Although not propelled by paddle wheels I tend to think of La Duchesse de Normandie as an honorary paddle steamer. She was 180ft long. She had two triple expansion steam engines with the steam provided by an oil fired boiler. She just had the feel of being a paddle steamer about her.
She was built as the Sir Richard Grenville in 1931 for the Great Western Railway service tendering liners at Plymouth and also ran excursions from Plymouth to Looe, Fowey and Salcombe as well as around the Eddystone Rock plus coastal cruises towards Bolt Tail.
With the demise of liner traffic at Plymouth as the 1960s wore on, she was sold to Jersey Lines in 1964 and started a new career based in the Channel Islands running between Jersey and St Malo, sort of taking over services previously run by British Railway’s ferry Brittany, including other excursions in the area thrown in as well.
Let’s take a snapshot of what she was up to in a fairly typical week in this new incarnation in August 1966.
Monday 15th August 1955: Leave Jersey (03.30) for Granville (06.30 – 07.30) for Jersey (10.00 – 17.00) for Granville (19.30 – 18.00) for St Malo (22.30).
Tuesday 16th August: Leave St Malo (07.30) for Jersey (10.45 – 18.30) for St Malo (21.45).
Wednesday 17th August: Leave St Malo (04.00) for Jersey (07.15 – 09.15) for Sark (11.15 – 12.00) for Guernsey (13.00 – 17.00) for Sark (18.00 – 18.30) for Jersey (20.30).
Thursday 18th August: Leave Jersey (07.30) for St Malo (10.45 – 19.00) for Jersey (22.15 – 23.30) for Guernsey (01.45).
Friday 19th August: Leave Guernsey (09.15) for Jersey (11.30 – 19.30) for St Malo ( 22.45).
Saturday 20th August: Leave St Malo (02.00) for Granville (04.15 – 08.00) for Jersey (10.30 -18.30) for Granville (22.00 – 22.30) for Jersey (24.00).
Sunday 21st August: Leave Jersey (07.30) for Granville (10.00 – 10.30) for Jersey (13.00 – 19.30) for Granville (22.00 – 22.30) for Jersey (01.00).
Monday 22nd August: Leave Jersey (07.30) for St Malo (10.45 – 19.00) for Jersey (22.15 – 23.00 for St Malo (02.15).
So in this week, which was pretty typical, there were ferry connections between the Channel Islands and St Malo, day trips from Granville to Jersey and vice versa and one day trip from Jersey to Sark and Guernsey. And whilst there were longish periods lying alongside the various ports during the days there were also a lot of very early starts and very late finishes which must have kept the crew bleary eyed.
In 1967 occasional calls were also made at Cherbourg and Lezardrieux.
That summer, aged 15, I had somehow managed to wangle myself a job as a Deck Boy in my school holiday aboard Caesarea running between Weymouth and the Channel Islands and was delighted to find La Duchesse de Normandie coming and going in St Helier Harbour and lying alongside. She really had the ambience of a ship from another age with her red and black topped funnel often emitting black smoke and her varnished wheelhouse and bridge wings with traditional brass telegraphs.
There were some modifications for this new role including two extra lifeboats plus life rafts and a sort of car jack, like you find in Kwik Fit only bigger, fitted at the aft end of her promenade deck to hoist cars to and from the quay for conveyance between the Channel Islands and St Malo. I remember watching this in action and noticing that whilst it provided a sort of drive on/drive off facility, it took a long time for the hydraulic ramp to go up and down so that getting each car aboard took a lot longer than using the traditional crane for the mailboat.
The company expanded in 1967 with the purchase of the Newhaven/Dieppe ferry Brightonwhich, renamed La Duchesse de Bretagne, started a service from Southampton, Weymouth, Torquay and Plymouth to the Channel Islands and France. But she was a big ship with high running costs and by the end of the 1968 season had accumulated sufficient debts for the company to have to go into liquidation with both ships sold off for scrap.
Tiny Point of Detail: Both ships did a lot of night working and had only one crew each without any regular reliefs. I recall the then Weymouth pilot Captain Richardson telling me that when he went out to board La Duchesse de Bretagne in the early hours one morning to bring her into Weymouth he found the captain on the bridge still wearing his pyjamas, with no shoes and with his uniform jacket just slung around his shoulders over his pajama top.
By then pilotage jobs at Weymouth were becoming few and far between as the masters and mates of all the regular ships using the port had their own pilotage exemptions so to stay solvent Captain Richardson had a side line running a B & B in Buxton Road.