Prompted by an excellent talk by local historian Barry Shaw, I was intrigued by the number range and activities of the fleet of Paddle Steamers that provided services to Blackpool holidaymakers.
I have written of the work of shipping on this coast, of the wrecks and rescues that
were part of the seafaring community in town. This aspect is largely ignored by in the story and heritage of Blackpool.
In 1812, Bell’s paddle steamer ‘Comet’ became the world’s first operational, commercial passenger steamship for coastal waters.
Mass Transportation of people and goods up to the 19th century was dominated by travel by sea, certainly up to the development and spread of the railways in the 1840’s. Where road transport would have been difficult because of terrain or the cost and expertise of road-building, ships of all sizes would journey between coastal towns, near and far.
With the development of leisure with improving working conditions and a notion of ‘disposable income’, the opportunity was realised for entrepreneurs to invest and make money from the burgeoning tourists and holidaymakers that flocked to the seaside, for health and entertainment. For some the first experience of not just riding on a ship but seeing the sea for the first time.
Blackpool’s entrepreneurial spirit was quick to form companies to build and operate ships for leisure purposes, linking resorts and enabling holidaymakers to see and sample resorts in easy travel time: Fleetwood, Southport, Morecambe, Douglas (Isle of Man), Llandudno.
The Ferry from Fleetwood extended the range of the railway network by bypassing the then unassailable ‘Shap’. Even Queen Victoria availed herself of the service to Androssan in Scotland on her regular journeys to Balmoral. Indeed, Thomas Cook organised a party of 350 to do the same trip in 1846.
A new Jetty was built accommodate Paddle Steamers and to compete with the Victoria (North) Pier in 1868. It wasn’t long before the Jetty was upgraded to what became the South Pier in 1878, with a Toll House and additional facilities and attractions.
The first major Paddle Steamer to ply her trade was the ‘Bickerstaffe’, built in the Laird
Shipyard in Birkenhead. It was built for the Bickerstaffe family, who owned the South Jetty or South Pier (later Central Pier) opened in 1878.
She sailed mainly on the Isle of Man route, under command of Capt Clare. The fare was 6/- First Class and 4/6d Second Class, about 30p today.
It was said that the Bickerstaffe’s popularity lay in the fact that her daily afternoon sailings always coincided with the shout of ‘Time Gentlemen Please’ by local Publicans was followed by a mad rush to the Jetty.
In the days after a Sea going vessel passed the 3 mile limit, the bars were then opened for the duration of the voyage until the 3 mile limit at the destination Port of Call.
In 1915 The Bickerstaffe was requisitioned for war service as a Minesweeper and was eventually broken up at Garston Docks on the banks of the River Mersey in 1928. Her Ships Bell hangs in the ground floor of Blackpool’s Central Library as a reminder of those heady days.
Megoran (2016) suggests that in their heyday from 1890s until the First World War, ‘so prolific were excursion Paddle Steamers that you could have boarded a ship at Great Yarmouth and, with an assiduous study of the timetables and connection’ travel anywhere from there to North Wales. The same is true of the Blackpool based ships and visiting ships, travel from North Wales to the Clyde and North of Scotland. Appendix ‘B’ provides a map of the Sea Routes.from Blackpool.
For Blackpool itself the heyday appears between 1870 and 1880 when no less than 7 ships regularly operated into and out of the resort.
It’s not surprising, that, apart from the Piers themselves and the Paddle Steamers, Raikes Hall Park held the monopoly. At the height of its success in the 1870s there was no Winter Gardens, no Tower to attract visitors
The Weekly ‘Steamboat Traffic Returns’ reported in the Gazette for Whit Week, June 1873 show 18,200 persons making sailing excursions from South Pier alone, representing 1 in 3 of the visitors to the Pier. Over the same period the Raikes Hall complex welcomed 40,000 visitors, each paying 2d for the privilege.
In one weekend in June 1899, The Gazette was reporting excursions planned for the ‘Greyhound’, the ‘Queen of the North’ and the ‘Clifton’ to Piel Island, Douglas, Morecambe and Southport. Appendix ‘C’ shows the cover of the 1901 official guide to Steamboat Sailings.
