February 2002:
Last Paddle Steamer to Putney

February 2002:
Last Paddle Steamer to Putney

On Sunday May 5 2002 Kingswear Castle is running an up river cruise on the Thames to Putney leaving the London Bridge City Pier at 11.30am, return 5pm. We believe that the last paddle steamer advertised to run a trip that far up the Thames was the Alexandra trading as the Showboat in 1932.

Alexandra (pictured entering Weymouth Harbour) was built in 1879 for the joint railway services from Portsmouth to Ryde. She was bought by the famous South Coast paddle steamer operators Cosens & Co in 1913, as they were in need of additional ships to cope with the Admiralty contracts in Portland Harbour, and she remained with that company until 1931 running on many of their services. From 1924 she was based at Torquay in direct competition with the local steamers Duke and Duchess of Devonshire until their owners, the Devon Dock Pier and Steamship Co, managed to get rid of her after the 1927 season by paying Cosens a fee or bribe of £350 per annum for the following five years to keep her away.

Cosens sold Alexandra for scrap in early 1931. The following year she was bought from the scrapyard by a series of businessmen led by Capt Alfred Hawkes who raised money, mortgaging the ship along the way, to convert her into the Showboat for use on the Thames. As Cosens had sold her for scrap due to her poor condition and as the plans of the businessmen were rather grandiose, it is little surprise to discover that the project was dogged by problems and proved to be a rather more costly exercise than anticipated.

However, Alexandra arrived on the Thames in June 1932 and was advertised to run from Westminster Pier downstream as far as Greenwich and upriver as far as Richmond. Her funnel had been modified to lower to pass under the bridges and she had been given much enhanced passenger accommodation for the onboard entertainment.

How often the upriver cruises operated and whether or not she ever got to Richmond is unknown. At 171ft in length Showboat was a big lump of a boat to get that far upriver and, even with the funnel down, she had a considerable air draft in relation to some of the bridges. Hammersmith Bridge, for example, has a clearance of only 3.7m at high water springs and little more than three feet depth of water in the river at low tide. If anyone has any direct knowledge of whether these advertised trips actually happened and how often please let us know at info@paddlesteamers.org.

The season was not a success. Alexandra spent a few weeks the following year anchored off Margate which, unsurprisingly, was even less of a success and, after a period laid up at Shoreham during which a Capt Hardie from Aberdeen was working on plans to resurrect her into service for a money making venture on the Manchester Ship Canal, she finally left for the breakers yard of T W Ward on the Thames in November 1934.

Prior to the Showboat, the last paddle steamers running as far up river as Putney were those built for London County Council for a new and short lived Thames “river bus” service which opened in 1905. Thirty similar steamers were constructed in four yards nationwide to run between Hammersmith and Greenwich but the high hopes that this might help to reduce horse-drawn road traffic congestion (and its attendant problem of disposing of vast quantities of horse droppings) proved ill founded and the operation ceased in October 1907 having lost £164,499 over three years, a very considerable sum of money at the time.

E A C Smith, who travelled on the steamers regularly as a boy said in the spring 1963 issue of the magazine Ship Ahoy “I do not recall ever being the only passenger though it is probable that there were such occasions as business was extremely poor at times. I can remember being one of only two or three passengers on many occasions though.”

Various efforts were made to try to make the service more economical including reducing crew numbers and abandoning booking offices ashore, collecting the fares instead by putting tram conductors on the steamers to walk around the decks calling out, Mr Smith recalled, “Fares please!”. Presumably these refugees from the tram service must have had to work hard to control their natural reflex to continue with the next phrase “No standing on the top deck, please!”

With the fleet laid up there were no sailings in 1908 but Mr Smith remembered that they lived on in a popular song of the time which included the line”We haven’t forgotten the Dreadnoughts of the good old LCC” and in slogans like “Give me my puff puff playthings and my khaki steamboats back”.

The following year fourteen of the steamers were sold at a very favourable price to the City Steam Boat Company which re-instated a reduced service in 1909. This continued until the outbreak of World War 1 although the fourteen gradually dwindled to about six, enough for the Greenwich service, as one after another was sold off.

The rest of this giant fleet of practically brand new paddle steamers was sold worldwide for further operation in places as diverse as Dundee, Loch Lomond, Plymouth, Mesopotamia, Genoa, Nantes, Lugano, Belgium, the Rhine, Lyon, Rouen and Russia. One of them, Ben Johnson (pictured above at Basel in 1909) was bought for service on Lake Lucerne and was entirely rebuilt as the paddler Rhein entering service on the Lake in 1911 and running until 1939.

After the Second World War Rhein was rebuilt as a Diesel engined and propellor driven vessel and renamed Waldstatter (pictured at Lucerne) running trials in January 1949 and remaining in regular service on Lake Lucerne until 1995. At one stage her captain was Kuno Stein, presently master of the paddle steamer Schiller.

Waldstatter, ex Rhein, ex Ben Johnson was finally scrapped in the summer of 2001 at Beckenreid on Lake Lucerne, taking with her what must surely be the last hull of any of the former LCC paddlers which had once berthed alongside Putney Pier.

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