November 2013:
Paddle Steamer Mix-Up

November 2013:
Paddle Steamer Mix-Up

The collective recollection of childhood summers bathed in fine weather, when the paddle steamers always ran to time and never ever had any problems with angry passengers left stranded on piers is a fine thing to imagine of an idyllic past but it is not always as true as we all may wish that it had been. And Wednesday 21st August 1957 was a day when things at Bournemouth Pier did not go altogether according to plan.

During the peak weeks the Embassy (pictured above) ran the longer Isle of Wight sailings and…

…the Monarch (pictured above) ran backwards and forwards between Bournemouth and Swanage.

The Swanage service finished in time for a departure from Bournemouth either for Poole directly or to Poole via Swanage at 6pm. The Isle of Wight service finished in time for a departure from Bournemouth either to Poole directly or to Poole via Swanage at 6.30pm. This meant that on some days the last sailing for Swanage left Bournemouth at 6pm and on other days at 6.30pm. And on Wednesdays, because of the scheduling, as we will see, it alternated week and week about.

I think that you may already have guessed where this is going.

Of course a difference in time each day should not necessarily be a problem. Not if it is in the timetable correctly. Not if it is on the blackboards correctly. Not if people read it correctly. But if the person charged with rubbing out the “30” bit on a 6.30pm departure on the blackboard doesn’t rub it out or quite rub it out then tempers may well become frayed when passengers turn up to find the paddle steamer that they were aiming to catch disappearing into the distance taking their hopes of an evening meal and bed in Swanage with it. And so it turned out on the evening of Wednesday 21st August 1957 when the Monarch left Bournemouth Pier at 6pm for Swanage. And allegedly hundreds turned up expecting a 6.30pm departure as the following press cutting from Friday 23rd August demonstrates.

Hundreds of pleasure steamer passengers who planned to sail from Bournemouth to Swanage on the 6.30pm boat on Wednesday night arrived at Bournemouth Pier to find the boat half way across the bay. It had sailed at six. They complained that it had sailed early and that they were marooned, but yesterday a spokesman for the steamer company said “If passengers were late for the sailing it was their own fault.

A check-up on the company’s timetable revealed a printing error. A six and a six thirty boat are both advertised.

It was reported that the chalked “30” on the company’s blackboard at the pier had been inefficiently rubbed out during the afternoon. Cdr T Johnson, for the company, said last night that rumours were being spread that the company was about to “fold up”. He added: “One or two people deliberately set about doing a disservice to the company.”

He explained that the reason for the steamer muddle on Wednesday evening was a printer’s error on the schedule and this was chalked up on the board. The error arose because the steamers sailed at 6pm and 6.30pm in alternate weeks.

“There is no suggestion of the company packing up” said Cdr Johnson. “Any suggestion that the steamers didn’t stick to the proper time or that people are turned off is untrue. The schedule is arranged for the steamers to leave with a reasonable margin and only if numbers are below a level of 80 out of a full ship of 700 do the ships do not run. The only other time people are turned away is when the ship is fully booked up and in that case prominent notices are displayed to that effect.”

I can’t find a copy of the steamer notice for the week in question in the files (was the evidence destroyed to save someone’s honour?!) but I have got the one for the previous week for Wednesday August 14th. On this Wednesday the Embassy was scheduled for Poole via Swanage at 6.30pm with the Monarch staying on at Bournemouth to take the 7.30pm Special Evening Cruise with dancing on deck to Charlie Richards’ band. So it would have been all right that week.

However, it was the usual practice for these evening music cruises to be swapped week and week about between the Embassy and the Monarch to balance up the crew hours so it is likely that the Embassy would have been scheduled for the music cruise at 7.30pm on Wednesday 21st leaving the Monarch to set off for Poole via Swanage as soon as her usual Swanage service was over at 6pm. Which she did leaving some, for whatever reason, expecting a 6.30pm departure.

What I don’t know is whether or not the Embassy actually ran the evening music cruise that night. Was the weather poor and deteriorating with the threat of rain? Were bookings low? As a result did Cdr Johnson pull the evening music cruise and send the Embassy back to Poole light? Is that why there is a reference to “below a level of 80…….the ships do not run” in his statement to the press? Were those who missed the Swanage boat there on the pier just as the evening music cruise was cancelled? As one half understood misunderstanding piled on another in a rumour hungry crowd is this where the wholly incorrect idea of the company folding up came from? “Look mate there’re sending the other boat back to Poole now empty. It’s all over. They’re finished” You can just hear it passing down the line.

It does seem to be an object lesson in how a good old fashioned and straightforward cock-up can get talked up into something much worse.

Although Cdr Johnson’s rebuttal does rather lean towards the Michael O’Leary School of Customer Care I have sympathy for him. And I am very glad that I was not in his position having to confront his difficulties on that day.

Geoff Hamer has emailed to say:

I was fascinated as always to see your November page.

There is a printing error in the sailing bill reproduced, suggesting that somebody was careless in checking proofs.

On Tuesday the 13th, the MONARCH’s 9.30 pm sailing is “Landing at Poole Quay about 7.0 pm”. This mistake is at least obvious, so no passengers would have complained. I’m always surprised that that there were so few errors in old sailing bills, given their complexity and the fact that type-setting was a largely manual process.

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