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Thames “Butterfly” Boats

As with the Clyde and West Coast of Scotland passenger paddle steamers, the packets that maintain services between London and neighbouring holiday resorts have a history which goes back to the first years of steamships

The Royal Sovereign plied in the Thames estuary for more than thirty years

THRONGED WITH HOLIDAY-MAKERS, the Royal Sovereign plied in the Thames estuary for more than thirty years. She was built in 1893 at the Fairfield Yard, on the Clyde, re-boilered in 1909, and in 1918 was sold to the Royal Sovereign Steamship Company. She was employed on the General Steam Navigation Company’s Margate and Ramsgate run during 1929 and in the following year was sold to be broken up. With a gross tonnage of 891, she was slightly larger than her consort, the Koh-i-Noor.

“BUTTERFLY BOATS”, as the deep-sea sailor calls the excursion paddle steamers, are to be found in various parts of the British Isles. Those in the West of Scotland are particularly noteworthy for their design and volume of traffic, but the fleet on the London River is nearly as old and just as well known to a large number of passengers. The ships are not as big as those on the Hudson River in the United States nor, with some exceptions, as elaborate as those on the Clyde, but they have an interest, and a following of enthusiasts, all their own.

The first steamer to carry passengers on the Thames is seldom mentioned in history books. She was the little Richmond, which was put on the London-Richmond service as long ago as 1814. She was only a little ship of 50 tons burden, driven by a bell-crank lever engine of 10 horse-power. Passengers regarded her with a good deal of apprehension. When she burst a steam pipe they were terrified to patronize her, for boiler explosions on the Clyde and the American rivers had become a by-word and the Thames watermen, who saw their business being ruined by the advent of the steamer, took every care to foster the fear.

So progress might have been held up, but by the end of 1814 the little steamer Margery was bought from the owners who had been running her on the Clyde. She made the passage round to the Thames under sail, and was put on what had been known as the Long Ferry, between London and Gravesend. She ran from Wapping Old Stairs, close to the London Docks, to Milton, below Gravesend, doing the passage down one day and returning on the next. After one year’s service she was sent out to the River Seine, France.

The promise of her first few months of running was sufficient to encourage other parties to buy the steamer Arqyll, on the Clyde, for the same purpose. She was 72 feet long with a burden tonnage of 74, the nominal horse-power of her engine being 16. Shrouds and ratlines were fitted to her tall funnel, which was used as a mast. She set a big square sail when the wind was favourable, and her paddles were built well into the hull. After a short period on the Gravesend run she was sold, refitted at considerable expense, and put on the service between London and Margate. Within a few months the steamer was thus attacking two well-established London businesses, the Long Ferry to Gravesend and the hoy trade to Margate. The vested interests in either run were prepared to fight her for their business. Every means was taken to check her progress, from legal injunctions to mob violence in the street, but the steamship owners held on and gradually made ground.

The Argyll was renamed Thames, and with new engines did well for a time. Then she was relegated to the Gravesend service again, being replaced on the Margate run by the Regent, which was built at Rotherhithe in 1816. She was a beamy little ship of 112 tons burden and her engines of 24 horsepower were independent, either driving its own paddle, with the boiler placed between them. Her great fault was that, in the desire to obtain the high speed which was demanded by her passengers, everything was built lightly, in a manner which would not be passed by the inspectors to-day. It is rather surprising that she finished her career by being burned instead of falling to pieces, as might have been expected. For a short time after the burning of the Regent the Margate service was left uncovered. Then the Sons of Commerce, built for the Gravesend service and regarded as the crack steamer of the river, was transferred to the Margate run for a spell. She was soon surpassed by such steamers as the Eagle, the Favourite, the Eclipse (mentioned in the Ingoldsby Legends), the Venus, the Albion and others, the biggest being the Magnet, of no less than 300 tons burden. The rivalry between the various concerns became more and more keen and the captains of the various boats took risks which would horrify the officials to-day, although then the passengers seem to have found the risks exciting.

Meanwhile the services to Gravesend were improved and better steamers began to run on a regular schedule up-river to Richmond. The watermen continued their efforts to check them — from introducing bills in Parliament to deliberately getting into their way — but the public were beginning to take to the steamers wholeheartedly.

