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Southend Motor Navigation Co
Southend - Page 4 - History of the Southend Motor Navigation Co by Julian Wilson
This is one of a series of pages devoted to the passenger boats of the Thames and Medway Estuaries. This page is a history of the Southend Motor Navigation Co Ltd (SMNCo) by Julian Wilson.
The information for this page was supplied by Julian Wilson, the elder son of WH (Bill) Wilson of Marlborough Road. WH Wilson was one of the two joint-owners of the Southend Motor Navigation Co. Ltd (SMNCo), post 1930. The other was Albert Brand of Kensington Road, his lifelong close-friend and business partner for over 30 years. Julian Wilson qualified as a skipper through the company's post-World War 2 training scheme, probably the last to do so.
Vessels on this Page:-
Historical Background
Origins of the SMNCo
SMNCo Early History
A Change of Ownership
Visit From a King
The Second World War
Post War
Other Thames, Kent & Essex Pages:-
Southend Page 1 - Southend Pier
Southend Page 2 - Southend Small Excursion Boats
Southend Page 3 - Southend Motor Navigation Co - Fleet List
Southend Page 4 - Southend Motor Navigation Co - Company History - This page
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MV Balmoral - 2006 cruise past Southend Pier
PS Waverley - 2005 cruise past Southend Pier
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Lower Thames & Medway Passenger Boat Co
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Southend Motor Navigation Co
A Short History of the Company
By Julian Wilson using notes from his father Bill Wilson

Historical Background
In 1922, WH (Bill) Wilson was ex-Great War Royal Navy, having volunteered to join the Senior Service at least three times while underage before being accepted shortly after his 15th Birthday as a 'boy entrant. Albert Brand was ex-Royal Naval Air Service, also of a mechanical speciality. The two men knew each other from their primary school days. Both had entered the RN as career; but had bought themselves out under the 'reductions in force scheme' which was nicknamed the Geddes' Axe. Bill Wilson's father had vanished (whilst Bill was still of primary school age) into late-Victorian/Edwardian South Africa where he worked for what became the De Beers Mining Consortium. His mother brought Bill Wilson up in a single-parent family environment; funded by a pension paid to her by De Beers.
Bill Wilson got his primary education at Southchurch Hall School. Somehow, during that period of his life, Bill gained a fascination with mechanical engineering, and delighted in playing with and experimenting with discarded Victorian machines. When he was 12 years old, his mother (my paternal grandmother) managed to arrange a formal Marine Engineering Apprenticeship for him with a local marine engineering Company that operated from the Viking Works, somewhere close to the Westcliff to Leigh-on-Sea shoreline. The company owner seems to have been a personal friend of Grandmother Wilson, and the school-age Bill Wilson was allowed the run of the Viking Works. In my Archives I still have his Apprenticeship Agreement. This obligated his apprentice-master to take charge of his secondary school education. His work was heavily slanted towards small-scale marine engineering, specifically light-weight small marine 'oil-engines', in which the Viking Works specialised.
At this time, most small power-plants were powered by steam. The entire world's battle fleets and the British Empire's Merchant Navy were only just beginning to make the change from coal-fuelled reciprocating steam engines to oil-fuelled steam turbines. Britain was still a world leaders in this new technology - which was centred in its great shipbuilding industry. The world's first steam-turbine battleship HMS Dreadnought was only launched in 1904, yet by 1914 she was considered obsolescent, having been overtaken by the pace of technical change. The service life of a major warship was then - as it still is today - taken as being 25 years. The development of small, light-weight, internal combustion engines was still in it's infancy. Small steam plants were heavy and space-greedy. The world's largest end-user of such small power-plants was the British Royal Navy, all of whose great warships had powered small craft (the pinnaces and motor cutters) which were driven by small-scale steam reciprocating plants. By this date - the 1890s and the beginning of the 1900s - they had reached a high degree of sophistication.

