Fifty years ago, in the same summer that British troops were sent overseas on yet another military adventure, in this case to Cyprus, the antique paddle steamer Empress was withdrawn from service as this cutting from the Dorset Daily Echo and Weymouth Dispatch for September 10th 1955 recounts. The two events were not, so far as I am aware, otherwise linked although the clever and witty journalistic layout of this page may have left the cursory reader with the false impression that the diminutive PS Empress was in fact HMS Ocean loaded down with commandos and setting off for Famagusta!
Lovers of Bristol Channel paddle steamers will be interested to read in this cutting that no less a person than “the shipping magnate from Bristol, Mr Smith Cox of the P & A Campbell Company” was amongst the passengers aboard the Empress for this trip. It would be lovely to think that he had been there with an eye to to acquiring her for service on the Bristol Channel (just the ship for Swansea to Ilfracombe in the teeth of a gale!) but the truth is more mundane. He was a guest of Cosens General Manager designate Don Brookes.
The Empress was built in 1879 for Cosens & Co’s longer excursions from Weymouth to Bournemouth and across the Channel to Cherbourg. As larger vessels joined the fleet in the 1880s she became most usually rostered for shorter trips, spending many summers before the First World War running the ferry service between Bournemouth and Swanage where this picture was taken sometime in the decade from 1904 to 1914.
After the First World War the Empress was based at Weymouth from where she ran the local cruises, trips she revived once again after the Second World War as shown in this steamer notice for August 1955. The longer sailings to Swanage and Bournemouth and to Swanage and Totland Bay would have been taken by the Consul leaving her smaller consort in charge of the shorter trips around Portland Harbour, to Lulworth Cove and including such delights as the “Special Tea Cruise to the Bill of Portland (Teas supplied at moderate charges)” and the “Grand Illuminations Cruise to view Weymouth’s Fairylike Illuminations”.
This picture of her backing out of Weymouth Harbour, taken in 1954 or 1955, shows just how elderly the Victorian Empress looked in her final years. Fortunately her oscillating engine, which is very similar to those still in use on most of the Dresden paddle steamers today, and her steam steering engine have been preserved and are on display in the Southampton Maritime Museum. Her master, described in the press cutting above as “the ruddy faced Francis Merryweather” was promptly given the old heave ho. Having been promoted captain in 1948, ahead of both Capt Haines and Capt Defrates, he was not Cosens most junior captain but, running only around Weymouth Bay, he was without the Trinity House Pilotage Certificates for Poole and the Isle of Wight Districts and so was of less use to the company. His place on the bridge for the final voyage of the Empress to the breakers yard in Southampton the following week was taken by the Emperor of India’s master Capt Rawle. Whether or not this abrupt end to his Cosens career left Capt Merryweather with an even ruddier face is not recorded.
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.