July 2024:
The Weymouth Paddle Steamer War

July 2024:
The Weymouth Paddle Steamer War
Consul and Princess Elizabeth alongside Weymouth Pleasure Pier 1964.

In 1964 just as overseas travel became a viable option for many, and widespread car ownership opened up opportunities previously only within the province of the better off, Weymouth suddenly found itself with two excursion paddle steamers locked in fierce competition for what was by then a very much diminished trade.

Steamer Notice for Consul 1964 professionally produced by Sherrens Printers.

After being sold by Cosens after the 1962 season Consul spent a dreadful season in 1963 in private ownership running on the Sussex Coast and in the middle of September on the Thames and returned to Weymouth in 1964 to revive the Lulworth Cove landing trips. This put her in direct competition with the Princess Elizabeth which had taken over her Weymouth sailings in 1963.

Steamer Notice for Princess Elizabeth 1964.

Both ships ran to Lulworth Cove but only Consul called there to land passengers. On Wednesdays and some Fridays in the peak weeks Princess Elizabeth offered day trips to Yarmouth Isle of Wight leaving the way clear for the Consul on local trips. For potential passengers to tell them apart their promotional material described them as “The Red Funnel Ship” and “The Ship with the Yellow Funnel” respectively.

Consul alongside the Pleasure Pier Weymouth 1st July 1964.

As may be imagined relations between the two operators started in a less than cordial atmosphere which continued downwards ever after with allegations of one thing or another being made by one side and counter allegations of another thing and something else by the other.

Consul’s owners were cock-a-hoop when Princess Elizabeth ran out of fuel one day in the Solent and had to summon a tug for which her master receiving a reprimand from the Board of Trade. Princess Elizabeth’s owners were cook-a-hoop when a Board of Trade surveyor turned up to count passengers off Consul after a trip to Lulworth Cove only to find that she had sixteen more aboard than permitted on her Passenger certificate for which her master was prosecuted.

Princess Elizabeth alongside Weymouth Pleasure Pier July 1964. Capt Defrates on port bridge wing.

On the one hand you can understand Cdr Rhodes, who owned Princess Elizabeth, being a tad miffed to find that what was in any case a declining market was now being split with the reappearance of Consul. On the other you can understand that after a season with crew of variable quality and a ship much troubled by breakdowns in 1963 Tony McGinnity who owned Consul thought that he would do better bringing her back to Weymouth where he could recruit a local crew who knew her and put her back onto the service which she had so successfully operated up to 1962.

Consul alongside Weymouth Pleasure Pier, 1964.

Both ships appeared briefly at Whitsun. My notes from the time record that my first trip of the season on Consul was an afternoon cruise on Whit Saturday 16th May leaving Weymouth at 3.15pm and returning at 4.45pm for what was scheduled as a “Bay and Portland Harbour Rock and Dance at Sea Cruise with Radio Luxembourg and top record Stars The Crescendoes”. My first trip on Princess Elizabeth was two days later on Monday 18th May the afternoon cruise along the Dorset Coast past Lulworth Cove and on towards Kimmeridge leaving Weymouth at 3pm and returning at 5.30pm.

For the success of any business the commercial imperative is to maximise the revenue and to minimise the expenditure. For Consul her financial situation was not helped by the Board of Trade downgrading her Passenger Certificate to just 235 for the 1964 season. That meant that even when the going was good and she had the pitch to herself on Wednesdays and some Fridays when the Lizzie was away on her Isle of Wight run she couldn’t put more than 235 aboard at any one time.

And whilst going into Lulworth Cove and landing passengers there might be thought to be a commercial advantage it came with additional costs in the form of landing fees to the Lulworth Estate as well as the need to hire boatmen. When the paddlers called on the Devon beaches they dropped a kedge anchor from the stern as they came in. At Lulworth they put the bow on the beach with a rope leading straight ahead to the shore which required shore based hands to take it and picked up moorings at the stern which required the presence of two rowing boats one either side with men in each boat to put the moorings lines, which led to sinkers already laid on the bottom, aboard Consul’s stern. There was also a need for men on the shore to handle the massive landing platform which had to be rolled out on its wheels and rigged up alongside Consul’s bow so that the passengers could disembark. All that cost money, money which Cdr Rhodes did not have to spend on the Lizzie’s trips to Lulworth which sailed past rather than landing in the Cove.