Charles Parson's Turbinia (now in the care of the National Maritime Museum) had only astonished the world's maritime community recently, with its unauthorised and very public display at the Fleet Review of 1897. Here it easily out-distanced the RN's fastest torpedo-boat destroyers (TBD's); causing consternation amongst national Admiralties world-wide in the process. If Thornycroft's fastest TBD's could not catch Turbinia, what would happen if Britain's potential enemies started designing Torpedo Boats around these new, light-weight, energy- and space-efficient steam-turbine plants? The world major warships, costing millions to build and maintain in service, and the most obvious and prestigious means of national power projection in international politics, could be sunk by even-faster torpedo boats armed with the new Whitehead torpedoes, and which could be built and operated at a tiny fraction of the cost of a battleship or battlecruiser. One Whitehead torpedo could sink a Battleship for less than cost of a single salvo from the battleship's main armament.
Motor Carriages - the other principal end-user for the technology of very small power-plants - were still in their infancy. The 'fastest men on Earth' - and the heroes of most schoolboys - were the engine drivers of the great express trains. The fastest man alive was the driver of GWR City class 4-4-0 number 3440, "City of Truro", which had (possibly) reached 100mph for a short while drawing an Ocean Mail to London in 1904.
Heavy road-haulage worldwide was still done by road locomotives (traction engines) and steam-lorries, built by such British manufacturers as Fowlers and Fodens. Messrs Diesel and Benz were alive and at the height of their creative powers - producing cutting edge designs for small oil-engines in Imperial Germany, where Kaiser Wilhelm, occupied the throne. The government-funded rapid arms race between 1890 and 1914 drove the developing oil engines technology for both naval and civilian uses.

This field of technology was in a ferment during those 20 years, meaning that any young engineering apprentice was in on the ground floor of a fast-developing technology which was to become as world-shaking as the development of personal computers during the 1970s. After the technology stimulus of the Great War, there were huge war-surplus equipment sell-offs, combined with the sudden appearance on the employment market of tens of thousands of de-mobilised militarily-trained drivers and mechanics. These were both male and female; the Women's Legion had trained thousands of women to drive and maintain motor vehicles during the Great War. However, this technology took time to spread downwards through the end-users pool to very small companies, and individual owner-operators.
Origins of the SMNCo
Sailing boats at Southend pre-WW1This brings us back to the Southend Foreshore in the early 1920s. Most of the Southend excursion boats were still sailing craft or rowing boats. Motor launches were the minority, but for the potential passengers they were seen as the cutting edge, and likely to be more-popular with the holiday makers (mostly from London's East End and other suburbs).
The tide only rises & falls around 16/17ft at Southend, and of that 12 hour tidal range, there is water on-the-beach for only 6 hours on average. During those 6 hours, any beach-based small-craft operators had to make their money by doing as many paying trips as possible. So the earlier they could get afloat, and the later they could return and moor-up, the wider the operating-time-window for taking money. This situation produced a need for shallow-draught motor launches, which could do several round-trips out into Sea Reach during a tide - to let their passengers 'view the shipping' (and there was a lot of that - the Thames off Southend was very busy with shipping movements and ships anchored 'waiting for orders').
A group of Southend small-businessmen founded the SMNCo in late 1921 for the 1922 Season, equipped with shallow-draught open motor-launches to target the expanding short-excursion market they expected to arise as the seaside resort trade revived after the Great War. The power-plant technology and the hulls were available at a cost they could afford, and there was a substantial pool of ex-military-trained mechanics to ensure the launches operated reliably. Albert Brand got the SMNCo post as their Chief Skipper, and Bill Wilson got the post of Chief Engineer. Both men were instinctive ship-handlers and navigators of equal (and very high) ability as I had the personal opportunity to observe, and both had backgrounds in mechanical engineering. Albert's passion was for ship-handling and navigation, whilst Bill Wilson was generally regarded as a mechanical genius by all his peers (although he was far too modest to accept that reputation from the other Southend longshoremen).

