The paddle steamer Monarch, seen here approaching Bournemouth Pier on the 28th August 1954, spent most of her decade in Cosens’s fleet from 1951 to 1960 running backwards and forwards on the Bournemouth to Swanage service. Passing the entrance to Poole Harbour up to ten times a day in the peak weeks, she was well placed to spot and assist with the personal disasters of weekend sailors struggling to get to grips with their sometimes rather less than seaworthy craft as they emerged from the safety of the harbour for their day out on the unexpectedly turbulent briny.
One such rescue was of a father and mother plus their son from a 30ft converted lifeboat which was trying to make its way from Poole to Swanage on the suitably fateful day of Friday 13th August 1954.
The Bournemouth Echo reported the following day:
Holidaymakers on the paddle steamer Monarch had a ringside view of a dramatic rescue yesterday afternoon in Swanage Bay. They saw a man, a woman and a four year old boy saved from a boat that was shipping water quickly and soon afterwards sank. There was a nasty sea running and it is understood that a big wave broke over it causing the engine to stop. The boat then turned broadside to the waves and water kept breaking over it.
The skipper of the Monarch, Capt H F Defrates, saw her plight and hove to alongside. Then the occupants of the boat were taken on board the paddle steamer which was on her way from Bournemouth to Swanage. They were Mr & Mrs R A Spiers of Bristol and their son. They were on the first day of their holiday – Friday 13th!
An attempt was made to tow the converted lifeboat into Swanage but the boat was water-logged and it was abandoned. The boat sank within a few minutes. Had the paddle steamer’s crew not seen that the boat was in distress her occupants might well have been drowned because there was no other shipping in the vicinity. The boat’s occupants were landed at Swanage pier none the worse for their experience.
This report was followed up a few days later by a letter to the Editor from someone using the pseudonym “Resident (Name and address supplied to Editor)” saying:
Bournemouth people well know the paddle steamer Monarch which this week completes her final trips of the season and her skipper Harry Defrates. Your readers will remember your description – front page news in the Echo – of Capt Defrates’ very skilful rescue of persons in danger of drowning near the Old Harry Rocks.
Would it not be very pleasant and fitting if appreciation of his very speedy action and skill could be recognised by some memento of the occasion by the well-wishers in Bournemouth? There is still time to do this before he leaves at this season’s close.
I don’t know if Capt Defrates (pictured above on the bridge on the Monarch in June 1960) ever received any such memento for this or for any of the other rescues for which he was responsible over the years but I do know that he retired from Cosens in April 1961 and was without the benefit of any company pension to help keep him going in his own twilight years.
He continued to work on and off during the following decade, not least on the paddle steamers Princess Elizabeth and Consul in the early attempts at Paddle Steamer Preservation, ending up in his seventies living in somewhat reduced circumstances in a Weymouth Council flat. He died in a nursing home in 1984 exactly thirty years after he had plucked the Spiers family from a potential watery grave on their ill starred voyage to sea on a converted lifeboat on Friday 13th August 1954.
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.