During the period from their development in the 1880s up to their almost complete demise by the late 1960s excursion and ferry paddle steamers in the UK enjoyed an enviable reputation for carrying their passengers safely. And this despite the challenges of operating the steamers in often shallow waters, sometimes close to rocky shores and in areas with often complex and difficult tidal patterns, sometimes in fog. And all this without the benefit of modern navigational aids like radar and satellite navigation.
Of course there were occasional accidents, breakdowns, groundings and so on but the number of steamers and passengers lost were almost vanishingly small in this ninety year period in relation to the number operating and the number of passengers carried.
Of those which did get into real difficulties bizarrely the date of 27th August keeps cropping up. Let’s take a closer look:
27th August 1886
On Friday 27th August 1886 the Bournemouth ran a day trip from Bournemouth to Torquay. On the return leg of the journey she ran into thick fog and, on approaching Portland Bill, ran into cliffs on the western side of the island head on. It was a nice day with a pretty flat calm sea. All the passengers and crew were rescued but Bournemouth remained stuck and was lost.
27th August 1934
On Monday 27th August 1934 Duchess of Devonshire was putting her bow onto the beach at Sidmouth to unload passengers around lunchtime, and at the bottom of a particularly low spring tide, when her hull contacted a groin which holed her. Assistance from a tug and more powerful pumps were called for but later in the day she slewed round and made a second hole in the bottom on the starboard side aft.
So at Sidmouth she stayed until eventually broken up on the beach.
27th August 1935
On Tuesday 27th August 1935 Duchess of Fife ran aground near Kirn on the morning run from Rothesay to Gourock in thick fog. There she remained stuck fast all day with her fifty passengers taken ashore by boat. Fortunately she was towed off on the evening tide and made her way to Lamont’s shipyard at Port Glasgow for inspection
27th August 1928
Although it did not involve the ship herself, on Saturday 27th August 1928 one of Bilsdale’s deck hands was killed in a brawl with local fishermen after an evening drinking in a local pub.
Competition between different operators at Scarborough was sometimes fierce with local men defending their livelihoods against what they sometimes saw as outsiders coming in to muscle in on their business. And Bilsdale was owned by a Middlesbrough based company.
An argument on this evening of 27th August became heated and during the ensuing brawl the deck hand fell from the quayside into the water hitting his head on Bilsdale’s sponson as he went down. Two Scarborough men were initially charged with murder but this was later reduced to manslaughter and they ended up not going to prison but being bound over to keep the peace. It is one of those tragic situations where tempers can flare on both sides leading to terrible consequences which in the cool light of day nobody intended to happen.
My father Winston, then aged fifteen, was staying in Scarborough at the time at a B & B owned by the Fenbys, with his sister Mary and their parents (my grandparents) Edwin and Edith Megoran. They had been for a trip on Bilsdale and this incident stuck in my Dad’s mind. I recall him telling me about it in my childhood as an example of the folly of letting your emotions run away with you.
Bilsdale was built in 1900 for the Great Yarmouth Steam Tug Company to run local trips from Yarmouth and Lowestoft as Lord Roberts. She had a brief spell as part of the fleet of Cosens of Weymouth from 1912 and after the war came into the ownership of the Furness Shipbuilding Company for use in connection with their shipyard at Haverton Hill-on-Tees. In 1925 she was sold to Crosthwaite Steamship Company of Middlesbrough and they based her at Scarborough under the new name Bilsdale for local excursions along the coast to Hayburn Wyke.
In 1934 the newly built Royal Lady arrived at Scarborough to provide stiff competition and this turned out to be Bilsdale’s last operational season. She made her last trip on Monday 17th September 1934.
Unexpected Fact: The son of the landlady at the B & B where my Dad and his family were staying in Scarborough in 1928 was called Eric. He was then 22 years old and was a highly accomplished, but largely self taught, pianist who played piano at his local church and in the local cinema. He was obsessed with music and, although he had never heard any music by Delius live, he had heard it played on the BBC and had fallen in love with it. He also heard on the radio that Delius was largely paralysed and unable to work although he still felt that he had music in him. On a mad impulse Eric wrote to Delius offering his services as a musical assistant telling nobody what he had done.
He received a reply:
You will see that the letter from Delius is dated 29th August 1928 just a couple of days after the death of Bilsdale’s deckhand. It arrived at the B & B in Scarborough during the time my Dad and his family were staying there and you can imagine what an effect the arrival of such a letter had on the establishment and most particularly on Eric’s Mum. What had her nicely brought up child gone and done now?
Eric took up the offer, went off to France and spent several years taking down music dictated to him by Delius. He recorded these episodes in his book “Delius as I Knew Him” published in 1936 by G Bell & Sons which was made into a film for the BBC called “Song of Summer” directed by Ken Russell in 1968.
For me it is an interesting example of parallel, but very different, lives going on separately but in close proximity to each other. Only a short walk away from where the young deck hand from Bilsdale had his life ended so prematurely, just a few days later another young man received a letter which would transform his life and open up a whole new and exciting vista for him. One family was grieving. Another family was euphoric. Side by side.
Eric Fenby went on in later life to teach composition at the Royal Academy of Music and died in 1997. It is not known if he ever sailed on Bilsdale but as a Scarborough lad born and bred he could not have failed to know of her existence.