The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Paddling in the Bay

John Brooks looks at the paddle steamers that operated to and from Bournemouth

The Balmoral, Bournemouth Queen and Stirling Castle all moored to Bournemouth pier

The Balmoral, Bournemouth Queen and Stirling Castle all moored to Bournemouth pier

One glorious summer afternoon in 1947, I travelled on the Bournemouth Queen from Bournemouth pier to Swanage and then to Poole Quay, thanks to the munificence of a great-aunt. Mine was far from the first steam-powered passenger journey from Bournemouth, though.
A jetty to enable passengers to embark and disembark from boats was constructed on Bournemouth seafront during 1855 and ready for use in 1856. A violent storm on 20 August that year damaged the jetty, but it continued in service until 1861, when a replacement – the superior structure, now designated a pier – catered for passenger steamers. On the opening day, 17 September 1861, the Ursa Major brought passengers from Poole and the steam yacht Prince arrived from Weymouth. The following year Medina from Southampton called at Bournemouth pier on her trips to Swanage. A few years later the SS Fawn was a frequent visitor and was eventually chartered by a local business man, David Sydenham, who then formed the first local steamship company.

The Bournemouth Queen in June 1923

The Bournemouth Queen in June 1923

In the meantime another entrepreneur, George Burt of Swanage, provided the first regular steamship service when his vessel Heather Bell, built in 1853, began her daily sailings on May Day 1871. He also maintained regular trips to Poole and weekly excursions to Lulworth Cove and the Isle of Wight. On her inaugural trip Heather Bell carried five hundred passengers from Bournemouth, Poole and Swanage to Alum Bay. Two bands on board enlivened the proceedings. The return fare was 2s 6d for first-class passengers from Bournemouth to Alum Bay. Her sailings continued until the end of the 1876 season. Burt kept going with his small screw steamer, Lothair, until 1880, when competition from Premier as well as Sovereign (an 1870 single-screw vessel owned by the Southampton New Steam Towing Company Ltd) proved too much for Burt’s maritime ventures.
In 1877 a new steamship company, the Bournemouth South Coast Steam Packet Company, put Criterion into service; this was a vessel which could cross the English Channel to Cherbourg, the return journey costing one pound.
Cosens, a Weymouth paddle steamer company, used Commodore, a new purchase, to establish a twice-weekly service between Weymouth and Bournemouth in 1876, sharing this operation with Premier. In 1879 Empress was added to the fleet and made the first trip to Torquay and back – in thirteen and a half hours – in July 1881.
Keen competition existed between the Bournemouth Steam Packet and Cosens, resulting in reduced fares for excursions and, during the 1880s, in the acquisition of newer and faster steamers. Bournemouth new pier was opened in 1881 and the Bournemouth Steam Packet Company was dissolved and a new company , the Bournemouth, Poole and Swanage Steam Packet Company, was formed. The Bournemouth Company had one vessel at the time, Lord Elgin, but within three years they purchased Bournemouth, which unfortunately ran aground in dense fog returning from Torquay on 27 August 1886.

A flyer advertising six packet steam boats for Sydenham's

A flyer advertising six packet steam boats for Sydenham’s

Brodick Castle replaced Bournemouth and in 1891, Windsor Castle, built in Southampton, became the third vessel in the Bournemouth Steam Packet Company fleet. Although this steamer was the largest and fastest on the south coast, it did not remain long in service due to its high maintenance costs. It was sold in 1894, passing into Russian and finally Japanese hands.
At the same time Cosens had added the veteran Queen (1833), the newer Victoria (1884) and the two-funnelled Monarch (1888), to
their fleet.
The Bristol-based company, P and A Campbell Ltd, introduced the Cambria in 1898 which was then the fastest paddle steamer on the station. The Glen Rosa and Albion were added to the local fleet. Further competition came in 1900 with the arrival of the Lorna Doone and Solent Queen, owned by the Southampton, Isle of Wight and South Coast Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (later to be Red Funnel Steamers). These two boats were no match for the Cambria, but the following year the Balmoral was introduced and was capable of competing on equal terms. Campbell and their Cambria were driven off the Bournemouth station at the end of the 1901 season.
Public enthusiasm allowed Cosens to establish a winter service between Bournemouth, Poole and Swanage, inaugurated by Victoria on Boxing Day 1902. They increased their fleet in 1908 by purchasing the Emperor of India and the Southampton company added the Bournemouth Queen to Lorna Doone, Balmoral, Stirling Castle and Princess Helena. A paddle steamer service to Studland from Bournemouth was provided by the diminutive (72 gross tons) Studland Belle during 1912. A wooden, clinker-built vessel, she continued for only two seasons – sometimes making excursions from Poole to Swanage – until destroyed when an unattended stove set her alight. Other steamer trips were continued after the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914 until the end of that season, although some routes were immediately discontinued. Many steamers were requisitioned for Royal Navy service, mainly as minesweepers, and 32 anti-mine paddle steamers were also built in 1915 and 1916.

