Dartmouth’s relationship with steam goes back centuries; Thomas Newcomen, inventor of the first successful steam-powered pumping engine, was born here in 1663. It was home to civil engineer and calculating prodigy George Parker Bidder (1806–1878) notable for his work on railways over much of the world and for pioneering work on steam trawling. Charles Seal Hayne, an early investor in the railway and steamer service, founded the Dartmouth Steam Packet Company Ltd in 1859, now part of the Dartmouth Steam Railway & River Boat Company which, this spring, returns Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle to the waters of the River Dart after an absence of 47 years. Bracken Vernon-Jelier found out more.
Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle is the last remaining coal-fired paddle steamer in operation in the UK today and on Friday 29th March she will sail on her home waters on the river Dart once more, delighting steam enthusiasts and visitors alike and bringing a wave of nostalgia across a town that has steam running through its veins.
She was built in 1924 for service on the picturesque River Dart by boat builders Philip & Son of Dartmouth and was almost identical to her two sisters; Compton Castle and Totnes Castle, built a few years earlier. She was the last paddle steamer to be built for service on the Dart and was a replacement for a previous Kingswear Castle that had been built in 1904 whose steam engine, built eight years before the sinking of the Titanic, has powered the present Kingswear Castle since she entered service.
From the 1920s until the 1960s, the three beautiful little River Dart steamers plied their business paddling between Dartmouth, Kingswear and Totnes. At this time, Kingswear Castle could carry almost 500 passengers. Their work was only interrupted in the Second World War when Kingswear Castle was chartered to the American Navy as a liberty ship at Dartmouth.
By the 1960s the traditional day at the seaside was beginning to wane and paddle steamers all over the UK were suffering heavy losses; one by one they were withdrawn from service. The KC was withdrawn at the end of the 1965 season after 41 years on the river.
Jenny Patterson is 79 years old. Her family are an intrinsic part of Dartmouth’s history. She said; “I am the great granddaughter of one of the founders of the River Dart Steamboat Company James Reed Tolman. He was a Master Mariner and founded the company with six others; my Great Uncle was later the MD, succeeded by his son until it was taken over in 1946. I remember the ‘Totnes Boats’, as they were known, coming down the river to Dartmouth packed to the gunnels with tourists and my family saying; “Jam for tea today!” It was also a ritual for my mother and me to go on the final trip of the year just as the leaves on the trees were changing colour. Later, during the war when the paddlers were laid up at Old Mill we would visit our houseboat and they became my playground. I loved the engine rooms the best – the shining brass, the smell of the wood. It was magical. I just cannot wait to go aboard her again soon.”
She was purchased by the PSPS (Paddle Steamer Preservation Society) in the spring of 1967 for the modest sum of £600 and after a short spell operating from Cowes on the Isle of Wight, she moved to Chatham in Kent where thoughts turned to what should be done with the vessel. After a couple of years the PSPS seriously thought of selling her for scrap due to her deteriorating state, but fortunately some money was found to restore her. It was a painstaking and expensive process that took 8 years, but by November 1983, she was ready to be steamed again and a year later she travelled up and down the Medway with just 12 passengers at a time.
At this time, a man named John Megoran became her master and in May 1985, Kingswear Castle entered full service again twenty years after she had first been withdrawn. To this day John Megoran remains as Skipper and is proud to be launching her back onto the water following the Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company signing a 15 year agreement with the paddle steamer owners PSPS, to allow the move home as part of their Paignton, Kingswear, Dartmouth and Totnes Round Robin pleasure trips.
- Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle cost £10,333 to build in 1924!
- She was operating on the River Dart on the day that the young Princess Elizabeth met Lieutenant Phillip Mountbatten at Dartmouth Royal Naval College in 1937.
- Kingswear Castle has carried many famous passengers including HRH Prince Edward, Pierce Brosnan, Sir Harry Secombe and Margaret Thatcher MP.
- Until now Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle spent almost as long on the River Medway as she did on the River Dart.
- She won the National Steam Heritage Award in 1986 and was the overall winner in the Scania Transport Trust Awards in 1995.
- Kingswear Castle has been used as a film set for productions such as 'Around the World in 80 Days' and 'Great Expectations'.
- Kingswear Castle is on the core collection list of the National Historic Ships Register.
General Manager of the Dartmouth Steam Railway and Riverboat Company, Andrew Pooley is delighted to have been able to facilitate her return; “The delivery trip from Chatham to Dartmouth wasn’t without challenge. It had to take place in December to enable her refit and trials to be completed in time for the new season. The KC is on the National Historic Ships Register and a very concerned General Manager decided to personally oversee her returning voyage, accompanying her with the crew. Arctic conditions followed her all the way - don’t forget this is an open boat designed for tranquil river waters not the sea and her sister ship sank whilst being towed between Dartmouth and Plymouth! A closing weather window meant she had to take refuge in Portland Harbour before making a dash across Lyme Bay to reach the safety of home waters before another weather front moved in - they made it with six hours to spare. Thank the Lord the weather forecasters were correct on this occasion!
” He added; “What a life this vessel has had, one where she started as the lifeblood of commerciality and travel up the Dart, jilted for the preference of rail, coming close to ending life altogether – but now back home, fully restored and looking better than she ever has!
Skipper, John Megoran, has now been sailing her for nearly 30 years. He remembers fondly his very first job as a boy was working on Paddle Steamer Princess Elizabeth in Weymouth whilst there were still three running in the area. He’s been a member of the PSPS since he was 11 years old and finally came to skipper the KC after volunteering to help with her restoration in the 80’s and 90’s; “Although those in Chatham are sad to see her go, it has been a privilege to be able to bring her home. She’ll also be offering people the chance to learn to drive her – something that was certainly a dream fulfilled for me!”
This Easter the paddle steamer will finally return to the water offering nostalgic cruises along the lower reaches of the River Dart where the sounds and smells of the old steam engine will transport its passengers back in time to an era when these ships were the life blood of the community. One excursion starts and ends in Dartmouth and passes Bayards Cove, Warfleet Creek, both Dartmouth & Kingswear Castles, Britannia Royal Naval College, Noss boat yard, the quaint village of Dittisham and the Greenway Estate, former home of the late Dame Agatha Christie. There will even be picnic cruises and special events.
For more information see http://www.dartmouthrailriver.co.uk/days-out/paddle-steamer-kingswear-castle or call 01803 555 872.