On Saturday 18th July 1914 Cosens’s Majestic, described as “Second to None on the South Coast”, was rostered to run a day trip from Bournemouth to witness a “Grand Naval Pageant” described as with “Over 300 Warships at Spithead” and “The Greatest Naval Pageant of All Times”. It sounds a bit like over the top hyperbole but the reality is that it was quite true. After an arms race during the previous decade between Germany and Britain, with both sides building ever larger and more powerful Dreadnoughts as well as a multiplicity of smaller craft, it is just a statement of fact that there had never been a time in the world’s history when so much and so powerful naval firepower had existed.
Feeding diners on these long day trips was ever easier said than done. Generally speaking the seating provided in the dining saloons of most of the excursions paddle steamers was designed for little more than about 10% of the overall capacity of the ship. That meant that at best, and even with three sittings, less than a third of the passengers were able to enjoy a sit-down meal if the ship was anywhere near full. That didn’t matter on shorter trips. It didn’t matter on trips with a destination where passengers could go ashore to top themselves up on food. But it did matter on long non landing cruises if too many people wanted to eat.
Of course not all of the passengers would have wanted the “Cold Luncheon” and its price of 3/- (£17.50 today), which for a family of four scales up to 12/- (£70 today), would have deterred the less well off. Add to that the fare for the cruise itself that day which was 7/6 (£43.60 today) then for a family of four the cost of the day out plus the Cold Luncheon came in at 42s (£244 today). So this wasn’t a cheap day out.
For comparison, that same season the return fare for the one and half hour round trip Swanage service was 1/- (£6 today) so that is 4/- (£24 today) for a family of four. And for a day return trip along the Dorset Coast between Bournemouth and Weymouth the fare was 3/- (£18 today) so for a family of four this came up to 12/- (£72 today).
There was also the issue of how to prepare nice dinners on ships without much storage space, with no refrigeration and with tiny galleys not much larger than the average domestic kitchen at home today.
Cosens knew and understood these limitations. They wanted to provide a good level of customer service and so on this long non landing cruise advertised in the steamer notice that “To ensure every comfort the number on Majestic will be strictly limited to about two thirds the vessel is licenced to carry by the Board of Trade.” And commercially they were able to do that by charging premium fares for this cruise and lunch for this special event.
Like the Swiss lake steamers today, many paddle steamer operators around the country back then had their own shore based storage facilities and kitchens where most of the real cooking was done. Those that didn’t sometimes contracted out the catering to a third party who did. This picture shows Red Funnel’s Southampton kitchen. That is where the lobsters were boiled, the silversides of Scotch beef and the Southdown lamb were roasted and the plum tarts were baked before being taken down to the ships for heating up what could not be served cold. And, given the limited galley facilities on the ships, much of it was served cold
Majestic’s menu on 18th July provides a master class in how to put together a mouth- watering and tempting menu which is also easy to serve on a ship. Note that with the exception of the potatoes and peas, for which only a cauldron of boiling water was necessary, it was offered as a “Cold Luncheon”. So no major cooking aboard needed here. The salmon and cucumber, the lobster salad, the chicken, ham and tongue, the roast beef, roast lamb and mint sauce, and the pressed beef were all served cold.
With the exception of the hot potatoes and peas for which we substituted potato salad, coleslaw, tomatoes and Waldorf salad, this is pretty much a carbon copy of the menu I used to serve for charter groups on Kingswear Castle in the Medway years. I ordered in all the ingredients, including the meats and salmon, ready prepared from Cash and Carry, the supermarkets or in some cases from a specific caterer. Then a couple of nice ladies laid it all out on board and made it look good with a few bits of garnish.
Note also that on the Majestic’s menu “Black Coffee” was offered. This is a good example of turning a potential difficulty into a sought after benefit. From the passengers’ point of view what could be nicer, smarter and more up-market than taking their coffee black just like those connoisseurs of fine dining across the water, the French, did. From the ship’s point of view, this apparent benefit obviated the need to carry milk which was a commodity ever hard to keep fresh on a long and hot day trip. I recall Capt Arthur Escudier, at that time master of the Weymouth based ferry Maid of Kent, telling me years ago that as a younger man working as second mate on the St Julien he started to take his tea with lemon because the milk was ever off.
Majestic’s trip to the “Grand Naval Pageant” on Saturday 18th July 1914 presaged the slippery slope to a terrible conflict. By August 4th Britain was at war with Germany. By the end of the season the game was up for excursion paddle steamers. For the next six long years there would be no more paddle steamer trips from Bournemouth.
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 18th July 2020.