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Britain’s Passenger Ports

Apart from the great centres such as London, Glasgow and Southampton, which handle mainly ocean-going traffic, there are many interesting ports dealing with the cross-Channel packets which ply regularly to and from Great Britain


The Isle of Thanet is a Southern Railway steamer of 2,701 tons gross




























ONE OF THE BEST KNOWN PACKET PORTS is Folkestone, Kent. From here two daily services are in operation across the Strait of Dover to Boulogne, France. The Isle of Thanet, above, is a Southern Railway steamer of 2,701 tons gross. Built in 1925, she has a length of 329 ft. 6 in., a beam of 45 ft. 1 in. and a depth of 17 ft. 1 in. Four steam turbines drive her twin screws through single-reduction gearing.




IN addition to such large passenger centres as London, Southampton and Liverpool, there are a number of ports in Great Britain which can claim to be among the country’s most important passenger ports. Round the coasts which face the Continent, for instance, there is a group of ports which, but for the fact that they are the terminals of packet services which connect with the big Continental cities, would scarcely be ports at all.


Their equipment varies from mere quays with sheds and a few cranes to more ambitious schemes embracing loading docks for train ferries and cargo handling facilities. All have one thing in common. The towns whose names they take are relatively small and the railway sidings at the back of them are extremely large.


Some of these ports are comparatively quiet by day but are exceedingly active in the evening and in the early morning. In others, the harbour master, his assistants and a large customs staff are kept busy every few hours by the arrivals and departures of cross-Channel or other vessels. In all the ports the train services radiating from the quays are among the finest in the world and the types of vehicles maintaining these services are among the most luxurious.


In England and Wales, the principal ports within this group include Harwich, Dover, Folkestone, Newhaven, Weymouth and Fishguard. On the west coast there are also such ports as Heysham and Holyhead, described in the chapter “LMS Steamship Services”.


At Harwich on any night there is a tremendous bustle from the early evening onwards. Packets to Esbjerg, the Hook of Holland, Antwerp and, in the summer, a special service to Zeebrugge, are regularly handled from its long and busy quays, in addition to a nightly ferry service and one or two cargo services. There is also a day service to Flushing. The quays at Harwich have recently been improved by the addition of new sheds and waiting rooms, new coal-handling appliances and railway sidings.


All this volume of traffic amounts at peak period in the summer on one evening alone to nearly 2,000 people, with their baggage, motor cars and all kinds of miscellaneous and urgent freight. Much of this traffic must be handled between 9.30 p.m. and 11 p.m. The trains, too, which bring in the passengers must be brought alongside a single platform, emptied, shunted out and put into the sidings ready for cleaning and revictualling for the return journey to London.


Harwich in the morning is equally busy. A ship arrives in the early hours from the Hook of Holland bringing passengers from places as far distant as Budapest and Bucharest. Another comes from Antwerp with passengers from all over Belgium and, in the summer, the tourist ship comes in from Zeebrugge. Also there are arrivals of cargo vessels with fresh vegetables from the Continent, and there is also a train ferry which, among its varied deck cargo, may contain refrigerator fruit vans from Italy. No sooner have the London-bound boat-trains been cleared and the comforting smell of breakfast from their restaurant cars been wafted away, than it is necessary to prepare the platform again for the arrival from London of the “Flushing Continental”. This connects with the Zeeland Steamship Company’s day service to the Dutch port with passengers for Berlin as well as for other destinations in various parts of Europe. A similar service is provided by the “Hook of Holland Express”.


The Maid of Kent, a twin-screw turbine steamer of 2,693 tons gross



AT THE QUAY AT DOVER is berthed the Maid of Kent, a twin-screw turbine steamer of 2,693 tons gross, built for the Southern Railway in 1925. She has a length of 329 ft. 6 in., a beam of 45 ft. 1 in. and a depth of 17 ft. 1 in. From Dover steamers or motorships cross to Calais, Dunkirk and Ostend. The train ferry conveying through sleeping-cars between London and Paris takes the Dover-Dunkirk route.