Both men convinced the SMNCo Board that the Company should give employment preferences to ex-Royal Navy men, because this would provide a commonality of training and operational standards. The Southend river-excursion trade, when Southend's place as a British seaside resort was at its height, depended upon the quantity of maritime traffic on the Thames Estuary off Southend, which was extremely busy in 1922/23 and up to 1940. On the civil side, there were massive movements of cargo- and passenger- vessels to and from the Commercial Docks upriver. British and foreign-flagged vessels would pass the pierhead Lloyds Signal Station sometimes at the rate of one major ship per hour, either in-bound or departing. Added to this was a veritable host of small craft - dredgers, rubbish lighters and their tugs, fishing craft (bawleys, smacks, and cocklers), Thames barges, small coasters, small tramp steamers, the larger excursion paddle steamers of the GSNCo, and others. Since the Second War, most local trade has disappeared, whilst longer distance traffic is carried by much larger container ships, tankers, bulk carriers and ro-ro ferries which all have quick turnarounds (pre-war freighters spent much of their lives alongside loading and unloading). The quantity of marine traffic is now a fraction of what it was before the war.
Post-Great War naval movements in the London River to naval bases up-stream, and in the River Medway to Sheerness and Chatham Dockyards, were intense and continuous. The Royal Navy held a number of Navy Days in the Medway Dockyards. Warships also anchored-off Southend waiting for movement orders, or simply paying PR visits, also held 'Open Days', often at the last minute at their captain's discretion. Bill Wilson and Albert Brand saw this as a major attraction for potential passengers, who could be taken out to visit the anchored warships on such days, and be taken on day-long excursions to the Dockyard Open Days. They used their contacts amongst RN old-hands, they worked-up an enduring connection with the relevant local, RN Offices, which was easy for the two ex-RN veterans who were both active and enthusiastic members of the RNVR). This connection served the SMNCo well until Bill Wilson and Albert finally stopped pleasure excursions in the 1960's.
Visiting the Fleet off SouthendBy this means, and after the launch of the 'big' Prince (the New Prince of Wales) with her Radio Room, the SMNCo (alone of the Southend excursion-vessel operators), would get advance notice of Navy Days, warship movements, and warship open days - many of the latter events being fairly short-advance-notice Captain's discretion decisions; - which the RN-veteran-crewed SMNCo vessels would get exclusive permission to 'come-alongside & board visitors' via an exchange of Radio messages with the visiting warship's Captain. At that time, the RN in general took the view that such things were excellent for the 'good of the service'. The holiday-makers planning on taking estuarial excursion trips very often viewed these visits to HM Ships as the highlight of their holidays. And if the SMNCo vessels had sole permission to 'transport and board', the Company was going to get large numbers of interested holidaymakers preferring to patronise Company vessels in preference to those of any other operator.
Two of the biggest annual occasions were the Navy Days at Sheerness and Chatham Dockyards - and the SMNCo used to fill all of their biggest craft with pre-booked passengers for those events, and make day-long round-trips of it. They arrived when the Dockyards opened to the Public, and left in time to arrive back at Southend by around 8 or 9 pm.
SMNCo Early History

The SMNCo was formed by a group of Southend's small, middle-class, businessmen in late 1921, to take advantage of the loosening of wartime regulations, and what they all hoped would be the return to the booming Seaside Holiday Trade of the Edwardian period, pre-the-Great War.

SAN TOY 1 and JULIA FREAK loading passengersThe Company's first two vessels were the San Toy 1 and the San Toy 2. These two motor launches (MLs) maintained a daily service between Southend, Westcliff, Crowstone, Leigh-on-Sea, and Canvey Island, sometimes calling at the Chapman Head lighthouse, en route. The third motor ship of the Company was the 'very pretty and sightly' Princess Maud (1). She was 60ft loa, beam 11ft 6ins, draught of 2ft. She was fitted with two 2cyl Kelvin marine engines developing 13-15shp each at 550 rpm. Her economic cruising speed was 7.5 knots.

The Company's first 'big ship' was the
Julia Freak (later re-named the New Prince of Wales I after the Second War). This vessel was 75ft loa, 15.9ft beam, draught light 3ft, loaded 3ft 6ins. A note dated 1934 lists her Masters as Jim Poker alternating with Stan Barnes - 'two very knowledgeable and competent captains'. Other launches were the King George, the Queen Mary, and the Britannia I which were all built, along with the Julia Freak, by Messrs Haywood, of Vulcan Works, Southend.

