On Saturday 28th May 1966 Queen of the South ex-Jeanie Deans made her first public sailing from Tower Pier to Greenwich, Gravesend, Southend and Herne Bay.
Her master was Captain Stanley Woods who in the previous season had commanded the Princess Elizabeth which was then running from my home town of Weymouth. I had been introduced to Capt Woods, who was then the Lizzie’s mate, the previous season by Capt Defrates. Capt Woods therefore knew of my love for paddle steamers and was very encouraging of my ambition to go to sea and maybe one day become a captain of a paddle steamer myself. He taught me to steer that summer on the Lizzie and bombarded me with nautical text books on seamanship, navigation and so on. He expected me to read and learn them and was forever testing me on their contents. “What is the signal for a vessel not under command?” he would ask. “What navigation lights would you expect a trawler to carry?”. “What does the sound signal of two long blasts in fog mean”. That sort of thing. I just lapped it all up and am hugely grateful for the entirely positive influence he had on my young self.
He invited me along for the ride when he brought the Jeanie Deans round from the Clyde in November 1965, part of which fitted neatly with my school half term holiday. He kept me posted on developments as Jeanie Deans was transformed into Queen of the South during the winter in a series of long letters. He invited me along for these first trips on the Thames which fitted with my Whitsun school holidays.
So that is how I came to be on the bridge of Queen of the South as Capt Woods’s helmsman for our departure from Tower Pier on Saturday 28th May 1966. I recounted some of the details of this first weekend of sailings on the Thames in my book “British Paddle Steamers the Twilight Years” published in 2018 by Amberley:
The first sailings during the Whit weekend of 1966 coincided with my school half term holiday so I was aboard again as Capt. Woods’s helmsman for the first departure on Saturday 28th May. Unfortunately, there was a delay in her coming in from the buoys and a further delay while stores came aboard. As a result, we were very late leaving, with Don Rose not looking best pleased.
Capt. Woods had made two additions to the wheelhouse: a chart table, an item without which the ship had sailed throughout her Clyde career, and a large, brown easy chair, which took up a lot of space on the starboard side just forward of the emergency telegraph. Having taken and passed the examination for his Trinity House Pilotage Certificates for the Thames, he reckoned that he would end up spending all day and every day on the bridge, so he might as well make himself comfy. As it turned out his pilot’s license for the Thames above Gravesend had yet to be issued so we had to take a pilot for that part of the journey.
Sadly, the wicked hobgoblin who seemed to have joined the ship on the Clyde the previous November gave every evidence of still lurking aboard with his wand, in even finer form than before, as much did not go according to plan.
For example, arriving at Southend on the Saturday it was just about low water. Capt. Woods was not sure if the tide had completely bottomed out but thought that it was still ebbing slightly on the pier so planned to come in starboard side to. As it turned out, by the time we got up to the pier the tide had just started to flood, so the berthing went badly awry, leaving Queen of the South end-on to the pier.
At Herne Bay the aft rope was slow to go ashore and the bow fell in, resulting in the starboard bridge wing contacting the pier and damaging the starboard light case. Delays crept in everywhere and the ship was two hours late getting back to Tower Pier in the evening.
On the way back the mate asked the pilot who came aboard at Gravesend if he would like a drink. “Whisky please”, was the response and this was repeated at regular intervals all the way up from Gravesend to Tower Pier. I never saw Capt. Woods drink. I did see him looking rather blackly at the pilot during that evening and I have sometimes wondered why the whiskies kept corning when the captain so heartily disapproved. It was another age though, and some people at sea did drink then. Mariners who had been forged in the Second World War and had started drinking on a grand scale to keep at bay the horrors that they had seen sometimes retained these habits into their peacetime careers.
The following day we were off to Clacton but, with low tide again in the early afternoon, there turned out to be insufficient water in the Spitway. I have a very clear recollection of the ship gingerly edging up to the Swin Spitway buoy in the slight swell that was running and Capt. Woods saying, “She’s bouncing on the bottom”, and ringing full astern. That was the closest Queen of the South ever got to Clacton.
As we had not managed Clacton we therefore made up time and were not so late that day, with the ship seemingly running well until the approach to Tower Bridge when an ominous clanking started up in the port paddle wheel.
The following morning the noise was still there and was getting worse. We called at Greenwich but by Blackwall Point it was clear that something would have to be done so the anchor was dropped. Never a man to lead from behind, Capt. Woods was down straight away into the paddle box and, with a saw, started cutting away the offending wooden float. Meanwhile, sensing a touch of salvage, several tugs turned up anxious to offer their services, hovering in hopeful anticipation.
The float eventually came off and was hauled on deck, then the anchor was up and we were off, or rather not off, as now there was a problem with the air pump leading to a loss of vacuum for the engine. Defeat was admitted and Capt. Woods negotiated a tow to Gravesend to unload the happy trippers who were enjoying ‘a most memorable part of their trip’.
With the vacuum pump fixed at Gravesend we then moved under our own steam to the Tilbury Landing Stage to await enough water to go into the Tilbury Basin for repairs. That was the last I saw of the Queen of the South as I was due back in school again the following week.
Sailings recommenced on 11th June but lasted only until the following day when further problems caused the cruise to be aborted at Southend, after which Queen of the South was laid up and the crew were paid off.
However, Don Rose started rounding up the crew again in July, but, not surprisingly, people had gone off to do other things. It was therefore with a largely new crew that Queen of the South set off from Tilbury for London on 30th July to start again. Sadly, she had no better luck this time and ran with only a very few passengers on just two days before breaking down again at Southend on 6th August. She returned to the buoys in the Upper Pool, where she remained until 22nd August, when she was towed to the Medway to lay up. It had been a summer that had started with such high hopes and ended so dismally, leaving the ship with a mountain of debts amidst a sea of broken dreams.
It was a severe setback for Don Rose but he was not a man to give up, and 1967 was to see the whole affair of hope and despair repeated with the Queen of the South yet again sailing on only a handful of days. She left the Thames under tow for the scrapyard in Belgium in December 1967.
Her starboard paddle box facing survives on the outside wall of a bar in Genk in Belgium, which is also called Queen of the South.
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 May 2021.