Timeshift: The People’s Liners – Britain’s Lost Pleasure Fleets

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

Timeshift: The People’s Liners – Britain’s Lost Pleasure Fleets


Some of the Society’s historical footage appears in this programme and its director/producer, Robin Toyne, has contributed a couple of paragraphs for us:

Filmmaker thoughts…

The first time I saw an excursion steamer I was 11 and on a bird-watching trip to the Isles of Scilly.  One day, in place of the “Scillonian”, “Balmoral” turned up (I now know in P&A Campbell colours and in the last few years of her life as a commercial steamer).  What struck me then was that she looked out of time.  I was intrigued.

I first saw “Waverley” in the early 1990’s (no longer such an avid bird-watcher and on a visit to the Isle of Man).  She was alongside in Peel harbour on a choppy day and I remember doing a double take.  I’d no idea a large working paddle steamer even existed…

Wind forward to 2014 and, living in Bristol, I was aware of the volunteer efforts to ready “Balmoral” for sea again.  I thought there might be a local story… and so started an engrossing trail that led me into the colourful world of excursion cruising.  With so much vivid oral history both in terms of individuals who had worked on the steamers and those who had travelled aboard, I became fascinated by the social history of how they reflected holiday aspirations over the decades as well as the maritime history of the ships themselves.   And then when I learnt of the wealth of archive, in part thanks to the help of Richard Turner and Martin Oatway, I couldn’t believe that the story hadn’t been told on television before…

I took the idea to BBC’s “Timeshift” series, also based in Bristol, and they in turn pitched the film to commissioners.  All through the process I was advised it was a long shot, which, of course, I knew was true.  What I didn’t know was that one of the BBC4 executives had an uncle who has a stoker on a Clyde Steamer!  We were underway….

Throughout the research, production and post production of the film, I’ve been struck by the enthusiasm and generosity of everyone who has shared their experiences and ‘coastal cruising passion’ with me.  It’s been an endlessly fascinating voyage – and I hope I’ve managed to capture a sense of the character and vitality of life aboard the steamers and the communities they served.  That’s been my aim throughout.

With such a wealth of personal recollection and archive, I haven’t been able to include everyone nor every ship in the final cut – and there will be some extra clips featuring ships and stories that would have been included if we’d had a longer slot.  But the film wouldn’t have happened, nor be what it is, without everyone’s involvement and generosity, for which I’m very grateful.

And who knows – if “The People’s Liners” attracts a good audience – maybe the BBC might commission a sequel?!

“Timeshift: the People’s Liners”, Tuesday 20th October, BBC4, 9pm


Robin Toyne, Director/Producer, Bristol, 8th October 2015

Here is the synopsis:

Timeshift casts off for a colourful voyage of high teas on the high seas, family pleasure trips and the original booze cruises in the company of passengers and crew of the vintage steamers which plied between industrial cities and their nearest seaside and offered day trips from those resorts.  Far more than a means of transport, each ship attracted a devoted following, treating its passengers, whatever their pocket, to the adventure and trappings of an ocean voyage whilst rarely actually venturing out of sight of land.  A highlight of the Great British Seaside Holiday from the 1820s until the early 1960s – and open to all – they were ‘the people’s liners.’

“Comet”, the first commercially operated steamship in Europe, began sailings on the River Clyde in 1812.  With her novelty, flair and reliability, she revolutionised travel.  Pre-dating the first UK railway by almost 20 years, the steamboat was the first form of mass transport and, for many people, the first time they’d experienced the wonder of steam.  Travel became pleasurable and, within six years of Comet’s maiden voyage, there were a plethora of steamboats offering sight-seeing trips around the British coast.  The era of excursions had begun, (long before Thomas Cook launched his railway tours in 1841).

Fleets expanded throughout Victorian and Edwardian Britain – and the steamers grew ever faster and more luxurious.  London was connected to the resorts of Essex and Kent, Liverpool and Lancashire to North Wales, the piers were alive with paddlers along the South Coast but the greatest concentration of steamers and destinations were along the Clyde Riviera and Bristol Channel, the dual focus of our film.

With grandiose names to match their aspirational ambience like “Duchess of Montrose”, the “Jeannie Deans” and the original “Queen Mary” (renamed Queen Mary II with the launch of Cunard’s luxury liner) the Clyde Steamers transported thousands of Glaswegians “doone the watter” for their main family holiday.  It was a traditional still very much alive when Duncan Graham landed his dream job.  Term time he was a student teacher, for five consecutive summers from 1954 – 1959 he was an assistant purser across the Clyde fleet.  Working and living aboard the steamers gave him a port hole into 1950’s life and dreams.

The steamers in the Bristol Channel were also intrinsically linked to the communities they served.  Ordinary seaman Robin Wall and pantry boy (later Purser) Neil O’Brien followed their fathers, who each worked for P&A Campbells prestigious White Funnel Fleet, and experienced life aboard the White Funnel flagships “Bristol Queen” and “Cardiff Queen.”  Days at sea on the Bristol Channel usually meant nights ashore in Cardiff and, at a time when British society was still predominantly white, Robin and Neil revelled in the multi-cultural joys of Cardiff’s Tiger Bay…. (the original home of Shirley Bassey, who we see performing on a White Funnel Steamer before her meteoric rise).

The 1950s proved to be the sunset of coastal cruising however.  With an independently spirited younger generation keen to find their own holiday destinations, the rise in car ownership and the advent of the package holiday, excursion steamers declined throughout the 1960’s.  All around the coast the much loved steamers were retired and the majority scrapped.  By the early 1970s the “Waverley” was the only paddle steamer remaining on the Clyde.  Down west the paddlers had been replaced by elegant diesel motor ships, who in turn inspired a dedicated following, the last of which “Balmoral” ploughed on until 1980.

Commercially that should have been the end of the story but, as “The People’s Liners” shows, such is the draw of the ships and the traditions they represent that “Waverley” and “Balmoral” have both been preserved.  Owned by the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society, “Waverley”, the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world, has now operated longer in preservation than as a commercial steamer.  She operates from ports right around the UK and, during her Clyde season, still connects with the communities she was built to serve.  And, after years of volunteer endeavour, “Balmoral”, the last White Funnel Steamer has re-entered service too – and we’re on board for the first cruise of her re-launch.

Principal Credits

Narrator: Steven Mackintosh                 Editors: Lizzie Minnion, Stuart Davies

Series Producer:  William Naylor            Executive Producer: Michael Poole

Director/Producer:  Robin Toyne

Further information…

Both “Balmoral” and “Waverley” are on the UK’s National Historic Register of Ships such is their significance to the country’s maritime heritage.

Of the hundreds of excursion steamers “Waverley”, “Balmoral” and “Shieldhall” (the former Glaswegian sewage ship with a double life as an excursion steamer – also featured in the film) and the river paddle steamer “Kingswear Castle” (not featured in the film) are all carrying passengers today.

“Medway Queen”, heroine of Dunkirk after rescuing over 3,000 soldiers from the beaches, is under restoration.

And “Maid of the Loch”, the last paddle steamer to be built in Britain, has recently been awarded Heritage Lottery funding towards her restoration.