Down the channel with the pleasure steamers

PUBLISHED: 10:31 19 June 2006 | UPDATED: 09:28 24 May 2010

The Bristol Queen pictured in the Bristol Channel, with Worlebury Hill in the background.

The Bristol Queen pictured in the Bristol Channel, with Worlebury Hill in the background.

Seen from Weston's promenade the Bristol Channel does not appear to be a very exciting waterway. Weston Bay is set well back from the main routes of shipping, and we get but distant glimpses of the vessels that

Seen from Weston's promenade the Bristol Channel does not appear to be a very exciting waterway. Weston Bay is set well back from the main routes of shipping, and we get but distant glimpses of the vessels that trade around the world from channel ports.When the sails of Bristol's Merchant Venturers were beating up and down its muddy waters, the channel must have appeared much more busy than today. It was down this waterway that Cabot sailed from Bristol to the New World, and also privateers and many a craft whose dark holds were to take on cargoes of slaves.We may reflect on these associations as we look towards the horizon from Weston's shore, but for Weston the story of Bristol Channel ships is more concerned with its pleasure steamers.The earliest pleasure boats to operate from Weston were those whose normal business was to carry coal and other cargoes. They were specially scrubbed and turned to lucrative use during the height of the holiday season. Tugboats from Bristol Channel ports were also brought into use for the seasonal pleasure trip trade.Efforts were made to make them look as attractive as possible, and an instrumental trio and sometimes an even larger ensemble were engaged to provide music. There is an old guide book comment that reads: "The little packets, decked in their holiday bunting, and accompanied by the cheerful strains of music, present a pretty sight ... it may be remarked that these packets are strong, well-built vessels used for towing purposes, fairly appointed, and like ducks upon the water."One of the first descriptions of a steamer trip from Weston was published in a short-lived local newspaper, Brown's Weekly Advertiser, in 1847. It stated that many people assembled at an early hour to see the vessel leave, and continued ... "the beach was lined with spectators. The vessel is the 'Ayr'. She is a very fine boat and admirably fitted up for the accommodation of passengers. She sailed about nine o'clock, having on board about 250 highly respected visitors and residents."The whole of the Swiss band was in attendance, and the fineness of the weather and the beautiful scenery of the Channel, and ever and anon the peals of music swelling on the breeze, must have rendered the excursion extremely delightful to those on board."The party returned to Weston about 9.30pm. As the boat was approaching the pier (in those days Knightstone harbourage was so called, Birnbeck Pier not having been built) a young man, rather eager to get on terra firma, leaped from the paddle box, but fell into the water. He was, however, immediately picked up."Joseph Hazell, who died in 1916, aged 82, was the pioneer of a regular passenger service between Weston and Cardiff. His tugboat, the Joe Hazell, started its service in 1866, passengers being picked up and landed at the south east corner of Knightstone.The island was then private property, and Hazell boasted that he always put his passengers ashore in a gentleman's garden, the explanation being that many of them crossed the lawn rather than use the path to reach the gate.Another local pleasure trip pioneer was a rare old "dot-and-carry-one" character, 'Capt' Stone who from time to time hired the Iron Duke or some other tugboat for the day.He had a novel way of advertising: he hired Walker's Brass Band, a nondescript group of musicians, and stamped ahead of them as they paraded around the town at breakfast time. At various points the parade halted and 'Capt' Stone bawled out the time of sailing."Bristol Marine Excursion Company: Saloon steamer 'Waverley' - the above splendid, fast sailing new Clyde-built passenger saloon steamer will shortly commence running marine excursions from Bristol, Chepstow, Newport, Cardiff, Ilfracombe, Lynmouth, Lynton, Clovelly, Swansea, Weston-super-Mare, Clevedon, Lundy, and other places in the Bristol Channel. This magnificent steamer is one of the fastest passenger steamers afloat ... and is replete with every convenience for the comfort of passengers."This was the wording of a poster that appeared on local hoardings in 1887. It marked the entry of Messrs P and A Campbell into the Bristol Channel pleasure steamer business. The Waverley had previously been used on the Glasgow to Ayr service, and was known as The Clipper of the Clyde. With Capt Alec Campbell as her skipper, she soon became known as "The Greyhound of the Bristol Channel."The Waverley's only serious rival at the time was the Lady Margaret, which belonged to the Edwards firm, of Cardiff. She was an iron paddle steamer built in 1883 for service in the