December 2015:
Paddle Steamer Letters to the Editor 1937

December 2015:
Paddle Steamer Letters to the Editor 1937

Before the advent of Twitter, Facebook and TripAdvisor gave everyone an instant platform on which to express their views, paddle steamer passengers of an earlier age had only the humble postcard or a letter to the editor of the local newspaper in which to pour out their thoughts and opinions. And pour them out they did as a brief trawl through the letter pages of the Bournemouth Daily Echo for September and October 1937 suggests. Above we have one forthright letter from someone hiding behind the anonymity of his pseudonym “Would-be-Voyager”.

Just to give some background, that summer there were four paddle steamers based at Bournemouth: two from the fleet of Cosens and Co and two from Red Funnel of Southampton with others from both those companies calling regularly on voyages from Weymouth or Southampton to elsewhere. One or another of the larger, newly built and well appointed Portsmouth based Southern Railway paddlers also called from time to time and, for a real treat, there was the very occasional excitement of the arrival all the way from Brighton of one of P & A Campbell’s giant Sussex Coast flyers.

The two Cosens’s paddle steamers based at Bournemouth that summer were the Emperor of India (built in 1906) which usually ran the longer trips to the Isle of Wight…
…and the Monarch (built 1888) seen here at Swanage which usually ran on the Bournemouth/Swanage service.
For Red Funnel the Bournemouth Queen (built 1908) generally ran the Isle of Wight trips whilst…
…the Queen, (built 1902) which had just that year been renamed Mauretania to preserve the name at the request of Cunard, ran alongside the Monarch to Swanage.

In his letter to the Bournemouth Daily Echo “Would-Be Voyager” said:

“If there is an apparent lack of appreciation of the local steamer trips may not this be due to the steamship companies? Compare, for example, the boats which ply from Bournemouth with those at other resorts. Those which come to Bournemouth year after year have done so for longer than most of us care to remember.”

“They are not to be compared with speed, smartness and comfort to the passenger vessels which…”

“…serve the Bristol Channel resorts (like Brighton Queen built 1905) nor with the splendid steamers which…”
“…the Southern Railway run from Southampton to Southsea and the Isle of Wight (like the Whippingham built 1930) and even by the Isle of Wight Company itself.”

“No doubt it is because of the competition of the Southern Railway that the Isle of Wight company is forced to run more up-to-date steamers from Southampton than it does from Bournemouth. I have during the past summer sailed on the Southsea and the Whippingham sister ships owned by the Southern Railway which are in every way modern and up-to-date. So too…”

“…is the Gracie Fields (built 1936) owned by the Isle of Wight Company.”

“Why should Bournemouth have to put up with pre-war vessels? Bournemouth claims to have advanced in most things but certainly not in the matter of pleasure steamers plying from the pier.”

“Then again there are the charges. I for one would like a “blow” to Swanage two or three times a week but not at the present fare with pier charges in addition. Seven pence for embarking and landing is altogether too high to pay in addition to the return fare of 2s. I feel sure that more up-to-date steamers and reduced charges to include all pier tolls would increase the popularity of the Bournemouth trips.”

Another correspondent calling himself “Quiz” wrote:

“Often I have felt in entire agreement with the writer of the letter calling attention to the enjoyable sea trips offered by the pleasure steamers sailing from Bournemouth. But his surprise that Bournemouth people – the settled population – do not habitually take advantage of them shows him to be a stranger.”

“I have known elderly Bournemouth residents assert – almost in fact boast – they have never heard of Dan Godfrey’s Band (an early incarnation of what was to become the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra). And who has not met the local shopkeeper or the married artisan who will quite casually admit “It must be a couple of years since I saw Bournemouth Pier.”

“When steamers were more numerous, when Torquay, Dartmouth, Brighton, Alderney – places that never figure in the sailings nowadays – were offered in each week’s list of cruises did ordinary Bournemouth people ever the trouble to take a sail? Fares were ridiculously cheap owing to competition but only visitors could be relied upon as patrons. Half day trips on early closing days so such places as Lymington and Lulworth (hardly ever billed now) would fail nowadays to awaken local folk to what they are missing.”