The inward-bound service of this route arrives in the evening and there is therefore a boat train to send away at that time as well as a further load of passengers to handle from the inward-bound Danish ship.


Between the late morning and the early evening, which marks the sailing of the Danish boat, the long passenger platform at Parkeston Quay, which is the station for Harwich Harbour, is given over to local trains running between Manningtree (Essex) and Harwich Town. The old platform is still made of wood, for the new big platform, with its tall steel sheds and waiting-rooms, is not generally used for any other than the Dutch Zeeland boat, and for the occasional cruise ships which call at the port.


The station buildings themselves comprise a number of waiting-rooms, one of which is converted into a special space for the examination of inward-bound and outward-bound passengers by the Aliens Branch of the Home Office. There is also a bookstall in which papers in various languages may be obtained. On the right of the quay are the buildings used for the administration of the port. On the left is a long stretch of quay, with the necessary cargo-handling facilities. The coaling appliances can put coal into the London and North Eastern Railway (L.N.E.R.) vessels almost as quickly as oil itself can be bunkered.


At the far end, nearest the train ferry slip, which is in Harwich proper, will be found buff-funnelled railway ships undergoing repairs at the shops of the company. Next to this the grey-hulled Esbjerg ship berths, followed after a short interval by the large Hook of Holland ship, the Prague, 4,220 tons gross, the Vienna, 4,218 tons gross, or the Amsterdam, 4,220 tons gross.


Bursts of Energy


Ahead of her, if it is summer, will be found the Zeebrugge ship, and then a group of cargo vessels, attractive-looking ships with single buff funnels, cruiser sterns and ample cargo-handling gear. Much farther up the River Stour is one of the red-, white- and blue-banded, twin-funnelled Zeeland ships, the Mecklenburg, 2,907 tons, the Prinses Juliana, of nearly 3,000 tons, or the Oranje Nassau, 2,885 tons gross, for the fast Flushing packet service. At anchor, at buoys in the river off the quay, are the stand-by and relief ships.


Work is proceeding on the cargo vessels — loading and unloading — and goods trains are being filled alongside. Coaling plant is working in one of the packet vessels. The plant has its spout closely attached to the circular bunker hatch abaft the funnels on the top deck.


Harwich has no facilities for dry docking. There is a sheer legs which can remove portions of machinery, but usually when the L.N.E.R. ships based on Harwich require to be docked they proceed to the Thames to one of the many dry docks on that river. Facing the big quay at Parkeston is the flat Essex landscape, and one or two barges may be beating up against the tide and some coasters are seen anchored farther down the river.


The St Patrick is owned by the Fishguard and Rosslare Railway and Harbours Company
























A TWIN-SCREW TURBINE STEAMER of 1,922 tons gross, the St Patrick is owned by the Fishguard and Rosslare Railway and Harbours Company and operates on the Great Western Railway services between Fishguard (Pembrokeshire) and Rosslare, Co. Wexford, Irish Free State, or between Weymouth (Dorset) and the Channel Islands. Built in Glasgow in 1930, the St Patrick has a length of 281 ft 4 in between perpendiculars, a beam of 41 ft 1 in and a moulded depth of 17 feet, with a corresponding draught of 14 feet.




The best impression of the vital importance of Harwich may be gained when approaching it comfortably seated in the Pullman Car of a boat train. When the train is going round the curve just before entering the station, there is a veritable cluster of life to be seen. If it is a rough night, cargo lamps are blowing about on the end of derricks, cargo is busily being hurried on board, passengers are walking up the gangway, and smart white-jacketed stewards are showing people into their cabins.


