Tony Lord: Day out to Southend on a General Steam Navigation steamer

On Sunday mornings before the war, my future stepfather, George and my mother would get togged up in their best clothes and go out with me in tow wearing my dreaded tweed overcoat if it was cold.

More often than not we would take a stroll to Greenwich Park to listen to the band but sometimes we’d go further afield to Petticoat Lane, Kew Gardens or the zoo.

Or we’d even take the steam train from New Cross to Folkestone where Charlie and Alice, my grandparents, had got together again in lodgings in Darby Road under the high arches of the railway viaduct.

One summer morning, with the sun shining through the windows of our basement flat in Lewisham Hill, George suggested we have a day out down to Southend on one of the Eagle steamers that would call at Greenwich Pier around half past nine on its way down river.

In those days The General Steam Navigation Company operated three of these excursion paddles steamers. The Golden Eagle launched in 1909, the Crested Eagle, 1925 and the sumptuous Royal Eagle, 1932.

These ships carried a crew of 100 with the catering staff typically preparing 300 breakfasts and 1,000 lunches and high teas on busy weekends.

Mum made up a parcel of fish paste sandwiches, tomatoes and her homemade cake wrapped in greaseproof paper and we caught the 58 tram to Greenwich and hurried down to the pier.

After a few minutes, the squat shape of the paddle steamer, decked out with bunting, came into sight steaming swiftly round the bend at Millwall.

As she approached the landing stage the ship’s loud speakers played selections from West End musical, Me and My Girl, with the saloons and decks already crowded with trippers who had embarked at Tower Pier.

After a long and boring voyage past the low hills of Kent, the Ford factory at Dagenham and the mud flats of Canvey Island (features that were not noticed by the jolly crowd who were having a good time on Bass, brown ale and port in the saloon), we tied up at the end of Southend Pier around half past eleven.

There was a little green train that ran for a mile to the shoreline but George said (having spent ten bob already for the boat tickets) that it would be good for our appetites and his wallet if we walked.

I couldn’t wait to get to the Kursaal, a fun fair that covered many acres behind a Hollywood type facade lit with hundreds of coloured electric bulbs.

I often wondered what the word kursaal meant and, delving into my dictionary 80 years later discovered it is a German word meaning “a building for the use of visitors”.

Times were hard in those days but my kind stepfather-to-be had a good job in Woolwich Arsenal and I still had the silver shilling he had given me the day before.

Inside the fun fair I recklessly spent sixpence and climbed the steps to join the crowd huddled behind the safety barrier of THE WALL OF DEATH. A friendly man let me through to the front.

There was a staccato roar of motor bike engines, a stink of castor oil and the daredevil riders rose higher and higher before swooping down the wall of the wooden structure that rocked and shook as each machine rushed past inches from our faces.

The driver nonchalantly steered with one gauntlet triumphantly raised, silk scarf streaming behind him, before closing his throttle and dropping to the ground again.

At the end of this thrilling show, the stuntmen looked up at the circle of faces and informed us that because of the dangers they faced they could not be insured and would we show our appreciation in the usual way?

Coins showered down on the greasy floor before we filed out down the stairway. Already the oily-faced riders were revving their bikes on rollers at the front, attracting more customers with the crackling noise of their exhausts.

After a ride on the caterpillar roundabout, with a lot of screaming girls holding their skirts down, I went on the ghost train with George. Cobwebs made out of net curtains brushed our faces in the pitch-black tunnel and I was glad he was with me.

Later, we found an empty shelter on the promenade where we ate our lunch, had a stroll by the muddy beach and mother had her fortune told in a tent by Madame Zara. She emerged rather white faced and wouldn’t talk about what the gypsy had told her.

Now it was time for tea at the ABC caff and George said it was time for us to be thinking about going back along the pier as the paddle steamer would be leaving at six for the long journey against the strong tide flowing down from London.

In the gathering gloom I was pleased to see the twin domes of the Royal Naval College loom into sight. This little boy, full of fresh air and memories of a happy day, was glad to get to bed and fall asleep in an instant.

This, then, was the golden age of the pleasure steamers as, by the end of the Second World War, the paddlers were old and costly to maintain. The Crested Eagle has been sunk and against the attractions of the cinema, new holiday camps and cheaper motor cars, the demand for a trip downriver was dwindling fast.

Luckily for us the Waverley and the Kingswear Castle still survive and allow passengers to savour what I experienced before the Second World War changed so much.

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