Whittingham family plaque unveiling

Crest Presentation at the Steam Packet

Medway Queen Visitors Centre Vernon Stratford

Starboard paddle box – Richard Halton

Medway Queen 2 by Harley Crossley

The paddle steamer, Medway Queen, was built in 1924 for the New Medway Steam Packet Co. Ltd. She worked on the Thames estuary between the Medway towns and Southend-on-Sea with occasional forays elsewhere. In 1937 and 1953 she attended the Coronation Reviews at Spithead and during WWII she was used by the Royal Navy as a minesweeper. Her principal claim to fame is the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940 when Medway Queen and her crew made seven return trips and brought back 7000 British and French troops. After the war the ship returned to her old route and worked there until maintenance costs and falling revenues forced withdrawal in 1963.

In 1966 she opened as a nightclub and restaurant on the Isle of Wight. The business proved successful and in 1970 she was joined by another vessel; PS Ryde from the Portsmouth-Ryde ferry service, renamed “Ryde Queen”. Initially the two ships worked together but by the mid seventies Medway Queen had fallen out of use and sunk. She found her way back to Kent in 1984 and in the following year the Medway Queen Preservation Society formed to save her. There followed a period of physical struggle against corrosion and administrative struggle to raise funds for a restoration to working order.

Hull Rebuild
We can consider the restoration in two phases. The Heritage Lottery Fund gave a grant of £1.86M for phase one, the hull rebuild. This began in Bristol in 2009 where the Albion Dockyard has built a riveted hull to 1924 drawings using traditional methods and incorporating as much as possible of the original material. This material including major components including the engine was moved to Bristol by road as needed. The Medway Queen Preservation Society and the dockyard have worked closely together and in many cases cooperated on the refurbishment or replacement of parts. The build has been monitored on webcams linked to the MQPS web site (www.medwayqueen.co.uk) and those who have followed the story have seen amazing progress on the ship’s hull recently. Fitting the paddle boxes in late 2011 made a huge difference – the ship became a “paddler” again. The hull plating and promenade deck structure were complete on the forward part of the ship in January. The restored original deck planking has been shipped by road from Gillingham to Bristol to be installed on the ship and sealed to form a watertight structure. The rebuilt condenser, replacement deck stanchions and Medway Queen’s distinctive windows have all been taken to Bristol. For the engine, the controls have been refitted, the pipe work has been shot blasted and loose fitted for further work in Gillingham. The paddle wheels are complete and await installation on the ship.

Fitting Out
The society’s base is now on Gillingham Pier where a visitor centre and workshop have been established. The Visitor Centre now proudly sports an original New Medway Steam Packet Company crest. The iron plaque from the old company’s Rochester office building has been generously donated to the society by the “Steam Packet” pub in nearby Strood. Pub manageress Fliss Kissak and landlord Geoff McMeekin presented the plaque to John Kempton (Chairman MQPS) and the project team back in January. The plaque has been repainted and now takes pride of place on the outside wall of the visitor centre. The centre also contains another plaque commemorating the generous support that the Whittingham family have given our society over the years. Members of the Whittingham family were present to witness society Vice President, Noreen Chambers, unveiling their plaque at a Member’s Day last year. The Visitor Centre is on Gillingham Pier (Pier Approach Road, Gillingham, Kent. ME7 1RX). It is open every Saturday from 11am to 4pm and contains displays telling the Medway Queen’s story, which will complement the ship when she is moved back to Kent later this year. If you are travelling any great distance to make your visit we do strongly suggest that you ring 01634 575717 beforehand to confirm opening times. It is planned to take part in the “Heritage Open Days” programme from 6-9th September when, if possible, the workshops will be opened to visitors. Put the date in your diary now and keep an eye on http://www.medwayqueen.co.uk.

In the workshops there are 8 craft apprentices from Mid-Kent College with 4 instructors and a project manager. A wealth of experience and expertise is available through these instructors and the support of the GMB Union. Over the years society volunteers have cleaned and restored much of the ship’s machinery and fittings. However, some of this was done 20 years ago so checking and remedial work is needed. Auxiliary machinery, the paddle box fascias, window frames, portholes and a myriad other items are passing through the new workshops, for refurbishment or repair as needed. The Gillingham Pier facility is supported by the EU Regional Development Fund’s “Heroes of the two seas & heroes to see” project. The MQPS is working closely with the New Belgica Association and the Association Tourville who are building replicas of historic vessels. Despite ERDF support, a large sum must be raised elsewhere. Big grants are essential to the restoration but they depend on partnership funding from individual donations and corporate sponsorship. You can find out more about this incredible project at http://www.medwayqueen.co.uk or from the Visitor Centre and Project Office

Copyright Richard Halton, May 2012
The Medway Queen Preservation Society is a UK registered charity (296236)