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Historical Database : Bristol Channel, United Kingdom
The Bristol Channel is the name given to the wide estuary of the River Severn in the south west of the United Kingdom, with the coast of South Wales forming the northern shore and the coasts of the English counties of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall the southern. With a tidal variation of 40 feet, the channel has the second highest tidal variation on the earth which, combined with strong currents and shifting sandbanks on its upper reaches, makes navigation difficult.

Unlike the relatively sheltered Firth of Clyde, the Channel can be extremely treacherous, especially on the more exposed waters where the estuary meets the Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea. The crossing from Swansea in Wales to Ilfracombe in Devon and the excursion to the island of Lundy were particularly prone to poor weather. The tidal variation also resulted in many piers being inaccessible at low tide and steamer sailing schedules had to be constantly adjusted to take tides into account.

The major city in the area, Bristol, was the centre of operations, although considerably upstream on the River Avon. The main cruise destination was Ilfracombe with services from Bristol and Cardiff . A regular ferry service operated from Cardiff to Weston-super-Mare which continued until the end of the paddle-steamer era and the opening of the Severn Bridge, and for many years, a service linked the down-stream ports of Swansea and Ilfracombe.

Ilfracombe  benefited enrmously from the development of the excursion steamer business and it was not uncommon for several paddlers to be berthed abreast of each other. The inner face of the pier was only accessible at or near high tide, hence the need to tie up this way. In this view from the mid 1890s believed to be by Alexander Hutson and kindly supplied by Jeremy Hutson at least three paddlers await their passengers for a return up-channel or over to South Wales, while passing by in a westwards direction is P&A Campbell's paddler Waverley - the ship which in effect started off the excursion cruise industry in a meaningful way. 

The Bristol Channel was to develop into one of the major areas for Paddle Steamer operation in the UK after the decision of Peter and Alec Campbell, sons of the well-known Firth of Clyde steamboat owner Captain Bob Campbell, to sell their business to the newly-formed Caledonian Steam Packet Company and, from 1889, base their operations at Bristol. The inevitable domination of the Clyde services by three competing railway companies and the under-development of steamer operations on the Bristol Channel made the move a sensible decision. In 1887, Campbell's paddler Waverley had been chartered for use on the channel and in the following year, Captain Alec brought the vessel south once again on his own account. Captain Bob died in April 1888 but the scene was set for P & A Campbell's "White Funnel" fleet to dominate coastal cruising and ferry operations for the next 80 years.

Paddlers had been present on packet services on the Channel since the early days of steam navigation, but the Campbell brothers were quick to spot the gap in the market and their arrival marked the begining of the heyday of the excursion steamer era. Several private interests, most importantly Edwards and Robertson, attempted to gain a share of the lucrative cruise trade, but were unable to compete financially. The Barry Railway Company was, however, a different proposition. With new tonnage introduced in 1905, the Campbells resorted to legal means to restrict the railway company's scope of operations and the success of these actions effectively led to the Barry company selling their steamers in 1910, The company which took over the vessels was unable to compete effectively and sold out to Campbells in December 1911.

PS Ravenswood was the first of a long line of new steamers built for the Campbell's Bristol Channel service, taking up her station in 1891 alongside Waverley. The paddle steamer era appeared to have ended when the last two members of Campbell's fleet, Cardiff Queen and Bristol Queen were withdrawn in 1966 and 1967 respectively and Campbell's continued a service with a variety of second-hand motor vessels until early 1981 when it was announced that operations would finally cease.

In an interesting twist of fate, the Paddle Steamer Waverley, launched in 1946 and retired from service on the Clyde, was brought back into operation on behalf of preservationist owners in 1975 and made a surprise appearance on the Channel in 1979 as her enterprising owners had decided that she had to operate outside the main Clyde season in order to help cover costs. The success of the venture has led to Waverley visiting the Bristol Channel for a month before the main summer season and for a week in late Autumn each year since. Waverley's owners also spotted the revenue potential of continuing main season sailings on the channel, purchasing the former Solent motor ferry Shanklin (renamed Prince Ivanhoe) for the 1981 season. Her untimely loss after beaching off the South Wales coast on August 3rd of 1981 almost ended the venture, but the former Campbell vessel MV Balmoral was purchased in 1984 as a replacement and has become a great success. So, the success of one Waverley, almost a century after an earlier vessel of the same name, led to the revival of passenger services using a vessel owned by the original Campbell company who had pioneered this type of business at the end of the 19th century.


P & A Campbell
Edwards and Robertson
John Gunn
Barry Railway Company / Barry and Bristol Channel Steamship Company
Bristol Channel Passenger Boats Ltd
Martin and Marquand
W.H. Tucker and Co
John Jones
Captain William Pockett / Bristol Channel Steam Packet Company
John Richards
Bristol & Ilfracombe Pleasure Steamers Ltd
Waverley Steam Navigation Co / Paddle Steamer Preservation Society

Passenger Steamers of the Bristol Channel - A Pictorial Record
Nigel Coombes
Published in 1990 by Twelveheads Press, Chy Mengketh, Twelveheads, Truro, Cornwall, TR5 8SN
ISBN 0-906294-23-1
Extended captions to a wealth of photos, described in former PSPS Chairman Nigel Coombes highly readable and authoratative style.

White Funnel Magic
Nigel Coombes
Published in 1995 by Twelveheads Press, Chy Mengketh, Twelveheads, Truro, Cornwall, TR5 8SN
ISBN 0-906294-34-7
Nigel Coombes' follow-up volume looks at more aspects of the P&A Campbell operation in a beautifully illustrated book

White Funnels - The Story of Campbell's Steamers 1946-68
Chris Collard
Published in 1996 by Baron Birch for Quotes Ltd
ISBN 0-86023-570-X
The first volume of Chris Collard's study of the Cambell steamers operational history drawing on extensive personal knowledge and company records

White Funnel Memories
George Gunn
Published in 1997 by Gomer Press, Lllanysul, Ceredigion, Wales
ISBN 1-85902-487-4
Authoritative Campbell's story centring on the personalities involved - by the late George Gunn, one of the Campbell fleet's finest captains

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