January 2014:
Paddle Steamer Bilsdale

January 2014:
Paddle Steamer Bilsdale

The paddle steamer Bilsdale started life as the Lord Roberts built by W Allsup and Son of Preston in 1900 for the Great Yarmouth Steam Tug Company’s excursion services along the Norfolk Coast. She was chartered to Cosens of Weymouth in 1911 and 1912 before taking up work in the war as the Earl Roberts. After that she was bought by Furness Shipbuilders for work on the Tees and, in 1924, sold on to Crosthwaite Shipping to run excursions from Scarborough.

They renamed her Bilsdale and put her into service with a schedule generally running short trips along the coast to off Hayburn Wyke. Scarborough was a busy resort and there was great competition between rival boat businesses and local boatman which was exacerbated by the harbour being tidal. To get the best trade everyone wanted to use the best berth which had the best water on it for the longest period. When the tide was low there was not a lot of water anywhere in the harbour. When the tide was up, the berth closest to the shore was preferred so that potential passengers could be picked off first. You can imagine how tempers could become frayed as operators and boatmen vied for the best position.

Inevitably disputes arose and sometimes these could be acrimonious and violent as this 1951 press cutting, headlined “Harbour Staff not afraid of Caronia Crew – Skipper Defends His men” at Scarborough reveals. I can’t find a similar press cutting before the war but I do recall my father telling me that one of the crew of the Bilsdale had been killed in a brawl with local boatmen.

I don’t know who the vicar, standing in the stern of the Bilsdale, is.

But I can identify the family group at the top of the companionway on the Bilsdale in this picture taken in the late 1920s. They are, from left to right, my father Winston Megoran aged about 14, his father Edwin, his sister Mary, his school-friend Kenneth and his mother Edith. They were on holiday in Scarborough staying in a Bed and Breakfast owned and run by the Fenbys.

They had a son called Eric, then aged about 20, who was was very religious, a first rate pianist and organist at his local church and cinema and so compelled by music that when he went out for a walk he took a notebook with him to write down the sounds and calls of birds and gulls. Listening to the wireless one day around this time, Eric heard that the composer Frederick Delius, who had also grown up in Yorkshire and knew Scarborough well, had become paralysed and blind and was now unable to compose. On an impulse he wrote to him, telling him of his musical experiences in Scarborough and, much to his surprise, received a reply from the composer’s wife, Jelka, inviting him over. He stayed with the couple at their home in Grez-Sur-Loing near Paris on and off until Delius’s death, taking down and arranging all the composer’s later works including the much played “A Song of Summer”. Eric Fenby recounted his experiences with the very hedonistic and irreligious composer in his excellent book “Delius As I Knew Him” which itself became the basis of one of Ken Russell’s earliest television films for the BBC, “Song of Summer”, in 1968.

The year in which Delius died,1934, also sounded the death knell for the Bilsdale, pictured here at Scarborough that summer astern of her newly arrived competitor, the brand new Royal Lady. Freshly built by John Crown & Sons of Sunderland she was powered by Diesel, had much enhanced facilities and swept the board. The Bilsdale made her last trip on 17th September 1934, retired defeated and sailed no more.

But what of that family group in the picture taken aboard the Bilsdale more than eighty years ago? What became of them?

Edith died in Sunderland only a very few years after the picture was taken.

Edwin married again, moved to Weymouth and died in 1950.

Mary became a teacher and headmistress in Acton before retiring to Brighton where she died in 1995.

Kenneth Milburn went to sea, joined Cunard and sailed as first officer of the Queen Elizabeth before coming ashore and becoming harbourmaster and then Director of Marine at Hong Kong. He died in Milford-on-Sea in 2006.

Eric Fenby subsequently taught composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London and remained a champion for the music of Delius throughout the rest of his life. He died in Scarborough in 1997.

Winston Megoran became a distinguished marine artist. For more about his life click here.

Geoff Hamer emailed to say:

There is some more about the BILSDALE in ‘Bridlington Pleasure Boats’ by Frank Bull, published in 2010. The ship was owned and crewed in Middlesbrough, so was resented by the local boatmen in Scarborough. The fatal fight was on 27 August 1928 when local fishermen and some of the BILSDALE’s crew got into a brawl after spending the evening drinking. A deckhand from the BILSDALE fell into the harbour, hitting part of the ship, and died from his injuries. Two Scarborough men were charged with murder but that was changed to manslaughter and they ended up being bound over for three years to keep the peace.

The BILSDALE to me looks newer than she was, with her white (?) hull and wheelhouse, both very unusual features on a British pleasure steamer at that time.

John Megoran responded:

Thanks Geoff for your excellent work digging down to find the date of the fatal brawl. It fits well with the photograph. Winston Megoran was born in October 1913 so would have been going on for fifteen in the summer of 1928. That was also the year in which Eric Fenby wrote to Delius so this event must have been the talk of the B & B with Eric’s parents doubtless apprehensive at the thought of their nicely brought up, tea-total and God fearing son going off to live in the highly eccentric, bacchanalian and libidinous household of Frederick Delius, a man who held the concept of the Christian God in complete contempt.

My Auntie Mary, the little girl in the picture, followed the fortunes of Eric over the years and took my younger self to a talk he gave on Delius to a music club in Ealing in the early 1970s.

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