Between 1922 and 1930 four coal-fired paddle steamers Squires, Gordon, Will Crooks and John Benn were built by J Samuel White of Cowes for the short Woolwich free ferry crossing of the Thames. Yes, that’s right: a free ferry with zero fares. Gordon was named after local lad made good, General Gordon of Khartoum, John Benn after left-wing firebrand Tony Benn’s grandfather, who was a local politician, and the other two after other now long forgotten local worthies.
They were propelled by two independent simple diagonal steam engines, one for each paddle wheel, which could be operated separately. So, if anyone ever tries to tell you that passenger paddle steamers were not permitted in law to have independent paddle wheels then just refer them to these fine vessels (and the Forth ferries, and the Tay ferries and the Farringford and the Cleddau Queen and the Karl Marx and the August Der Starke and the J F Boettger and the Graeffin Cosel and so on).
They were not exactly double ended. They had a pointy bow at one end and a round stern at the other but they sometimes travelled and berthed stern first. As the bridge was towards the bow, the captain’s view of the stern was therefore not ideal particularly when it was further obstructed by vans and lorries which grew in size and height during the lifetime of these steamers (see the last picture). To address this issue a crew member was stationed as lookout at the stern end of the car deck to communicate with the bridge visually, if there was a clear view, or via a telegraph. You can see him and the tops of the telegraphs port and starboard in this picture.
In this shot the crew are coaling-up in service with the coal lorry and its bags of coal parked on the car deck next to the coal bunker hatch. You can also get a feel from this picture as to how large lorries could obstruct the captain’s view of the stern.
Replaced by modern Voith-Schneider propelled vessels, all four were withdrawn in August and September 1963 and towed away to Belgium for scrapping.
They were primarily ferries but in an age when many locals in the East End of London would not have been that flush for cash, they provided an opportunity for a free afternoon out for the family and for idle boys (there are fourteen in this picture!) to go backwards and forwards, forwards and backwards watching the ever-changing river scene with passing cargo-liners, coasters, paddle steamers, sailing barges, lighters and tugs, toot, toot! My sort of afternoon out really.