The details of the MLs King George (renamed the King George V after 12th May 1937) and the Queen Mary were launched Easter 1926, and Easter 1927 respectively. Both were 60ft loa and 14ft beam, and both were fitted with a single Parsons high-speed, petrol/paraffin-fuelled marine engine. The engines were 4.5in bore and 6in stroke, developing 42 shp at 1450 rpm, giving a cruising speed of 9 knots. Each engine weighed 900lbs and cost the SMNCo £333.10.9d, including delivery to the Vulcan Works. Shafts, sterngear, and propellers were by Bruntons of Colchester to the design of WH Wilson (at that date in 1926, still the SMNCo's salaried Chief Engineer).
New Prince of Wales is considered to be the first pleasure vessel of more than 100 gross tons to be driven by internal combustion engines - she had two paraffin engines totalling 150 hp, made by John L.Thornycroft. (The Royal Lady at Scarborough was the first to be powered by diesels). New Prince of Wales was wooden hulled, and completed by Alec Fowler in Bosham in 1923 for the Southend Motor Navigation Co. She was 104 feet long and 137 gross tons. She was of very shallow draft, being used to to perform short cruises from a small jetty near Southend Pier at high tide. New Prince of Wales ran from the end of the pier at low tides. The New Prince of Wales was a Dunkirk loss - sunk off La Panne in 6ft of water, after drifting into the middle of an artillery duel between a German army shore-battery and a French destroyer.
The 'big' RINCE and HMS HOOD - Painting: Sydney Grey - Scan: © Julian WilsonNew Prince of Wales details were:- 105ft loa, draught 3ft light and 3ft 6ins loaded. Loaded freeboard was 4ft aft and 7ft at the bows, where the forecastle flared to throw off 'green seas'. Max speed light on trials was 15.5 knots, with a max economical speed loaded of 11 knots. Engines (from Thornycrofts) and stern gear layout designed by WH Wilson, FIMar E, (CPO(MEM) RN, Rtd); and executed by Bruntons of Colchester. Twin screws in tunnels with twin balanced rudders and a bow rudder for maximum manoeuvrability. BOT Steam 6 Certificate which allowed Cross-Channel Cruising. New Prince of Wales had the first radio room to be fitted on a Southend excursion vessel and the first public address system to be fitted on such a vessel. The designer & builder was Lt. CDR Alec Fowler (RN, Rtd). New Prince of Wales was built in a specially-constructed bund to the East of Bosham Village, West Sussex, during 1922. Her first season on the Southend foreshore was 1923, operating from the No 1 Jetty, opposite the Hope Hotel (which was by way of being the 'unofficial HQ' of the SMNCo). The engines were sited as far outboard as possible, the 4-bladed screws were in tunnels, and the balanced rudders and bow rudder made 'big' Prince very handy - quick turnarounds meant more trips per tide, which increased income and profits. The Saloon had a compact modern galley, run by Mrs Wilson as Chief Purser, with the assistance of Mrs Lilian Brand, and some of the other company wives.
In addition to the larger vessels listed, the SMNCo had varying number of ex-RN motor-cutters, named after Royal Navy war losses. These were quite popular with ex-Great War naval veterans because of that. At one point the SMNCo had 15 of these motor cutters, working from various pitches from Leigh to Shoeburyness.
In addition to short sea trips, the company ran various special excursions with these small launches: -
1: fishing parties,
2: spectator boats at local sailing club regattas
3: ferrying sightseers out to naval ships moored in Sea Reach on 'open days'
4: spectator boats for the J-Class regattas (Southend on Sea was on the inter-war circuit for these biggest racing yachts in the world)
5: Thames and Medway barge matches
6: local fishermen's regattas at all the local fishing ports
7: picnic parties out to the Ray Sand on a midday low-water tide
A Change of Ownership
At some point around 1930, the ownership of the SMNCo changed. The specific date is not recorded, but probably following the stock-market crash of 1929, the SMNCo's shareholders were short of cash as their other businesses were affected by the downturn in general retail trading. Until then, the seaside holiday trade had been booming, and they would have had no reason, as a group, to sell their shares.
Bill Wilson & Albert Brand on the 'big' PRINCEBill Wilson and Albert Brand thought that whilst some workers might lose their jobs and stop taking seaside holidays, the middle classes who had become accustomed to take their holidays abroad in the 1920s might holiday at home again as their parents had done prior to 1914. The Great War had changed people's attitudes to travel. Travel links had been improved and war service had broadened the general population's mental horizons. Therefore, Bill Wilson and Albert Brand decided to take a huge gamble. They managed to persuade the manager of the local Westminster Bank to back them with substantial loans to buy all the SMNCo shares. Their bid was accepted by the shareholders, and they became joint-owners, and co-chairmen of the board. They only appointed four other salaried directors. The company secretary and the company lawyer were given one share each, the rest being held by Bill Wilson and Albert Brand. This was probably in 1930 or early 1931. The fleet houseflag was changed around the same time.

