Just three weeks after the surrender of Japan brought the Second World war to a close, Cosens’s paddle steamer Empress set off from Weymouth for the Medway on 26th September 1945 for a windfall charter to Denham Studios to play the role of the Cross Channel packet which runs down the convict Magwitch in a film of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations to be directed by a then new and up and coming star called David Lean. She arrived on the Medway on 28th September,
Empress was built in 1878, had remained largely unaltered since then and so already had a rather antiquated look about her but this was not antiquated enough for the film production designer John Bryan and director David Lean.
Cosens’s shipwrights therefore came aboard when she arrived and transformed her almost beyond recognition by adding a false clipper bow with bowsprit, lengthening her funnel and adding a crown to it, massively enlarging her port paddle box (the only one shot to camera) and the inboard side of the starboard one and extending her bridge wings outwards on both sides. The whole effect was finished off by the addition of a figurehead designed to look like the then star ballerina Moira Shearer who was rather admired by David Lean.
Much of the filming of Empress was undertaken in Long Reach on the Medway not a million miles from the little Victorian fort at Darnet Ness which was a regular feature on Kingswear Castle’s afternoon cruises.
Cosens’s captain “Pony” Moore was in command and the chief engineer was the late Bob Wills who subsequently ran the passenger vessels Topaz, New Britannic and Weymouth Belle from Weymouth in the 1960s and 1970s.
The shots of Magwitch being hit by the paddle wheels are very dramatic. See them in the film and you would think that this was for real. However, because of the dangers of doing this in situ, a mock up of the Empress’s paddle box and paddle wheel were built in a studio water-tank which is where these shots were taken.
When Kingswear Castle was chartered for a BBC production of Great Expectations half a century later the budget was much smaller. We were used for only three days. The transformation of the ship was modest with only the name painted out, a false black paddle box added to KC‘s port side and the electric navigation lights replaced with oil. Filming took place over one day in Stangate Creek chosen for its remoteness enabling camera angles to avoid the numerous electricity pylons emanating from the nearby power stations.
After the charter the BBC painted the name in again for us but it wasn’t done very well so we painted it out and I engaged a professional sign writer to put it back in. When completed it looked just as badly done as the BBC version. I asked the sign-writer why that was and he told me that he was just following how the letters had been painted before. Grrrrrr!
With filming completed Empress left the Medway on 11th November for winter lay-up in Weymouth. She had another ten years of service ahead of her running trips from Weymouth to Portland Harbour, Lulworth Cove, Portland Bill and the Shambles Lightship before being withdrawn in September 1955 and scrapped at Southampton.