GSN Shipping - W G Peake - PSPS Meeting 1961

William G Peake - Talk to Paddle Steamer Preservation Society


WILLIAM G. PEAKE M.R.I.N.A., M.I.Mar.E. Managing Director, New Medway Steam Packet Company Ltd. gave a talk to the London and Home Counties Branch of the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society on 16th December 1961.

The meeting was held at The George, Old Bailey, London EC4

It was whilst serving my apprenticeship as an engineer in the ships of the General Steam Navigation Company, between 1915 and 1919, that I had my first experience of a paddle steamer.


The “Golden Eagle”, which was running a Cross Channel trooping service, had one of her paddle wheel bosses work slack on the paddle shaft.

She was brought to our repair yard at the Stowage in Deptford and, owing to various commitments, the work had to be carried out at the buoy, afloat.

My job on this occasion was more like making and unravelling a jig-saw puzzle! I had to mark all the parts and bolts etc., ready for dismantling the paddle wheels in pieces so that on re-assembling all the same parts went back with the same bolts etc.


The whole paddle wheel had to be stripped down to the boss – then the shaft and boss had to be lifted ashore and a new shaft machined and fitted.

Incidentally, the old shaft was hollow but owing to war time and the need for speed, a solid shaft was supplied. This, when fitted, gave the ship a slight list, which had to be counterbalanced with ballast.


My next experience with paddle wheels came in 1923 after I had been at sea and obtained my Second Class M.O.T. Certificate.

I was then appointed Second Engineer of the old P.S. Eagle”.

This vessel just prior to the 1914/18 War had been re-boilered with much heavier boilers than previously and with her deeper draft, the paddle wheels were deeper in the water and the paddle boxes were choked when she was going at speed. I found this out for, as Second Engineer, I was responsible for steaming qualities and I spent virtually all my days in the stokehold gently persuading the firemen to keep steam! On an average day, she consumed 25tons of coal and had to bunker every night!


In this particular season, the “Eagle” commenced from Greenwich Pier at 8.00 a.m. and was the excursion boat to Margate via Woolwich, Southend and then an afternoon sea trip from Margate.

We used to arrive back at the Deptford Buoys at about 10.00 p.m. and open up again at 5.00 a.m. for washing down etc.

During the night period, the coal barge would come alongside and a gang of coalies would walk the 25 tons of coal in sacks aboard, round the alleyways. Meanwhile, the  night firemen would clean all the fires of clinker and heave it up from the stokehold and dump it in the ash barge.

All this noise and clatter whilst we were trying to snatch a few hours of precious sleep in the cabins below!

After the coalies had finished, usually about 5.00 a.m., the alleyways, engines, etc., were all covered with coal dust and the amount of cleaning was enormous!

What a difference when oil firing came along!

This vessel had a big compound engine and it was very interesting to see the passengers almost swaying with the pull of the engine.

From an engineer’s angle, she was quite a nightmare for with the extra power required to push the paddle wheels round, the water in the boiler was very turbulent and it was very difficult to read the level in the gauge glasses and with the erratic coal-fired boilers in pairs, this could be very worrying.

She had a most uncomfortable engine to handle, for when standing at the controls, the steering engine steam cylinder covers fitted nicely into one’s back! Also, with Stephenson’s link motion valve gear and big ‘D’ slide valves, one had to be careful handling her as big pressures would build up on these and jam the valve gear.

My best memory of that ship was dear old Chief Engineer, Mr. Julius Prior, a loveable character, whose main topic of conversation was “Where can we get a bit more speed old man?”

We had a successful season in the mechanical sense, no breakdowns but I lost a stone in weight!


After this, I obtained my 1st Class M.O.T. Certificate and went to sea in various G.S.N., cargo ships until 1928, when I was appointed Chief Engineer of, my old friend from the past, “Golden Eagle”.

At that time, she was still a coal burner and we still had the same dirt and coal dust to contend with.


As the “Crested Eagle” was now out, she took the late Margate and Ramsgate run and the “Golden Eagle” took the early run to Margate, sea trip and late boat back.

As you probably know, this vessel had a triple expansion with all the piston valves and Walschaerts valve gear and the difference in ease of handling had to be done to be believed.

The first season I was in her, we had a lot of trouble with bracket pins in the paddle wheels fracturing. In fact, we got so proficient that, at night when changing theses brackets, we used to try and beat our own speed record of 55 minutes for the operation!