The cosmopolitan crowd is surging up and down the platform with porters taking baggage and telling them that they will be met on the ship. The lynx-eyed immigration staff is busily at work sorting the “sheep from the goats”. The passengers gradually surge towards their ship. The heavy boat train, with its twelve or fourteen coaches and baggage wagons, is backed out, after the mail coaches have been shunted to the quay for the mail to be taken on board. The leading ship of the seaward-making flotilla, the Hook boat, blows her whistle and moves with a graceful curve away from the quay. She is followed shortly afterwards by the Antwerp vessel. With the exception of possible cargo ship arrivals and departures, the port settles down for a few hours’ rest until five o’clock in the morning, when the boat train is again pulled in and the staff settles down to welcome the arrival of the next day’s “flotilla”.


Train Ferries


Somewhat similar scenes are enacted at the other ports. Dover, however, being one of the key ports in the Continental trade, is far busier than Harwich. The sea passage is shorter, too, so that the same ships are in and out of harbour more often. Dover handles services to Calais under the British and French flag jointly and also to Ostend under the Belgian flag. The facilities were increased in October 1936 by the inauguration of a train-ferry service between Dover and Dunkirk. One of these train-ferries is described in the chapter “The Twickenham Ferry”. Another service is that between Folkestone and Boulogne. The fast packets that maintain these cross-Channel services are some of the most interesting vessels afloat. Most of them are railway-owned. After the L.M.S., the Southern Railway has the largest railway-owned fleet. In addition to the Dover and Folkestone services, Southern Railway steamers ply between Newhaven and Dieppe and between Southampton and Havre and other ports. Their speed is a remarkable feature of many of these vessels and their horse-power is exceptionally large for their size. The Brighton, for instance, built in 1933, has a gross tonnage of 2,391, and her six turbines develop 16,400 horsepower.


Among the fastest of the cross-Channel packets is the Prince Baudouin, a motorship of about 3,000 tons gross, built in 1934 for the Belgian State Railways’ Ostend-Dover service. A sister ship, the Prince Albert, was laid down in 1936. Two twelve-cylinder diesel engines of the two-stroke single-acting type are designed to give her a service speed of more than 23 knots.


Dover is entirely different from Harwich as a harbour. The harbour at Harwich consists of a long wooden quay and of a steel and concrete quay, on a long river estuary; but Dover is built out into the sea on stone piers. So, too, is Folkestone. Harwich has a large number of sandbanks at its entrance. Dover has only the Goodwin Sands, but they are mercifully some distance away.


It must be a bad sea indeed to stop the nightly Harwich-Hook of Holland service. Dover and Folkestone, however, are more vulnerable. Here again, however, the same general characteristic of the packet port is preserved — the long quay with its platform, waiting-rooms, customs shed and immigration department, and the extensive sidings for boat trains.


Newhaven has a quay but no pier. In this it resembles Harwich. Although over 11,000 people are dealt with in a busy week, there are only two services a day at Newhaven. Here, too, there are waiting-rooms and sidings. The port, in between the arrival of the ships, preserves the same air of watchful slumber that one finds in other similar harbours. The Southern Railway cross-Channel routes handle nearly 85,000 passengers in a busy week in August.


The St. Julien is a twin-screw vessel of 1,885 tons gross



WEYMOUTH PIER is the scene of great activity on the arrival of the Channel Islands Boat Express to connect with the Great Western Railway’s steamship service to the Channel Islands. The St. Julien is a twin-screw vessel of 1,885 tons gross, built in 1925. She has a length of 282 ft. 3 in., a beam of 40 feet and a moulded depth of 17 feet.





It is not always appreciated how important these little harbours are in the link of communications. The Dover-Calais service, for example, links London with Istanbul. The Harwich-Hook of Holland service links London with Switzerland. The Hook of Holland, which in the last few years has been rebuilt out of all recognition, is in many ways similar to Harwich in appearance, except that it is near the sea and at the mouth of a large artificial waterway, known as the New Waterway, leading to the port of Rotterdam.


