On Monday 28th August 1967 Kingswear Castle arrived under tow at Binfield on the Isle of Wight on charter to the Ridett brothers who then owned Medway Queen.
She was withdrawn from her service up and down the River Dart at the end of the 1965 season and was laid up in Old Mill Creek for sale. PSPS chairman Nick Knight was very keen that she should be preserved. He visited the ship and, with the skills of a former Merchant Navy officer, conducted a full survey which concluded that, whilst there was much work to be done to return her to service, it was doable.
However he met with considerable and understandable opposition from within the PSPS. Members had seen the attempts to return Princess Elizabeth, Freshwater, Consul and Jeanie Deans to passenger carrying between 1960 and 1967 all fail leaving behind them a mountain of debt. They didn’t want to get their fingers burnt too.
I knew and liked Nick Knight. He had a forceful personality and an ability to drive daises through concrete. In the end Kingswear Castle was purchased by a company called Paddle Steamer Navigation Ltd, which had been set up in 1963 to buy the Neyland paddle steamer Alumchine, with the £600 purchase price financed by a loan of £600 from the PSPS.
Nick Knight understood that a role had to be found for Kingswear Castle. Having helped broker the preservation of Medway Queen he knew the Ridett brothers and persuaded them to take KC on charter and so she came to the Isle of Wight.
As a teenager I followed assiduously the goings on in paddle steamer circles nationwide and so my sixteen year old self visited Kingswear Castle for the first time in September 1967 in her new berth. There was nobody about. There was a dingy with oars nearby so rather naughtily I temporarily commandeered it and rowed myself out to take a closer look.I had learned to steer aged fourteen aboard the Princess Elizabeth in 1965 and had spent my school summer holidays working as a deck boy on the British Railways Channel Island ferries Caesarea and Sarnia in 1966 and 1967 so I already had some experience of ships and the sea.
My first impressions of Kingswear Castle were not overly impressive. The decks looked in a terrible state. The steelwork was rusty. The varnish long unvarnished. But she was a paddle steamer. And she had been saved so that buoyed me up as I rowed back ashore after my visit and replaced the dinghy where I had found it. It never occurred to me than that nearly seventeen years later I would lead her return to commercial service on the Medway and Thames and that I would still be closely involved with her right up to the present day, fifty three years later.
Sadly the charter to the Ridetts didn’t work out. Nick Knight had her towed to his Medway boatyard in 1971 and by 1973 there were moves afoot to get rid of her. Six years of ownership had achieved nothing of any real value in her restoration as the ship herself continued to deteriorate. And six years of ownership had convinced Nick Knight of the very real difficulties of trying to restore a paddle steamer. Above all else you need people who have professional expertise and know how to do it. And you need the necessary funding to do it with. Without that you can titivate, you can potter, and you can dream but you will never have any real success until those two key criteria are met.
However a new project leader stepped forward. It was thought best to at least give him a go. So Kingswear Castle remained at Nick Knight’s boatyard with work continuing on her for most of the next decade in a slow sort of way. There was no money and what funding PSPS then had understandably went to Waverley much to the annoyance of PSPS member number 1, the paddle steamer loving Mrs Eileen Pritchard, who by then had become a director of Paddle Steam Navigation. She fumed about that.
It was not until the arrival on the scene of Babcock who brought with them some much needed professional expertise and kit in the early 1980s that the project began to take off and get Kingswear Castle into a sufficient state to run trial sailings in 1984.
Then I arrived back on the scene and we got her into a sufficient state to renew her full Passenger Certificates for 1985. Then in the operational years on the Medway the real restoration began financed by surpluses from the operating revenue, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Manifold Trust, Local Authorities, donations and legacies and of course from donations from the PSPS.
On my watch we put on a new bottom, renewed the sponsons and paddle boxes on both sides in their entirety, put in a new boiler, commissioned a new fiddley and coach roof forward, re-decked the whole ship, in some places more than once, replaced the landing bridges, refurbished the saloons, opening up a viewing gallery for the engine and much else. But all that is a long time ago now which is why we need to do much of it again and why we are fund raising for a major rebuild. For example it is nearly thirty years since we did major work on KC’s basic steel structure. And thirty years is a long time in the life of a ship.
Since 2013, and with full consultation and agreement of Paddle Steam Navigation, now renamed the Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle Trust, Kingswear Castle has gone from strength to strength in her new incarnation back in her old home waters on the River Dart and run on our behalf by the Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company.
But none of this would have happened without the vision and driving force of Nick Knight forcing through her purchase over half a century ago.
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 28th August 2020.