In 1960, Cdr Edmund Rhodes bought the paddle steamer Princess Elizabeth from Red Funnel of Southampton and put her into service running coastal trips from Torquay to the River Dart, Exmouth and Sidmouth and landing trips to Lyme Regis and Plymouth.
This did not go down at all well with the numerous owners and operators of the large fleets of small motor vessels already running excursions from Torquay. As soon as they knew she was coming they raised all manner of objections about her safety, her smoke and any other excuse which they could conjure up to denounce her.
The 1960 season passed in a spirit of ill will on all sides without anyone actually coming to blows but there was more of the same in 1961 with, if anything, the situation getting worse.
And then her opponents were presented with an opportunity which their lobbying could exploit to their advantage.
All the small Torquay boats were licenced by the local Council and their Harbourmaster had his own personal system for assessing when he considered the weather suitable for them to sail. If he thought it was too windy and they shouldn’t go out at all, he hoisted a red flag from the pier. If he thought they should sail only within Torbay, but not go beyond it, he hoisted a blue flag.
With the Princess Elizabeth licenced by the Ministry of Transport and possessing a sea-going Class III passenger certificate, Cdr Rhodes and his captain, Harry Defrates, quite correctly thought that this flag system, which was intended to control small local boats, did not apply to them so they ignored it. Politically this may have been an unwise move which was bound to lead to trouble but it was understandable in the circumstances and they were on sound ground legally.
However, the local boat owners were incensed that the Princess Elizabeth was sailing when they were told they could not so made their angry feelings known to the Harbourmaster. He decided to take a stand to enforce the same rule for all including the Lizzy and the Council backed him. An impasse ensued with the gates to Haldon Pier locked thereby preventing a road tanker from bunkering the Princess Elizabeth effectively stopping her services.
This story of a rebel steamer against officaldom had legs and ended up reported in most of the national press, on radio and television.
The Council subsequently admitted that its red/blue flag system had no legal backing to stop a ship licenced by the Ministry of Transport but, equally, it maintained that nobody could force them to allow a fuel tanker onto their own property down their own pier to re-fuel somebody else’s ship. Score: One all. Stalemate.
So that was that. Princess Elizabeth retired to lay up for the winter at Weymouth and never again operated from Torquay although she did visit the resort once more on a charter to the PSPS in June 1965.
Here she is passing through the Town Bridge at Weymouth to her winter quarters in September 1961.
A few weeks later the engine room telegraph has been greased up for the winter and is set at “Finished with Engines”.
The following year she tried her luck operating from Bournemouth and from 1963 to 1965 took over sailings previously run by Cosens’ Consul from Weymouth where she was made very welcome. But that is all another story.
She is still around today, although minus her engine and boiler, and earns a living as a static conference centre and restaurant at Dunkirk.
I admire Cdr Rhodes (pictured right on the bridge of the Princess Elizabeth in July 1963 with Weymouth Mayor Mr Sidney Porter and Capt Cyril Holleyoak, brother of the then Weymouth Harbourmaster) and his plucky attempts to keep one more paddle steamer sailing.
He did not have an easy time of it. He was confronted by many hurdles in what was anyway a declining market. And eventually, in 1966, his operation ran into that fatal end of the line buffer: a lack of funding to finance expensive repairs, renewals and regulation changes.
But if he had not bought the Princess Elizabeth and had not run her for six seasons, she would almost certainly not be here today. And that, in itself, is an achievement of which to be proud. Let’s have three cheers for Cdr Edmund Rhodes! Hip hip…
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.