The PS Waverley

The PS Waverley

In 1921 Solent Queen replaced the pre-war steamers; Cosens used Monarch alone. Bournemouth Queen took up the old runs from Bournemouth to Yarmouth, Totland Bay and round the Isle of Wight in association with Emperor of India. Six years later, the Southampton Company took delivery of the new Princess Elizabeth, which was to provide 35 years of service, much around Poole Bay. After the 1937 season, Cosens scrapped the old veteran Premier after 91 years of service, 85 at Weymouth. Queen, now named Corfe Castle, only sailed for one season on the Swanage service and was broken up in December 1938. Consul carried out the final pre-war cruise in September 1939.
When traffic was restored after World War 2 on 19 August 1946, Princess Elizabeth was the first pleasure steamer to sail from Bournemouth pier. Bournemouth Queen and Emperor of India, having seen action in both wars, returned to their normal duties on 19 July 1947 and 13 July 1948 respectively. Consul was converted to oil burning, and Embassy, stationed at Weymouth, was tasked with trips to Bournemouth, Isle of Wight and Torquay. Monarch operated the Bournemouth to Swanage service, while Empress and the 67-year-old Victoria came frequently to Bournemouth, via Lulworth Cove and Swanage. By the end of 1949 sailings had settled into a routine for a short-lived period. From 1952, it was a chronicle of service withdrawal. Solent Queen was scrapped in October 1951, along with sister ship Lorna Doone in March 1952. Visits to Totland Bay were not undertaken by Bournemouth Queen after 1951. Princess Helena was broken up in July 1952 and Victoria, although a popular vessel, was scrapped in early 1953, due to high running costs.
The 80-year-old Bournemouth veteran Lord Elgin’s last trip was on 11 May 1955. She had been the last cargo paddle steamer in British waters. In October 1955, Empress went to the shipbreakers; her oscillating engines – the last set in the world – are now preserved in the maritime museum at Southampton.

A charabanc of tourists outside Sydenham the steam packet trip agent and 'fancy bazaar'

A charabanc of tourists outside Sydenham the steam packet trip agent and ‘fancy bazaar’

In 1956 Consul was the only steamer coming to Bournemouth; she was the oldest paddle steamer in Britain and, when Glen Gower was broken up in 1960, Consul had the oldest set of paddle engines known. Emperor of India carried out her last voyage in January 1957 on her way to shipbreakers in Ghent, followed in December that year by the Bournemouth Queen in December 1957, again to be scrapped in Belgium. Princess Elizabeth was put up for sale in 1960 and purchased for service at Torquay. In 1961 a shock came when Cosens sold Monarch II for breaking.
Consul was sold to become the headquarters vessel for a sailing club in 1965 and was moored on the River Dart. The intended refit of Princess Elizabeth was not completed during 1966 and she did not re-enter service. Embassy was the last paddle steamer to undertake excursions and 1966 was the final season.
Around seventy different named steamers operated through Poole Bay from the 1840s to the 1960s, varying widely in size, from tugs carrying a few passengers (20 gross tons), to large steamers carrying 1000 passengers (900 gross tons). Their memory lives on in the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society’s operation of the Waverley, which still visits Poole Bay in September of each year.


Other Bournemouth Pier Traffic
Piles for the pier at Boscombe were driven, with a celebratory ceremony on 17 October 1888. On 29 July 1889, ten thousand people attended the opening and the paddle steamer Premier carried passengers between Boscombe and Bournemouth. Excursions became very popular and climaxed in August 1913, with 52,800 embarking and disembarking from steamers. Southbourne was served by an iron pier, completed in two months before that of Boscombe, and trips on the Lord Elgin to Bournemouth and a service between the two piers continued for some time. Southbourne pier only survived until 1901, when it was destroyed by gales.


Picture credits:

Dorset Directory