Few ships associated with Dunkirk have fought so hard and escaped destruction so tenaciously and for so long as the Medway Queen. Even today, she is still far from secure and is in need of all the help that her many admirers and well-wishers can muster.
She started life in 1924 at Ailsa's Yard in Troon, Scotland and was one of the finest and most luxurious paddle steamers built to provide excursions in the Thames and Medway Estuaries. She was much loved by the thousands who sailed in her until, in 1939, she was called up to serve with the Navy as part of the l0th Minesweeping Flotilla. She was originally designed to carry almost a thousand passengers at 15 knots.
H.M.S. Medway Queen's Naval service started in the bitter winter of 1939, yet her new crew came to love her and were soon welded into an efficient fighting force as part of the Dover Patrol. On 28th May 1940, they were anchored on the South coast spotting enemy aircraft laying mines when she was ordered to proceed to the beaches of Dunkirk. She was thus one of the first ships to arrive there and she quickly filled up with men to her full capacity. By 0700 she was on her way back to Dover when she was attacked by German planes and her machine-guns accounted for one German fighter. The Brighton Belle, which was nearby, was less fortunate. She drifted over a submerged wreck, tore open her bottom and sank. So the Medway Queen picked up as many of her survivors as she could and added them to her own load.
On the second day, by 1700, the Medway Queen was once again steaming for Dunkirk from Dover under her Captain, Lieut. A.T. Cook RNR with J..D. Graves RNR as her First Lieutenant. They entered the harbour of Dunkirk amid heavy gunfire. The oil tanks were ablaze by then and there was wreckage everywhere. Scaling ladders were used to enable troops to come down to the ship from the mole high above them and she was soon full again. Lieut. Jolly, her navigator throughout the operation, quickly got her under way. They slipped over the minefields to save time, relying on their shallow draught to avoid destruction. As night fell, her crew devised ingenious ways to subdue the phosphorescence in the water with oil, to escape enemy detection. This time they returned to Ramsgate and arrived between 1000 and 1100. Once more, they refuelled and took on all the stores that they could carry. Now they went back alternately to the harbour and the beaches of Dunkirk. On the beaches, they had to use their motorised dinghy to bring the troops out. Once aboard, the men were taken care of by the Medway Queen's extraordinary cook, Thomas Russell who, with his assistant 'Sec' (his full name is not recorded), took pride in caring for everyone of the soldiers with meals and hot drinks.
Engineer Davis was in charge of the Medway Queen's engines and kept them running, never leaving his post, from 27th May until 4th June when they made the last of their seven runs to Dunkirk. In all, the Medway Queen is credited with saving 7,000 men and some of them still remember their rescue with great emotion. John Howarth from Rochester recalls how he was in the middle of the Channel surrounded by bodies and almost resigned to death when, over the horizon, came the Medway Queen on her way back to England, crammed with troops. He could hardly believe his luck when the ship stopped long enough to pick him up!
A French soldier, Paul Dervilers who, in 1989 was 87 years old, also recalled his rescue:- "I was on the beach walking up the coast towards Belgium when I saw some Englishmen getting into a dinghy and I joined ten of them who tried to get aboard. But the dinghy became waterlogged. We all began bailing hopelessly with our helmets. Fortunately, half-way to an off-lying ship, we picked up an abandoned little skiff in good shape and we got into it. It was 2300 when we climbed up the ladder of the Medway Queen."
After Dunkirk, the Medway Queen was refitted in Chatham Dockyard and continued her service in the Navy until the end of the war. In 1947 she was refitted at Thornycrofts at Southampton and became a pleasure steamer once more. In 1953 she followed the Royal Yacht Britannia through the lines of assembled ships at the Spithead Coronation Review.
In 1963 the Medway Queen was laid up in Rotherhithe Dry Dock. The surveyor's report was ominous. With all the work required, it was clearly not economic to repair her and she was sold to a Belgian ship-breaker. At this time her many admirers let out an anguished cry for her preservation. Eventually, the Medway Queen Trust was formed and several national newspapers publicised her desperate fate. Three young businessmen in the Isle of Wight, led by Alan Ridett, bought the Medway Queen and transferred her to the Mill Pond on the River Medina where she became the club house for a new marina. There, she was much appreciated until, in 1972, her success in her new role was her undoing; she became too small for the task and was replaced by a larger paddle steamer. Still, people wanted to preserve her and one group moved her from the club house mooring, only to hit an under-water obstruction and see her sink in the Medina.