A number of experimental steamers were brought out which might well be described as freaks. Of these the most prominent was the London Engineer of 1818. She was a fine vessel in her day, but peculiar in that her paddle-wheels were placed amidships. The London Engineer had a length of 120 feet, and a beam of 24, her tonnage being 315 by builder’s measurement. The two paddles turned at 28 revolutions a minute and the stream of water to them was kept constant by air pressed into the waterway by two big pumps.

She was fitted with a nice saloon aft, having the luxury of upholstered settees, while the passengers in the cheaper fore cabin had to be content with wooden benches. She was too big a ship to have her sail set on the funnel, and was given two proper masts, although the funnel with its decorated top was nearly as tall as they were.

The “Eagle” Tradition

Several attempts were made to run a “straight-through” service from Richmond to Margate, but they were never successful, and as the design of the steamers improved it became specialized for each section. The steamer to run from London to Margate — later round the North Foreland to Ramsgate — had to be of reasonable strength and seaworthiness, for the little vessels of those days maintained a service through the winter which is not attempted by the much bigger ships of to-day.

The steamers on the Long Ferry, and from London to Greenwich and Woolwich, were much lighter in construction and, as the competition increased and more owners put their ships on the run, reckless racing and cutting in became the rule. The sections above London and through the bridges to Richmond demanded yet another type of light, construction and draught so that the service might be maintained independent of the tide. Accidents were numerous on all three sections, occasionally fatal, but the general public took little notice of them and continued to patronize the steamers in ever-increasing numbers.

On the Margate run a great difference was made when the first of the famous Eagles was built. She was a private venture of Thomas Brocklebank, and was built in 1820 at his own yard at Deptford. In the following year she was put on to the Margate run, where her burden of 170 tons, her accommodation and her speed, attained by two engines of 20 nominal horse-power, made her a great favourite. Shortly afterwards Brocklebank combined his interests with those of several other owners on the river and formed the General Steam Navigation Company, which maintains the Eagle tradition in its nomenclature to this day.

The Royal Adelaide, built in 1830, was typical of the paddle steamers to be seen on the Thames

AN EARLY EXCURSION STEAMER which was employed on the service between London, Gravesend and Margate. The Royal Adelaide, built in 1830, was typical of the many paddle steamers to be seen on the London River during that period. Competition for the river traffic was keen, for the railway to Gravesend was not built and the Princess Alice disaster had not yet shattered the confidence of the public.

Until the advent of the Eagle these steamers were regarded as being too valuable to entrust to the care of a Merchant Service officer, and half-pay naval lieutenants were employed, although they contrived to have their full quota of accidents. The Eagle was put under the command of Captain Martin, who had formerly had charge of sailing hoys on the Margate run, and he was so successful that merchant captains were always employed afterwards. The standard of the General Steam Navigation Company’s steamers improved rapidly, from the 170-tons Eagle to the 220-tons Royal Sovereign and the 235-tons City of London. The Margate run was only one of the company’s interests.

The river steamers had improved nearly as rapidly as those on the Thanet run, speed being the great consideration. In 1821 the crack ship on the river was the Swiftsure, the pioneer of the Gravesend Steamboat Company, and on a burden of only 105 tons she had engines of 30 nominal horse-power. The Hawk, which followed her in 1826, was of only 88 tons, but her engines were of 50 nominal horse-power. Successive steamers carried the service beyond Gravesend to Southend and Sheerness.

In 1828 the Gravesend service was still further improved by the commissioning of the Sophia Jane, by far the biggest steamer on the river run, with her burden of 143 tons. She afterwards had the distinction of being the first steamer to go round the Cape of Good Hope to Australia.

A number of steamboat companies were founded on the river and on the coast. On the river two of the companies were particularly interesting. One was the Sons of the Thames Company, which was founded by a number of steamboat captains when their owners appointed pursers to collect the fares.

13½ Knots in 1836

The captains maintained that their dignity was wounded, but it is far more likely that it was their pocket that was hurt, for in the early days there was no method of checking the money that they received, nor of preventing gross and dangerous overcrowding. The other was the Watermen’s Steam Packet Company, mostly interested in the services above Woolwich only. This company was founded by the watermen of the river when they discovered that they could not possibly drive the steamers off the waterway, so determined to own them instead.

