When transport required a full head of steam!

LONDON-BOUND: a paddle steamer about to sail out through the twin piers.Picture: SUBMITTED

LONDON-BOUND: a paddle steamer about to sail out through the twin piers.Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

FRIDAY the 13th, so today is not a good one to be writing about seafaring matters because most mariners are – or, were – superstitious to some degree. My fisherman father was never happy to return to sea on a Friday, let alone when it was the 13th, but had little choice: there were fish to be caught!

So, passengers steamers it is. Keep your fingers crossed and your lucky rabbit’s foot handy...

The topic was launched in June when I bought an old picture postcard of Great Yarmouth, sent from here by a Londoner whose voyage from there to the resort by one of the paddle steamers then plying between the capital and East Coast ports was not as straightforward as usual, according to his penned message on the back.

Also, we examined the evacuation of thousands of Yarmouth and Gorleston schoolchildren to that county as the 1939-45 war broke out, an exodus briefly counterbalanced by the arrival here of 4300 London mothers and children ferried to Yarmouth by three pleasure steamers (Queen of the Channel, Golden Eagle, Royal Eagle) two days before war was officially declared.

Odds are that we will never again see a pleasure steamer in Yarmouth harbour, so we must do the next best thing and recall that era when they were commonplace, operating almost like floating paddle-driven super charabancs ferrying holidaymakers and trippers between London and eastern resorts, often disembarking on specially-built piers where there was neither river nor adequate harbour.

This was in the heyday of the fast punctual railways but, as many folk liked the spice of adventure for their holidays or shorter breaks, steamers were popular alternatives. On August Bank Holiday Monday in 1889, for example, 13 special trains arrived at our South Town Station, packed with visitors – and five paddle steamers sailed into the Yare, each full to capacity and disgorging hundreds of passengers.

As usual, Hall Quay was crowded with sightseers welcoming the steamers, crews and passengers. Also waiting were Yarmouthians offering accommodation. But even beyond midnight, distressed and homeless visitors were still desperately seeking rooms in the thronged resort.

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Corton resident Peter Box could opt for those passenger-carrying paddlers as his specialist subject if he ever fancied television’s Mastermind, but as the questions might well be culled from his comprehensive books, it would probably disqualify him. His Belles of the East Coast and All At Sea, brimful with absorbing detail and graphic photographs, were published by Rushmere Publishing in 1990 and 1992 respectively and I believe that copies are still available.

I am grateful for his consent to use some of his material.

That great paddler period began in the 1820s and endured until the Great War, unquestionably making a massive contribution to Yarmouth’s holiday industry; next year marks the centenary of the outbreak of that war.

There was intense competition between the shipping companies engaged in this coastal passenger trade. Some ships sailed directly between the Thames and Yarmouth, while others made “bus stop” calls at other resorts. In the Yare, some tied up on Brush Quay at Gorleston to let passengers off before continuing up-river to Yarmouth – an indication of the importance of Gorleston as a holiday destination.

Sometimes weather delays meant trippers had only a few hours ashore before they had to re-board for the voyage home.

According to Peter, the line that set new standards of comfort, reliability and safety was the Belle steamer fleet although it was a comparative late-comer. In June 1897 the paddler Walton Belle arrived after her maiden voyage from London, flags fluttering as cheering townsfolk welcomed her and her 150 passengers.

That inaugurated the Belle epoch here, although the previous year the Southend Belle had sailed into the port and proved that safe berthing was possible despite the Yare’s notorious currents. Her visit was popular and convinced the line that provided the right vessel was used on the Thames-Yarmouth voyage, big profits were possible.

In fact, she was the fifth Belle, and was finished to the highest specifications to ensure that her passengers were safe and well provided for. Her hull was divided into nine separate watertight compartments, a specification rendering it very unlikely that she would founder whatever extreme conditions she encountered.

As for her accommodation, first-class saloons were craftsmen-finished in oak and sycamore, with chairs and settees upholstered in velvet and arranged to give a home-like appearance (posher than Peggotty’s Hut!); windows affording fine sea views were curtained in blue and gold tapestry. The vessel was fully lit by electricity.

Soon after the 230ft Walton Belle’s inaugural trip here, her passengers paying return fares of 9s for a cabin and 10s 6d for a saloon (45p and 52p today), the great and the good from Yarmouth and Norwich were invited on board for a voyage to savour the quality of the services she had to offer. Off Corton, company chairman Abel Penfold addressed the dignitaries, well fed after a sumptuous lunch, and told them there was good mutually-beneficial business to be garnered from a regular service between the capital and Yarmouth.

He assured them that his Belles were far superior to their rivals and his line was determined not to be beaten over service and standards.

He kept his promise, and within three years the Belle fleet numbered seven vessels covering the coast from Ramsgate in Kent to Yarmouth. Within seven years it had the monopoly on not only the Yarmouth service but also the landing piers of Lowestoft, Southwold and Felixtowe.

According to Peter Box: “On bank holiday weekends it was not unusual to find three of the Belle steamers berthed in the Yare. All had arrived crowded with trippers eager to enjoy the pleasures of Great Yarmouth.

“Throughout the Victorian and Edwardian period, Walton Belle continued to serve Yarmouth in partnership with her sisters, Yarmouth Belle and Southwold Belle, proving herself to be strong and reliable, a credit to her design and builders.”

In the 1914-18 war she sailed as far as Russia as a hospital ship, returning to her London-Yarmouth voyages until the late 1930s, albeit under the new name of Essex Queen and new owners. The 1939-45 war saw her mine-sweeping and almost certainly among the armada of vessels summoned to rescue 337,131 beleaguered troops from the beaches at Dunkirk.