Captain Kelley aboard PS Royal Sovereign. Picture by courtesy of Steve Kelley.
The text below is taken from the 'KENT MESSENGER', JANUARY 7th 1958 and was a feature on Captain Kelley of the PS Royal Sovereign . It has been provided by his grandson Steve, who has kindly allowed me to publish many pictures of PS Royal Sovereign from his family collection. To see these pictures please click here.
Medway Queen is last of Thames paddlers - the first brought trippers to Gravesend 140 years ago
When the Medway Queen pleasure boat sets out next year from the Medway Towns she will carry a cargo of memories for thousands who see her. For on her broad decks rests the romantic reputation of being the last of the paddle steamers operating on the Thames and Medway.
In their heyday, from 1900 to about 1930, the paddlers thronged the river and no summer was complete for the average Londoner without at least one trip in one. In those days these ships were often the easiest way for the holidaymaker to reach the resort of his choice. Seaside piers were alive with disembarking passengers with luggage for a week or picnic baskets for the day.
The waters foamed as the paddes revolved. Whilst most other craft on the rivers had long been screwdriven, the "Butterfly Boats," so called as they only came out in summer, continued as a pleasurable anachronism, being particularly useful and manageable in the tricky business of getting alongside a pierhead.
The many vantage points to be found on the broad decks of the paddler were also in their favour.
It all began in 1814 when the Marjory, a 63-footer from the Clyde, started a service between noted watering places laid out with gardens and with facilities for bathing and yachting. In those early days passengers (the top fare was 4s) were disembarked at Gravesend in rowing boats. Watermen on the Thames were much opposed to this new form of transport and tried all they could to obstruct it. One of the early piers at Gravesend to cope with the traffic was damaged in a riot. The Marjory lasted only one season but many others followed quickly and other Kent resorts were visited.
One of them, the Eclipse (1840) is immortalised in the Ingoldsby Legends: "If in one of the trips of the steamboat Eclipse - You should go down to Margate to look at the ships."
In 1837 the Medway Steam Packet Company was formed. The earliest boats to ply on he Medway were constructed of mahogany. Public confidence in paddle steamers was badly shaken when the Princess Alice was in collision with another ship and sank off Woolwich in 1878 with the loss of over 600 lives. Towards the turn of the century, however, the paddle steamers were in full swing again with many finely appointed ships coming into commission.
One of the men who has clear memories of those halcyon days is Captain W. Kelley, 19 Dennis Road, Gravesend, a retired Trinity House pilot, who received some of his early maritme training in the paddlers Koh-i-Noor (1892) and Royal Sovereign, a popular boat which was known by thousands as the "Cockneys' liner ." He was master from 1919 to 1928. Besides being a skilled mariner, holding Trinity House licences for half a dozen areas, the pleasure boat master had to have the tact of a diplomat and the friendliness of a holiday camp host to cope with the happy, carefree trippers.
In his gold-braided uniform Capt. Kelley was a familiar and popular figure, always willing to have his photograph taken with groups of passengers. Being born within the sound of Bow Bells, Capt. Kelley was well able to hold his own in the constant thrust and parrry of Cockney wit about him.
"Parties would bring their own bands and sing happily all day," Capt. Kelley told a reporter. "There was surprisingly little rowdiness."
Capt. Kelley had his own particular way of dealing with the unduly boisterous. "If anyone got out of hand I had him handcuffed to a stanchion - the equivalent of the village stocks," he went on. "Everyone took it in good part, throwing biscuits to the troublesome one, who soon repented among the good humour about him." We had pearly kings and queens, ostrich feathers galore, and on Sundays there were the theatre parties."
Tickets from C B Cochran
"One of my reglar trippers was the late C B Cochran, and I got to know him well. He never forgot to send me tickets for any show he was putting on." "With him came famous theatrical friends, I well remember Marie Lloyd, Sir Harry Lauder and Violet Lorraine among the passengers." "They were certainly wonderful days."