The Star and Diamond Companies were keen competitors on the Gravesend route, and built some remarkable steamers. The most striking was undoubtedly the Ruby, which, built at Blackwall in 1836, was the fastest ship afloat in her day. Her hull was 155 feet long between perpendiculars, 19 feet in beam and 10 ft. 2 in. in depth, her burden being 272 tons. Her two side-lever engines were each of 50 horse power and, drawing steam from boiler working at a pressure of 3½ lb., gave her a speed of no less than 13½ knots. This was an astounding speed for 1836 and was unrivalled on the river for many years. Her hull was lightly built, but by ingenious construction it was of remarkable strength. At the end of her days she ran on the Margate service for the General Steam Navigation Company.

All this time there were a number of smaller companies and owners trying to get their share of the business, but few of them lasted for long. Many of their steamers were considered by the Admiralty to be fit to carry a reasonably heavy armament in war-time and to act as auxiliary cruisers. On the river there were even more small owners, among whom the Blackwall Railway Company and the Woolwich Steamboat Company were to become famous.

THE LARGEST EXCURSION STEAMER on the Thames for many years was the La Marguerite

THE LARGEST EXCURSION STEAMER for many years was the famous La Marguerite, built by the Fairfield Yard in 1894. Of 2,205 tons gross, she was designed to run from Tilbury to Margate, Boulogne, Calais and Ostend. Her length was 330 feet, her beam 40 feet and her depth of hold 13 ft. 7 in. She was sold to the Liverpool and North Wales Steamship Company in the winter of 1903-4 and plied between Liverpool and Anglesey until 1925, when she was broken up.

Racing was forbidden, but it constantly occurred. The wash claims made by barges and other interests on the river encouraged the evolution of many ideas to reduce the waves raised by the paddles. The Propeller of 1840 was not a screw boat, as her name suggests, but was fitted with extraordinary paddles. These consisted of single iron blades which dipped into the water almost perpendicularly and were forced backwards by an iron arm having a motion similar to that of a grasshopper. The Propeller raised no wash, but she was extravagant in coal.

The Blackwall Railway Company, which normally ran services on the river only, built the Prince of Wales in 1840, which attracted great attention. She was the first iron-hulled steamer on the river, with a tonnage of 429 by the old measurement and, although her engines had been taken out of the worn-out Royal William, they made her the fastest steamer of her time. The company took advantage of this to put her on the Margate service occasionally. The competition was not regular, but it was sufficient to spur the other companies to improve their fleets. The General Steam Navigation Company, for instance, transferred to the run several bigger steamers which had formerly been running across to the Continent or up to Scotland. The Little Western, which the G.S.N. Company had bought after having salved her hopelessly broken down, was one of their cracks at that time.

When the railway was opened as far as Gravesend in 1848 it appeared that the Long Ferry was doomed, and that the steamers would be used only for short distances in London or close to the metropolis, or else on the long excursions to the coastal resorts. Several of the smaller companies went into liquidation but the remaining ones, and some which were floated specially, found plenty of employment.

There was another little boom at the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, when London was packed with visitors from every country. They regarded a trip on the river as being an essential part of their holiday. There were also periods of reckless rate-cutting, when a pleasant day on the river cost remarkably little, and these periods were usually followed by the collapse of a proportion of the competitors.

Epoch-making Design

By the 1850s the railways were taking an enormous number of holiday-makers down to the Thanet resorts, but the steamboats still found plenty of business. The General Steam Navigation Company was well to the fore, and its famous Eagle, built at Northfleet (Kent) in 1853, marked an epoch in design. She had a gross tonnage of 325 and a speed of 14 knots, which made her the fastest on the run. She was licensed for 466 passengers round the South Foreland, and was the first ship to do the trip from the Pool to Margate and back in one day, although she attempted it only on Sundays, when the traffic was always heavy. She was supported by many fine steamers, including some which had been on the packet service to the Continent. In the mid-1870s a plan was launched to amalgamate all the river services, but the only result was to ruin the greater number of them although the London Steamboat Company was formed out of what remained of the most promising. It seemed that the service would at last be really worthily maintained, for new ships were planned and several Clyde steamers were brought down to the London River with a great flourish of trumpets. It was not mentioned, however, that most of the ships were regarded as being far below the Clydeside standard and had been bitterly criticized in northern waters.

