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Historical Database
Thames Estuary, River Medway, Kent, Essex and East Anglia Coast, England, U.K.
Summary of Thames steamer services - Links to details of steamer operating companies
The River Thames flows through London, the capital and largest city in the UK. The river is navigable for excursion steamers at this point although turning is achieved with difficulty. Until recent years, London was a major port for deep-sea vessels. Nowadays, most traffic for the "Port of London" docks downstream in the Thames Estuary at the various ports, particularly Tilbury.

Excursion traffic developed in the mid-19th century with the large city population increasingly looking to take holidays in the resorts developing on the north and south banks of the estuary, the coasts of the counties of Essex and Kent. Packet steamers also plied longer routes such as up the east coast of England to Great Yarmouth and across the English Channel to French and Belgian ports. Shorter ferry services were established on the Thames - London County Council's fleet of paddlers for a "river-bus" service within London, and the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway's Tilbury-Gravesend ferry which continues to perate and was run with small paddlers until 1893.

Excursion traffic came to be dominated by three main operators, two of which were outlasted by the earliest company to be established - the General Steam Navigation Company (1824) - which had worldwide shipping interests but also great strength on the Kent and France / Belgium routes and operated traditional excursions from London until the end of the 1966 season.

The GSN's financial strength enabled it to outlast its competitors in an environment of perennial shaky financing and the absence of involvement of the railway companies in steamer operation in this area. Indeed, with steamer routes hugging coastlines and not serving islands, steamers only had the business to themselves in the short period until the railways had extended their routes along the coasts. Steamers increasingly had to withdraw from the longer routes and the holiday traffic, first trying to maintain business by increasingly uneconomic fares, then concentrating on shorter excursions and the longer trips to France.

Nevertheless, the period from 1880 up until the end of the 19th century was one of lively competition and business optimism. The two other companies which dominated the trade were the Woolwich Steam Packet Company and its successors (including the River Thames Steamboat Company, Victoria Steamboat Association and New Palace Steamers Ltd) and the London, Woolwich and Clacton-on-Sea Steamboat Company. The latter, established to serve the growing resort of Clacton from the 1888 season, became better known as Belle Steamers Ltd and came to dominate trade on the East Anglia coast for thirty years.

Financial problems eventually led to the downfall of all except the GSN, the Victoria Steamboat Association quickly foundering on the cost of operating some of the most magnificent steamers ever operated as the competitors introduced new tonnage during the cut-throat competition of the 1890s. The "Belle" steamer fleet struggled on, despite vessel sales and increasing financial disarray, under various owners until 1931.

After the withdrawal of the GSN from the trade, a short lived attempt was made by private interests to revive the business using the former Clyde steamer PS Jeanie Deans of 1931. It was not until the 1980s that the Thames could boast the regular presence of a paddler - the Waverley - albeit for a short two week season each Autumn, as the world's last sea-going paddler leaves her Clyde home to keep up the tradition of coastal cruising in the United Kingdom.

The largest estuary feeding into the Thames, the Medway, also had a history of excursion services, although on a smaller scale but giving services across the Thames Estuary to the major resort of Southend. The New Medway Steam Packet Company ran a successful business after the first world war, extending its cruising range to include the French ports and having built the famous PS Medway Queen, Dunkirk heroine and tripper's favourite from 1924 to 1963. This company was bought over by the GSN in 1937, although it retained its titular independence for operational purposes. Medway Queen has been returned to her home estuary and remains subject to the valiant efforts of preservationists to restore her.

Royal Eagle of 1932 was the last and in capacity terms the largest paddle steamer built specifically for Thames Estuary excursion sailings and remained the largest such UK vessel throughout her life. She did not match a number of earlier Thames paddlers which had disappeared by 1932, but joined fleet-mate Crested Eagle of 1925 which was longer but of lower tonnage capacity. She provided primarily day trips to Southend and onwards to  the Kent coast resorts as far as Ramsgate. Her life after World War II was limited as the combined GSN/NMSP fleet had a number of large motor ships including new builds to replace wartime losses and the expensive-to-run Royal Eagle became an anachronism, spending much of her time laid up before being scrapped in 1953. Paddle Steamer Medway Queen, much smaller in size and based in the lower estuary continued in service until 1964 when paddle steamer trips on the Thames appeared to have come to an end.
Photo in the public domain 

More Detail of Steamer Operators and their Vessels

General Steam Navigation Co
Medway Steam Packet Co
New Medway Steam Packet Co

Woolwich Steam Packet Co
London Steamboat Co
Thames & Channel Steamship Co
River Thames Steamboat Co

Victoria Steamboat Association (Palace Steamers Ltd / London & East Coast Steamship Co)
New Palace Steamers Ltd

Planet Steamers
Thames Steamboat Co (1897) Ltd

London, Woolwich and Clacton-on-Sea Steamboat Co
Belle Steamers Ltd /
The Coast Development Company, later Corporation
Mr E Kingsman
PSM Syndicate / Belle Steamers Ltd / Royal Sovereign Steamship Company

Mr Richard Ford - Charter of PS Bonnie Doon in 1887

London & Margate Saloon Steam Packet Co

Planet Steamers Ltd

Redcliffe Shipping Co -  Marchioness of Bredalbane at Gt Yarmouth in 1935 and 1936

Paddle Steamer Preservation attempts

New Belle Steamers  -  Charter of  Consul in 1963

Coastal Steam Packet Co -  Jeanie Deans in 1966 and 1967

PS Kingswear Castle Trust   (Successful operation on the River Medway on Thames.  Vessel now operating on the River Dart)

Occsional Paddle Steamer Visits to the Thames

Waverley Steam Navigation (Waverley)

An Illustrated History of Thames Pleasure Steamers
By Nick Robins
Published in 2009 by Silver Link Publishing
ISBN 978 1 85794 318 4
Comprehensive and magnificently illustrated history

Belles of the East Coast - A History of the Belle Fleet and the Paddle Steamer Era
By Peter Box
Published : 1989 by Tyndale + Panda Publishing Ltd, 117 High Street, Lowestoft, Suffolk
ISBN 1 870094 08 5
Detailed history of the Belle Steamer Company but including the whole picture of excursion cruises on the Thames Estuary, north Kent and Anglian coasts

Thames Pleasure Steamers from 1945
By Andrew Gladwell
Published in 2001 by
by Tempus Publishing Ltd, The Mill, Brimscombe Port, Stroud, Gloucestershire, GL5 2QG
Standard "Tempus" format with brief introductory history then copious excellent photos with words from the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society's authoritative Historical Collections Manager

Pleasure Steamers
By Bernard Cox
Published : 1983 by David & Charles
ISBN 0 7153 8333 7
A chapter of this book summarising the history of operations around the English & Welsh coasts is devoted to the Thames Estuary.

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Historical Database