Ferries in the days of steam, 1830-1959

Lymington probably provides the best example locally of the vital role ferries play in the lives of people. The Isle of Wight predicates the situation by virtue of being an island and only accessible by boat. We can deduce from early records that it was the convenience of Lymington as a prime mainland access point to the Island that established its position.  In the early middle ages the de Redvers family, by virtue of a royal gift, held the territory around Lymington and also very extensive lands in the Isle of Wight so communication between the two was of great importance. As A.G. Cole observed in his history, “Yarmouth was granted a charter by Baldwin de Redvers in 1135. Whether this was due to the strategic position of the place or to the characteristic energy and enthusiasm of the inhabitants, history does not record, but Yarmouth was the first town in the Island to be so honoured.” This suggests that Lymington, emerging as the most convenient sheltered point from which to cross the Solent, gradually developed as a small, maritime centre, most likely centred on what was to become the Quay area. It seems plausible that William, one of Baldwin’s sons, granted a similar charter to the men of Lymington sometime between 1190 and 1200 in order to stimulate growth and, at the same time, I would suggest, to unite and link the small agricultural settlement, centred west of the church, with the burgeoning maritime enclave i the area of the quay (see my History of Lymington, particularly pages 15-16, for details).

Of course in the days of sail the crossing sometimes could be erratic, the prevailing winds from a westerly direction, could make things difficult for the mariners. Nevertheless, such challenges were met and vessels made the short voyage, so far as the documentary evidence records, on a pretty regular basis. By the early years of the nineteenth century we find the caveat “weather permitting” inserted following the announced days and times of sailings to the Isle of Wight. It was the advent of steam power that was to profoundly alter the situation by enabling regular and reliable journeys that could be announced in advance.

Perhaps I should just say a word on the application of steam power to vessels. It was much more erratic and piecemeal than was the case with railways whose development progressed pretty seamlessly throughout the nineteenth century. The late eighteenth century saw many applications of steam to vessels, particularly those using river navigations and canals, but for sea-going ships there were many problems, notably the inability of steamships to carry sufficient fuel consequently there continued to be a reliance on sail. Indeed, up to about the mid-eighteen hundreds, ocean-going sailing ships became increasingly sophisticated and more reliable than steam-powered vessels. Steam-powered ferries to the Isle of Wight were introduced first on the Portsmouth-Ryde run in 1825 and on the Southampton-Cowes run shortly afterwards. So our first little steam paddler, the Glasgow introduced in 1830, was really quite early. (See Capt. F.T. O’Brien, Early Solent Steamers, 1973). A very early promotional card (now preserved in the St Barbe Museum) could announce the times of the Glasgow crossings and state that the “arrangements will be observed with the utmost punctuality”. To my eye the PS Glasgow was a charming little vessel, sloop-rigged, with a forward mast and a fixed bowsprit for a sail if necessary, behind which was the lofty funnel and. either side, two imposing semi-circular paddle-boxes. It is depicted in a number of illustrations of the river in the 1830s. It was advertised as running daily to Yarmouth ‘extending her passage to Cowes and Portsmouth, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday’ On the Yarmouth trip it performed also as a tug for ‘two commodious tow boats, for the conveyance of Horses, carriages and Cattle’. It left Lymington at 8 a.m., made its voyage to Portsmouth from which it departed for the return journey to Yarmouth at 3 p.m. and thence back to Lymington at 6. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays it just made 4 return trips to Yarmouth, a journey of half an hour each way (rather faster than today’s ferries!). The fares to Yarmouth were one shilling on the quarter deck and 9d. on the forecastle and passengers could go all the way to Portsmouth for 3s. 6d or half-a-crown on the forecastle with children under ten charged half price.

The downside was that there was no weather protection; not only were the passengers exposed to this potential hazard should it rain but the same was true for the helmsman and captain as there was no cabin for them either but it is some satisfaction, at least, to know that the stokers were protected. However, most of these early vessels were fitted with canvas canopies or awnings that provided a degree of protection from inclement weather and could also act as a sun-shade in those rare summer days of unbroken sunshine. The PS Glasgow was owned and operated by a small consortium of Lymington entrepreneurs on what seems to me a rather maverick basis. But it must soon have become obvious that a single steamer was inadequate for this small but important service so, before the end of the decade a company named the Solent Sea Steam-packet Company was formed and it immediately sought to supplement the solitary Glasgow (which had been purchased second-hand) with a custom- built vessel. Three Lymington members on the board of the company, namely, John Blakiston, Richard Galpine and William Squires of Yarmouth, were appointed to make all the necessary arrangements. In January 1841 they approached an established Southampton firm with its yards at Mill Place Ironworks on the Itchen, Summers, Groves and Day Ltd and agreed a specification for a steam-powered ferry. It was to have an iron hull with a keel length of 75 feet and a beam breadth of 35ft 8ins. The steam engine with a 30 ins diameter cylinder was rated at 25 horse power. The ship builders agreed to complete the vessel “in a workmanlike manner on or before the tenth day of April next ensuing” for a total cost of £2,275, payable in three instalments. This splendid little steamer was well-fitted out both for passengers and crew with cabins and water closets. But I was surprised to discover that there was no provision for life boats, rafts or any other life-saving equipment. (My thanks to Alan Roy of Lymington for the loan of the original agreement.)