“The reason (for want of a better) must be that Bournemouth suffices. It is not so in such centres as Glasgow…”

“…where Clyde trips (Clyde paddler Jeanie Deans built in 1934) are so popular with all classes. Or is it that an effete age in southern latitudes is loosing altogether the taste for seafaring even its most modest form?”

Mr S H Wall from Forsyte Shades, Canford Cliffs, Bournemouth replied:

“I was sorry to hear the attack on our splendid steamers made by your anonymous correspondent last week. He asks for “Speed, smartness and comfort”. What is the use of speed in this case? These are pleasure cruises: the faster the ship travels the less you get for your money. It is ridiculous to compare them with steamers of railway companies which are built for quite another purpose namely to get there. As for comfort these ships do not and should not cater for those who want to spend the time in the saloon or bar. The breeze and if possible plenty of motion in a lively sea is what does us good. For this, is one deck chair as good as another? Smartness is a word that I do not care for. But if your correspondent can show me in any other resort a more trim little craft or one better kept and manned than…”

“…the grand old Monarch (built 1888) with her superlatively graceful lines I shall be surprised.”
“He sneers at pre-war vessels. My chief regret is that we have not still the Brodick Castle (built 1878) and…”
“…the fine Majestic (built 1901 & pictured right at Cherbourg before the First World War with red Funnel’s Balmoral built 1900 alongside) which was a war victim.”

“I have used these steamers for over forty years and think them still the best thing in Bournemouth. I hope it will be long before they are replaced and believe that the companies would lose as many passengers as they might gain by such a policy.”

Mr D Perry of “Mount Pleasant”, Sandbanks, Bournemouth sent in to the Echo:

“Although it seems an inappropriate time of year to discuss the merits and demerits of the pleasure steamers serving Bournemouth I think “Would-Be Voyager’s” letter of Saturday calls for some comment.”

“Firstly a peculiar characteristic common to many Bournemouth residents seems to be that it only requires an expression of spontaneous gratitude from a visitor to provoke an opposing criticism. Whether it be parks, pavilions, or (as now) paddleboats praise of such things by a visitor who probably appreciated them because of their non-existence in his home town inevitably seems to bring forth a discordant raspberry from Jonnie-on-the-spot.”

“However, as your correspondent’s criticism seems to be specific rather than general I will try to follow the same lines. Firstly I was brought up on the Bristol Channel and can agree that the latter are very fine but most of them are certainly no younger or more modern than some of the boats serving Bournemouth. As to itineraries it must be appreciated that the Bristol Channel offers two coastlines with a resultant greater scope.”

“The Gracie Fields, together with the Southern Railway boats, was obviously built for for all year round passage service as well as for use as a liner tender in all weathers to liners off Ryde. Their use for excursion work in the summer does not mean that their owners can afford to lay up capital represented by them in the winter months.”

“On the whole I think the Isle of Wight Company serves us very well and surely it is better to take an often repeated trip eastwards to the Island rather than a new and momentary novel trip westwards to, say, Torquay only to find oneself running into foul weather. Many times I have enjoyed a trip to the Island or Southampton in bright sunshine and fair breezes whereas a trip westwards would have produced soaked clothes and a determination ‘Never to go in one of those confounded pleasure steamers ever again.'”

“In the certainty of speaking for the many I am quite positive that if new boats came here, were they ever so spacious and palatial, very few of the regular customers would be so traitorous as to desert their old paddle-boat pals.”

In their fervour to express their opinions the correspondents missed the fact that Cosens had just invested in a new paddle steamer the Embassy (ex Duchess of Norfolk) that year although to be fair she was very second hand having been built in 1911 for the Joint Railway Isle of Wight service from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight and, being based at Weymouth then, she was a visitor to, rather than a permanent fixture at, Bournemouth in 1937.

Like the Bournemouth paddlers of 1937, these extraordinary letters have their merits and demerits and are a good reminder that the sort of comments habitually associated with today’s social media are actually nothing new. And on a dark winter’s night I found myself surprisingly cheered by their writers’ intrinsic love of paddle steamers supported by a certain quantity of facts mixed up with a multiplicity of strongly held and sometimes bizarre opinions, all laced together with a sprinkling of unintentionally humorous dottiness. What was that about Dan Godfrey’s band and a married artisan?

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