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Historical Database
South Devon Coast
Despite the area being a major tourist and holiday destination, excursion services remained reasonably undeveloped. Without the potential for ferry traffic, excursions were offered often by private individuals, smaller companies with limited capitalisation, or established operators from other areas making short-lived attempts to capitalise on the tourist potential.

The area also suffered from the lack of any significant number of piers and local practice became to run vessels on to the beach, supported by strengthened bow plating and stern anchors to hold the vessels firm. This manoeuvre was not without its difficulty, as illustrated by the wrecking of PS Duchess of Devonshire at Sidmouth beach in 1934. This problem limited the suitability of the area for many vessels. Campbell’s large turbine steamer Empress Queen was placed at Torquay in the early 1950s with little success, having to undertake longer trips such as to the Channel Isles rather than the more lucrative coastal day trips.

Plymouth, the region’s largest city and an important naval centre, saw numerous attempts to establish excursion services and led to the building of PS Plymouth Belle in 1895, which was by far the largest vessel built for service in the area. Her main sailings were to the Channel Isles and she never established a position in the coastal cruising market and soon left the area for more lucrative surroundings.

Plymouth lies at the mouth of the Tamar River which separated the counties of Devon and Cornwall and initially was only bridged by Brunel's railway bridge to Saltash on the Cornwall side. The Tamar itself was a busy transport artery for goods and passengers from the interior and a number of smaller paddle steamers handled this river traffic. See : 
Saltash, Three Towns and District Steamboat Company Ltd. The Saltash steamers were reassigned to use at Plymouth after 1913 and the demise of the Tamar services and were to find success for a fifteen year period.

The River Dart was a successful home for river paddle steamers, linking the inland market town of Totnes with the sea at Dartmouth. Although the paddle steamer era was over (until a recent revival) by 1965, boat trips have remained popular especially in association with a preserved steam railway from Paignton to Kingswear in this thriving holiday area. See : River Dart

The last attempt to base a paddler in South Devon was in 1960 and 1961 when Torbay Steamers Ltd ran the ex-Solent paddler PS Princess Elizabeth from Torquay. and coastal cruising was left in the hands of the local motor launch owners. The one sizeable motor vessel used was MV Devoniun (formerly P&A Campbell's MV Devonia) in 1982.

Main Operators and vessels

Great Western Railway

The railway company maintained a number of tugs and tug/tenders at Plymouth, the latter servicing ocean liners which moored off Plymouth Hoe. The Great Western absorbed the local South Devon Railway in 1876 and by doing so took a majority shareholding in Plymouth Great Western Docks. These vessels were used on occasion for local trips. As part of the railway take-over the GWR became owners of the Dart river ferry crossing from Kingswear to Dartmouth, which they operated up until 1948 when it was transferred to new owners. 

Sir Francis Drake (1873-1910) renamed Helper in 1908, sold in 1910 to Cosens & Co
Sir Walter Raleigh (1876-1896) Sold
Thames (1879-1882) ex- tender for the London & North Western Railway on the Mersey. Sold to the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway
Cheshire (1905-1911)  ex- Mersey ferry. Scrapped

Plymouth Excursion Steamship Company

Bangor Castle (1894-1899)

Ellett & Matthews / Devon Steamship Company / Devon Dock, Pier & Steamship Co. (1891-1932)

Operated the ex-Weymouth paddler PS Prince in 1891 from Exmouth and established the Devon Steamship Company to develop the enterprise. A new steamer, PS Duchess of Devonshire was delivered in 1892 to replace the much smaller Prince, and four years later took delivery of a similar vessel, named Duke of Devonshire. The company became the Devon Dock, Pier and Steamship Company in 1898. Services were suspended during World War I and resumed in 1920. The Duchess was laid up for the 1930 season. After the 1932 season, both ships were put up for sale. The Duchess went to the South Devon & West Bay Steamship Co, remaining in the area, the Duke being sold to operators at Cork in Ireland.

Prince (1891)
Duchess of Devonshire (From 1892)
Duke of Devonshire (From 1896)

Plymouth Belle Steamship Company

At 654 gross tonnes, Plymouth Belle, delivered in 1895 for a company established specially to operate her by local businessman Mr W Dusting, was an exceptionally large steamer. Mainly offered over-night or longer trips to the Channel Islands and the Isles of Scilly. The vessel left the area on charter in 1896 and left the UK for a successful career in Germany soon afterwards. Sailing opportunities at Plymouth were left in the hands of the small railway-owned tug tenders that frequented the harbour and Plymouth Sound.