Around 1990, on the Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic, The ‘Waverley’ once more docked at North Pier to take passengers into the Mersey, for the commemorations. Sadly, because of poor weather and sea conditions she was unable to return her passengers who had to travel back from Liverpool by bus.
From the simplicity of entrepreneurship in the beginning, the complexity of who owned what, when, where and for how long is shown in Appendix ‘A’ and there are websites describing ownership. Companies were merged and acquired alongside the ebb and flow of demand for steamer services. The situation is further confused by the acquisition and disposal of the Steamers. The company and ship ownership family tree of that era, is worthy of much more research.
Blackpool probably had the largest number of locally owned vessels in the fleet operating out of Blackpool. Initially, North Pier offered docking facilities, provided by the owners. Later by a company formed for the purpose, The North Pier Steamship Company. The newly built South Jetty (later Central Pier) provided alternative facilities and access to holidaymakers based in South Shore in 1871. Established by John Bickerstaffe, this company was acquired by Blackpool Passenger Steamboat Co in 1894 and then the North Pier in 1905. John’s Son HD Bickerstaffe re-acquired the company in 1923.
The Railway companies also developed Paddle Steamer services to integrate their rail journeys with ferry and excursion provision.
Individuals too made a contribution. The Gazette of 10 April 1873 gives details of A Mr Enoch Read of Birmingham, son of William Read of Blackpool purchasing the Steamboat ‘Dandy’, although undergoing repairs in Dublin would be ready for service by Easter Bank Holiday Monday of that year.
Development of Technology
The Paddle Steamers associated with Blackpool are those with Paddle to the sides of the ship, as opposed to those in widespread use in the US, with a large driving paddle to the rear.
There may be a further confusion between ‘ Paddle Steamers’ and ‘Turbine Steamers’ the latter generally refers to steam ships driven by a propeller rather than ‘Paddles’.
Sailboats, Clippers & Windjammers had plied their trade through the Irish Sea and to its ports and docks for 100s of years, either calling at Lancaster, Skipool & Wardleys, Glasson, Fleetwood, Lytham, Freckleton and Preston, or linking the big ports of Liverpool with the Americas and the Far East. Some a product of the Industrial Revolution, providing transport of coal and other goods up the Douglas River and the local canal system, even right into the heart of the coalfields of Wigan.
The number of recorded wrecks and rescues is testament to the weight and range of traffic and cargo through local waters.
With the invention and development of Steam engines in the 18th century there was a new faster, more economic way of moving goods and people by sea. All this at the same time as needs grew from the Industrial revolution. For the leisure business, steam power had a major advantage too, it wasn’t weather dependent. Steam ships could sail in the lightest breeze or the roughest sea making them ideal to fit into entertainment mix of the new burgeoning seaside resorts.
Paddle Steamers were the first types of ship to make use of a steam engine, converting the circular motion of a turbine, transmitted to large ‘Paddle Wheels’ on either side of the ship. In operation, these paddles drove the ship forward or back by, in effect, pushing the water, much as an oar or paddle would and causing the ship to move in the water. As the technology improved, the gearing of the paddles would allow some manoeuvrability by enabling one paddle to turn whilst the other slowed or stopped, bringing about a turn in direction.
The weight of often large Cast Iron paddle wheels, mostly above the water line, made ships unstable and there are records of ships capsizing as passengers rushed to one side of the ship when coming into port.
Further, the advent and continuous development of the ‘Screw Propeller’ in the mid 19th century added a new dimension to efficient operation of shipping, commercial and leisure. Profit laid Paddle driven steamers to rest, other than as novelties to be seen and exploited as such. The last Paddle Steamers still provide excursions in the UK, the ‘Waverley’, ‘Balmoral’ and ‘Lingsmere Castle’ still operates round UK Ports and is listed with the ‘National Historic Fleet’ under the care of the ‘Paddle Steamer Preservation Society’
Paddle Steamer operators were not immune to the demands made in Wartime. Neither were they exempt from destruction. Although none of the Blackpool based Steamers were sunk, those of other resorts were, in both World Wars. Indeed four of the London Thames based steamers were bought and moved to Iraq for service there just before WW1. A Britain based ship, The ‘Brighton Belle’ was sunk off the coast of Dunkirk in 1940 fulfilling her role as a Minesweeper. The original ‘Waverley’, after which the Paddle Steamer was named, also served gallantly at Dunkirk before being sunk by enemy action.
