On 11th October 1961 Lyme Regis Council met to discuss what to do about three ladders and six stone steps which allegedly had been damaged by the Princess Elizabeth on her Thursday calls that season at their harbour on her day trips from Torquay.
It had not been a happy summer for the Lizzy. There was much opposition to her running from Torquay from local boatmen who stirred up dissent wherever possible. This escalated into a dispute with the Torquay Harbourmaster about whether or not a large passenger vessel like Princess Elizabeth with a Class III Passenger Certificate issued by the Board of Trade should or should not have to comply with weather restrictions he imposed on small local passenger vessels when, in his opinion, he thought it too windy for these small boats to proceed outside Torbay. This he signalled by hoisting a blue flag on a pole in the harbour.
There was a similar dispute at Lyme Regis. There the local boatmen took against the Lizzie because on her visits she operated a cruise round the bay which they thought was taking custom away from them. So there was a fair amount of ill will swirling in the wind around her with local vested interests determined to do their utmost to get rid of her which in the end they did.
Commercially the 1961 season had not gone well either. Money was tight. There were weeks when the Lizzie’s owner Cdr Rhodes couldn’t afford to pay all the wages including that of her master Capt Harry Defrates. The business for the local trips, to Dartmouth and to off Sidmouth was not strong. But these day trips to Lyme Regis sold well and put a good chunk of dosh into the coffers. With 400 passengers aboard paying 16/- a head that produced £320 which is worth about £7K in today’s money quite a dollop of cash for a business struggling to manage its cash flow.
The Lizzie could get in alongside the Cobb at Lyme Regis at most states of the tide including at most low waters but there were some low waters which were lower than others and these presented a challenge. The first of these was on Thursday 17th August.
Capt Defrates was an experienced paddle steamer master having previously commanded Cosens’s Embassy, Victoria, Monarch and Consul. He understood tides and the potential consequences of his actions very well. On this day, he had two options to consider. Either he could abort the trip which would have led to passengers getting cross with some demanding a refund. Or he could try to do something to fulfil the day trip and preserve the revenue. And that is what he did.
He managed to get the Lizzie in alongside the Cobb just fine despite Johnny Johnson’s (the Harbourmaster’s) warning. I think that he hoped to get away for the bay cruise before the water ran away from him but in the end he didn’t and he was stuck. But did that really matter? He had got to Lyme Regis. His passengers had gone ashore. They had longer ashore than planned but they had been ashore. And the day’s revenue remained intact.
Later in the season on another very low tide he tried to do the same thing again but unfortunately the Lizzie sniffed the bottom on the way in and ended up with her bow onto the jetty. But again did this matter? The weather was fine with only light airs on both occasions. The bottom at Lyme Regis was flat and sandy. And both times the Lizzie floated off again later in the afternoon and steamed back to Torquay none the worse for her adventures.
I pestered my parents to take me to Lyme Regis for the trip round the bay all that season and eventually they gave in and took me and my brother from our home in Weymouth on the bus on Thursday 17th August, that fateful day. For me it was very exciting going aboard a paddle steamer I had not seen before. For departure I went down to watch the engines, as I often did. The telegraph went to “full astern”. After a short while I thought that I would stick my head out of the aft sponson door to see how far we had got and was surprised to see that we were still alongside the pier. We were stuck.
Capt Defrates was a really nice man and very encouraging towards me and my youthful nautical ambitions. The following day he wrote me a little note saying that he was sorry that we hadn’t been able to have a trip with him. He didn’t have to do that particularly with all the other things which he must have had on his plate right then. But he did and that I think says a lot about him and his kind and benevolent attitude as a man.
Not to be thwarted in my ambition for a trip on the Lizzie I pestered my parents again and the following Thursday we made our way to Lyme Regis for the trip round the bay. That week the tide was up. We cast off and off we went. Capt Defrates invited me up onto the bridge as he often did and we had a nice chat about ships.
There were two questions I particularly remember my ten year old self wanting to ask him. All the paddle steamers I had been on hitherto had their engines lubricated by brass oil boxes with dangling oil wicks hanging from them which were brushed by oil collectors on different moving parts of the engine itself. I noticed that there were none of these on the Lizzie’s engine so I wanted to know how it was lubricated. Grease guns was the answer. When I went below later and saw them prominently fitted in various locations on the engine I felt such a fool for having asked a question with such an obvious answer but there we are. Secondly I asked about the previous week. “Ah” he said. “Given the low water the Governor (Cdr Rhodes, boss of Torbay Steamers Ltd) asked me to do the best I could for him. So I did.”
On 11th October 1961 Lyme Regis Council met and decided to charge the Lizzie’s owners, Torbay Steamers Ltd, for the damage allegedly caused to their harbour ladders and steps. Whether or not that bill was ever paid I don’t know. What I do know is that the following winter the Lizzie was quietly transferred to a new company, Coastal Steamers & Marine Services Ltd, which was also fronted by the same Cdr Rhodes who seems to have had a neat way of side-stepping debt by closing down one company, transferring assets and opening another. He would do the same again in 1965 with the Lizzie moved, for her final operational season, to the ownership of Coastal Steamers (Weymouth) Ltd.
Kingswear Castle returned to service in 2023 after the first part of a major rebuild which is designed to set her up for the next 25 years running on the River Dart. The Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle Trust is now fund raising for the second phase of the rebuild. You can read more about the rebuilds and how you can help if you can here.
This article was first published on 11th October 2020.