TOWER BELLE was built in 1920 by Newcastle shipbuilders Armstrong Whitworth. Since 1847, Armstrong had been building cargo and passenger ships, ice breakers, tugs and warships for countries all around the world: and the company was going through something of a purple patch at the time, with orders coming in thick and fast to replace the many ships lost during the Great War.
Among these huge battleships and cargo vessels, a small river steamer called the WINCOMBLEE was completed and launched into the Tyne. She was originally named after the area around the shipyard and rechristened TOWER BELLE (after Tower Bridge) during her post-war service in London.
Just why this illustrious shipyard built a 70ft, 100-seat passenger launch is not known, although it may have been to carry dignitaries, to link the company’s two Elswick and Walker shipyards, or to ferry the foreign navy crews to and from their ships. Whatever the reason, the BELLE remained in Armstrong’s possession until 1939, when she was acquired by the City of Newcastle, probably for use as a ferry through the Second World War.
Then, in 1946, she made her way to London where, based at Westminster Pier under three different owners during the 1950s and 1960s, she ran public pleasure trips downstream to Greenwich and upriver as far as Hampton Court.
The day trips were soon being phased out as more and more post-war families were able to rely on the motor car for their leisure needs, and by 1976, the TOWER BELLE was lying unwanted on Eel Pie Island, in the Thames near Twickenham. Her saviour came in the form of Nick Gray, who had set up the Bristol Packet boat company three years previously and was already ferrying passengers around the docks on his Redshank narrowboat. He went to Twickenham to inspect and buy the boat, to add to his growing fleet. No longer river worthy, the forlorn BELLE arrived in Bristol on the back of a truck and was even dropped by a crane at this end, sustaining a hole and dents in the hull. After repairs she was launched into the harbour later in 1976.
Gray’s Bristol Packet was, at the time, the first boat company to resurrect the lost art of pleasure cruising around Bristol. Since 1887 Campbell’s White Funnel Fleet of paddle steamers had taken Bristolians out of the city into the Bristol Channel and on to Cardiff, Barry and the Bristol Channel islands of Ilfracombe and Lundy. Again, the advent of mass car ownership in the early ‘60s had finished off that trade, and the handsome Campbell’s fleet had been broken up. There had also been a trade for smaller boats carrying passengers around the harbour and up the river to Mrs Beese’s Tea Garden, as it was then known, as well as Sunday afternoon jazz and beer trips to Keynsham. That trade also declined and the last pleasure boat, the KINGSTONIAN, was phased out in the mid 1960s.
The appetite was clearly still there though and the TOWER BELLE quickly gained a following in her new city, running the first trips up the Gorge to Avonmouth for 15 years or more. She also ran to Beese’s Tea Gardens, the Chequers Innat Hanham and Keynsham, via both scheduled public trips and private parties, often with a full jazz band on board.
Today she’s one of Bristol’s busiest and best-loved passenger boats, running a variety of pleasure and educational/school trips around the harbour and beyond as far as Bath and the Bristol Channel.
Hamer, Geoffrey, Trip Out 1995/6 - A Guide to the Passenger Boat Services of the British Isles, G P Hamer, 1995
- 1920 Vessel built by Newcastle builders Armstrong Whitworth
Acquired by the City of Newcastle, probably for use as a ferry throughout the Second World War
- 1946 Based at Westminster Pier in London running public pleasure trips on the Thames
- 1976 Vessel lay abandoned on Eel Pie Island, near Twickenham. Under new ownership and having been repaired, she was launched into Bristol harbour later that year
Pulled out of water for annual maintenance programme
Fully operational as passenger boat in Bristol area
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