I also remember she had two Kirkaldy boiler feed pumps which were very temperamental and we called them “Dilly and “Dally” and were accorded some very rough treatment when they stopped whilst the vessel was going at full speed.


In the Winter of 1929/30, it was decided to convert the ship to oil burning and I had to stand by in the Winter to carry this out.

It turned out to be very interesting job: the existing coal bunkers had to be cut away, new oil tanks made and fitted.

The fuel burning installation had to be fitted etc., and all the pipe lines installed.

I must say that in early 1930, when we bunkered with oil for the first time on this ship and lit the fires, it was a great success.


During the Winter we re-bored the H.P. cylinder and fitted a new piston and rings but I must say that this wasn’t quite successful to start with. These pistons had an eccentric bronze rubbing band to keep the piston up to central but inadvertently whilst being fitted in the workshop, the retaining lugs were missed by the stops and after running a week the piston dropped. This put the piston rod out of line and made the U.S. packing blow badly and we wore through two sets in one week. However, on the first available lay-by day, this was rectified and no further trouble was experienced.


Going back to the benefits of oil-burning, we found it wasn’t all rosy.

The procedure for oil-firing in London was that the first ship back at night was the first to get the oiling barge and as we got back late, our time for bunkering came at about 2.00 in the morning and, of course, two engineers had to attend to this.

Fortunately, we took bunkers every other night.

When the question of converting the vessel to oil burning was discussed, the point was raised about the effect of this on her boilers which were then twenty years old. We kept careful observations in the furnaces and back ends and no signs of leakage occurred – in fact they were better than ever!

Actually, when this vessel was requisitioned by the Admiralty in 1939, the Dockyard authorities could hardly credit that these were the original boilers. They were in such excellent condition after thirty years.


After being in the “Golden Eagle” for five years, the “Royal Eagle” was now built and so the Chief Engineer of the “Crested Eagle” was moved to her and I was moved to the “Crested Eagle”.

I was very sorry to leave the “Golden Eagle” as I had a great affection for her and I had some very useful and trying experiences in her.


However, I duly took over the “Crested Eagle” and promptly was put on the London, Southend, Clacton, Walton and Felixstowe service.

This did not last too long, about six weeks, I think, as we were arriving back in London too late at night and the passengers were complaining.

This requires a little explanation for the schedule was timed properly according to her speed and on paper could do the time easily. The snag was the shallow water over the Wallet to Clacton and between Clacton and Felixstowe.

It did not matter how fast the ship was: only a very limited speed could be obtained over the shallows and we found we had to slow down accordingly. At nearly low water over the Wallet, the vessel’s bottom would almost touch at slow speed and then the trouble would commence!


The vacuum would go back from 25 in., to, say, 10 in., and we knew we had a job to do that night. The main injectors would take in vast quantities of seaweed and mussels and these would get across the tubes in the condenser like a mat and no amount of blowing steam etc., would move it. It meant that on arrival at the buoys at night after a slow passage home we should have to remove the condenser doors, clear all the stoppages and box up again.

There was another great drawback and that was when crossing the Wallet, we stirred up the sand and ground the lignum vitae bushes out of our floats and these had to be renewed at night.


When all these considerations were weighed up, it was decided to abandon Felixstowe and stop at Clacton and do a sea trip which turned out to be quite successful. In those days, the “Laguna Belle” was running from London to Clacton and back as the cheap excursion under the ownership of Mr. Kingsman, who was also the owner of the pier. Eventually G.S.N. bought this vessel and ran her for a while.


I found the “Crested Eagle a much easier job than the “Golden Eagle” for whereas “Golden Eagle” had two feed pumps of dubious performance, one steam generator etc., the “Crested Eagle” had three of everything and four engineers instead of three.


Our next interesting job was to the King George V Jubilee Review at Spithead in 1935. What an organisation was required for that – anchorages had to be applied for, water, stores, bunkers arranged, special Passenger Certificates obtained for the Isle of Wight area.

We had a fine passage around and what a sight confronted us at Spithead, battleships of all sizes and nations, merchantmen, especially painted for the occasion, hundreds of ships – the like of which will never be seen again.

We had a reasonably trouble free season but our condenser felt the after effects of the Felixstowe run and we were continually chasing leaky ferrules at night.


From now onwards, I never went to sea again in cargo vessels except for the odd relieving trip. I was kept ashore supervising the annual overhaul of “Crested Eagle” and “Golden Eagle”.


