(This article appeared in "The Boater" magazine, Autumn 2001)

Restoring the Medway Queen

The trip in the paddle steamer ‘Waverley’ enjoyed by TVBC Club
members in September prompted us to ask Richard Halton of the 
Medway Queen Preservation Society to update us on the progress 
being made with the restoration of this historic ship

There are currently only two operational paddle steamers in the UK, ‘Kingswear Castle’ and ‘Waverley’. It is the aim of the Medway Queen Preservation Society to increase this number to three, running not in competition with the others but as a complementary, service. If tourism can sustain the huge numbers of steam railways that are thriving in the country, then three steam ship services should be well within the available market limits.

The paddle steamer, ‘Medway Queen’, was built in 1924 for the New Medway Steam Packet Company. She spent her working life on the Thames and Medway estuaries, mostly running between the Medway towns and Southend. She worked there until the outbreak of World War II, and again afterwards until 1963. Many people remember her fondly from those days and my own single experience of the ship in service was on a family day trip from Herne Bay to Southend in that last summer of 1963 while on holiday in the area. Medway Queen is also remembered for her wartime exploits. She was converted for minesweeping and while attached to the 10th flotilla at Dover she took part in the Dunkirk evacuation. The ship and her crew made seven trips to the beaches and rescued some seven thousand men. A thousand men crammed on to such a small vessel is hard to imagine, without the additional hazards of an evacuation under fire! The “paddlers” put up a real fight at Dunkirk, striking away from the beaches, using their shallow draught to cross the minefields and after unloading and refuelling at Dover or Ramsgate heading back for another load. Many of these ships were lost. ‘Medway Queen’ was badly damaged and reported missing but turned up eventually, limping home on one paddle wheel with yet more evacuated men. The story even goes so far as to claim that she shot down three enemy aircraft with massed bren guns lashed to the ship’s rails.

After the war life returned to normal, catering for tourists again. The ‘Medway Queen’ had another moment of glory in 1953 when she took part in the Coronation Fleet Review, lined up with other famous vessels in a great pageant of naval power. In the ’fifties and early ’sixties, as packaged holidays and motor transport grew in popularity the paddle steamers gradually succumbed to economic pressures. The numbers of people taking seaside holidays and thus cruises and sea trips declined, and as maintenance became due the ships disappeared.

‘Medway Queen’ was withdrawn in 1963. She was sold for breaking up, but was reprieved and went to the Isle of Wight as a clubhouse where she gently mouldered away until a larger vessel was purchased to replace her. The ship sank while being moved and was left to rot, half submerged in the river Medina, until she was purchased by a group of people who wanted to return her to service. Sadly this preservation attempt failed.

The Medway Queen Preservation Society was formed in 1985 and negotiated to purchase the vessel. The purchase was completed in 1987. The purchase price and the debts associated with the ship that had to be cleared made for a very slow start to any actual restoration. It was not until some years had passed that the society began to make headway towards its goal of a full return to service. Initially it was felt that such an historic ship, last of the pre-war excursion paddlers and with a very creditable war record for an essentially civilian ship, would be bound to attract the funding and sponsorship needed. Alas this was not to be and even the National Lottery turned down a request for funds.

Despite this, the society has flourished, and their enthusiasm is undiminished. Two sales and promotional teams are operating; the society’s official sales team in Kent and another, subsidiary group in the Thames Valley. You may well have seen us (and I hope patronised the sales table) at the TTBR Traditional Boat Festival; and other events. The committee are working flat out to prevent further deterioration of the ship’s fabric and to seek the kind of strategic funding that is necessary for a project of this size. Those of you with your own boats will be only too well aware of the costs involved. ‘Medway Queen’ is 180ft long and weighs 316 tons gross. The original compound diagonal steam engine is still on board and in restorable condition, but unfortunately (and not unexpectedly) the view through the boilers is only too clear!

She has not been maintained effectively for more than 30 years and that amounts to a large and expensive backlog. The society has commissioned surveys and estimates for repair of the ship and has a pretty accurate idea of what they are up against. A simple re-plate of the hull would cost around £750,000 but what is really needed is a full reconstruction of the hull to seaworthy condition and to meet modern safety standards. This, as a first phase of a full restoration is expected to cost around £1,500,000. The complete project, culminating in the ship’s first fare paying passengers since 1963 will cost in the order of £4,000,000.

Now, with postcards selling at around 20p each, that is a pretty tall order for our sales teams. Fortunately the society has other strings to its bow and fundraising is gathering momentum. Whatever grants and sponsorship are eventually acquired the society will have to foot some of the bill itself. To this end the members are raising money by whatever means they can and to good effect. At the beginning of 2001 an anonymous donor offered to match any sum raised, up to £20,000, by the end of March. Society members passed this target in the first two months and went on to exceed it by £10,000 by the expiry of the time limit. This £50,000 boost, added to cash already available and with money that has flowed in since, puts the restoration fund at around £250,000. Not bad for an amateur group.

The society has more than 1000 members – a total that we would dearly like to double. An enthusiastic core works voluntarily on the fabric of the ship, and behind the scenes, to prevent deterioration and to further the preservation fund. Medway Queen has been designated by the National Historic Ships Committee as “of Historical Value” and publicly declared well-wishers include John Edmonds of the GMBU, Mick Jagger and Vera Lynn. Over the last year or so there has been very good coverage of the project in the national press, television and the specialist preservation journals.

It is vitally important that we not only maintain this momentum but that we increase it. This is where you come in. Every new member strengthens our case for preservation of the ship. If you can help in some way beyond “just joining” that is even better but numbers in themselves do count. Our target is to double the membership. Cash is also, of course, urgently needed to swell an already impressive restoration fund. Donations of cash, gifts of saleable goods and purchases from our stands all help. The value of cash donations is greatly increased when we are able to reclaim any income tax, paid by the donor, from the Inland Revenue!

This is a worthwhile project and, with your help, we are going to succeed. Medway Queen is an historic vessel with claims to fame in both peace and war. Please contact us now and offer whatever help you can. The local contact is Richard Halton at 21 Lakeside, Earley, Reading. RG6 7PG, UK. Send him a stamped addressed envelope for full details of the society and how you can help. Alternatively send a large (A5) stamped addressed envelope with a cheque for at least £1.85 (Payable to “New Medway Steam Packet Company” please) for a booklet on the history of the ship and a set of three postcards showing her at various stages of her career. The total amount to be raised is large, but as they say “every journey begins with a single step” and we are already on our way. We just need that extra shove that you can give us.

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