Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

British Paddle Steamers by John Megoran

My first recollection of being on a paddle steamer is backing out from the Pleasure Pier at Weymouth in 1956 aged five aboard what I came to know well later as our local paddle steamer Consul. It was a sunny afternoon. We were sitting as a family on the buoyant apparatus at the aft end of the promenade deck. There was a wonderful smell of salty sea air combined with Acriflex, a yellowy cream which mothers then spread on their children’s skin to ward off the burning characteristics of the sun.

British Paddle Steamers 1 Author aged 14, on the bridge of the 'Princess Elizabeth' at Weymouth (Author's collection)

That started off for me a love affair with paddle steamers which was fostered also by their then seemingly permanent presence in my home harbour of Weymouth. Not only did we go on the Consul in the summer but also other paddle steamers like the Embassy, Monarch and Princess Elizabeth came to lay up in the Backwater in the winter where they sat quietly, their boilers empty of water, their machinery greased up, their deck seats piled high under winter tarpaulins and their brass handrails bandaged with protective rag to stop them corroding.

Then there was the excitement of spring. Crew would be aboard them. The covers came off and scraping and painting began until the final touch of the handrails which had weathered down to a dull grey received their new coat of paint turning them into shiny sparkling silver. Finally, joy of joys, a whiff of first smoke came out from their previously cold funnels broadcasting the knowledge that the season was about to begin.

I avidly collected the timetables of all the then operators around the country pouring over what the steamers did, where they sailed and how long it took. Fortunately Dad was a keen amateur sailor and the house was filled with Admiralty charts which helped me to work out the routes, where they could go and the hazards and sandbanks to be avoided along the way.

British Paddle Steamers 2 The other is of the 'Consul' backing out from Bournemouth Pier (Author's collection)

It seemed to my childhood self that these paddle steamers had been there forever and would remain ever more a wondrous delight to be permanently enjoyed. There was disappointment when Monarch was withdrawn in 1960 but that was balanced by the optimism of the arrival of Princess Elizabeth in a new life at Torquay, Bournemouth and then Weymouth. The railway paddle steamer Sandown turned up for a refit in 1962 and the Bristol Channel flyer Bristol Queen in 1963. Goodness what a massive paddler she was compared with Consul.

Gradually I got to know some of the captains including Harry Defrates and Stanley Woods who were very kind to me, encouraged my interest and put me on the wheel for the first time aged fourteen. When Capt Woods was booked to bring the Clyde paddler Jeanie Deans round to the Thames he invited me along for the ride which most conveniently fitted into my school autumn half term holiday.

Then it slowly started to dawn. As the sixties wore on these lovely paddle steamers were on the way out. One after the other they were withdrawn and sent off to the scrap yards. In September 1966, the last regular south coast excursion paddle steamer, Embassy made her last trip and was towed away to Belgium to meet her end the following May. My childhood dream of going to sea and spending my life working aboard these lovely paddle steamers was beginning to look a bit empty.

However, never say die. Never give up. By a roundabout and not entirely planned process I ended up running and driving the lovely little paddle steamer Kingswear Castle for much of my adult life. Looking back now I just can’t understand how I got so lucky.

9781445653891

John Megoran's new book British Paddle Steamers is available for purchase now.