In the 1937 season after the death of King George V  came the Coronation of King George VI.

As “Crested Eagle” was originally built to go under London bridge to moor at the Old Swan Pier, it was decided that she should go up river under all the bridges and lay-off the Embankment and be used as a grandstand for the Coronation procession.

This meant that a huge grandstand was to be built of tubular steel on deck without a fastening to mark her decks. Our naval architect was brought in to work out stability with this huge superstructure and it gave him an anxious time.


As the telescopic funnel had not been dropped for a number of years or the hinged davits worked, work had to be done to prepare these for action. When we eventually steamed up river with the aid of a tug, we never touched a thing, a great credit to everybody involved as there were only inches to spare everywhere. The work on the grandstand commenced  and a big public works contractor had the job of erecting the grandstand,

Soon after they commenced, they could not understand why their uprights were not upright and we had to explain that a plumbob was of no use on a ship and after that the stand was built and a magnificent job it was too.


I think it seated 800 people and we had rehearsals of heaving alongside at the crucial time. I had to make sure no loose water or oil was in the ship for stability purposes and time my steam raising and fire lighting so there was no possibility of smoke whilst there passengers were in the stand or the procession was passing. The great day came and I am pleased to say everything went splendidly and our passengers had a magnificent view and the rain came down in torrents just after the procession passed.


The grandstand was dismantled in a few days and there was not a mark remaining, a remarkable performance. We steamed back through the London bridges and took up our normal service until it was time for yet another review at Spithead, the Coronation Review.

On this occasion the weather was not very kind towards us and we smashed some forward saloon windows with heavy seas going round North Foreland and nearly all the stewards were seasick. We managed to get the windows fixed in Southampton and the Review was duly carried out


In 1937, at the end of the season, I was appointed Engineer Superintendent of the New Medway Steam Packet Company (which had just been taken over by the G.S.N.) at Rochester.

So I said good-bye to “Crested Eagle” and moved to Rochester.

The fleet at the time consisted of the motor vessels “Royal Sovereign”, “Queen of the Channel” and the paddle steamers “Thames Queen”, ”Essex Queen”, “Queen of Kent”, “Queen of Thanet”, “Medway Queen”, “City of Rochester” and various ancillary craft.


One of my first jobs was to put a new boiler in “Medway Queen” and fit her with oil burning. This proved to be a smaller edition of “Golden Eagle’s” lay-out and proved very successful.

I now took on other people’s troubles and it is very surprising what trouble some people can get into. We had always found that preventative maintenance was a very good investment and that was a programme that I had to inaugurate. With the exception of the two new motorships, the rest of the fleet were getting elderly and needed quite a lot of nursing to carry out a successful programme.


By the time war broke out, all ships were running quite nicely and economically and in due course were chartered for Admiralty service and did good work.


Sadly, my “Crested Eagle” was bombed during the evacuation of Dunkirk and her sunken remains, visible at low water, are on the beach at La Panne.

“Queen of the Channel” was also lost by being bombed during the Dunkirk evacuation and “Royal Sovereign” hit a mine in the Bristol Channel and foundered.

“City of Rochester” was hit by a landmine dropped from a bomber when she was laying on buoys in Bridge Reach, Rochester and was lost.


I was subsequently appointed Managing Director of the New Medway  company but as I look back on the days before the War, I often think of the passengers lining the engine-room casings going up the River Thames on a rather chilly evening. They used to look fascinated at the huge gleaming cranks and rods turning round and wonder how ever the axiom grease arms and valve gear used to miss one another at each revolution.


I must pay tribute to the engine-room staffs we had in those days, engineers, greasers, firemen. They never minded what hours of work were necessary, their heart and soul were in the job. When the vessel was tied up to the buoy at night, the greasers would wipe the engines down and then in the morning out would come the chain burnishers and all the bright work would be gone over.


The “Crested Eagle’s” engine would look almost chromium plated and was a wonderful sight. The engineers would turn to and do any job that was necessary to maintain the efficiency of the job and consequently, I never remember losing one day’s service through mechanical trouble.


Alan Peake


If there is any interest amongst the membership (or others known to the group, perhaps) in purchasing photos of the Shipping Company's ships, Alan has many that he can supply and has kindly offered the proceeds to our Society's funds.  Please contact Alan directly via his email here for further details.

Aboard the Crested Eagle in the early 1930s with Bill Peake second from left.