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14th January 1968 Bristol Queen

A stern view of Bristol Queen alongside Scillonian at Penzance.Keith Abraham

On Sunday 14th January 1968 whilst lying alongside and up for sale P & A Campbell’s Bristol Queen was rammed by the Liberian oil tanker Geodor which was manoeuvring for her berth in the Queen’s Dock at Cardiff.

A damaged Bristol Queen leaving Cardiff, 21st March 1968.Chris Collard

She landed heavily alongside Bristol Queen snapping her back stay and shrouds on the starboard side and bringing her foremast down with them, damaged her starboard bridge wing, the forward rails and a couple of the lifeboat davits. She was a hefty ship to land so heavily alongside a lightly constructed paddle steamer.

Bristol Queen had been withdrawn from service after paddle wheel trouble on Sunday 26th August 1967 and had retreated to lay up in the Queen’s Dock at Cardiff three days later.

The fact that there were still issues with the paddle wheels was troubling as Campbells had only recently spent a lot of money on annealing them, crack detection and replacement of defective parts. And now this. The cost of repairs was estimated to be £8,000 (£140K in today’s money) with similar work on both paddle wheels to make her fit for the 1968 season estimated at £18,000 (£315K today).

This was considered an unjustifiable expense so Bristol Queen was put up for sale through Tony McGinnity’s agency in Weymouth. The flyer for her sale stated “It is understood that nearly £30K (half a million pounds in today’s money) was spent this year in connection with the load-line survey and in renewals and improvements which included extensive re-tubing of the boiler together with complete overhauls of the machinery and auxiliaries. The vessel has certain paddle damage which the owners do not propose to repair. Specification for this repair is available and will be passed on to the purchaser. The vessel is offered strictly “as lies”. The owners have not indicated any price but we would be pleased to try them with an offer of £20K (£350K today)”.

That’s interesting. The estimated cost of repairs to the paddle wheels was almost as much as the ship was worth in her entirety on the open market. Pondering all this the question seems to me to be why did Bristol Queen suffer such seemingly endless paddle wheel trouble?

For that we need to knock on the door of her engineers. We know that their view was that the damage was caused by hitting floating objects. This was an excuse I remember also hearing trotted out over and over again from the the engineers on Queen of the South in 1966 which led to that ship being fitted with paddle wheel guards prior to 1967. But was it really true?

We know that during the 1960s experienced steam engineers willing to work aboard excursion paddle steamers was decreasing. We know that P & A Campbell had lost experienced men and had struggled to find competent replacements. Was that a factor? Boilers, engines and paddle wheels react favourably to experienced engineers who know their onions. Less so with those struggling to find their way around.

And then there is the question of handling the engine. A good and experienced engineer can make a paddle steamer engine dance. I was mostly blessed with excellent engineers in all my years with KC but there were occasional issues with less experienced engineers who were slow to respond to the telegraph, got the engine stuck and occasionally gave me wrong way engine movements.

Look at all the damage suffered by Cardiff Queen in 1966. That year she was under the command of the highly experienced Captain Jack Wide. During the season he had to cope with engineers new to the ship and to paddle steamers in general on the controls. That damage wasn’t down to Captain Wide. It was down to Captain Wide not getting the engine movements he had requested on the telegraph delivered promptly and correctly.

And that leads to another issue. For feathering paddle wheels the eccentric controlling the feathering mechanism was almost always sited on the outboard side of the wheels and therefore was mounted on the inboard side of what was the ship’s rubbing band. Landing heavily alongside a pier, maybe as a result of slow engine movements, would have shaken that up each and every time the ship landed hard. Bang! Bang! Bang! With enough of that the rubbing band starts to get ever so slightly inset. That puts a strain on the feathering gear which starts to be pushed out of alignment. Then as the situation deteriorates there comes a moment when things start to snap. Was that a factor and all the stuff about hitting floating objects, annealing, crack detection and so on just red herrings floated by less experienced engineers floundering to find solutions to what were serious problems but in reality struggling and out of their depth?

Whatever the case the game was up for Bristol Queen. Although only twenty years old she would sail again no more.

John Megoran

John Megoran