Plymouth Belle

The Plymouth Promenade Pier & Pavilion Co

Empress (1913-1931)

Built in 1880 by W Allsup & Sons of Preston 
Length 115 ft : 101 GRT
Engines : Compound Oscillating 16 and 30 in x 30 in 
Built for the Devon & Cornwall Tamar Steam Packet Co
Sold for use at Saltash by the Three Towns & District Steamboat Co in 1893
In 1913 she was bought by the Plymouth Promenade Pier & Pavilion Company, serving until 1931

Princess Royal  (1913-1927)

Built in 1888 by Willoughby Bros at Plymouth
Length 117.6 ft : 115 GRT
Engines : Compound oscillating 17 and 32 in x 30 in
Built for William Gilbert at Saltash
Sold for use at Saltash by the Three Towns & District Steamboat Co in 1893
In 1913 she was bought by the Plymouth Promenade Pier & Pavilion Company, serving until 1927

Alexandra  (1913-1928)

Built in 1888 by W Allsup & Sons of Preston
Length  125.7 ft  :  127 GRT
Engines : oscillating  20 and 38 in x 36 in
Built for the Devon & Cornwall Tamar Steam Packet Co
Sold for use at Saltash
by the Three Towns & District Steamboat Co in 1893 
In 1913 she was bought by the Plymouth Promenade Pier & Pavilion Company, serving until 1928

Eleanor (1915-1920)

Built in 1866
Length 104.8 ft : 73 GT
Sailed for the Saltash & Three Towns from 1890 until 1910
Later used by the Plymouth Promnade & Pier Co until 1920

Millbrook Steamboat Co. Plymouth


Built in 1904 by Philip & Son at Dartmouth
Length 110ft : 99 GT
Scrapped in 1928

Cosens & Co (on station 1925-1927)

Weymouth operators Cosens stationed PS Alexandra at Torquay for three seasons between 1925 and 1927 with little success.


P & A Campbell (on station 1932-1933 and 1951)

The well established Bristol Channel operators who also stationed an number of their fleet on the Sussex coast for the summer season, sent PS Westward Ho to the south Devon coast in 1932 and 1933 offering escursions along the Devon, Dorset and Cornwall coasts.

The Campbell company made a second attempt at establishing profitable trade in south Devon when the turbine steamer Empress Queen was based at Torquay in 1951, but she was too large for coastal cruising and was unable to call at the beaches of resorts where no formal port facilities existed. The longer cruises, including to the Channel Islands were unprofitable and the enterprise was not repeated.

Westward Ho (1932-1933)

South Devon & West Bay Steamship Company (1933-1934)

The Duchess of Devonshire was taken over from her long-term operators and under new management cruised from Exmouth in 1933 and Torquay in 1934. The ship was wrecked after being swept on to Sidmouth beach in August 1934, a tragic casualty of the dangerous beach landing method, following the failure of one of her kedge anchors to keep her in position.

Duchess of Devonshire (1933-1934)

Alexander Taylor (1936-1937)

Purchased the Duke of Devonshire from Irish exile and operated cruises in the 1936 and 1937 seasons before selling the vessel to Cosens & Co in early 1938, after which the vessel became the well-known PS Consul and was to enjoy a further 25 years of life.

Duke of Devonshire (1936-1937)

South Western Steam Navigation Company (1947-1948)

In 1947, the Essex Queen, previously operating on the Thames and Medway was purchased to restore excursion services to Devon and given the name PS Pride of Devon. Operated for the 1947 and 1948 seasons before being laid up and eventually scrapped.

Pride of Devon (1947-1948)

Torbay Steamers Ltd

After being withdrawn from her duties in the Solent as part of the Red Funnel fleet, PS Princess Elizabeth came into the ownership of Mr E Rhodes who formed Torbay Steamer Ltd to operate her out of Torquay in the 1961 season. It is difficult to judge whether this attempt to re-establish services in Devon would have been successful. Mr Rohodes took his vessel to Bournemouth after a dispute with the Torquay town authorities.

Princess Elizabeth (1961)

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Historical Database