Others requisitioned for minesweeping included the Bickerstaffe, Queen of the North, Greyhound and Atalanta in WW1, Queen of the Bay in ww2. Incidentally the Queen of the Bay served as a blockade runner in the Spanish Civil War as the ‘Capitande Corbeta Verdia’. The ‘Queen of the North’ was drafted into service as a Minesweeper, based at Harwich and was sunk by a mine off Orford Ness, Suffolk in July 1917.
The Heritage of Paddle Steamers in Blackpool
There is very little left by way of neither ‘hard’ ephemera nor artefacts of the Paddle Steamer era. There are postcards, photographs and prints; the Bickerstaffe Bell, together with Press cuttings and adverts. We also have the stories of the ships, their owners and itineraries. Enthusiasts have established a charity, ‘The Paddle Steamer Preservation Society’, in a bid to keep what remains of the Paddle Steamer fleet in the public’s eye.
The accounts of the birth, growth and decline of this industry and their impact on holidaymakers and on the growth and development of the resort, not to mention the benefit to the enterprising individuals that brought it about, cannot be overstated.
The beach and sea have silted up over the years eliminating the prospect of a return of ships to dock alongside the North and Central Piers. However, the stories and memories remain.
Megoran J., 2016, British Paddle Steamers: The Heyday of Excursions and Day Trips, Amberley Publishing. Available at books.google.co.uk/books
Gladwell A., 2013, North Wales Pleasure Steamers, Amberley Publishing
Gladwell A., 2003, Lancashire Coast Pleasure Steamers, Tempus
Dumpleton, B., 1973, Story of the Paddle Steamer, Melksham Colin Venton
Duckworth, CLD., & Langmuir, GE., 1956, West Coast Steamers, Stephenson & Son
Seddon, A., 1996, Raikes Hall: Its Golden Years, Peneverdant Publishing.
Blackpool Gazette & Herald References:
Piers & Steamboats 13/06/1873 p2.5
North Pier Steamship Co 15/02/1895 p4.1
Steamboat Cruises 16/06/1899 p6.6
Blackpool to Llandudno 04/06/1909 p8.4
50 years Ago 06/07/1917 p2.3-5
Comprehensive details, stories and links to Paddle Steamers at: http://www.paddlesteamers.info/BlackpoolOperators.htm And http://www.simplonpc.co.uk/NorthWestUK.html#anchor6818
Mitchell & Kenyon Film Archive:
Identifier: 661167 Steamboats at Blackpool North Pier (1903) Original release
Ref: 206 Blackpool Steamers North Pier (Archive)
Ref: 208 Blackpool Steamers, Deerhound (Archive)
Ref: 207 Blackpool North Pier Steamboat (C.1900) (Archive)
Ref: 209 Blackpool Steamers, Greyhound, Belle and Clifton (Archive)
Paddle Steamer Preservation Society at: http://www.paddlesteamers.org/
Steamboat sailings from Blackpool for 1901,1903, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1910, 1912, 1913 & 1914 at Blackpool Central Library, Local & Family History Dept at: Ref: LN44(P)
Paddle Steamer Preservation Society at: http://www.paddlesteamers.org/
Fig 1 The ‘Lune’ and ‘Greyhound’ http://www.simplonpc.co.uk/NorthWestUK.html#anchor945522
Fig 2 Rail Poster http://blog.nrm.org.uk/conserving-the-midland-railway-poster-blackpool/
Fig 3 The ‘Bickerstaffe’ http://www.simplonpc.co.uk/NorthWestUK.html#anchor139855
Fig 4 The ‘Bickerstaff Bell’ (Barry Shaw)
Fig 5 Advertising Handbill (Gladwell 2003)
Fig 6 Excursion Press Poster (Gladwell, 2003)
Fig 7 Paddle principle http://nautarch.tamu.edu/PROJECTS/denbigh/WHEEL.HTM