Near disaster in the Bristol Channel

Friday 22 February 2013, 09:22

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Genuine excursion vessels - invariably paddle steamers - first came to the Bristol Channel at the end of the 19th century when the Bonnie Doon was chartered for the 1886 season by the Bristol Steam Yachting and Excursion Company.

Captain Alex Campbell and his famous White Funnel pleasure steamers came shortly afterwards, the success of the paddler Waverley helping Alex and Peter Campbell to make the decision to move their sphere of operations from the Clyde to the Bristol Channel.

By the early years of the 20th century Campbell's White Funnel Fleet had achieved supremacy on the waterway, a position of strength it continued to hold until after World War Two. Then, confidently expecting a boom in holiday traffic, the Campbells ordered two new paddle steamers, Cardiff Queen and Bristol Queen.

For several years these two state-of-the-art paddlers ploughed up and down the channel, regularly calling at places such as Penarth Pier, Mumbles Pier, Barry and the pier head in Cardiff. With 'Miners Fortnight' in full swing, the ships were guaranteed a ready supply of passengers as miners and their families, on holiday each July and August at places including Porthcawl and Barry, were eager for the chance of a trip on one of the new ships.

By the late 1950s, however, fashions and tastes were beginning to change. Already people were looking abroad, where the weather was better and prices were cheaper, for their annual holidays. It did not take the greatest intelligence in the world to see that the days of the paddle steamers in the Bristol Channel were numbered.

It was a situation that was certainly not helped by a bizarre accident in the channel on 19 August 1956. It was a day of south-westerly wind with a moderate sea, ideal for the flat bottomed paddlers as it clearly meant the incidence of sea sickness amongst passengers would be kept to a minimum.

The Bristol Queen arrived at Ilfracombe Pier just after 1.30pm, intending to berth and then embark passengers for a trip across the Channel to Tenby. The Cardiff Queen was also off Ilfracombe, having left the Mumbles Pier outside Swansea at 10 o'clock that morning. The Bristol Queen duly took on her passengers and left the pier at 2.15pm.

John Collins, 2nd Engineer on the Bristol Queen, remembers what happened next:

"The Chief Engineer, Jack Giles, had just relieved me after the morning watch when, suddenly, there was a big bang. I rushed to the engine room to find that one of the paddle wheels had sheered. With the cliffs of Illfracombe approaching and with no other form of propulsion, it was a time for saying prayers."

Captain George of the Bristol Queen knew that the only help available lay in the shape of the nearby Cardiff Queen. A rapid radio message brought the two sister ships together. By now, however, the wind had increased and strong tides were running and the helpless paddle steamer was getting ever closer to the cliffs.

A paddle steamer being towed by another paddle steamer was an incredibly difficult task but, despite the problems, a rope was passed across to the heavily wallowing Bristol Queen and the tow began.

It was far from easy but with 2,000 feet of line between the two ships, slow and steady progress was made. In the end it took just over four hours but by 7.35pm both paddle steamers had moored in Mumbles Roads.

The Cardiff Queen went alongside the pier and began to load the passengers who had now been brought ashore from the stricken Bristol Queen. She left Mumbles at about 7.30pm, taking with her all the passengers who, earlier in the day, had embarked, expecting a simple and pleasant trip to Tenby. It was after midnight before the Cardiff Queen returned to the Mumbles.

The tow across the Bristol Channel, a distance of just over 20 miles, was no mean feat. The ships had been able to average no more than five knots but the task had been carried out most efficiently. And then, of course, came the consequences.

The Bristol Queen was obviously unusable with a broken paddle wheel and the Campbells must have lost a considerable amount of money that season.

More worrying than that, the accident had been almost a fatal one. If the Cardiff Queen had not been so close at hand the damaged paddler would have been driven onto the rocks and there would have been considerable loss of life. It was something that most passengers - or would-be passengers - duly noted. Many of them began to look elsewhere for their summer treats.

The Bristol Queen and Cardiff Queen had a history of mechanical mishaps. The Cardiff Queen was found to have a rusting hull even when she was delivered from the builders in 1947 while the Bristol Queen continued to have problems with her paddles.

After enduring another broken paddle wheel in 1967, she was taken out of service and broken up at Antwerp the following year. The Cardiff Queen went to the breakers yard the same year. It was the end of an era, the end of full-time cruising on the Bristol Channel.

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    Comment number 1.

    I sailed on the Bristol Queen a few times before she was taken out of service. Like most youngsters I didn't ever think there was danger involved in going on the paddle steamers. But clearly I was wrong. Someone told me the other day that she actually hit Penarth Pier on one occasion, took a lump out of the side of it. And to think I never knew.

 
 

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