Guildhall Library’s London Collection includes several histories and guides covering pleasure trips on the Thames. These three gems from our collections offer a glimpse of a taste of the high life offered by “Eagle Steamers” which could be experienced during the 1930s to the 1960s.
Through London’s Great Waterway: The Sunshine Route to the Coast: The Eagle Steamer Handbook on the River Thames and South-East Coast Resorts (1933)
(Order this item using reference Pam 19475)
This delightful booklet opens with “Eastward to the Sun: The Romance of the River” and we are told that “Every summer morning – except Fridays – the General Steam Navigation Company’s “Eagle” steamers cast off from Tower Pier, pass under the bascules of Tower Bridge, and head down the river on their ninety mile journey to the coasts of Essex and Kent.”
Their vessels are described as “fast, roomy and comfortable” and the booklet offers a guide to the sights that can be seen on the voyage. In this particular booklet, a brief description is given of Deptford, Greenwich, Erith Reach and Purfleet etc. before we pass Gravesend, which is described as the “Clapham Junction of the river”. After sighting the Three Daws pub “we tie up at Tilbury…for a few moments…to glimpse the docks with a water area of over 100 acres”. We are told that the great new floating landing stage at Tilbury is only three years old and “one of the longest and finest landing-stages in the country.” Beyond Tilbury the “mushroom like” tanks of Thames Haven are noted as well as the Chapman light off Canvey Island.
The destinations are described in more detail, for example Southend is said to be famed for its long spells of sunny weather and its pier. Delightfully, we are told that “The people who run Southend have set themselves out to make their visitors happy”. The pleasures of the Kursaal are listed and in the early 1930s included Bostock’s Wonder Zoo, Eric the Whale and the Twelve Foot Octopus!
The Eagle vessels all had nicknames. The paddle steamer “Royal Eagle” was styled “London’s Own Luxury Liner” and offered a one day cruise from Tower Pier to Margate and “Radiant Ramsgate”. On this trip passengers could enjoy sitting in the glass enclosed lounge, or on the sun deck listening to “music provided by the latest type of relay equipment”.
The “Crested Eagle” was a few years older and dubbed “The Greyhound of the River”. In 1933 the brochure informs us that you could go aboard for a cruise to “Sunny Clacton” with its “champagne air”, riding “the waters as proudly as a swan”.
Their third vessel “Golden Eagle” seems to have specialised in offering games and competitions on board as well as regular visits by “King Neptune”. This was called “The Happy Ship” by the company.
The Royal Thames: A Pageant in Pictures of London’s Gateway to the Sea from 1066 to 1937 by A G Thompson and Helen McKie
(Order this item using reference SL 87)
This booklet, published by the company at Trinity Square, was presented to Guildhall Library by Eagle and Queen Line Steamers in 1937.
Using a series of partly coloured drawings, the guide offers a history of Thames landmarks on the route as well as pointers to what to see on arrival at Southend, Margate, Ramsgate and Clacton. There are also informative aerial photographs of the River and docks, images which have increased in interest with the passing of time. We are also shown pictures from the sun deck and main dining saloon of the “Royal Eagle”
The serious traveller may have felt the need of even further education whilst aboard, and in 1965, for the sum of two shillings (ten pence), they could purchase:
What’s What in Shipping and On Either Bank: A Souvenir Guide to the River Thames and to Places Served by Eagle Steamers (1965)
(Order this item using reference Pam 21889)
Our copy contains two stamps, one showing “At Sea, MV Royal Sovereign, 21 July 1965” and another inscribed “To Robert” wishing him a happy trip from the Purser.
The booklet gives explanations of shipping terms, maps of the route and colour illustrations of signal codes, national flags etc.
One of the most enjoyable features of this booklet are the many adverts for beer and spirits telling us to “get on the trail of the hoppiest ale!” or for “the beer the men drink”. My own favourite is this one…
The General Steam Navigation Company who owned the fleet became part of the P & O group in the 1960s. Sadly, Eagle and Queen Line Steamers ceased trading by 1966. Thames cruisers tend to be motor powered these days but the restored paddle steamer “Waverley” still ploughs the Thames & Medway for part of her annual itinerary giving us a glimpse of a day out on the river our forebears may have enjoyed.
Written by: Jeanie Smith – Assistant Librarian and Keeper of the Lloyd’s Marine Collection
(The first in a series of three blogs to celebrate the Totally Thames Festival 1st – 30th September)
Photographs by: Elisabeth Dew – Library Assistant