She was launched in May 1841 by William Squires and shortly after went into service as PS Solent and continued operating for 23 years. I should note here that for some inexplicable reason this Solent was the first of four to bear that same name. For the sake of clarity I have added roman numerals to the subsequent Solent vessels. One was an oddity, namely, PS Solent III, a steel-hulled vessel built by Mordey and Carney of Southampton for the LSWR but, as Bob Coles informs us, ‘even before registration she had been sold to the Metropolitan Asylums Board and renamed PS Red Cross’. (R. Coles, Lymington and the New Forest Transport History, 1986, 125. An excellent book.)

The Red Lion, built by Thorburn and Alman of South Shields in 1856 for the Admiralty was sold to the The Solent Sea Steam-packet Coy in 1858 especially to coincide with the anticipated increase in passengers expected with the opening of the Lymington Branch Railway (See ‘Reflections’ 23 June 2017). She operated until about 1880. She had a wooden hull and registered gross tonnage of 54. The Red Lion seems to have been the last vessel purchased by the original SSS-P Coy as the business was put up for sale in 1861: ‘the entirety of the stock of this company; comprising two steam-vessels, three tow boats (for cattle and carriages), and four other boats…’ Tenders were to be submitted by 1 January 1862.

The new proprietors placed an order for a new vessel with George Inman and Coy, the established yacht and boat builder of Lymington, in 1863. It was to be timber-hulled with its 32 hp engine being supplied by Day and Summers of Southampton. Though plainly a practical paddle steamer, at 96 feet the longest yet designed for this service, it had a sleek appearance reminiscent of a yacht. It was named PS Solent II and continued in service until about 1900. The next vessel, to work alongside Solent II, was named PS Mayflower, eight feet longer than Solent II with a passenger capacity of about 500. She was built in 1866 by Marshall Bros of Newcastle. Both these vessels were taken over by the railway company.

Provision had been made in the Lymington Branch Railway Act (1858) for the LSWR to purchase the Lymington-Yarmouth ferry but the railway company did not take the opportunity to do so until June 1884 and in the same year authorised the construction of the extension of the line, across the river, to a purpose-built terminal station and jetty for the ferries and the tow boats. Having a dedicated landing place was a sensible move and amongst other things reduced the minor conflicts that occurred from time to time when other commercial vessels tangled with the ferries.

Marconi and wireless telegraphy

These two paddle steamers were to enjoy a short but illustrious spell as vital participants in the successful development of wireless telegraphy by George S. Kemp supervised by Guglielmo Marconi. The vessels were hired from the LSWR by Marconi specifically to demonstrate how wireless waves could be both received and transmitted from vessels at sea to shore-based stations and, in due course, between ships. Bob Coles quotes from George Kemp’s account, ‘7 Dec. 1897: We started experiments using either the Solent [II] or the Mayflower…the object being to steam over a triangular course each day and noting the signal strength…The weather was very changeable… and the seas so heavy… that we were confined to the after cabin with either the transmitter or receiver and often up to our knees in water…’ (R. Coles, New Forest Transport History, 116). I should just like to add that a plaque on Luttrell’s Tower, on the coast at Eaglehurst, carries the message, ‘Here Marconi concluded his wireless experiments during the Great War of 1914-1918’

And at Alum Bay, a stone memorial carries an informative summary to these world-changing events, carved into its four faces. As far as I am aware it was Robert Hole who first drew attention to this episode in our local history in an article published in the Lymington Sea Scouts Magazine, Christmas 1937 (quoted by Jean Chitty in The River is within Us (1983) 62), ‘So history was made and I like to think that the modern wireless facilities with which great ships are now equipped, direction finders, wireless telephones, broadcasting, radiogram services and the like had their origin in the little PS Mayflower of the port of Lymington.’ There can be few who are not aware of the vital life-saving role played by the RMS Carpathia after picking up the distress wireless signal sent by RMS Titanic on that tragic and fateful night in April 1912.

LSWR days and the end of steam paddlers

The first vessel commissioned by the railway company was to be built by Day, Summers Ltd in 1893 and named the PS Lymington, at just over 120 feet long she was the largest ferry yet built. The new century ushered in the PS Solent IV, constructed by Morden, Carney of Southampton and launched in 1902. She served until 1948.

The last and largest vessel was PS Freshwater, with a gross tonnage of 263 and a capacity for 300 passengers. She was built in 1927 and continued operating on the ferry service until 1959 when she was sold to operate off the Sussex coast, renamed Sussex Queen and later moving to Swanage and running trips from there until 1961. She was the final example of the traditional steam-powered paddle steamers.

This article was written by the President of the LDHS Jude James. We are grateful to him for allowing us to use publish it on our website. It should be noted that this was first published in the New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times on 22 Sept 2017.