April 2013:
Paddle Steamers to Ventnor

April 2013:
Paddle Steamers to Ventnor

Ventnor was the Isle of Wight’s most exposed pier sticking right out into the English Channel with no shelter from winds from the east through to the west. Imagine yourself on the end of the pier looking out to the south west, which in this picture is towards the right, and, if you could see over the horizon, the next bit of land which you would spy would be France or if you looked a little more to the west, to the right, it would be America. Not surprisingly Ventnor was ever a difficult pier and ever subject to damage from the pounding waves rolling up the Channel.

The idea for a pier and small harbour at the resort was hatched in the early 1860s and, by the summer of 1863, work was sufficiently far advanced for the first call by paddle steamers, the Prince Consort coming down from Portsmouth and the Chancellor from Stokes Bay. However disaster struck on 1st July when the Chancellor grounded on a rock at low tide and, in deteriorating weather conditions, her mooring ropes snapped leaving her to be thrown ashore onto the beach (pictured above) where she broke her back.

Subsequent work to complete the harbour continued to be hampered by the weather until winter storms finally swept away much of the eastern arm and the western pier head in 1867 bringing the project to a halt. Never daunted, a second pier was proposed, built and opened in 1881 but that too had a very short life being swept away by gales the following winter.

You have to give Ventnor full marks for effort because the demise of the two previous piers did not stop plans for a third. The finished result, the Royal Victoria Pier, opened for paddle steamer calls in 1888 and ended up having a much longer life than its predecessors. Amongst its first visitors was the Bangor Castle (pictured above), which had been chartered by the Southampton Company as a stop gap after their brand new Princess of Wales had been sliced in two by the Balmoral Castle on trials on the Clyde, and it was not long before Ventnor started to receive calls, weather permitting, from representatives from all the various excursions paddle steamer fleets from Bournemouth in the west through to the Sussex Piers in the east.

This picture shows Red Funnel’s Lorna Doone berthing in the late 1930s and also demonstrates another of the difficulties of piers sticking out into the sea with a strong tide running across them. As you can see, this shot was taken on a lovely day but, even so, all is not going terribly well with the berthing with the stern swinging off. Lorna Doone has come in fast to get in before the tide sets her off (towards us in the picture) which you can see from the wash from her paddles going towards the bow. Now the engines are going ahead, with wash coming out towards the stern, to put weight on the spring to try to drive her alongside. And you can see the steam exhaust from the aft capstan as it endeavours to pull the ship alongside against the force of the tide pushing her off.

Cardiff Queen backing out of Ilfracombe.

After the Second World War the pier was not repaired and re-opened until 1953 when the first call was made by the rather inaptly named Cardiff Queen on a day trip from Brighton on 25th May.

Cosens’s Embassy made half a dozen calls there in 1953 and 1954 en route from Bournemouth to Shanklin but did not call again after that.

Balmoral Weymouth 4th March 1964 with Consul’s bow bottom left.

Red Funnel added Ventnor once again to their schedule from 1953 with calls generally scheduled three days a week during the peak season offering trips by the Balmoral or the Vecta either as part of the Round The Island Trip, or up to Southampton to view the docks. The picture of the Balmoral passing through the Town Bridge at Weymouth in the spring of 1964 was taken from Cosens’s Consul and you can just see her bow in the bottom left.

In 1954 the Glen Gower, replaced the Cardiff Queen on the Sussex Coast and made several calls at Ventnor becoming, so far as I can see, the last paddle steamer actually to berth there.

This absence of paddle steamer calls at Ventnor did not escape the notice of the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society which was ever on the lookout for unusual destinations to revive. As a result, they chartered the Embassy on Sunday 24th July 1966 for a day trip from Poole and Bournemouth round the Isle of Wight to make her first call at Ventnor for twelve years. An afternoon cruise was also to be offered from the resort at 3pm back 5pm to off the North Foreland.

Embassy’s paddle box. // Tony Horn

But, and so often in life there is a but, the day dawned inauspiciously with an overcast sky and a strengthening moderate to fresh south westerly breeze with the promise of rain later. A front was passing through so, whilst, the Embassy did manage to sail round the Island going south about first to get in the lee of the east of the Island sooner rather than later in the day, a call at Ventnor was not possible leaving the accolade of being the last paddle steamer to call there still with the Glen Gower.

After the Balmoral made her last call at Ventnor in 1966, the pier continued its lonely sojourn jutting out into the English Channel battered by winter gales. Its deteriorating structure was not helped by catching fire in 1985 (why do so many piers catch fire?) and time was up for it eventually in 1993 when the order was given for it to be demolished. So off it went carrying away with it the merry sparkle of happiness of all the ghosts of all the passengers who had ever passed up and down it on their way to or from the heady excitement and wonder of their trip to sea.

Geoff Hamer has emailed to say:

The Balmoral did not call there after 1966 as the landing stage needed repairs. In the 1967 and ’68 seasons, she still offered trips from Ryde, Sandown and Shanklin. The post-war history of Ventnor Pier was thus very short, with steamer calls for just 14 seasons, from 1953 to 1966.

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