Royal Navy in the First World War Part 1 Paddle Steamers

The battles of the Western Front and Gallipoli are usually foremost in people’s minds when they think of the First World War. When asked to name a battle involving the Royal Navy it is likely only Jutland would feature and that it was not much of a battle. One historian has written that we understand more about the Royal Navy of the Napoleonic era than we do about the Royal Navy of the First World War.

A Culture volunteer on the Poole History Centre First World War project will look at the Royal Navy in the First World War and its connection with Poole in a series of articles. Part 1 highlights a rarely considered part of naval operations – the use of paddle steamers – and will focus on those of Cosens & Co of Weymouth.

Paddle steamers were an intrinsic part of the Dorset coast. Dominated by Cosens, several companies ran numerous excursions between Bournemouth, Swanage and Weymouth as well as to Torquay, the Isle of Wight and Cherbourg. The number of passengers carried is astounding – over 140,000 people were landed at Swanage Pier during 1911. Poole was less suitable as a landing point as it was a working port and lacked a pier but tours around the ‘picturesque harbour of Poole’ were very popular. Other companies did offer excursions from Poole but Cosens’ paddle steamers primarily used it as a place to take on water, get coal from Hamworthy Wharf, and as an overnight and winter stabling point. The crew of Emperor of India were mainly from Poole so they were keen on their steamer being stabled near to home.  

The Royal Navy fleet review and manoeuvres off the South Coast in mid-1914 took on a special significance as tensions rose in Europe following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. It was decided that the FirstFleet (fully operational), the Second Fleet (small crew to maintain sea-worthiness) and the Third Fleet (Reserve with just a basic maintenance crew) should be fully-manned in a test of mobilisation. Paddle steamers and other small boats, known as ‘Liberty boats’ ferried navy personnel between Weymouth Quay and the warships whenever they were in Portland Harbour. Given that a battleship complement was around 1,000 men the influx of so many extra ships placed a great strain on the resources of Cosens.

The Fleets were at Spithead from 16-20 July 1914 for a review followed by training and exercises. Cosens ran numerous sailings to cope with the huge demand from people wanting to see this remarkable sight. The Majestic sailed every day from Bournemouth and Monarch, Emperor of India, and Victoria sailed from Weymouth. On 18 July, a Royal Fleet Review by the King and Grand Naval Pageant was held which saw over 300 warships paraded with airships and seaplanes in the air. The Fleet exercises ended on 23 July but the situation in Europe was deteriorating and on 28 July the Second Fleet was ordered to stay in Portland while the First Fleet, now renamed the Grand Fleet, (‘eighteen miles of ships’) was ordered to sail to Scapa Flow, Orkney. War was declared on 4 August 1914. 

The August holiday trade suffered as people’s thoughts focussed on other things but Cosens did try to run a normal service while avoiding prohibited areas.  Surprisingly, after a lull, local people started to support the paddle steamers in great numbers. During the week 31 August – 5 September 1914 there were sailings every day from Bournemouth to Lulworth Cove, Swanage (nine each day) and Torquay. Daily excursions on the Empress went from Bournemouth to Poole Quay, via Swanage, leaving Bournemouth at 5.30pm, picking up at Boscombe (5.40pm) and arriving at Poole Quay at 7.30pm. Fare 6d (3p) – but you had to return to Bournemouth by train or tram.

One sailing from Bournemouth to Weymouth was billed as an opportunity to see thousands of infantry who were in the town as well as captured Austrian and German merchant ships lying in the bay. Another excursion was to view the ‘Searchlight display at the Needles’ which was presumably searchlights from the Battery scanning the sea for potential invaders. One noticeable change was that only British nationals were allowed on board the vessels. This twilight of normality did not last long and, after increasing restrictions, excursion sailings were ordered to cease in May 1915.