The famous Royal Daffodil at the 1934 Thames barge race

AT THE ANNUAL THAMES BARGE RACE, described in the chapter “Thames Sailing Barges”, Thames packets often act as committee boats and grand stands. This photograph shows the famous Royal Daffodil at the 1934 barge race. Built in 1906 for the River Mersey ferry services, the Daffodil won fame for her part in the Zeebrugge action on St. George’s Day, 1918. Now known as the Royal Daffodil, she belongs to the New Medway Steam Packet Company. A twin-screw vessel of 432 tons gross, she has a length 152 ft. I in., a beam of 40 ft. 7 in. and a depth of 11 ft. 3 in.

It was one of these former Clyde steamers, the Princess Alice, whose tragic end checked the development of the Thames passenger business for many years. She was one of the crack ships of the London Steamboat Company and, by her size and her imposing appearance with two funnels, was highly regarded by passengers. The more practical Clydesiders had condemned her as being unstable and weak, and the addition of extra saloon accommodation when she came south had made matters worse.

In September 1878 she was returning from an excursion to Gravesend and Sheerness with about 700 passengers on board. At about 8 o’clock in the evening, when she was approaching Woolwich, she was run down by the screw collier Bywell Castle, which hit her just forward of the starboard paddlewheel and cut right through her side into the machinery space, the biggest compartment in the ship. She immediately began to roll over and founder, breaking her back. A panic ensued.

There was no time to get out the inadequate lifeboats which she carried, and there were far too few lifebuoys. Within five minutes she had gone down in the deepest part of the river, carrying with her about 550 of her passengers. The remainder had extraordinary escapes, and the disaster will always be remembered on Thames-side.

The catastrophe caused a profound impression throughout the country. That a ship should be permitted to carry hundreds of passengers without Lloyd’s classification for her construction, and without any supervision as to the life-saving appliances, was a shock to the public. Immediate steps were taken to rectify matters, but for several years afterwards a trip in a Thames steamer, whether it was by one of the smallest and most decrepit on the river itself or in one of the G.S.N. Company’s well-found steamers to Margate, was regarded as a great adventure.

The first attempt to regain favour was rather a half-hearted one. The successors to the firm which owned the Princess Alice bought the Clyde steamer Glen Rosa, an excellent little vessel which had been built in 1877, and ran her as something of a free lance. She was sometimes employed on the river service and sometimes ran round to Herne Bay or Margate. She was generally popular, but, single-handed, her influence was not sufficient to overcome the bad impression which had been made.

The next step was the building of three new little river steamers to run between Greenwich and Battersea, the Orlando, Celia and Rosalind. They were built on the Tyne, and were of a new standard for the river service.

The First “Belle” Steamer

Just over 100 feet in length, with a beam of 11 feet, they drew only 3 ft. 6 in. of water, could carry 300 passengers and had good saloons forward and aft. Their compound engines gave them a speed of 10 knots, and were exceedingly economical for their day, and the greatest care was taken to keep good order on board.

They succeeded so well on the river that in 1887 the General Steam Navigation Company set out to effect a similar revolution on the coast with an entirely new class. Not exactly sisters but designed on the same general principles, the Halcyon, Mavis, Oriole, Laverock and Philomel were fine little ships of their type and infinitely superior to their predecessors. Their gross tonnage varied from 470 to 643 and they were good for a steady 15 knots in any circumstances, although in some vessels the machinery was too powerful for the hull and gave a good deal of trouble. They not only improved the Thanet service, but also made it possible to open a somewhat similar run, although handicapped by its length, to the resorts on the East Anglian coast.

The success of these ships of the Navigation fleet encouraged the Victoria Steamboat Association, which had been formed to take over the river service when the Princess Alice disaster ruined her owners, to try coastal work as well. The Association inaugurated this policy in 1890 by buying the Clyde steamer Lord of the Isles. She had been built in 1877, but she was a fine ship with a fine reputation, and when she was put on the Thanet service in 1890 she immediately succeeded in attracting large numbers of passengers. Before the end of the season it was decided that she was too small for her owners’ requirements, with her gross tonnage of 466, so that they determined to sell her and get a bigger and finer vessel.

