British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years by John Megoran
Looking back on my life I was so incredibly lucky to have grown up as a boy in Weymouth in the 1950s and 1960s at a time when the harbour there was such an epicentre of paddle steamers activity. Not only did the Consul, Embassy and Monarch lay up there each winter but they were subsequently joined by the Princess Elizabeth and visitors like the Bristol Queen and Sandown which came for work on their engines and boilers undertaken by paddle steamer operator Cosens and Company of Weymouth.
A young Tony McGinnity bought the Consul in Weymouth after she had been withdrawn in 1962 and after that failed he set himself up as a ship broker handling the sales of pretty much all the UK paddle steamers withdrawn in the 1960s through his office at 11 Custom House Quay, Weymouth.
In the summer we went for trips aboard them to Lulworth Cove, Portland Bill, the Shambles Lightship, Swanage, Bournemouth and Totland Bay, Isle of Wight which to my young eyes seemed as far away as the moon. I was so taken with them that I even built a paddle steamer replica in our back garden.
Then each September, just as a new school year started, Consul, Embassy and Monarch retreated to lay up in Weymouth Harbour. The boilers were blown down making the steamers float higher in the water exposing a skirt of green weed which soon dried out and changed colour to white. Hats were put on the funnels to stop the rain going down. The brass was coated in a film of grease and carefully bandaged with strips of tarpaulin to keep it from the elements. The buoyant apparatus were stacked on deck and covered to protect them from the worst of winter storms.
There the steamers slumbered until the awakening dawn of spring brought out the workforce from the yard. Maybe a little bit of decking needed renewing like on the Consul in 1962. The Monarch had a new inner funnel fitted in 1959 and the Embassy had a new front fitted to her wheelhouse in 1964.
Then the fitters started work on the engines and boilers. Painters came aboard to start to transform the ships before they went off to the slipway or dry-dock for Board of Trade survey and underwater anti-fouling painting. Consul was small enough to be hauled out on Cosens own Weymouth slipway but the other paddlers had to go to Portland, Poole or Southampton instead. When they came back ready for their new summer seasons how fresh, shiny and new they looked.
All this was part of my daily childhood life. My cycle route to school took me past the harbour and the paddle steamers. I would stop and gawp, watching everything going on. Occasionally in the darkest depths of winter, and when there was nobody about, I would sneak aboard. Consul was always locked up but Embassy and Monarch had open access to their alleyways. Embassy had a cover over her engine room skylight so her machinery was always cloaked in darkness but not so on the Monarch. No cover there and what a winter joy it was to stand there looking at her engine bathed in sunlight from the skylight above and to try hard to figure out how it all worked.
It seemed to my young eyes then that these paddle steamers had been there for ever and would be there for ever more. It therefore came as a huge shock and deep personal outrage for me to read in the Dorset Echo in November 1960 that the Monarch was to be withdrawn. I just could not believe then that such a wicked thing could happen.
But happen it did. In March 1961 Monarch was towed away to be scrapped in Cork and I shed a tear. My grandmother, who knew Cosens general manager Don Brookes, heard of this and came round to our house the following week clutching a brown paper parcel tied up with string. When I opened it, what joy! Inside was the name pennant and house flag of Monarch.
So the 1960s wore on with one paddle steamer after another being withdrawn. Glen Gower, Glen Usk, Whippingham, Compton Castle, Totnes Castle, Alumchine, Medway Queen, Sandown, Kingswear Castle, Talisman, Bristol Queen and Cardiff Queen, the list of withdrawals just went on and on.
It was though tempered with little bursts of optimism these recommissions were all short lived. Freshwater was bought for further service on the Sussex Coast in 1960 and from Bournemouth but that lasted for only two seasons. Consul was bought by Tony McGinnity but again only lasted for just two years. Princess Elizabeth enjoyed six golden summers in private ownership, three of then running from Weymouth when I really got to know her. Through that I was lucky enough to be invited for part of the delivery voyage of the Jeanie Deans south from the Clyde to London and again for her first few trips on the Thames of what turned out to be a very short career as the Queen of the South.
In April 1967 I went aboard the Embassy for the last time just before she too was towed away to be scrapped and it was then that the penny finally dropped. Paddle steamers were on the way out and rather than finding a career aboard them as I had hoped, I would have to look elsewhere to make a living.
Looking back I can hardly believe my luck that in the end, and by a rather circuitous route, I did become a paddle steamer captain and was able to spend thirty years of my adult life running the paddle steamer Kingswear Castle on the Medway and Thames. But that is another story told in another book.
John Megoran's new book British Paddle Steamers The Twilight Years is available for purchase now.