Thousands of paddle steamers, trawlers and other small vessels were taken over by the Admiralty for roles such as patrolling, examination work and mine-sweeping. The latter was particularly hazardous with one trawler sunk for every two mines cleared before techniques improved. The work was stressful and the vessels were out in all weathers. Collisions were frequent in bad weather as ships struggled to keep together. Severe gales could wash equipment overboard, tear down structures, and break anchors. Crews were often worn out from the long hours and many were absent from home with no respite.

Royal Navy minesweepers operated out of Poole until January 1919. They were converted drifters and led to an unusual court case, under the Defence of the Realm Act, in 1916. It was claimed that an article in the local newspaper was ‘prejudicing recruiting and naval administration’. The article alleged that the minesweepers were fishing while out on patrol and undercutting local fisherman. The Editor pointed out that the piece was intended to be ‘humorous’ and he was surprised anybody took it seriously. The court fined him 25s (£1.10).

Cosens found, like all companies, its vessels being diverted onto war work. For example, paddle steamers Queen and Albert Victor were used by the Admiralty as Examination ships based at Portland. Ships from a neutral country sailing to Europe were made to enter a British Examination Anchorage such as Weymouth Bay. The Examination ship would then put an officer on-board who would confiscate anything that could be for the enemy. While neutral countries disliked this policy it was an important part of the blockade of Germany. It was also intended to stop possible spies being landed. In the early days of the war the system did not always work as planned. In August 1914, the German merchantman Herbert Fischer was stopped in the Channel and then allowed to sail on to Poole to land its cargo of timber for Sydenhams. Realising the mistake the ‘Velox’ torpedo boat was sent to find the vessel which meanwhile had arrived in Poole. Its German crew were detained and the ship was held as ‘a prize of war’.

For a while, paddle steamers Majestic and Emperor of India remained unused and were stationed at their moorings in Poole Harbour. In February 1915, the Mayor of Poole requested that they should be incapacitated in case enemy agents were to get hold of them.

Early June 1915 saw the Majestic and Emperor of India being commandeered as minesweepers. After being outfitted and renamed HMS Majestic II and HMS Emperor of India II they set sail in a convoy for Egypt. HMS Majestic II sank after leaving Gibraltar but luckily the sea was calm and all its crew were picked up. Emperor of India II joined five other paddle steamers clearing mines from around the Suez Canal entrance. Paddle steamers used the technique of ‘Paired Sweeping’ to remove mines. One steamer would pay out a ‘sweep wire’ to be picked up by the second. As the vessels moved in parallel the wire would break the mooring of the mine which would then rise to the surface where it would be sunk by gunfire. 

In March 1917 the Admiralty took over the coal wharf and sheds at Hamworthy Wharf which had been used by Cosens. A few months later, Monarch was requisitioned as a minesweeper and renamed HMS Monarchy. It operated as part of the Bristol Channel Minesweeping Flotilla, minesweeping the Bristol Channel and Irish Sea until the flotilla disbanded in May 1919. Like many similar vessels they were still doing the same job after the war ended because of the huge number of mines that had been laid.

During July 1919, the Emperor of India II was transferred to the Mine Clearance Flotilla, Black Sea and Aegean where it joined other paddle steamers clearing the heavily-mined Bosporus. The vessel became a Kite Balloon Carrier in September 1919. An observer would be sent aloft to around 400ft in a basket suspended from the balloon and look out for mines. Markers were placed when one was detected and the following minesweepers could deal with it. The design of a paddle steamer with a large deck space and shallow draught made them ideal as balloon carriers. The operation came to an end in October 1919.

An unusual use of a paddle steamer occurred when Premier was hired by the Ministry of War Transport to tow the concrete barge PD25 Cretacre after it had been launched from Hamworthy Shipyard in August 1918. The Premier then towed the unpowered Cretacre to Claypits Pier.

For further information on concrete barges and Hamworthy Shipyard see the Concrete barges blog.

The paddle steamers returned to Dorset after the war ended but many required a lot of work to bring them back to ‘excursion standard’. Services resumed as before, however, the end of the war saw the onset of the Depression and, after the Second World War, holidaymakers started travelling by car rather than take a trip by sea. The final excursion by a Cosens’ paddle steamer took place in September 1966.