On Wednesday 10th June 1936 Gracie Fields offered her first public excursion taking passengers on a trip from Southampton to view the liners Normandie and Queen Mary.
Ordered in 1935 from the Southampton shipyard of John Thornycroft, she was launched by the celebrity music hall star Gracie Fields. She ran trials on 29th May and an inaugural cruise for invited guests on Tuesday 9th June.
In some ways it is a surprise that Red Funnel reverted to a paddle steamer for their next ship as they had previously built in 1931 the twin screw motor ship Medina also from Thornycroft. However the shape of Medina’s forward end with the promenade deck extending out above the line of the hull at the waterline made her fairly unsuitable for working alongside piers at certain states of the tide as the deck had a tendency to get caught up on a pier and the hull beneath it, which had no rubbing band around it, tended to bump a pier causing damage.
Gracie Fields was designed as an enhanced version of Red Funnel’s Princess Elizabeth for year round work on the Cowes ferry as well as for tendering liners and for summer excursions from Southampton and Bournemouth. She had a forecastle to help keep spray off the dozen or so cars she could accommodate on her foredeck on the Cowes ferry and a bow rudder so she could steam distances astern more easily.
She appeared at Bournemouth later in the summer with the Bournemouth Echo saying “The ship is luxuriously fitted and equipped with upholstery including Dunlopillo cushions. In the general lounge an outstanding feature is the Old English fireplace fitted with an electric fire, and there is a handsome writing desk which came from a famous liner. Photographs of Gracie Fields are prominently displayed. The forward lounge is also luxuriously appointed. In addition to the latest diffused lighting electric light fittings there are emergency oil lamps. On the captain’s bridge is a bell which would be rung if a collision were seen to be inevitable and would keep ringing until the watertight compartments were closed.” All in all Gracie Fields seems to have been a thoroughly modern and well turned out paddle steamer admirably designed for her intended trade.
Unfortunately her career lasted for just five years. Called up as a minesweeper in September 1939 by the Navy she was based at Dover so was well placed to be in the forefront of the Dunkirk evacuation. She made one successful round trip on Monday 27th May 1940 ferrying allied troops home but on her second run across the following day she was bombed off the French coast. With the ship badly damaged the troops were taken off onto other vessels and she was taken in tow but the situation deteriorated and she sank during the night.
Gracie Field’s captain at Dunkirk was her peacetime Red Funnel master Captain N R Larkin who survived the sinking. He continued his career with Red Funnel after the war serving as master of the Balmoral from 1954 until he retired in 1961.