Bristol Channel, and weighed 179 gross tons as against the Waverley's 258 gross tons.The Lady Margaret was sold to the Medway Steam Packet Company in 1888, and destroyed by fire in 1903. She was succeeded in the Bristol Channel by another Lady Margaret, originally the Carrick Castle of the Lochgoil Steamboat Company, an iron paddle steamer of 176 gross tons. Re-named the Lord Tredegar in 1895, she was broken up four years later.Capt Peter Campbell took over the command of the Waverley in 1891, and the build-up of what is now known as the White Funnel Fleet continued. An order was placed for a second steamer, Westward Ho!, then a third, the Cambria. Other purchases followed, and in 1911 the company also took over the Devonia, Barry, and Westonia, run as the Red Funnel Fleet by Bristol Channel Passenger Boats Ltd. The company also interested itself in the pleasure steamer trade on the south coast.At the start of the 1914 war, the White Funnel Fleet had 13 paddle steamers, and all were requisitioned for war service. Here was a dramatic change of employment for the vessels and their crews, and the response to it was magnificent.Many of the early minesweepers employed by the Navy were blown up. There was a need for vessels of light draught, and the White Funnel Fleet admirably fitted the bill. Despite the dangerous missions the paddleboats undertook, only two were lost in the First World War.In August, 1915, they took the lead in sweeping the way for the bombardment of Zeebrugge by our warships, facing heavy fire from shore batteries. The force comprised the Brighton Queen, Westward Ho!, Cambria, Glen Avon and two drifters.A few weeks later the paddle steamers were again to the front in the bombardment of Ostend. In this the Brighton Queen was lost, blown up in the night off Westdene. All the members of her Bristol crew were rescued. When the steamers returned to doing Thames Estuary sweeps, the Lady Ismay was blown up by a mine, but all the crew were saved.On one occasion the Westward Ho! and the Glen Avon salvaged a zeppelin brought down in the Thames. All through the war these little boats were kept at it, mine-sweeping in the North Sea, and along the Belgian coast, North West Ireland and the Firth of Clyde.The Barry (later Waverley), took 400 German prisoners to Dublin, and later underwent a baptism of fire in the Dardanelles campaign, for six weeks landing troops and munitions in the face of shelling in Suvla Bay. Then she rode out a great blizzard, and finally at the close of this ill-fated campaign evacuated hundreds of frost-bitten soldiers, and was the last ship to leave - with the rearguard safely on deck.The White Funnel Fleet was not so lucky in the last war. Five of the 11 ships that saw service did not return. The Lady Moyra (Brighton Queen), Devonia and Brighton Belle were sunk during the Dunkirk evacuation.The second Waverley (formerly the Barry), was re-named HMS Snaefell when requisitioned, made several trips to Dunkirk, and despite air bombardment and shell fire got many hundreds of soldiers away.On one occasion she was making for the open sea when a sister ship, the Glen Gower, then HMS Glenmore, got grounded on the beach. The Waverley went back and towed her off. Unhappily the Waverley was bombed and sunk in the North Sea in 1941.The Glen Avon was wrecked off Normandy in September, 1944, while the Cambria was sold to the ship breakers in 1946, after being damaged in a fire at London docks.The Britannia went through an exciting time as HMS Skiddaw, an anti-aircraft ship. She was attacked by the Luftwaffe, nearly blown out of the water by mines, and set on fire by flying bombs. Yet she never had a fatal casualty.The Glen Gower as HMS Glenmore took 3,000 men to safety from Dunkirk. On one occasion a shell tore through her deck and killed 12 sleeping soldiers. On other occasions she rescued 43 of the crew of a Dutch ship in the North Sea, towed the Laguna Belle to safety, and rescued all but one of the crew of a Norwegian steamer.The Glen Usk, which went to a breaker's yard in Cork a short while ago was built in 1914 on the lines of the Glen Avon, served in both world wars, and in the first was present at the surrender of the German fleet.The post-war years of the White Funnel Fleet have been full of challenge, with bad summers and rising costs entailing big problems. It has been said that heavy fuel and staffing costs are heavily against the paddle steamer, but it will be a sad day if the season comes when the White Funnel fleet will no longer call. One hopes that the Bristol Channel will always have its graceful "swans". Pleasure steamer fleets, however, do not survive on sentiment, and it behoves all who wish them well to patronise them.Alas, Weston's Old Pier no longer has a safe landing stage, but a paddle steamer by the name of Waverley still sails regularly from Clevedon Pier. Details from Clevedon Visitor Information Centre, call 01275 873498.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on August 9, 1963

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