20th September 2023:
Waverley at Ipswich

20th September 2023:
Waverley at Ipswich
Waverley alongside at Harwich.

Waverley is scheduled to make her first trip from Ipswich for 20 years on Saturday 23rd September with a second trip now scheduled for Thursday 5th October.

Waverley at Gravesend September 2023.

Sailing down the beautiful River Orwell and then on into the Thames to Clacton and London, Waverley will be following in the wake of other paddle steamers from the past.

Woolwich Belle alongside Ipswich. Great Eastern Railway paddlers in the background.

The most substantial paddle steamer specially built for service from Ipswich and running trips to connect with Harwich, Felixstowe, Clacton and the onward services to London and Great Yarmouth of the Belle Line was Woolwich Belle built for that company by Denny in 1894. All the Belle steamers had a commonality of look about them which makes identifying pictures of them hard. But there were differences about them not least in terms of their size. For example, Woolwich Belle, was just 200ft LOA, 80ft shorter than the very much larger London Belle built for the London/Great Yarmouth service the previous year.

Suffolk alongside at Ipswich.

At Ipswich Woolwich Belle was sort of in competition with the Great Eastern Railway which had been running their paddle steamer connections between Ipswich, Harwich and Felixstowe for decades and from 1880 offered a year round service with two round trips every day in winter and six in summer. With the advent of Woolwich Belle the Great Eastern upped their game and ordered three new paddle steamers in an attempt to outdo this interloper with PS Suffolk arriving in 1895, PS Essex in 1896 and PS Norfolk in 1900. At 165ft, 175ft and 185ft respectively they were all a little bit smaller than Woolwich Belle and they were all double ended so did not need to turn in the confined space of the river at Ipswich.


Different sources claim different dates but at some stage between 1904 and 1910 Woolwich Belle had her funnel made telescopic so that she could fit under London Bridge and therefore be more interchangeable with other members of the Belle Line fleet and so sail elsewhere. Her smaller size and therefore cheaper running costs made her an ideal choice for the longer routes at less busy times. And so the paddle steamer Ipswich Branch Service off the Main Belle Line coastal route passed into history.

However a connection to Ipswich seems still to have been offered with the coastal service. For example, according to some of the later steamer notices I have on my desk here with me, a 1.35pm paddle steamer arrival at Felixstowe south bound from Great Yarmouth and a 3.45pm paddle steamer arrival north bound from London Bridge both advertise a connection to Ipswich not by steamer but by bus “every 10 minutes”.

In 1913 PS Essex was withdrawn and subsequently sold for further service overseas. In 1923 the Great Eastern Railway became part of the LNER. They continued to operate PS Suffolk and PS Norfolk on the same routes until 1929 when both steamers were withdrawn and sold for scrap in 1931. They were not replaced.

After that trips on the Rivers Orwell and Stour fell into the hands of smaller diesel craft. Big boats rather than small ships really. But as ever the railway companies continued to look at opportunities to drum up business to fill their railway carriages and their other ships on other routes whenever they could.

For example, I have here a steamer notice for a British Railways outing advertising “Day Trips on Thursdays 22nd June to 7th September 1961 to see and board the Continental Steamers at Harwich (Parkeston Quay) followed by a River Cruise on the Orwell in the motor vessel River Lady II”.

Departures were offered from London Liverpool Street (10.30am) Ilford (10.19am), Romford (10.26am) and Chelmsford (11.08am) to arrive at Parkeston Quay (12.23pm) to board “various shipping including the steamers which take passengers to the Hook of Holland twice daily en route to the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland.”

River Lady II and Brightlingsea alongside Harwich.

Then it was back on the train to Harwich Pier in time to catch River Lady II, a lovely old Fairmile, for her 3pm departure due back at 5pm up the River Orwell towards Ipswich. Various options were then offered to take one train or another back to London from Harwich between 5.04pm and 9.20pm.

It was a masterly piece of marketing by British Railways to attract people who might not otherwise have thought that they might be able to afford the luxury of travelling overseas to come aboard and see their ships for themselves and maybe be tempted to sail on them next year. Who knows if this sort of trip might not have whetted the appetite of some who had been half thinking about taking the family Foreign for their next holiday but had not yet plucked up the courage to do it. And remember we are talking 1961 here right on the cusp of the dawn of mass market overseas holidays.

So to bring us back to paddle steamers that just shows what the domestic paddle steamer excursion market was up against as the 1960s dawned, wore on and turned into a decade of massive change and new opportunities. How could the lovely old paddle steamers built for service in a different age compete with that?

Waverley alongside Gravesend September 2023.

In the end of course they didn’t which is why the continued preservation of survivors from that era like Waverley, Kingswear Castle and other historic ships is so important and needs to be applauded, encouraged and cherished.

Waverley at Gravesend September 2023.

The trip from Ipswich on Waverley on Saturday 23rd September is now sold out. However the interest was so great this year, and with the alternative of Harwich unavailable, an extra trip has been scheduled from Ipswich for Thursday 5th October. There are currently still tickets available for this trip as well as for some of Waverley’s other sailings on the Thames this autumn.

So do buy your tickets now and pile aboard for a voyage back into history during Waverley’s brief but exciting visit to the Thames.

For Waverley’s Thames schedule starting Friday 22nd September click here.

For Waverley’s last trips of the season on the Clyde click here.

For a little bit more about the Orwell paddlers click here.

For a little bit about Southwold Belle click here.

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.

John Megoran

John Megoran