By 1933, Bill Wilson had become a rising young independent businessman, and was confident enough about his financial future to be courting his future wife, Julian Wilson's mother. They had a fashionable London wedding in 1934, and a honeymoon at the Ritz. Their prediction about the seaside resort trade had paid-off, and they were making enough money during the holiday season to take their own annual holidays in December and January as a quartet [ Bill Wilson, his wife, and Albert and Lilian Brand) on the French Riviera. Their senior skippers ran the winter trade - the several fishing smacks and bawleys they had acquired as local fishing families gave-up commercial fishing because they could not afford to motorise their boats. The SMNCo never owned or operated any cocklers - that side of the local fishing trade was left to the Leigh fishing families such as the Osborns and the Gilsons.

Bill Wilson and Albert Brand were in a unique position to do this. The first of any 'catch' commanded the best prices - and motorised fishing boats travelled home from the Estuary fishing grounds faster than the sailing smacks and bawleys. The SMNCo had a Fleet Engineering Workshop in a little cul-de-sac named Hartington Road - where the machinery for all the pleasure boats was maintained and overhauled, and any other mechanical plant aboard was also serviced and repaired. The SMNCo employed an Engineer for each pleasure boat - all with ex-Navy training at HMS Sultan at Sheerness (the RN's shore-based Engineering School for Artificers and Stokers), and then further-trained on small internal combustion engines by Bill Wilson. The SMNCo therefore had a substantial staff of marine engineers; all that was required to motorise a cheaply-bought sailing bawley was a source of small internal combustion engines. Even at the end of the 1920s, the War Department were still selling-off the war-surplus materiel which had been needed 1914-1918. This included thousands of lorries, and thousands of spare vehicle engines for the war-surplus transport, all being sold at scrap prices - they could buy a 50hp Thornycroft lorry engine for £5. Bill Wilson designed a system of adapting these vehicle engines for marine use, and modifying them to run at constant speeds. Since these fishing boats didn't have to meet Board of Trade passenger-carrying regulations and inspections, which mandated marine engines designed as such from the start, the engineers were able to install these marinised vehicle engines very cheaply - and the SMNCo soon had a small flotilla of motorised smacks and bawleys, all between 36ft to 48ft loa, and with catch capacities of between 10 and 15 dw Tons of sprats.
All these catches were sold, sight-unseen, to Billingsgate Fishmongers; and sent to London within a very short time of being landed, by the LMS to Fenchurch Street.

Pick-of-the catch always went to the Southend MacFisheries shops. There were two in the High Street; and several others elsewhere in the village shopping centres that Southend was swallowing-up as it expanded - places such as Prittlewell, Thorpe Bay, Chalkwell, Westcliff and Shoeburyness. The family who had owned Southchurch Hall Farm for centuries died out around the late 1920s - I think the heirs had been killed in the Great War - and the farmland was sold for building. This led to the development of the area served by the LMS Southend East Station. That area had a little shopping centre and there was a MacFisheries shop there. Another area of farm-land was being turned into upper-middle-class housing in Thorpe Bay around Thorpe Bay LMS Station - with a small group of local shops, which also included a new wet-fish shop. There were plenty of local outlets for the catches of the SMNCo's little fishing flotilla.