The Royal Eagle was built at Birkenhead in 1932 for the General Steam Navigation CompanyTHE MODERN BUTTERFLY BOAT has the advantages of recent achievements of naval architecture, and yet retains the traditional spirit of this type of vessel. The Royal Eagle, shown here, had her hull painted creamy buff in 1935. She was built at Birkenhead in 1932 for the General Steam Navigation Company. A vessel of 1,539 tons gross, she has a length of 292 ft. 1 in., a beam of 36 ft. 8 in. and a depth of 10 ft. 6 in. Her three-cylinder triple-expansion engines develop 3,000 horse-power.

Before the Association could complete its plans a new company had started on the river. The Clacton Belle of 1890 was the first of the Belle steamers. They were built by Denny Brothers of Dumbarton, who had long specialized in fast paddle packets for the cross-Channel route and who wanted to show the world that they were equally capable of building the best ships of the new type. The builders were therefore ready to co-operate with a syndicate which was developing several new resorts on the East Anglian coast.

The Clacton Belle had a gross tonnage of 458 and a length of 246 feet. With her speed of 17 knots she attracted great attention. She was immediately followed by the Woolwich Belle, a little vessel of only 298 tons.

The Belle steamers opened up new possibilities on the East Coast, so that the Victoria Steamboat Association decided to put its new ship on to that run instead of competing with the General Steam Navigation Company to Thanet. She was the Koh-i-noor, built in the Fairfield Yard at Glasgow in 1892, with a gross tonnage of 884 and a length of just over 300 feet. She was a particularly handsome ship, with her two funnels, but as she was designed to go under London Bridge to the Old Swan Pier her funnels were made to lower and her mast was hinged at the heel. Her hull was one of the most beautiful of its kind ever built, with knife-like bows, perfect lines for speed and an upper promenade deck that was carried right forward to the bow. To build a ship of these dimensions on a light draught, giving the hull sufficient strength to carry the weight of her passengers in all weathers and to withstand the strain of her powerful engines, was regarded as a great feat. These engines were compounds, working at a pressure of 120 lb. and indicating 3,500 horse-power, which gave her a trial speed of 19.49 knots. Hull and engines were regarded as the last word in their type and attracted world-wide attention.

Famous for Forty Years

The company, through its associate, the London and East Coast Express Steamship Service Ltd., took immediate steps to lay down a sister ship, to be named the Royal Sovereign. She was built at the same yard on almost the same plans, but was given a little more beam, which increased her gross tonnage to 891. Externally there was virtually nothing to distinguish the two ships except by their decoration and the fact that the Koh-i-noor had only one deckhouse bar, placed abaft the funnels, while the Royal Sovereign had one forward as well.

The Royal Sovereign did a little better than her consort on trial, averaging 19.6 knots, but on service the elder vessel proved to be the better one. She handled rather more easily and gave no trouble at all in the engine-room, cheerfully digesting any coal that was put into her bunkers and averaging a high speed. The Royal Sovereign was far more fastidious and gave a certain amount of trouble unless she were carefully handled. It was the virtues of the Koh-i-noor which shortened her life. The Royal Sovereign was re-boilered first, and when war broke out in 1914 the Koh-i-noor had not yet been done. The vessels were laid up as they were unsuitable for trooping, and when the Fairfield Company, which had never been paid for them and which had put them under the management of various concerns, decided to sell them, it was the Royal Sovereign, with her new boilers, which was bought for running, while the sturdy old Koh-i-noor went to the scrappers.

The owners of the Belle steamers responded to the Koh-i-noor with the London Belle, built by Denny in 1893. Although her single funnel and mast made her look much smaller than the imposing Fairfield boats, her tonnage was not really so much less, being 738 gross, and she was a fine sturdy ship capable of a comfortable 19 knots. She contrived to do the return trip to Yarmouth and back in one day, but it was done only in rather exceptional circumstances.

