‘Oh I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside’
This was a popular song between the Wars in music halls. It went on to repeat “I do like to be beside the Sea” and then “I do like to stroll upon the Prom, Prom, Prom, where the brass bands play Tiddly Om Pom Pom, Tiddly Om Pom Pom, Tiddly Om Pom Pom.”
Many people at the time this song was popular only saw the sea once a year, and then for a day trip, if at all. So they looked forward to the trip through the winter and subsequent months, thinking of the sun and freedom. My village choir had an annual outing to the seaside, on a Saturday, which probably meant the men lost a half day’s pay. We went on a “charabanc” which was not very comfortable and of course the first venue was the sand, to build castles. Then lunch included sandwiches, which always seemed gritty with sand! Perhaps I had dropped mine. Later we would have a “stroll upon the prom” or maybe along the pier. This was always a thrill, to look down and see the waves below, or dream we were on the deck of a ship. Occasionally we might see a paddle steamer passing off shore, a most unusual sight for “land lubbers” like us. On the shore line we might find some sea weed, which was carried home to hang up in the hope that it would forecast the weather, before we had television reporters to advise us. And of course there was always a Punch and Judy show and ice cream sellers. There were shops selling postcards to send to relatives with the familiar message “Wish you were Here”. Later I was to discover that some cards were not what my parents would wish to send or receive, as they carried a slightly naughty message. In later years a friend used to collect these and sometimes send a choice one to me.
Nowadays we only see paddle steamers once or twice a year when the Waverley, the largest ocean going paddle steamer still in existence, built on the Clyde in 1946, makes its way down from its home port near Glasgow. It is interesting to see it, with its two funnels. On board one can go down stairs to see the engine room, with massive connecting rods which operate the twin paddles for propulsion. Some people say “I am going to see the engines” as a euphanism for visiting the Public Bar nearby. The top section of the paddles are housed in semi-circular covers for safety and to avoid splashing the decks. The paddles are mounted either side of the hull and can operate separately and reverse, for steering or reversing. The Waverley can now dock alongside the main pier at West Bay. The Waverley was bought for £1 from the breakers yard by the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society. If not the Waverley, one may see its sister ship the Balmoral which is smaller and is screw driven, perhaps not as interesting as a paddle steamer.
Some years ago we went on board one of these ships in a trip from West Bay around the Isle of Wight and back to Poole, where we had to come “down to earth” and board a coach to transport us back home. Unfortunately the weather was poor, initially very windy, so that it was difficult to hear the running commentary describing the onshore sights. Then approaching the island, rain started and we were confined to the cabin to peer from rain spotted windows. Perhaps we shall be luckier on another occasion.
In days gone by, paddle steamers were much more common around our coast, but smaller than the Waverley. Paul Atterbury in his book Just a line from West Bay has two postcards showing the paddle steamer Victoria at West Bay loading and unloading passengers with her bow run up to East Beach via a rather flimsy looking plank gangplank and hand rail. First the steamer would drop an anchor astern and then gently nose into the beach for about an hour ashore. The Victoria was operated by the Bournemouth, Swanage & Poole Shipping Co. in the Edwardian era before the First World War and called at Lyme Regis, Sidmouth, Torquay and Dartmouth. There were circular evening trips to Weymouth, returning by train. John Sales in A Bridport Camera writes that it called every alternate Thursday through the summer, with sixpenny trips round the bay. Other paddle steamers were the Alexandria and the Monarch calling into West Bay less frequently.
Some years ago Bridport History Society had a talk from Roger Whyte about Lyme Bay paddle steamers. Captain Joseph Cosens had set up a company in 1848 to service warships at Portland and provide ferries and harbour construction. By 1900 Cosens and Co. had eight or nine paddle steamers in their Buff Funnel Fleet, one of which the Premier lasted ninety years. A number of ships became mine sweepers during the First World War and one The Duke of Devonshire was purchased by Cosens in 1938, and renamed Consul became the last addition to the fleet. She was modernised and used into the 1960s. There were regular trips from piers at Bournemouth and Swanage to the Isle of Wight and across the Channel to Cherbourg. Victoria, Alexandria and the Monarch were all regulars between the South Coast resorts. Lulworth Cove was a popular destination, landing passengers over the bow onto the beach, more sheltered than some further west.
World War II again took the ships for minesweeping and anti-aircraft vessels and despite refitting, trade did not return to pre-war levels. Holidays abroad and increasing car ownership reduced the appeal of a trip on an ageing paddle steamer. The Majestic had been sunk on war service. Cosens purchased the Duchess of Norfolk in 1937 and renamed her the Embassy. She became very popular but had to go to the breakers yard in 1966. The Consul made her final journey in 1968 to a sailing school on the River Dart. Paddle steamers took trade from local boatmen at Torquay and Lyme Regis and when difficulty occurred in using piers and arguments about damage, the boatmen refused to ferry passengers to the steamers moored offshore. The paddle steamers paid no harbour dues if they moored offshore, unlike the local boatmen.
The local newspaper Bridport News of 30th July 1937 advertised trips from West Bay by the steamer Victoria at 12 noon to Lyme Regis with an hour at Lyme returning at 4.10 pm fare 2 shillings. Also a circular trip to Weymouth 5.15 pm, up by steamer, home by rail. An hour at Weymouth and return by 9 pm train to Bridport Station, for a fare of 3 shillings.
Now we no longer have regular paddle steamers or a railway station at Bridport. However we can look forward to summer and trips to the sea, and paddle our feet, like our predecessors between the wars.
However we still have a Bridport History Society meeting on Tuesday 12th March at 2.30 pm when Prof. Karen Hunt will talk about women and food on the Bridport home front, 1914 – 1919, The Kitchen is the key to Victory. All welcome, visitors entrance fee £3.
Cecil Amor, Hon President, Bridport History Society.