Two of the largest vessels owned by the Great Western Railway operate on the services between Weymouth (Dorset) and the Channel Islands. The ships are the St. Julien and the St. Helier, twin-screw vessels of 1,885 tons gross, built at Glasgow in 1925. Either has a length of 282 ft. 3 in. between perpendiculars, a beam of 40 feet and a moulded depth of 17 feet. They are propelled by four steam turbines which drive the twin shafts through single-reduction gearing. In addition to the Great Western steamers, a multitude of small craft and yachts, the butterfly boats such as the Empress, which plies to Lulworth Cove, and a number of colliers and traders use Weymouth Harbour regularly.


From Fishguard, in South Wales, a service is operated by the Great Western Railway to Rosslare, in Ireland. This service was inaugurated in 1906, and the vessels are owned by the Fishguard and Rosslare Railways and Harbours Company. The St. Andrew and the St. David, twin-screw vessels of 2,702 tons gross, were built at Birkenhead in 1932 for this service. Either has a length of 327 ft. 3 in. between perpendiculars, a beam of 46 ft. 8 in. and a moulded depth of 18 ft. 9 in.


The service is augmented by the City of Cork Steam Packet Company’s ships, which run on alternate nights to Cork. With their black-topped white funnels these packets have a distinctive appearance. The Innisfallen, 3,019 tons gross, is a twin-screw motorship put into service in June 1930. She accommodates 194 first-class passengers in comfortable cabins on two decks, and has a service speed of about 18 knots.


Across the North Sea


At the great port of Southampton there is one little backwater from which Southern Railway steamers leave three times weekly for Havre and for the Channel Islands. These services run nightly in summer. There are also other Southern Railway services between Southampton and the French coast, such as those to St. Malo and Caen.


The dry docks adjoining are the headquarters for dry docking and ship repairing for the whole of the Southern Railway’s cross-Channel fleet.


From Liverpool, too, there is a packet service maintained to Belfast by the ships of the Belfast Steamship Company. The British and Irish Steam Packet Company similarly maintains a nightly service to Dublin. These vessels are all berthed in Prince’s Dock, in Liverpool. They sail in the evening and arrive early in the morning.


Some of these packet ports have a regular traffic and the numbers of passengers vary little except for peak times at certain regular holidays such as Christmas. This is true of the Liverpool-Dublin and Liverpool-Belfast routes and also of the Heysham-Belfast trade. There is also a tremendous “business” traffic on these runs. The routes to the Continent, although they maintain a fairly regular flow of passengers, are always at peak load during the summer months.


There is one further packet port which we have not yet mentioned, and that is Newcastle-on-Tyne. Not everyone is aware that Newcastle is a packet port, but from the Tyne Commission Quay at North Shields there is a direct fast connexion with Bergen, Norway. This is maintained by one big motorship, the Venus.


The Venus was completed in May 1931 at Helsingor (Elsinore), Denmark. A twin-screw vessel of 5,407 tons gross, she has a length of 398 ft. 6 in., a beam of 54 ft. 3 in., and a depth of 26 ft. 7 in. In fully loaded condition she draws 20 feet of water. She has a fine-lined hull with a graceful sheer and two flat oval funnels.


The Vienna is a twin-screw vessel of 4,218 tons gross

























REGISTERED AT HARWICH and owned by the London and North Eastern Railway, the Vienna is one of the vessels running nightly between Harwich and the Hook of Holland. A twin-screw vessel of 4,218 tons gross, she has a length of 350 ft 10 in, a beam of 50 ft 1 in and a moulded depth of 27 feet, with a corresponding draught of 15 ft 3 in. She was built at Clydebank in 1929 and is propelled by four steam turbines though single-reduction gearing.



You can read more on “Dover-Dunkirk Train Ferry”, “LMS Steamship Services” and “Train Ferry No. 3” on this website.


You can read more on “Train Ferries” in Railway Wonders of the World