The Koh-i-noor and the Royal Sovereign on the one hand, and the Belle steamers on the other, had their vicissitudes with regard to ownership, for the owning companies changed in a rather bewildering manner. What really mattered was the competition between the Fairfield Yard on the one hand, and Denny of Dumbarton on the other, for much depended on the performance and reputation of these “butterfly boats” which were really their builders’ samples.

BUILT IN 1897 as the Walton Belle by Denny of Dumbarton

BUILT IN 1897 as the Walton Belle by Denny of Dumbarton, this vessel was bought by the New Medway Steam Packet Company for its services between Rochester, Kent, and the Thames and Thanet resorts. The Walton Belle, renamed the Essex Queen, is a vessel of 455 tons gross, with a length of 230 feet, a beam of 26 ft. 2 in. and a depth of 9 ft. 2 in. Her port of registry is London.

In 1894 the Fairfield Company made a decisive move by building the famous La Marguerite, the most noteworthy ship of the fleet for forty years. She was far more than an ordinary London pleasure steamer and resembled the finest paddle packet which had been built for service across the English Channel or to the Isle of Man. Her length was 330 feet, her beam 40 feet and she had 13 ft. 7 in. depth of hold. She had a gross tonnage of 2,205, which made her the biggest pleasure steamer in England by a large margin.

She was designed to run from Tilbury to Margate and then across the English Channel to Boulogne, Ostend or Calais. She was a magnificent ship in every way and under the command of Captain Arthur Owen made a great name for herself.

La Marguerite had scarcely been delivered when the Fairfield Company foreclosed on account of the money owing on the Koh-i-noor and the Royal Sovereign. A company called the New Palace Steamers Limited was founded to run the ships, although the builders retained the title. The New Palace Company also bought the old London, Brighton and South Coast packet Paris, built in 1875, and renamed her La Belgique, for the service between Tilbury and Ostend and also for the Southend and Margate run. Her speed of 13 knots was not to be compared with the 22½ knots of La Marguerite.

The Belle Steamers Company built the Southend, Belle, 617 tons, in 1896, the Walton Belle, 455 tons, in 1897, the Yarmouth Belle, 522 tons, in 1898, and the Southwold Belle, 535 tons, in 1900. All these ships developed the same plan and made a magnificently homogeneous fleet which found favour in the eyes of many people. The old Lord of the Isles competed under various ownerships and there were one or two more or less temporary additions to the fleet.

Finally, in 1898, the General Steam Navigation Company brought out the famous Eagle, which was a great favourite and carried an immense number of passengers, her owners at that time charging a slightly lower fare than their rivals. She was 265 feet long and had a gross tonnage of 647, her engines being good for 18 knots and her appearance being characteristic, with an elliptical funnel whose top was cut parallel to the water. In her early days she had two masts permanently stepped, as in the older Navigation boats of the Halcyon type, but afterwards the mainmast was suppressed and, in the opinion of many people, her appearance was spoiled.

Meanwhile the boats on the river service had been making progress. The effect of the Princess Alice disaster was still felt seriously and, in addition, many people were kept away from the steamers because of the rowdyism on board. The vessels were exempted from a number of licensing regulations and many of them, especially on Sundays, were little more than ill-controlled drinking places.

The “A.B.C. Ships”

The Thames Steamboat Company was formed in 1897 to pick up the remnants of the Victoria Steamboat Association, and was lucky enough to secure the cooperation of Arnold Hills, the active head of the Thames Ironworks Shipyard at Blackwall. Between them they planned a new service which should be a real credit to the river and in this they succeeded well. The Thames Ironworks built the Alexandra, Boadicea and Cleopatra (the “A.B.C. ships”), which were regarded as the ideal for purely river navigation with a speed of 10 knots and comfortable accommodation. The company ran them excellently, but circumstances were adverse and it finally had to close down.

These vessels and the odd boats which ran alongside them, had done their best to keep the projected London County Council boats off the river, for their owners saw that the competition would be exceedingly formidable with almost unlimited capital behind it. They were unsuccessful, however, and after a rather stormy passage through Parliament a Bill was passed in 1904. No fewer than twenty-seven shipbuilders were asked by the London County Council to submit their tenders for the building of ten, twenty, or thirty paddlers.