A Visit From a King

The New Prince of Wales once transported King George V from the Royal Yacht Britannia, becalmed well below the Nore up Sea Reach, to land His Majesty at Southend pierhead. The trip took a couple of hours, and for most of that time, the King, and his equerry were either on the bridge chatting to Bill Wilson and Commodore Brand, or down below in the fore-cabin. Here they were served tea and cakes by my mother and Lilian Brand, none of whom could quite believe that it was happening, and they were chatting person-to-person with the King-Emperor.
Bill Wilson and Albert Brand said the King was delighted to discover they were both RN veterans, and active reservists, and that they much preferred to employ ex-RN veterans than any other staff (apart from born and bred Essex longshoremen and fishermen). Most of the journey from the Lower Hope was apparently spent in responding to His Majesty's questions about their Great War Service, and he was delighted to discover that my mother was born and brought-up in Windsor; and pleased her by remembering her late father - whom he'd met "in Lodge" as a Mason.

Using the Radio Room, Captain Brand was asked to send a message ahead to the Pierhead Control for immediate berthing to set His Majesty ashore without any fuss, for one of the Pier Trains to be held for an immediate journey ashore, and asked for a car to transport the King to Southend Central Station. Here the King proposed to board an ordinary LMS train for Fenchurch Street as an ordinary passenger. Pierhead Control was also asked to telegraph the Palace to tell them the King was on his way back, and for them to arrange unobtrusive transport to Buckingham Palace from Fenchurch Street Station. Bill said this happened on one of the last three J-Class Seasons before the King fell ill in 1934, when the big yachts were racing in the Thames Estuary.
The Second World War
Along with nearly all the Southend area commercial boat owners, the SMNCo responded to the call for inshore operable vessels for Operation Dynamo. Bill Wilson and Albert Brand saw that all the company pleasure-boats were fully fuelled, and stocked with provisions and the crews had adequate clothing and even foul-weather gear, plus charts and compasses - and the whole fleet sailed across to Sheerness to report to the Office of Commodore Taylor, the S.O. for the Small Vessels Pool based at the Dockyard. Along with the rest of the early-volunteering professional watermen, they were shocked to be told that the Navy was going to commandeer their boats (their only means of earning a living), and put navy crews aboard them to take them over to Dunkirk. This was early in the collection of small shallow-draught craft for the Dunkirk evacuation. Their owners argued they knew their boats better than any Navy crew could, but Commodore Taylor 'climbed on his high horse' and insisted on Navy crews, citing War Emergency Powers and commandeering the Southend small craft 'for the duration'. Tempers were lost, and the Southend watermen nearly came to blows with the Navy over what was outright theft in practical terms. Our little fleet vanished into Navy control, and the only one we got back after May 1945, was the Julia Freak (re-named the New Prince of Wales I before re-entering service).

The SMNCo were only told of the fate of the
'big' Prince - 'sunk at Dunkirk'. They never heard of the fate of any of their other vessels.
However judging from what I know now of the fate of the
'big' Prince - I would guess that as the Navy were scraping the bottom of the personnel barrel trying to crew several hundred small craft, and as the training of the assigned RN personnel did not match the requirements of knowing how to handle such small craft and how to maintain small marine internal combustion engines (still quite rare in the inter-war 'steam' Royal Navy) - that some hundreds of the commandeered small craft suffered engine failures, and never even made it to Ramsgate, let alone to the Dunkirk - la Panne beaches. The fate for all the fleet therefore - save the Julia Freak - was "1940 - commandeered for Operation Dynamo."

The rival operators Myalls, were more-cunning. They took their lawyer with them to Sheerness, and he forced the desperate Navy to sign proper charter documents - a wrinkle that Bill Wilson and Albert Brand did not think of.
Post War
Only Julia Freak returned from RN war service, and she was re-named New Prince of Wales I before re-entering service. various other small boats were operated, including three names Princess Maud, until services ceased in the 1960s. There were no further large vessels based at Southend to replace the 'big' Prince (lost at Dunkirk) or the rival Southend Britannia, which moved to Torquay.
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