Many excursion paddle steamers ran evening cruises, sometimes with music and many were hired out for private functions. But of all the paddlers still operational in the 1950s, perhaps one of the least likely to have started a career in the entertainment industry was the workaday Firth of Forth Car Ferry Sir William Wallace. Equipped, as she was, with a level of onboard facilities which could most honestly be described as on the weaker side of Spartan she was not the ideal party boat. But she was a novel vessel. She was bigger than anything else which could carry passengers in that part of Scotland. And she was available. So all credit to the young Mr Robert Maxstone-Graham for his ingenuity in hiring the ship, equipping her with a marquee on the car deck and filling her up with champagne for what the press described at the time as “An amazing river-boat party”.
The Bulletin for 21st July 1956 reported:
Three hundred and fifty young socialites packed the Forth ferry boat Sir William Wallace for Scotland’s most novel champagne dance last night. The boat, floating in midstream, became a musical playground. The young couples – who came from as far away as London – danced till 4am to Chicago style music. The event was sponsored by 16 young men from some of Scotland’s leading families. One of them, Mr Bobby McIntyre, son of Lord Sorn, brought a party of 10 up from London. “I thought we would show them there was some social life in Scotland” he told a Bulletin reporter. One of the party, 17 year old Ariadne Balfour, daughter of the Hon David Balfour said “This comes up to the standard of anything we have in London”.
The girls, dressed in exquisite cocktail dresses, appeared not to mind the chilling wind, which was sweeping up the river and causing a slight swell on the water. The boat, gaily dressed in fairy lights, started off from South Queensferry and sailed to North Queensferry to pick up more invited guests. Just as they were manoeuvring for a berth, a launch carrying guests who had missed the departure from the other side pulled up and young men and women scrambled on board while the ferry-boat was still in motion.
The man who thought of the idea was Mr Robert Maxtone-Graham, who intends becoming an advocate, said the party was thought up just to bring the younger social set together in novel surroundings. Among the 16 hosts were Mr Warren Strachan, son of Lord Strachan, Mr Stephen Younger, son of the famous brewer, and Mr James Currie, son of the managing director of the Currie Shipping Line.
The Daily Record continued:
CITY’S SOCIETY SET BLEW OFF STEAM IN AN AMAZING RIVER-BOAT PARTY LAST NIGHT.
A specially chartered ferry-boat took them into the middle of the Firth of Forth where a jazz band played and champagne bottles popped until dawn. Hosts were 16 young Edinburgh and East of Scotland socialites – including Bobby McIntyre and Warren Strachan, sons of Law Lords Sorn and Strachan and Simon and Stephen Younger sons of the brewing magnates.
Young men and women had travelled from as far as Inverness and London to make history on the Forth. They included pretty Mimi Laing, an air hostess, who flew to London for the party. And red-haired Miss Susan Paget, of 22 Murrayfield Drive, Edinburgh hobbled down the jetty with her leg in a heavy plaster cast. She had broken her leg in a car crash last October. It has not healed yet but Susan laughed as she clumped about the deck. About a dozen late-comers were left on the quay as the ferry, William Wallace, pulled out of North Queensferry to pick up 50 more guests. There were fantastic scenes when the ship berthed with another ferry lying between it and the quay. Young men waving champagne bottles and girls in cocktail dresses and stoles climbed gaily across the intervening ship and over the high side to their friends. Others jumped into a dirty little Leith based tug and climbed aboard from the seaward side. The party spirit roared even higher as Edinburgh solicitor Mr William Leslie and his wife climbed on board wearing life-belts and fisherman’s waders over their evening clothes. Back at South Queensferry, pressmen were landed, latecomers taken on, and the gay party floated off into the darkness. A cold wind was blowing and many of the girls were wearing….
…elegant mohair scarves over the shoulders. But the champagne and martinis were flowing, the band was hot and nobody really cared. Organiser Mr R Maxtone-Graham sent formal invitations to all officers of the Royal Scots Greys, including the Duke of Kent. The Greys, who have returned to Southern England, had to decline. But Miss Patricia Macnaughton of London, a friend of the Duke of Kent, did attend. Watching from the bridge was veteran master Mr C D Storie, still in command although his ship was under charter. “If any young devil feels like jumping overboard for a lark he’ll find it damned cold” said one of the crew of six that are getting double pay for their work. “He’ll find it a lot colder than the River Thames” But the night was warm with lights and laughter. Fireworks threw coloured sprays high in the air. The sun was coming up over the Forth when the champagne ferry finally made port.
Fifty years on the organiser, Mr Maxtone-Graham, lives in Sandwich in Kent. He recalls:
It was a good party, thought by some to be the high spot of a festive year. The press coverage we received was all favourable, even though nothing very newsworthy happened during the party, I mean nobody fell overboard or was arrested. I never heard of any other instance of a party being held on board the Sir William Wallace or any of her sister-paddleboats.
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.