FORMERLY A MINESWEEPER built by the Admiralty during the war of 1914-18, she was bought in 1928 by the New Medway Steam Packet Company and renamed Queen of Thanet

FORMERLY A MINESWEEPER built by the Admiralty during the war of 1914-18, H.M.S. Melton was bought in 1928 by the New Medway Steam Packet Company and renamed Queen of Thanet. With her consort, the Queen of Kent, formerly H.M.S. Atherstone, she runs between Boulogne, where she is shown above, or Calais and the Thames. Of 792 tons gross, she is 234 ft. 11 in. long, with a beam of 29 ft. 1 in. and a depth of 9 ft. 2 in.

Thornycrofts built ten boats at £5,950 each, Napier and Miller ten at the same price, and the Thames Ironworks, employing local labour, were allowed to charge £6,500 apiece. Four of Thornycrofts’ boats were subcontracted to Rennies of Deptford and the fleet came into being in record time. The gross tonnage varied from 116 to 126, and all were licensed to carry 500 passengers, had an indicated horsepower of 350 and a trial speed of rather more than 13 knots. In principle, they were good little boats for their purpose, but there were minor faults in the design, particularly affecting their handiness for the difficult work of coming alongside the various piers which the Council acquired along the river banks.

The Council suffered from a lack of expert advice until Captain Arthur Owen, famous as master of the La Marguerite, took charge and made an immense difference to the boats’ efficiency. They were well kept and, as far as possible, well run; but finally the London County Council itself ruined all its chances of profitable running by building the elaborate tramways system in direct opposition to its own steamers. The vessels, therefore, had to be taken off the river and sold to run in various ports of Europe. The Thames service returned to the hands of a few small owners who had the greatest difficulty in making both ends meet.

From this period until the outbreak of war in 1914 there was comparatively little development on the coastal side. The famous La Marguerite, with the instalments for her payment long in arrears, was sold to the Liverpool and North Wales Steamship Company in the winter of 1903-04, and made as great a name for herself on the west coast as she had on the London River.

Competition to Thanet and the east coast resorts continued between the New Palace Steamers, operating the Fairfield ships, the General Steam Navigation Company and the Belle Steamers, with the occasional intervention of an outsider. All the Thanet schedules were now based on the return trip in one day, but to Yarmouth it was a whole day’s run and the boats passed one another half-way.

The next big step was made in 1906 when the General Steam Navigation Company went to Denny of Dumbarton, the pioneers of the turbine steamer on the Clyde and the cross-Channel services, for a Thanet excursion steamer driven by that means. The Kingfisher was built, a turbine-driven steamer with three screws after the fashion of those early days. She contrived a speed of nearly 21½ knots. On paper she was everything that could be desired for the coastal and cross-Channel excursion services and she was a remarkable vessel in many ways, but she was an utter failure on the London run.

Under the White Ensign

The paddle-boat was infinitely superior for running over the shallow waters which were the great handicap of the route, for coming alongside the various piers, of which many are awkwardly placed, and for giving her passengers good deck room. Having given her a thorough trial, the company sold the Kingfisher, which proved an unqualified success on less exacting services, and in 1936 was still running in China. As the old ships of the Halcyon type wore out and were sold, many of them to run for many years on a foreign service, the General Steam Navigation Company left the East Coast service to the Belle Steamers Company, which had already sold the Southwold Belle to the French. The senior company then concentrated on the Thanet run and went to John Brown and Company of Clydebank, for the Golden Eagle of 1909.

She was the first paddler on the London service to have her side plating carried to the upper deck right forward to the stem. This made her a much better sea-boat in bad weather and gave her passengers additional accommodation. She had a gross tonnage of 793 and, although her legend speed was 18 knots, she could always exceed it when called upon. Under Captain Branthwaite and others, she has always been a great favourite with holiday makers.

The Queen of the Channel, built at Dumbarton in 1935

THE FIRST DIESEL SHIP IN THE EXCURSION FLEET was the Queen of the Channel, built at Dumbarton in 1935. She is driven by eight-cylinder two-stroke cycle single-acting diesels which give her a speed of 20 knots. The Queen of the Channel is 250 ft. 9 in. in length, with a beam of 34 ft. 1 in. and a depth of 9 ft. 3 in.