Captain Kelley began his life afloat as a deck boy in an excursion steamer at the age of 12. In 1914 he took his first command in a pleasure boat, one of the celebrated Belle steamers, the Woolwich Belle. When he left the Royal Sovereign in 1928 he became a Trinity House pilot of the London District, retiring in 1947.
Another Gravesend man with happy memories of the pleasure boats is Capt. Augustus Brownfield, 19 Singlewell Road, today master of the Port of London Authority yacht, St Katherine. He started his working life as a ship's boy in the Royal Sovereign in 1900. Later he was chief officer on board Belle boats and again returned to the service as a paddle boat skipper for a time after the first world war. During the first world war, when serving as a Trinity House pilot, he was one of four survivors when a pilot cutter, the Vigilant, was blown up by a mine.
One of the other survivors was Capt. J Smith, now retired.. Capt. Smith, who lives in Gravesend was master of the Laguna Belle for many years.
From the past to the present........
Capt. J G Horsham, of The Chase, Rochester, is the only man who skippers a paddle steamer on the Thames and Medway today. His ship, the 315-ton Medway Queen, was built in 1924 and makes summer trips to Sheerness, Southend and Herne Bay. She had a fine record in the last war, carrying a record number of men from Dunkirk. Later she flew the white ensign as a minesweeper based on a northern port.
More recently she had an honoured place at the Coronation Naval Review off Spithead, probably the only paddle steamer in the parade of fine ships.
Many treasure memories of other fine pleasure ships. Most people had their favourites. There was the Golden Eagle, a veteran of both world wars. In the first as a troop transport she carried 518,101 troops across the Channel and was used as a sea-plane carrier. At the outbreak of the second world war, in common with other steamers, she carried evacuated children from Dagenham, Tilbury and Gravesend to Great Yarmouth. Later she served as a balloon barrage ship on the Continent, and was at the retreat from Dunkirk. She returned to her peace-time service after the war, but was taken out in 1947 and has since been broken up.
The famed Crested Eagle, the first pleasure steamer in Europe to be fitted for burning oil fuel, was used as a floating grandstand by the Embankment for the 1937 Coronation. She was sunk at Dunkirk during a bombing attack.
Christened with Whisky
The last paddle steamer built was the Royal Eagle, which could carry 1,900 passengers in great comfort and was fitted with a glass sun deck. At her launching in 1932, a bottle of whisky was the unusual choice for the important naming part of the ceremony. She was at the pre-war Spithead reveiws, at Dunkirk was dive-bombed 43 times when bringing home thousands of soldiers and later, when an anti-aircraft ship, shot down a dive bomber in the Thames estuary. After the second world war she was laid up in the Medway for a time and was broken up only recently.
But there are many other ships which add their quota to the tale of the two Kent rivers. There was the Kingfisher of 1906, the forerunner of the screwdriven pleasure ships which elegantly glide through the water today. The Kingfisher did not survive long. Her fast speed of 21 knots created a wash which proved troublesome to other small craft. Then folk will remember the Queen of Thanet and the Queen of Kent, with their cruiser style sterns, being former minesweepers. They ended their days since the war after service at Southampton. Going further back in time the Germini (1850) should be mentioned. She was built with twin hulls with the paddle in the middle.
The Famous Belles
The Belle steamers were mobilised in war-time to do wonderful work. Two of them, the London Belle and the Walton Belle, were used as minesweepers in World War I and in 1919 were converted into hospital ships for the Russian campaign. They came under fire and met many rough seas in the White Sea and around Archangel, but the plucky little boats came through. Although little remains of these fine old ships of the past but their names and memories, souvenirs from them are cherished by collectors.
Many such relics were garnered by Capt. Long John Silver in his private museum at Gravesend, recently handed over to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.
One day it is hoped they will be displayed in the preserved Cutty Sark at Greenwich as part of the story of British Shipping.
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