By Barry Shaw
Pleasure steamers operated in Blackpool for over a hundred years from the 1840s to the mid-20th century. Services started to flourish on the opening of Blackpool Pier (now North Pier) in 1863 and South Jetty (now Central Pier) in 1868. However, the heyday of the Blackpool paddle steamer began in the late 19th century when the first major vessel to ply her trade was the Bickerstaffe.
The Bickerstaffe was built in 1879 at the Laird Brothers’ shipyard in Birkenhead for the Bickerstaffe family (hence the name), who were at that time owners of the South Jetty; she sailed mainly on the Isle of Man route, some sixty-three miles distant from Blackpool. The fare in those days was six shillings first class (30p) and four and sixpence second class (22½p).
It is said that the Bickerstaffe’s popularity lay in her afternoon daily sailings, which always coincided with the shout of “Time gentlemen, please” by the local publicans, and which was followed by a mad rush to the jetty. In those days, after a sea going vessel passed the three-mile limit, the bars were open for the duration of the voyage until the three-mile limit was reached at the destination port of call.
In 1915 the Bickerstaffe was requisitioned by the Admiralty for war service as a minesweeper. On return she continued her pleasure cruises until 1928, when she was broken up at Garston Docks on the banks of the River Mersey. The only surviving artefact of the paddle steam era is the Bickerstaffe bell that was for many years on display at Blackpool Central Library. It is now in storage at the library awaiting restoration.
In 1895 the paddle steamer Queen of the North, also built at Lairds Shipyard Birkenhead for the Blackpool Steamship Company, began sailing from the Central Pier. She was larger and an improvement on the somewhat smaller and austere Bickerstaffe, being 220 feet in length and reaching speeds of 20 miles per hour (17 knots). She was the star of the silver screen - the very first film to be shown in Blackpool was in the Tower Ballroom when a three-minute silent film called The Queen of the North flickered across the screen.
The paddle steamers’ range of excursions was Morecambe, Barrow, Southport, Liverpool, Llandudno (forty-six miles), Menai Bridge (sixty-one miles) and the Isle of Man (sixty-three miles). It wasn’t always plain sailing - sometimes it took over an hour to secure steamers to the jetty because of weather and tidal conditions. On rare occasions steamers had to take their passengers to Fleetwood to disembark. The initials G.W. and W.P. often appeared on steamer handbills; the letters stood for “god willing” and “weather permitting”.
The Queen of the North retained her immense popularity right up to the outbreak of the First World War. As with the Bickerstaffe she was requisitioned for war service as a minesweeper based at Harwich. Sadly, on 20 July 1917 she struck a mine two miles off Orford Ness and sank with the loss of seven officers and twenty-two men.
The elegant and stylish Greyhound was built for the North Pier Steamship Company by James and George Thompson Ltd of Clydebank, weighing 542 tons and with a length of 230 feet. She could achieve speeds of up to 22 miles per hour (19 knots), being the fastest ship in the fleet. On arrival in 1895 she was described as the finest paddle steamer in the fleet.
Along with the snug luxury of a modern river steamboat, the Greyhound combined the stability and seaworthiness of an ocean liner. Settees in the first-class saloon were upholstered in Utrecht velvet and the floors laid with the best Brussels carpet. To complete the effect a splendid Broadwood grand piano was placed in the saloon for entertainment and dancing. For those passengers who imbibed in liquor and spirits a bottle of claret could be obtained for two shillings (10p), Bass beer, Worthingtons and Guinness Stout threepence for a half pint, and cigarettes were sold at a penny each.
Quite often the ships’ captains would race to the Isle of Man across the unpredictable and turbulent waters of the Irish Sea to see who was top sea dog. In 1896 the Greyhound held the record of two hours, fifty-one minutes for the crossing.
In 1915 the Greyhound was requisitioned for war service as a minesweeper. She served from October that year until May 1919. She returned to Blackpool after World War I, but was finally withdrawn from service in 1922. In 1923 she was purchased by Messrs Wilson and Read for further service at Belfast Lough in Northern Ireland. In 1925 she came under the control of Turkish owners in Constantinople (Istanbul) and was renamed Buyuk Ada. She ended her days in a Turkish shipbreaker’s yard in 1936 - a sad end for a very proud ship. The Greyhound was perhaps the greatest of the Blackpool pleasure steamers, and her withdrawal signalled the end of the heyday of the Blackpool paddle steamer.
The First World War took its toll on the Blackpool paddle steamer; they never regained their pre-war eminence and, one by one, services were pruned and then discontinued. Attempts were made to revive services in the mid-1920s, with vessels such as the Minden operating from Blackpool in 1933, Jubilee Queen in 1935, Queen of the Bay in 1936 and Atalanta in 1937. None of these vessels were a great success and, with the coming of the Second World War in 1939, services ceased altogether.