On duty from the Thames to Mesopotamia
Ships Monthly|January 2020
Russell Plummer recalls the contribution made by excursion ships and ferry paddle steamers, large and small, during the two World Wars.
Russell Plummer

Six Thames steamers sailed via the Suez Canal for World War I service as minesweepers. The steamers were originally part of a 30-strong London County Council fleet built for an unsuccessful bid to launch a commuter service on the Thames through central London starting in 1905, but which closed after just two years. The steamers’ destination was Mesopotamia, where their shallow draught would be advantageous for operation in coastal waters and on the rivers Tigris and Euphrates.

After the LCC service failure, three of the 250-passenger vessels switched to London’s City Steamboat Company, with Christopher Wren, built by G. Rennie, and Edmund Ironside and Fitzailwin, from the Clyde yard of Napier and Miller, requisitioned, together with Thames Ironworks-built sisters Alleyn and Carlyle, which had gone to the Tay Steamboat Co at Dundee. The group was completed by another Thames Ironworks product, Brunel, then sailing for the Millbrook Company at Plymouth.

Powered by 350hp compound diagonal engines taking steam from a coal-fired boiler, they had a top speed of 12.5 knots and were employed from early 1916 along with the region’s many launches and stern wheel paddle vessels. The Thames exiles survived the war, several lying at Basra, but none of them returned to Britain when the land conflict came to an end.

Larger Thames vessels, including the General Steam Navigation Co’s Eagle Steamers pair, Eagle (1898) and Golden Eagle (1909), ran Thames trips into September 1914, with the former requisitioned for minesweeping as HMS Aiglon from November 1915. The far larger triple-expansion engined Golden Eagle became a transport vessel and carried 518,101 troops, mainly from Southampton to French ports, between January 1915 and November 1919, some of her crossings also seeing aircraft handled as deck cargo.

Golden Eagle answered the nation’s call again in World War II as an anti-aircraft vessel in the Thames Estuary before she made three trips to Dunkirk in late May/early June 1940 to bring home 1,751 troops. Golden Eagle finished the war unscathed, but sailed only briefly afterwards and was scrapped at Grays in 1951.

Almost half the 80 steamers officially recorded as serving in World War I came from Scottish fleets, with two of seven Caledonian Steam Packet vessels, Duchess of Hamilton (1890) and Duchess of Montrose (1902), being lost when they were mined in November 1915 and March 1917. Back safely were Caledonia (1889), Marchioness of Breadalbane (1890), Marchioness of Lorne (1891, Duchess of Rothesay (1895) and Duchess of Fife (1903).

Of eight Glasgow and South Western Railway vessels called up, there were three casualties.

Neptune (1892) was mined while she was based at Dover in 1917, before Minerva (1893) was captured by the Turks in the same year, seeing service as a Bosporus ferry until 1927. Mars (1902) finished the war as HMS Marsa but became a total loss after being run down by a Royal Navy destroyer while she was based at Harwich in November 1918. Glen Sannox (1892), Mercury (1892), Glen Rosa (1893), Jupiter (1896) and Juno (1898) were released in 1919 and 1920.

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