In 1984 a group of business men brought the ship back to the Medway hoping to restore her. Although her return was amidst a lot of pomp and publicity, no safe berth could be found for the vessel and she was tied up in the river alongside the wall of the former dockyard at Chatham where she sank soon afterwards.
A year later the ship appeared derelict and neglected, no work was being done, each tide added another layer of silt and the wash from every passing vessel rushed through the ship and caused more damage. In June that year the Medway Queen Preservation Society was formed at a public meeting in Rochester. It was clear that the Medway Queen was much loved and locals wanted her future assured. The first tasks that needed to be tackled by the new Society were to find a safe berth for the ship, to patch her sufficiently that she could float again, to achieve charitable status and then to become owners of the ship.
Two years later the Society bought the vessel from the liquidators of the previous owners, and the New Medway Steam Packet Company Ltd was set up to hold legal title to the ship on behalf of the Society. This company became a Registered Charity.
Following the removal of tons of silt by volunteers and a lot of temporary patching, the ship was refloated and declared safe enough to be towed about eight miles down river from Chatham to a safe berth in Damhead Creek at Kingsnorth. Since then Society volunteers have improved the ship greatly, even the set-back of her sinking during a storm at the end of 1997 has been overcome and she is currently afloat and freshly painted throughout. The Society was set up to save the Medway Queen. It is the ultimate aim of the Society to restore the ship to full working order some day. Funds have not yet been identified for this huge task, an interim plan has therefore been devised. There may be a chance to display the ship in the World Naval Base (Chatham Dockyard) where she could be a museum and memorial to all the heroism of the Dunkirk evacuation, negotiations are in progress.
Heroism in time of war is recognised but briefly. Her skipper, Lieut. Thomas Cook RNR, and her First Officer, Sub-Lt. Graves RNR, received the DSC. Two of her Petty Officers, Crossley and MacAlister and Seaman Olly received the DSM. Two of her crew were Mentioned in Despatches, but the ship which rescued 7,000 soldiers now survives through the private charity and dedication of the Medway Queen Preservation Society.
In 2006 the Heritage Lottery Fund made a grant of £1.86million pounds for the complete rebuild of the ship’s hull. The contract was awarded to David Abels of Bristol and the work took place in his dry dock next to the SS Great Britain. This “Albion” drydock was once part of the well known Charles Hill Shipyard.
Following the hull rebuild the second part of the restoration is being carried out at Gillingham Pier. With the support of the European Union’s Regional Development Fund, the MQPS has set up an apprentice training workshop where the restoration will be completed.
Bristol rebuild update
2012 will be a milestone year for Medway Queen. The Albion Dockyard team have made amazing progress on the ship’s hull. The hull plating and promenade deck structure were complete on the forward part of the ship in January. The restored deck planking has been shipped by road from Gillingham to Bristol, installed on the ship and sealed to form a watertight structure. The rebuilt condenser, replacement deck stanchions and Medway Queen’s distinctive windows have all also been taken down to Bristol. For the engine the steam stop valve has been restored and tested and the engine controls have been refitted. The engine pipe work has been shot blasted and loose fitted ready for further work down in Gillingham. The paddle wheels are now both assembled.
The Medway Queen’s hull is in Bristol; the society’s base and workshops are in Gillingham. The journey for the assembled ship will be an “interesting” exercise. Medway Queen is an empty, and as yet un-powered, hull to be moved down the Bristol Channel and then back up the length of the English Channel, round the South and North Forelands and into the Medway estuary. En-route there is a small matter of rounding Land’s End, which is not known for its calm weather at this time of year. At the time of writing, the technicalities are being investigated in great detail and a towage company is being selected.
The logistics planning and timing will have to be flexible. The start date is subject to variation with the closing stages of the rebuild and the time taken for each stage of the move will vary with the weather and the actions of wind, waves and tides. We intend to announce the schedule in advance on the web site and then to keep that up to date as the plan develops and the journey begins. It is hoped to move the ship in March so by the time you read this it might all be over, but keep a close watch on www.medwayqueen.co.uk anyway.
Source: 1, 3, 5, 10, 11, 12 & 13
Updated: Jan 2012