A Brief History Of Ferry Services On The Thames 1840 - 1909


The concept of a waterbus service on the Thames to ease London's traffic problems has often been discussed, and taking in account the success of water transport in other UK and European cities the lack of a Thames river passenger service has been regarded as something of an anomaly. Throughout recent history the idea has been visited and revisited but not since the mid 1800’s has it ever proved viable on a long-term basis. From the 1840s until the mid-1870s several companies provided regular steamboat services between Kew to the west and Woolwich and Greenwich to the east. From the mid-1870s onward, however, operations ceased to be profitable. In 1875 the London Steamboat Company was formed to combine the competing companies then on the river and bought together some 70 boats. On 3rd September 1878 the sinking of ‘PRINCESS ALICE’ below Woolwich due to a collision with the collier BYWELL CASTLE resulted in the loss of 460 (some reports state up to 700) lives, and was said to have had a very adverse effect on river transport. In 1879 the assets of the London Steamboat Company were leased out. When control was regained in 1882 it was unprofitable and went into liquidation. The liquidator, however, continued to run the service. Control was then passed to The River Thames Steamboat Navigation Company, which ran a service, but in 1886, when they tried to sell the fleet, a buyer could not be found. Subsequently fourteen of the boats were sold for scrap and by the end of 1887 they ceased trading altogether with the remaining boats being laid up. The Victoria Steamboat Association bought the fleet in 1888 and managed to make a success of the operation. By 1893 it had increased its fleet to 46 boats. However, the company was wound up in August 1894, allegedly due to some underhand financial and managerial activities. The service restarted in 1896 under the name of Victoria Steamboats Limited, but lasted just the one season. In 1897 the Thames Steamboat Company, purchased the Victoria Steamboats fleet and by 1901 had added nine boats, taking it’s fleet to 36 boats. It also took over six piers and the leases of two others. The chairman of the Thames Steamboat Company was Mr Arnold Hills (1857-1927) who was also chairman and managing director of Thames Iron Works Shipbuilding and Engineering Company in West Ham. It was the biggest shipbuilder on the Thames and had built a number of warships for both British and overseas navies (including the preserved “WARRIOR” in Portsmouth Dockyard).

The service he ran was not profitable but he hoped an injection of capital and the acquisition of the piers, which were costing in the region of his deficit, would allow him to improve the service, and his profits.

However this did not materialise and his losses increased. In 1889, the London County Council (L.C.C.) was introduced. Its creation was forced by a succession of scandals involving its predecessor, the non-elected Metropolitan Board of Works, which had run London's infrastructure such as roads and bridges. The L.C.C. was created as the principal administrative body for the County of London; a lower tier of 28 metropolitan boroughs was created in 1899, replacing the earlier parishes and vestries.

The L.C.C.'s administrative area was the County of London: an area smaller than Greater London is now and corresponding to today's London Boroughs of Camden, Greenwich, Hackney,

Hammersmith and Fulham, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth and Westminster. It almost immediately became an aim of the new council to run a municipal ferry service on the Thames.

Hills tried to negotiate with the new council over partnerships, the transfer of boats and the ownership of piers. The L.C.C. were unwilling to make any concessions, which resulted in a standoff to the extent that only a sporadic service operated between 1901 and 1904.In 1904, the Council finally succeeded in satisfying all interested parties in relation to the service on the Thames. The original plan was to provide a service every five minutes in each direction between London Bridge and Vauxhall or Chelsea, a service upstream from there to Hammersmith or beyond every fifteen minutes, and another fifteen minute service from London Bridge to Greenwich and Woolwich.

The number of steamboats thought to be required to run this level of service was first put at 55, but later reduced to 40. In 1902 it was decided to only provide a fifteen-minute service all the way

between Greenwich and Hammersmith, which reduced the requirement to 30 boats. This lowered costs, and the final estimates showed a capital expenditure of £210,000 for the construction of 30 boats (repayable over 20 years) and £70,000 for the acquisition and improvement of piers (payable over 30 years). The annual running expenditure was estimated as £98,960In the event, tenders for the boats were received totalling only £184,000, a sum which would have been even less had there not been some deliberate bias in favour of Thames-side shipbuilding in order to support local employment. The tender received from the Thames Iron Works Shipbuilding and Engineering Company was accepted at a price higher than was quoted by its competitors. J.I. Thorneycroft & Co, Southampton; Napier & Miller & Co, Glasgow and Thames Ironworks, Blackwall were the original contractors being awarded 10 boats each. Some of the boats were subcontracted to G. Rennie & Co., Greenwich to ensure that the required delivery time was met. The boats were virtually identical in size being 130 feet long, 18 feet breadth and 120 gross tons with a carrying capacity of 530 passengers. A single boiler fed steam

to the compound diagonal engine of 350 IHP, which turned the two 10ft 6-inch paddle wheels giving a speed of 12.5 knots. Scott’s Engineering & Shipbuilding Co., Greenock, and Thames Ironworks supplied the engines.



  HRH the Prince of Wales opened the service on June 17th 1905 by steaming ceremoniously from one end of the route to the other on the KING ALFRED. Fare-paying traffic began the day after. Fares, when the service started, were 1d single and 2d return for up to three miles, then 2d and 3d respectively for up to five miles, then 3d and 5d for up to eight miles with reductions for journeys started before eight a.m.The Thames Steamboat Company, which also had the right to use the piers, ran a rival service and undercut the fare structure. By the end of the summer the L.C.C. had to acknowledge that passenger numbers had fallen far short of the number necessary to break even. To try and offset this shortfall the 1905/6 winter service ran a reduced service. Although agreement was reached with The Thames Steamboat Company over fares routes and piers in the spring of 1906, takings during the summer of 1906 was well below expenditure. In the summer of 1906 the decision was taken not to run a winter service and that in 1907 they would only run a service for 4½ months in the summer. In early 1908, the Committee recommended selling or chartering all the boats, following an earlier decision to sell off just six boats. Attempts to sell the whole fleet were unsuccessful and the boats were sold over the period from April to July 1909, for a total of £18,204. The last fourteen fetched only the derisory amount of £393 each, being bought by the City Steamboat Company. They ran an intermittent summer service from 1909 but by August 1914 all had been sold on for further service. The following pages attempt to trace the fates and fortunes of the original thirty boats.