Let’s now do a calculation of how much Consul might have earned in 1964. I reckon that in the twelve or so weeks from the beginning of June, when she started running in earnest six days a week, and late August 1964 when she finished early Consul ran on a total of about 70 operating days. There was an afternoon cruise to Lulworth Cove five days a week. The fare was 7/6. Taking the most optimistic case that she had been full up on every single one of her Lulworth afternoon trips she could therefore have taken 235 passengers x 7/6 fare x 60 days = 105,6750 shillings / 20 = £5,287 which scales up to around £89,644K in today’s money.

When the Lizzie was away running to the Isle of Wight Consul ran a schedule on Wednesdays until the end of July and after that on Fridays which included a morning Cash Bingo Cruise at 6/-, a one hour trip round Portland Harbour at 4/- and an afternoon cruise to Portland Bill at 7/-. So assuming that she was full up on all of these trips once a week she could have taken 235 passengers x (6/- + 4/- + 7/-) fares x 12 days = 47,940 shillings /20 = £2,239 which is equivalent to £37,963 in today’s money.

There were the evening cruises five days a week so again if she was full to capacity on each of these she could have taken 235 passengers x 7/6 fare x 60 days = 10,5750 shillings/20 = £5,287 which is equivalent to £89,644 in today’s money.

Then there were the morning trips to Lulworth four days a week from which passengers could have disembarked if they had wanted to make a day of it or just stayed aboard to return to Weymouth by lunchtime. However Consul could only bring back 235 passengers in the afternoon so she could realistically have taken a total of only 235 day and afternoon trip passengers to Lulworth including in the morning and the afternoon in any one day . This makes the calculation harder as we have already factored in her being full up for her afternoon Lulworth trips. However we know that there were a few days when she took more to Lulworth than she could bring back and as a result had to hire in Southern National buses to bring them back at an additional cost. We know that some people who went out in the morning came straight back. So let’s guesstimate a notional figure of, say, an extra £30K in today’s money for these Lulworth morning trips.

Adding all these together £89,644 + £37,963K + £89,644 + £30,000 = £247,251

That figure of £247,251 in today’s money is the total revenue which she could have earned in the 1964 season given the timetable which she ran, the fares which were charged and the length of her season and is based on every single one of her trips being a sell out which we know that they weren’t. If she was half full on every trip then that would have been £247,251 divided by 2 which gives a grand total of just £123,625 in today’s money. If one third full on each sailing that would have been £82,417.

That might have been enough to pay the direct costs of fuel and wages during this short season but it was way short of what is needed to finance all the other expenditure for running a 175ft paddle steamer including the insurance, harbour dues and landing fees, dry-docking, repair and maintenance, publicity, office costs, keeping key staff on during the winter and so on plus, in Consul’s case, paying off the outstanding debts she had accumulated in 1963. In my view a paddle steamer of Consul’s size would need to turn over a minimum of £500K per annum in today’s money to have a chance of providing any sort of long term sustainable service and probably more.

A well loaded Kingswear Castle.

For comparison if you scale up what KC was earning in the later Medway years taking account of inflation that comes in at about £250K per annum in today’s money which was just about enough to keep her going year on year. But she is a much smaller ship with a fuel consumption of only half a ton of coal a day and a crew of just four compared with Consul’s eleven.

Steamer Notice for Consul run off on the office Roneo machine.

By August Consul’s finances had become so parlous that Tony could no longer afford to have the steamer notices printed professionally by local printer Sherrens and instead had to run them off on his own office Roneo machine. Consul lasted only until the tail end of August when she was pulled from service leaving the field open for the last few weeks of the season to the Lizzie to reign alone.

The presence of Consul running in competition split the available revenue which dug into Princess Elizabeth‘s income too. How could it not have done? And whilst Cdr Rhodes was able to return her to service the following year once again at Weymouth it was a tight run thing financially. For example there wasn’t enough money in the hat to paint both sides of the ship on the slipway at Southampton before the 1965 season. Only the starboard side, which was the one she always berthed alongside the Weymouth Pleasure Pier, received a coat of paint. By then the writing was on the wall and 1965 was the Lizzie’s last season in service.

