A memorial service was held for Tony McGinnity, doyen of paddle steamer preservation in the 1960s, at St Olave’s Church in the City of London on Thursday 16th October 2008.
Tony was born on 13th September 1937 and fell in love with paddle steamers as a boy and teenager growing up in Southampton with his particular favourite being Red Funnel’s Princess Elizabeth on which he regularly sailed.
He went to sea as a cadet with the British India Line and on shore leave became one of the founding fathers of the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society in 1959 aged 22.
From then on throughout the 1960s there were few attempts at paddle steamer preservation with which he had no involvement. He was in the forefront of the bid to buy Alumchine in 1963 and he was a Director of Paddle Steam Navigation Ltd which bought Kingswear Castle in 1967.
Along with PSPS member number 1, Mrs Eileen Pritchard, and others he bought Consul in 1963, and did his best to run her on the Sussex Coast in 1963 and from Weymouth in 1964.
I remember my 12 year old self being introduced to him aboard Consul in April 1963 by Captain Defrates and being very impressed by this very tall and distinguished looking man who just oozed confidence and gave every indication of being an experienced shipping magnate. It just did not cross my mind back then that he was in fact only 26 years old, had just come ashore from his deep sea work and had no previous ship ownership experience whatsoever.
Tony’s work with Consul was a steep learning curve for him and highlighted the very real difficulties of trying to run elderly paddle steamers in need of much money being spent on them when you haven’t got the resources to do it plus the problem of recruiting crews with the right skills and the right mindsets to successfully operate them.
After the business with Consul failed Tony set himself up in Weymouth as a shipbroker, ship delivery contractor, marine surveyor and consultant and from that position handled the sales of most of the UK’s paddle steamers as they were withdrawn as the 1960s wore on. He worked tirelessly to try to find new roles for them either operationally or for a static role although in the end most ended up going for scrap.
However Tony did have his paddle steamer successes although in the end none of them lasted. He found a new role for Consul as a sailing school at Dartmouth in 1965. He persuaded Don Rose to buy Jeanie Deans also in 1965. And he brokered the sale of Caledonia to Bass Charrington and organised her delivery from the Clyde to London in 1972.
I remember going down to see Caledonia arrive on the Thames under tow in 1972 and there standing on the pontoon alongside the Embankment just up stream of Waterloo Bridge was Tony McGinnity with his commanding presence still looking as impressive as ever. We spoke a few words and I remember him saying that he would die happy to have found what he hoped would be a long term future for at least one paddle steamer in Caledonia.
Tony also organised and supervised the charter of British Railways’ Channel Island cargo ship Roebuck in 1964 for filming “The Heroes of Telemark” starring Kirk Douglas, which keeps popping up on the television with lovely shots of the ship taken from Bob Wills’ Weymouth based 50 seater passenger launch Topaz, including some shots onboard. And it was Tony who organised and supervised the charter to Gilbey’s Gin of Ryde which he brought to London for a series of excursions from Tower Pier promoting the company’s gin in September 1968.
In the 1970s he joined P & A Campbell as a Director and was therefore often seen aboard Balmoral, eventually becoming joint Managing Director of the company alongside Clifton Smith-Cox.
After that Tony returned to ship surveying for a time first starting up West Marine Surveyors. Then in the mid 1980s he founded Havelet Marine Services which specialised in buying, selling and managing ships with a particular emphasis on tugs in later years.
Tony became a little bit disillusioned with paddle steamer preservation circles in the 1970s and so turned his interest in historic ships in other directions instead. He became a trustee of the Foudroyant in 1973 and oversaw her eventual move to Hartlepool to emerge fully restored under her original name of Trincomalee. And along with friends he saved the last steam herring drifter Lydia and, sailing aboard her for the trip as stoker, brought her from the West Country to London for the Maritime Trust of which he was also a trustee.
I last saw Tony McGinnity in 2008. I had just become a Freeman of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen and a Freeman of the City of London and through that had been invited to a dinner at the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights. Tony was also there that night sitting at a nearby table.
After the meal we had a chat about the old days, Captain Defrates and paddle steamers in general. Looking through our diaries we found a date for him to come down to visit me and have a trip on KC later that summer. He also told me that night that he was booked in for major heart surgery in Southampton and was not looking forward to it but was keeping his fingers crossed for a successful outcome. Sadly he died during the operation on 10th June 2008. So he never did get his final trip on KC, a paddle steamer he was instrumental in saving.
Tony McGinnity was a decisive and formative influence on my young self. I learned so much from him about paddle steamers in general and the pitfalls of trying to run them in difficult circumstances and with cash in short supply in particular. This grounding helped me enormously in so many ways in my many years running KC and his influence lives on, even today, when I sometimes think, when confronted with some really difficult paddle steamer conundrum: “I wonder what Tony would have done about that?”
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 16th October 2020.