In 1978 Paddle Steamer Waverley visited the South Coast and Thames for the first time. Now 40 years on her regular visits ensure sufficient revenue is earned to maintain her overall commercial viability. Her first season on the South Coast and Thames saw an ambitious timetable produced and operated to recover the deficit at the end of the 1977 season.
Following the disappointing end to the 1977 season an agreed moratorium from major creditors prevented the company being liquidated. The brave and bold decision was made to clear the debts by allowing the ship to earn in a period of the year when she would not normally be in service – from mid April to late May.
Waverley’s early 1978 season was to be her biggest challenge to date. For the first time she would round Land’s End and call at piers which had not heard the beat of paddles for several years. On the South Coast it was 9 years earlier that PS Ryde had been withdrawn in 1969 and on the Thames it was 11 years earlier that PS Queen of the South (former PS Jeanie Deans) had been withdrawn in 1967.
One Waverley director had such faith in the venture that he gave the financial backing – the other directors were not all convinced! It was a very bold move to operate a large sea-going Paddle Steamer in areas where other operators had abandoned years before. However, as has often been the case with Waverley she succeeded and won the hearts and support of steamer enthusiasts and the general public alike.
In order to undertake her ambitious voyage south some changes were required to improve her watertight integrity. New doors were fitted to the sponsons, new portholes with deadlights were needed to replace the square windows in the sponsons (the new portholes came from Torch – the ex-Clyde Navigation Trust navigation buoy tender) and steel shutters were required for the large windows on the main deck.
Before Waverley left the Clyde additional publicity for her Thames visit was created when the BBC’s Radio One breakfast show was broadcast from the ship’s Dining Saloon with Noel Edmonds and Tony Blackburn taking part. Society Vice President Douglas McGowan MBE recalls getting interviewed by Noel Edmonds on air. “He questioned why I was the only volunteer dressed in an immaculate 3 piece suit when all the other volunteers were in dirty boiler suits! I explained I was about to drive up to Fife to sell my chocolate wares for my employer!”
Waverley left the Clyde for her first South Coast venture on Saturday 15th April 1978. 12 passengers (all PSPS members) were carried on the voyage from Glasgow to the South Coast each paying £100 for the privilege of experiencing the unique and groundbreaking journey. After a fuel stop at Milford Haven she rounded Land’s End for the first time in her career at 10:30pm on 16th April. Her first port of call on the South Coast was Newhaven where she arrived on 17th April. The 693 tonne paddler bought for £1 just 4 years earlier was now truly showing herself to be the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world!
Waverley’s first sailings from Newhaven attracted the crowds and soon after she made her way round to the Thames. On the morning of Saturday 29th April she passed under Tower Bridge for the first time to berth at London’s Tower Pier. Her first sailing from London was to Greenwich and Southend.Following a short spell on the Thames Waverley returned to the South Coast and offered cruises from Worthing, Porstmouth (Clarence Pier Southsea), Ryde, Southampton (Royal Pier), Bouremouth and Poole (Town Quay).
The promotional material used at the time used phrases such as “Everyone will want to be aboard Waverley for these great occasions and bookings are expected to sell out rapidly“.
In total the ship earned over £92,000 in ticket revenue on that first visit with a further £28,000 in catering revenue ensuring the company was in a position to pay off debts from the 1977 season. Waverley had been away from the Clyde for a period of 5 weeks and carried over 50,000 passengers, the vast majority of whom had never sailed on her before. It was clear that taking the steamer away from the Clyde out with the peak summer season could generate sufficient financial return. In 1979 she widened her cruising areas further and visited the Bristol Channel for the first time following in the wake of the famous White Funnel Fleet.
Thanks are due to former Wessex & Dart Branch Chairman Chris Wood for sharing his collection of Waverley publicity materials and to Tony Horn for gifting some of his slide collection to the PSPS. The headline picture was taken by Tony Horn showing Waverley at Bournemouth during her first ever spell on the South Coast in May 1978.