Crew of the Weymouth Belle 1972. left to right John Megoran mate, Colin Horne skipper, Bob Wills’s brother, Bob Wills. In the foreground Bob’s son Bernie.

One person who benefitted greatly from the Great Weymouth Paddle Steamer War of 1964 was Bob Wills, a former chief engineer of both Empress and Consul (pictured above right). At that time he was running the fifty passenger launch Topaz on trips round Portland Harbour from a, pitch on the Pleasure Pier past which all intending passengers for the two paddle steamers had to pass.

The 50 seater passenger launch Topaz inside the Monarch. You can just make out the hole in the cabin roof through which the engine exhaust was carried through a small and removable funnel.

Bob’s keen commercial antennae soon picked up that he was often asked by passing people if they were going the right way for “The Red Funnel Ship” or “The Ship with the Yellow Funnel”. Ever eager to improve his own business Bob decided to paint the diminutive funnel perched on the cabin roof of Topaz half red and half yellow so that when asked the question again he could quite legitimately say “This way Madam” and walk them aboard. Bob always said that 1964 was one of the best seasons he ever had with his little Topey.

View from the bridge of Princess Elizabeth’s foredeck 1967 whilst laid up in the Weymouth Backwater.

Of all the attempts to run paddle steamers in the 1960s Cdr Rhodes’s six seasons with the Princess Elizabeth was the longest and therefore must be counted the most successful given that no other attempt with Freshwater, Consul or Jeanie Deans lasted for more than two seasons. I think that a major factor here was that when he bought the Lizzie in 1959 she was in better structural condition than the other three having spent much of the 1950s on a generally fairly gentle schedule as relief ship on the Cowes ferry for Red Funnel during which time her crew had lavished a lot of care attention on maintaining her to a high standard when she wasn’t sailing. But even so during this six season period in the ownership of Cdr Rhodes so parlous were his finances that he kept her going only by transferring assets, closing down companies and opening new ones. For 1960/61 Princess Elizabeth was owned by Torbay Steamers Ltd. For 1962/64 it was Coastal Steamers and Marines Services Ltd and for 1965 Coastal Steamers (Weymouth) Ltd. Cdr Rhodes was the managing director of all three. That speaks volumes of the financial difficulties involved with running elderly paddle steamers. And without the financial backing of his friend Mrs Barclay-Bishop I think that the business would have folded sooner.

Princess Elizabeth alongside at Northam, 27th March 1960 with the Red Funnel tug Neptune.

When bought by Cdr Rhodes in 1959 the Lizzie was 32 years old which was already beyond her design life. By the end of the 1965 season she was 38 years old and by then the need for major structural work and renewals was ever more apparent. I recall when she was sold to Mr Render in 1966 and there were high hopes that she might have another new career running on the Sussex Coast Capt Defrates asked me to give a hand one day with some painting. I was dispatched to chip one of the ventilators on the aft promenade deck abaft the deckhouse. It was pretty rusty. I gave the rust a whack with my chipping hammer and it went straight through.

Princess Elizabeth alongside Weymouth Pleasure Pier 1965.

When the Board of Trade was called in for their view the surveyor asked for some of the wooden decking over the port side of the boiler room by the funnel to be taken up so he could have a look at the steel underneath it. The decking came up. The rusty steel underneath was revealed. The surveyor gave it a whack with his chipping hammer and it went straight through. There wasn’t the money to fix these sort of issues so that was that and the Lizzie never carried passengers again.

Consul being towed up the River Itchen on her way to the scrapyard 1968. Picture courtesy of Poole Maritime Trust.

Consul had similar structural issues due to her age which is why the Board of Trade restricted her to sailing only within an area bounded by Portland Bill and Lulworth Cove for the 1964 season. After that she moved to Dartmouth as a static base for a sailing school and never carried passengers again either. She was scrapped in Southampton in 1968.

Of course we all like to think that ships can go on for ever. But they don’t. They are built for a design life of 25/30 years. If you want to keep them in service for longer than that then you have to be prepared to spend serious money on renewing and replacing steel and woodwork as necessary. That is how it has ever been. That is how paddlers from the past which did have longer careers survived. That is just how it is.

My thirteen year old self did not know any of that back then in 1964. It just seemed to my young eyes an unbelievably wonderful season having two, rather than just one, beautiful paddle steamers on which to take rides from my home town of Weymouth.

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