireworks, tightrope walkers, fortune-tellers and balloon ascents. It was an era of tough working conditions, few holidays, and outings had to be economical. Rosherville Gardens acquired a certain notoriety as a destination for a cheap and cheerful day out helped along with plenty of booze.

Gilbert’s reference to Rosherville was in ‘The Sorcerer’, first staged in London in 1877. Less than a year later, on 3rd September 1878, Rosherville became the embarkation point of hundreds of passengers destined for what must be the worst paddle steamer disaster ever. PS Princess Alice was on the return leg of a London Bridge – Rosherville – Sheerness sailing. At 251 tons she was slightly shorter than Waverley, narrower, and lightly built. She started life as the PS Bute, built at Greenock for the Wemyss Bay – Rothesay service and was acquired by what became the London Steamboat Company in 1870.

Making her way upstream against the tide she was in collision with Bywell Castle, an iron hulled collier heading downstream from Millwall. The collier was empty but still about six times as heavy as the paddler. It was a classic case of both vessels making wrong course changes in the last minutes.

Many blamed PS Princess Alice entirely for the disaster. The association with Rosherville made it all too easy to spread rumours of drunken crew. The enquiry found no evidence of this, but uncovered many factors. The steersman was dependent on instructions from the bridge. He was a young substitute who, although experienced, had never steered a ship of this size before. He was unfamiliar with her reactions, was a stranger to the Captain and the nuances of his “Mind your Helm”, “Hard Over”.

Was the paddler over-crowded? Certainly yes, far too many on board with very limited life-saving equipment. It was estimated that there were more than 700 on board, many moving below as the sun went down. People must have been packed, standing in the saloons. But exceeding her certificate? No, she was certified for 936 to Gravesend, and 486 below that point. No proper boarding checks were necessary.

The collision took place on a sharp bend in the river in near darkness, where upstream vessels often crossed over towards the north bank to take advantage of slack water, but with the collier in sight this had not yet been attempted.

On the Bywell Castle there was uncertainty about the paddler’s likely course, compounded by difficulty interpreting the navigation lights on the bend. The pilot in command was recently returned after a disqualification period, and the steersman, with no view ahead, was dependent on instructions. In reality, with the current in her favour and propeller partly out of the water, control was limited. She was approaching the paddler fast and by the time the final helm command and full astern was given it was too late. The collision occurred before the engine could be reversed.

The paddler sank in a few minutes, and the heavily polluted state of the river claimed many who managed leave the ship. The loss of 600+ lives was due to inadequate safety and life-saving equipment regulations for passenger ships, poor lookouts, lax interpretation of the ‘rules of the road’, built up over many years, and the poisonous state of the river water.

Does this have any relevance today? 50+ lives were lost when the Marchioness, a London passenger vessel was rammed by a dredger in 1989. April. More recently there have been incidents with cruise ships. Take care of safety.

One Tree Hill refers to Honor Oak in Lewisham.

Entertainment on board was reported showing two characters on board the Southend Belle in 1925.|Alison Paul

Compiled from Paddle Wheels No. 135 Spring 1994 and No. 35 1978. Event researched from various sources.