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Anyone who walks alongside the Thames cannot fail to notice the Thames Clippers plying their trade up and down the river.
It seems incredible that since the 1840s, many companies have tried to run regular boat services along the Thames to link east and west London but most have ended in failure. This failure seems all the more remarkable when you consider other river services around the world have had considerable success.
A recent postcard sent by Eric Pemberton bought to my attention a riverboat service from the early 20th century that started with great optimism but quickly was abandoned.
In 1905 the London County Council launched its own public river transport service , acquiring piers and investing in a large fleet of 30 paddle-steamers. The fleet was to operate frequent services from Hammersmith to Greenwich.
Many of the new boats had a local connection being built by the famous Thames Iron works at Blackwall and G. Rennie & Co at Greenwich. All the boats were virtually identical and could hold around 500 passengers, they were mostly named after famous people with a London connection.
It was in June 1905 that HRH the Prince of Wales opened the service travelling along the route on the King Alfred. The opening of the service was not without controversy, newspaper reports both praised:
The Government had even allowed the Council a service of steamboats on the Thames. It would not run steamers to make an enormous profit, but to open up to Londoners a new highway. Municipal service was not to secure profits and. dividends, but to promote the general benefit of the community.
And condemned the scheme , many saw it has a waste of taxpayers money:
As for the Thames steam boats, a private company is said to have lost £10,000 in one year over them, : and, by analogy, it is safe to conclude that the Council could easily lose twice as much in the same time. The Thames, as we have often pointed out, is not a business thoroughfare, and does not run where it should if it is to be of any use to people going to and from their work. In Paris, which is the stock example, things are different. Our river can only he used for pleasure and not for business, and will never relieve the crush in the streets to any appreciable extent.
It quickly became clear that the doubters had been correct and it also became clear that the numbers needed to break even were not being met.
Photo Dr J Meister
1906 EMPTY STEAMBOATS.
At a specially convened meeting of the Rivers Committee of the London County Council held last month, it was unanimously decided to stop the running of the boats above London. Bridge, and to diminish still further the service between that point and Greenwich. A considerable saving in expenditure will thus be effected. That the great body of ratepayers are impatiently awaiting the notification that the whole of the boats will be laid up there is overwhelming evidence. As was only to be expected, the position, from the ratepayers’ point of view, grows rapidly worse. The following official figures bring home to everybody the folly of continuing the service:— . Week Ending Receipts. October 14 £351 36 , October 21 £215 13 , October 28 £250 15 0, November 4 £250 11 0, November 11 , £165 17 6, November 18 £140 0 0. In the meantime the service is still costing something like £2000 a week.
The operation struggled on until 1907, but the massive debts led to the operation being closed down. A newspaper report from 1908 remarks on the services demise.
1908 – As for the Thames steamboats, they have, alas! become a joke. The L.C.C. entered into the business with tremendous enthusiasm. They built new boats and christened them after the heroes of England. The project was ambitious, but laudable. It ought to have succeeded, But, as a matter of fact, it has proved an abject failure. The boats .were tied up all last winter, and only, started to run towards the latter end of last May. The comic papers to celebrate the joyous event, published illustrations showing, all London thronging the Embankment, and gazing with intense eagerness towards the river, along which, slowly and majestically, a L.C.C. steam-boat was pushing her lonely way with one solitary and daring adventurer on board. Things are not quite so bad as this,but it is not to be denied that with the increased facilities for transit by train, tram, and motor buses, the Londoner no longer yearns to travel on dear old Father Thames.
The lack of customers was not the only the problems, the large and unwieldy boats had a series of accidents including one in a Martha Wilson from Deptford was killed when she was crushed by two of the steamboats.
All that was left was to sell off the fleet, each boat cost £6500 to build and were sold off for a few hundred. A rival company, The City Steamboat Company bought fourteen of the boats and tried to run a profitable service but even they had to concede defeat at the beginning of the First World War. Many of the other boats were snapped up at their bargain price and ended up being used all over Europe including Mesopotamia, Italy, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Germany and Russia.
Other efforts to run a river service in the 20th century generally ended in failure including the service to Canary Wharf.
Which all goes to show that unlike the tube, trains and buses running passenger services on the Thames has rarely been profitable.