Then came the war of 1914-18, and to the surprise of any number of people, including professional sailors, the London butterfly boats proved that they were anything but the lightly-built fair-weather craft of popular imagination; they were fine sea-boats capable of doing magnificent work. Apart from the Royal Sovereign and the Koh-i-noor, whose immense length made them unsuitable for naval service, the whole of the London fleet which remained hoisted the White Ensign. The first was the Golden Eagle, which was commissioned early in 1915 and used for the rest of the war as a cross-Channel trooper. Painted battleship grey all over, she looked remarkably well and during the war carried over 500,000 troops of various nations, escaping unscathed and bringing all her people through safely.

The other ships were commissioned as minesweepers, work for which their shallow draught made them particularly well adapted.

When the service was resumed there were many changes. The Coast Development Corporation, which ran the Belle steamers, had gone into liquidation, and that fine little fleet, kept in excellent condition, was on the market. During the years which immediately followed the war these ships had many vicissitudes. The Royal Sovereign finally went to the General Steam Navigation Company for a short time before she went across to shipbreakers in Holland. The Southend Belle was sold to the owners of Clacton Pier to be renamed Laguna Belle, and the London Belle and the Clacton Belle were broken up. The remaining units of the fleet were sold to the Queen Line, the popular name of the New Medway Steam Packet Company.

From the earliest days there had been a service between the Medway and Southend. After the war the Medway Steam Packet Company was bought by Captain Shippick, an enterprising master

mariner who had practical experience in the paddle steamers running out of Weymouth as well as in deep-sea ships.

The new firm was known as the New Medway Steam Packet Company. The tonnage which it took over was rather old, but the smart little Medway Queen which it built, pushing the Rochester-Southend service on to Herne Bay, was a great addition and foretold important developments. Captain Shippick looked over two of the paddle vessels which the Admiralty, after experience with the requisitioned excursion steamers, had built as mine-sweepers.

Over 1,500 Tons

Eventually they joined the butterfly fleet as the Queen of Kent and the Queen of Thanet. The Walton Belle became the Essex Queen and the Yarmouth Belle the Queen of Southend. The little Woolwich Belle was already named the Queen of the South.

The ferry steamer Gertrude became the Rochester Queen for a time, and the Duchess of Kent from the Southern Railway the Clacton Queen. When the company bought the Mersey ferry steamer Royal Daffodil, which had made an undying name for herself in the St. George’s Day attack on Zeebrugge, she kept her old name.

With these additional ships the New Medway Company extended its service up-river, first to Greenwich and then to London, and down to the Thanet resorts and the nearer East Coast towns. The former minesweepers were put on the excursion traffic across the English Channel, and in this they were joined in 1934 by the first diesel ship in the pleasure fleet, the Queen of the Channel. On a gross tonnage of 1,030, she has a regular speed of 20 knots.

Meanwhile the General Steam Navigation Company had not been idle. In 1924 it went to J. Samuel White and Company, of Cowes, for the paddle steamer Crested Eagle. She was the first of the butterfly boats to exceed 1,000 tons since the La Marguerite and the first to be given oil fuel, which saves the troublesome business of coaling every other night. She was built with a telescopic funnel to pass under London Bridge.

One of the latest additions to the Navigation fleet came out in 1932. In the Royal Eagle the company revived its old custom of giving their ships two masts and one funnel. This ship is a miniature liner, and her paddles and sponsons give her wonderful deck space. Although she has a gross tonnage of over 1,500, her engines have the same horse-power (3,000) as the Crested Eagle, so that she is not quite as fast, but amply fast enough to do the double trip in comfortable time, with a reserve for use in bad weather.

The Southend Belle became known as the Laguna Belle when she was bought by the owners of Clacton Pier

ONE OF THE ORIGINAL PADDLERS belonging to the Belle Steamers Company, the Southend Belle became known as the Laguna Belle when she was bought by the owners of Clacton Pier. Built in 1896, she is a vessel of 617 tons gross. She has a length of 249 feet, a beam of 30 feet, a depth of 10 feet. In 1936 she was sold to the General Steam Navigation Company and the peculiar blaze on her bow was removed.

You can read more on ”Coastal Pleasure Steamers”,  “Thames Sailing Barges” and

“Romantic Sailing Coasters” on this website.