Spring 1995

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

Spring 1995

Kingswear Castle – The ship ran trials on the afternoon of Friday 16th December in readiness for the Christmas cruises that weekend. A coach party joined the afternoon cruise on the Saturday and 70 passengers, including many PSPS members, boarded the ship for the Buffet Lunch Cruise on Sunday. The boiler was then blown down, the ship was de-stored and work on the refit commenced during the first week of January. After nine years of operation, these Christmas cruises are no longer the novelty they once were for paddle steamer lovers, so for 1995, it is likely they will be replaced, for one year at least, with a day cruise. Kingswear Castle is scheduled to enter the Ailsa Perth dry-dock at the Historic Dockyard, where work will include fitting a bow-thrust unit.

Scottish Branch silver jubilee – The announcement of Caledonia’s withdrawal was made on 17th December 1969. Four days earlier, on Saturday 13 December 1969, the Scottish Branch of the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society was established. As Douglas McGowan, the first Branch Secretary, put it, “The newly inaugurated Branch was faced with the alternative of either taking urgent and active steps with a view to putting forward concrete proposals as to why the ship should not be scrapped, or sitting back and staying silent in the background”. The former course of action was taken. In other words, the Society’s Scottish Branch began life as it has continued for a quarter of a century now, responding vigorously and with enthusiasm to a huge challenge. There was great determination, inspired particularly by Douglas McGowan and others, that Caledonia should not go the way of so many of her predecessors and there were high hopes that this versatile ship could be preserved for future service.

On 18th November 1994 we gathered in the Glasgow Arts Club, and enjoyed a delicious meal. Key figures in the history of the branch travelled to be with us included Alan Robinson, John Whittle and Douglas McGowan who recalled the early days and spoke of the challenges ahead. He presented John Whittle (former General Manager of Caledonian MacBrayne) with the pound note donated to allow the Society to purchase Waverley on 8th August 1974.

We have “Maid” progress! – At their meeting on 12th January the Dumbarton District Council voted to take such steps as were necessary to establish a Trust which will ultimately take ownership of the Maid. There were attempts to scupper this by the production of a surprise report from a retired DTI surveyor just hours before the meeting took place. Although the report contained nothing new, it was certainly produced by an underhand method, being distinctly biased against the vessel being restored and was misleading in several places. Despite this the Council voted 11-5 to pursue Trust status and once again the Provost was sincere in his thanks to the work which PSPS have carried out, and stressed that Loch Lomond was the Council’s jewel in the crown and that the Maid of the Loch should complement this. In calling for the vote to be put the Provost said, “She is our Queen of the Loch!”

And 50 years ago… Six months after setting off from Newcastle, Eppleton Hall steams under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco; Balmoral lying in Weymouth Harbour, to be painted in full Campbell colours. Read more…

Plus 80 years ago… Paddling down the Thames – The General Steam Navigation Company could proudly trace its history back to 1824 with their first steamer, PS Eagle. Trading as “Eagle Steamers” they continued their Thames excursions into the 1960s with three ships. How was it that none of them was an Eagle or a steamer?

1939 marked a turning point for Thames estuary paddle steamers. The launch of the MV Royal Daffodil 80 years ago in 1939 signalled a new era and arguably hastened the end for the last and finest Eagle paddler, PS Royal Eagle. At over 1,500 tons gross and superbly appointed she was perhaps the ultimate paddler. But when sailings resumed after 1945 the market had changed. With a passenger capacity of 2,000 Royal Eagle became difficult to fill and uneconomic. GSN had played safe, investing in proven technology rather than following up the triple screw turbine SS Kingfisher (1906) with another turbine powered screw ship. For whatever reason Kingfisher was deemed to be more difficult to handle than a paddler.

Wind the clock back to the 1930s. The New Medway Steam Packet Co. trading as “Queen Line” were doing their best to outflank GSN on the key routes, primarily the cross channel excursions, landing and non-landing, to France. In 1927 they purchased two minesweepers, HMS Melton and HMS Atherstone, from the Admiralty. They were built in 1916 and came on to the market in the 1920’s following their minesweeping duties. They were brought round to Rochester to be totally transformed with new bulkheads sub dividing the hull into several watertight compartments forming dining saloons, bars, and observation lounges. Relaunched as PS Queen of Thanet and PS Queen of Kent they took up cross channel trips and introduced a new long haul Dover – Clacton service, soon gaining the reputation of being exceptionally comfortable and luxurious paddlers. At 240ft. length and 792 tons they were larger than Waverley’s 693 tons and very distinctive with two funnels, widely spaced.

The story becomes somewhat complex and the diagram may help to show the sequence of events. The colour boxes represent the periods during which the named ships offered public cruises and the company flag under which they sailed. Note that this is not an attempt to show the complete fleets. The build year is given after the name. In 1929, at the top left of the chart, GSN took over PS Royal Sovereign. This ship was a firm favourite on the Thames and was operated along with Koh-i-Knor and La Marguerite by a consortium trading as Palace Steamers. However this first Royal Sovereign only ran one season in GSN ownership. She was an old ship (1893) and GSN had invested in PS Royal Eagle. Along with Crested Eagle (lost at Dunkirk) they were considered the last word in excursion paddlers. GSN also had a strong fleet serving the resorts, in competition with the Queens and Belles.

The NMSP were also increasing their presence at the resorts with purchase of second-hand tonnage. One notable vessel joining the ‘Queen Line’ fleet for local Medway cruises was SS Royal Daffodil, coming from the Mersey in 1934. Originally named simply Daffodil, she was a fairly old twin screw steamer that had given outstanding service in WWI. The prefix Royal was granted by King George V.

The two ex-minesweepers Queen of Kent and Queen of Thanet were requisitioned for minesweeping in 1939 and following their release they were reconditioned once again for passenger service. But they were becoming somewhat dated and expensive to operate and maintain. Meanwhile the company, led by the ever ambitious Capt. Shippick, in collaboration with Denny’s of Dumbarton investigated the possibility of a cleaner, more economical motor vessel as the way forward. A pioneer new diesel powered twin screw ship, Queen of the Channel was built by Denny in 1935. Engined by Sulzer this 1,161 ton ship was the first of its type and proved very successful. Another, to be called Continental Queen was ordered. At the end of 1936 GSN gained control of NMSP and the GSN influence steered the name to Royal Sovereign perpetuating that of the famous old paddler.

The third motorship was named after the honoured and just departed Daffodil was launched in 1939 and is the MV Royal Daffodil that is remembered now. All three new ships had white hulls and no funnel emblems. MV Royal Daffodil was first to be marketed as an Eagle Steamer. She gave 27 years post war service on the Thames and was joined by two consorts, Queen of the Channel, and Royal Sovereign built in 1948/9 to replace the originals sunk at Dunkirk and in the Bristol Channel in 1940. They joined the Eagle Steamers fleet. PS Royal Eagle was laid up on the Medway near Upnor in 1950, remaining there until 1953 when finally towed away for scrap. A relic of her presence can be found in the street name of the road to the industrial estate which now occupies this area.

This story is perhaps the only instance of sea-going excursion paddle steamers being replaced by purpose-built passenger diesel screw vessels, excluding ferries. The initiative of the NMSP Co. drove this programme and kept the business afloat until the mid 1960s. And of course PS Medway Queen (still Queen Line) was in the fleet for the shorter trips.

Compiled by Guy Hundy from Paddle Wheels No. 139 Spring 1995 and various sources for Royal Eagle story.