Southend Britannia

Boat Specification
Boat Name: 
Southend Britannia
Boat Type: 
Thames Passenger Vessel
Boat Length: 
Boat Beam: 
Boat Draft: 
Boat Displacement: 
Not known
Boat Engine: 
2 x 90hp Diesel
Boat Construction: 
Boat Builder: 
Boat Year: 

When she was first built by Thornycrofts, the Southend Britannia operated a ferry service across the widest part of the Thames estuary from Southend to Sheerness. She was designed to carry 250 passengers on two decks and was virtually flat-bottomed, with a 3ft draft and only 2ft freeboard.

It is not hard to imagine Lieut. G.L. Norton, in command of the twin-funnelled ferry, packed solid with troops, returning from Dunkirk, low in the water, praying for the fair weather and smooth seas to hold out. Without this act of grace she would have sunk.

Like a much-married old lady with an action-packed history, she has had many names - which speak for themselves: Brightlingsea Belle, when she worked on the Colne in Essex, then Western Lady, offering cruises and a ferry service for five years out of Brixham in Devon.

Once a week, when the scheduled cruises and ferry runs there had finished for the day, Western Lady V would have all her seating stripped out and stacked between her funnels. Then a band would arrive and her decks became a dance floor for the enjoyment of the locals and visitors alike. Normally, she would remain moored alongside for this entertainment but, if weather permitted, a trip around the bay was thrown in, or parties of teenagers - jiving to live music - were taken on evening cruises up the River.

In 1960 Howard Thomas, managing Director of ABC - now Thames Television - was looking for a suitable vessel to moor near the studios at Teddington Lock for use as a hospitality ship and floating restaurant by the company's clients and VIPs. The Western Lady Fairmile craft were considered, but rejected. Then Western Lady V was inspected and finally chosen. The ferry company were persuaded to sell her. She was taken from Brixham to the River Thames by a crew of four plus two executives from Thames Television who were tempted by the thought of a 'nice little trip'. They lived to regret it! On their voyage around the coast strong winds forced her to seek shelter first at Weymouth, then at Newhaven and finally to drop anchor in Cowes Roads near Portsmouth. Her scant freeboard made her a dangerous craft for a journey up the English Channel. In all, it took over a week to complete the 'nice little trip' and her two joyriders became firm landlubbers in the process!

Once in the Thames, her funnels and her wheelhouse were removed to clear the bridges of the Thames on her journey up to Teddington Lock. When she arrived there, her engines and other surplus machinery were removed to provide more room for her as a floating restaurant and she was re-named Iris after the wife of one of the directors.

She proved to be as popular in her new role as she had been as a ferry and she did a good job for Thames Television. But eventually, in 1987, at the grand old age of 63 and much to the regret of her owners, twenty years of static mooring in the strong tidal flow below Teddington Weir, took their toll. Thames fought long and hard to save her, even contemplating the idea of having her bedded in concrete or placed in a dry dock. But Iris was condemned as no longer viable and it was decided to scrap her. A sad loss indeed, but now another ship has taken her place. Newer and fully engined, this vessel can take her guests up and down the river whilst they dine, just as once Western Lady V's guests used to dance the night away in Torbay.

They thought that she had gone for scrap, but then she was seen again, re-named Beverley, at one time moored in the Docklands and later at Cadogan Pier in Chelsea. When we heard of this, we tried to find her, but to no avail. Perhaps it was her ghost? Dunkirk ships seem to have as many lives as the proverbial cat.

There is a postscript to the story of Southend Britannia. Her lifeboat, 14ft long with a 5ft beam and 2?ft draft, was used to carry troops from the beaches of Dunkirk to the ferry in deeper water. After the war, the lifeboat, re-named Landscaper, was sold separately. Lieut. Cmdr. John Sharman-Courtney (also a one-time owner of Dunkirk Little Ship Thame II) owned her for a while and then gave her to a London youth club which planned to restore her. There our trail went cold. The area is now built up and Landscaper has disappeared.

Source: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 11 & 19

Not updated


Southend Britannia - details correction

According to the "Motor Boat & Yachting" Report on this vessel after her launching in 1924 - the Southend Britannia was Licensed for carrying 345 Passengers for Estuary and Coastal Cruising under a Board of Trade "Steam 4" Certificate, to be renewed annually subsequent to a rigorous Inspection by a Board of Trade Surveyor, usually Percy Shrubshall from Greenwich, whose family had built many famous Thames Sailing Barges, - and who was tasked with the annual BoT Inspections for most of the Southend Excursion boats. Furthermore, the "only 2ft freeboard" figure is also wrong - J. Thornycroft's own Specification show a minimum freeboard of 4ft aft [I have a copy sent to my father in 1946 when he and his Business partner were considering ordering a replacement vessel from Thornycrofts for their lost similar TSMN New Prince Of Wales.]

Details update

I think - judging from the Southend Motor Navigation Co.'s TSMV "New Prince of Wales", [from which the Myalls copied the Southend Britannia], - that the displacement was close to 145GRT.
AFAIK, the Big brit as she was known, - NEVER "ran a ferry service" across the Thames Estuary into the Medway.
She was purely an excursion vessel, and her regular work during any Southend Holiday Season between the Wars - would have been taking holiday-makers on short sea-trips [ usually around an hour] - out into the Estuary to view the anchored and passing commercial and naval Shipping [ the Thames was still extremely busy during those 20 years]
Special trips were made to such Events as the J-Class races, the Fleet Reviews, and to visit "open-to-the-public" major RN warships such as the Battlecruiser Repulse", andchored down below the Pier in sea reach, - and very-special annual daytrips to the Navy days at Sheerness and Chatham Dockyards.
There was never, between the wars, a "ferry service" from the Southend-on-Sea Foreshore ACROSS to Sheerness.
Though the GSNCo may have operated such ferry services from the Piehead between the Wars, the Southend excursion-vessel Owners did not do so. "There wasn't enough traffic to make the capital investment in a suitable vessel worthwhile", - is the way my Father described it.
Confusion may have arisen in the minds of some who were not there at the time, in that the Foreshore-based Southend motor navigation Co. did - for a while in the late 1920's and for a while during the 1930's - , run a round-trip ferry service ALONG the foreshore, from the Pier upriver as far as the Crowstone at Chalkwell, and back eastwards down to Shoeburyness, with their 2 open launches, - the San Toy 1 and San Toy 2.

You are writing for future generations, so I assume you will not mind my correction.
Julian Wilson.