Back from the brink

Back from the brink

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From passenger paddle steamer on the Thames Estuary to heroine of Dunkirk, this saviour of stranded soldiers needed saving from dereliction herself…

On Monday 27 May 1940, a group of minesweepers including HMS Medway Queen were at anchor near Dover. Unexpectedly, a considerable quantity of extra stores was issued and the officers and wireless operators were called to briefing sessions. Medway Queen’s commanding officer, Lieutenant AT Cook RNR, gave orders to prepare to feed several hundred “somewhat peckish” men expected on board later. At 1900hrs the flotilla weighed anchor and the eight paddlers steamed in line ahead towards Dunkirk.

The “phoney war” on land had ended with the Norwegian campaign, and the German Army launched its attack on France. German armour headed for the Channel to trap the allied armies. Outgunned and out-manoeuvred, the allies fell back towards the coast and, with the loss of Boulogne and Calais, were forced into an ever-smaller perimeter. Destroyers evacuating the army from Boulogne duelled at close range with the panzers as they entered the harbour area; the tanks lost. The British Expeditionary Force and the French First Army retreated towards Dunkirk, a large modern port with miles of gently sloping beaches. The only way out was evacuation by sea.

Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay had little preparation time before the order to begin Operation Dynamo was issued on Sunday 26 May. Some troops had already been evacuated by destroyers and a shuttle of personnel vessels (mainly cross-channel ferries) had started with the intention of providing two ships every four hours.

Rescue mission

On that first trip the gunfire was mostly inland away from the beaches. The threat of air attack was reduced by the presence of an anti-aircraft cruiser, HMS Calcutta. The ships anchored offshore and used their boats to collect men from the beaches. The soldiers, waiting in long lines that stretched down into the surf, had little experience of boats and often too many tried to board at once. Continuous baling was required just to remove the water draining from the soldier’s uniforms. AB Albert Skinner, who was in charge of one of Medway Queen’s boats, recalled afterwards that “not one of the soldiers had let go their rifles except in the case of a blinded man and then his rifle was carried by one of the men.”

Once on board they had to be fed. Cook Thomas Russell and his assistant had prepared sandwiches, Irish stew and ‘Navy Cocoa’. He described the scene: “These weren’t peckish men they were starving animals, most of them too desperately hungry to be polite – pushing, shoving and shouting. Someone opened the starboard half door and they started to flood for service right into the galley, then they tried to exit through the other door. Sec and I were serving as fast as we could but we were getting shoved back and forth and could scarcely manage. Some of the lads started to help themselves, it was pandemonium.”

The flotilla left the beaches at about 0700hrs on 28 May and proceeded to Dover. Just outside the harbour an air raid developed during which Medway Queen’s gunners shot down an enemy fighter aircraft. HMS Brighton Belle (another paddler) collided with a submerged wreck and began to sink. Medway Queen went alongside and took off all the soldiers and crew, including the ship’s dog, before the ship sank.

In all, the Medway Queen and her crew made seven trips to Dunkirk, loading from the beach or the East Mole of the Harbour. She spent seven nights out of eight in action. The BEF evacuation completed on 2 June and the French rear-guard was picked up over the following two days. The crew estimated that they had rescued 7,000 men and destroyed three aircraft. A number of Medway Queen’s crew received awards: the distinguished Service Cross was awarded to Lieutenant AT Cook RNR and to Sub-lieutenant JD Graves RNR; Petty Officers AE Crossley RFR, HJ McAllister RFR and Seaman KR Olly RNR were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal; Second Engineer T Irwin and Fireman JD Connell were both mentioned in despatches.

Early life

Medway Queen was originally built for the New Medway Steam Packet Co Ltd in 1924, and served as an excursion vessel between the Medway Ports, Southend and Herne Bay. She operated from May to September, making trips loaded with excited holiday makers keen to explore the mysteries of the Thames Estuary’s northern coast. She was lightly built and originally coal fired, but this changed in 1938 when a new oil-fired boiler was fitted – an unforeseen benefit of which was that, just two years later, her reduced refuelling time enabled her to run more trips to Dunkirk than might otherwise have been possible.

In 1939, the Medway Queen was one of the vessels tasked with moving evacuees from Dagenham and Gravesend to East Anglia, making three trips in all. Soon afterwards she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and converted for minesweeping, commissioned as HMS Medway Queen by John Graves, her First Lieutenant, in November. HMS Medway Queen was armed with a 12pdr gun on the fore deck and a machine gun on each paddle box. Part of her aft saloon was cut away to provide working space for the minesweeping equipment, and after a lick of grey paint she set to work. She served as a front-line minesweeper, mainly on the East Coast, until January 1943 when the ship was transferred to training in Granton, Edinburgh.

The last paddle steamer

After the war, PS Medway Queen returned to her old route on the Medway and Thames. Through the 1950s and into the 1960s the routine continued all summer, with winter lay-ups at the company’s maintenance yard. But by 1963 receipts were dwindling due to the rise in cheap package holidays, and maintenance costs were soaring. Medway Queen was the last paddler on the Thames and Medway, and her last voyage to Southend was on 9 September at the close of the season. She was given a massive send off from Southend pier and on arrival at the entrance to the river Medway a greeting was flashed from the Port Operations HQ. The ship made her way slowly up river to Strood, where a crowd had gathered to watch her arrival. Captain Leonard Horsham rang down ‘Stop Engines’ for the last time.

Medway Queen’s next (and last) incarnation was as a restaurant and nightclub on the Isle of Wight, at what is now Island Harbour. Through the late 1960s she was a popular venue during the day and in the evenings – often exceeding the official closing time. Jazz was the favoured music style, supplemented by discos, and somehow a restaurant and galley were squeezed into the forward saloon. But times and fashions change; the club finally closed in 1974 and the old ship fell out of use.

In 1978 Medway Queen was purchased for preservation, and moved back to the river Medway in 1984. The Medway Queen Preservation Society (MQPS) was formed in 1985 to support this project, and in November 1987 Medway Queen was floated and towed to the Isle of Grain. The Society battled decay and corrosion until the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded a grant to rebuild the hull. The contract was awarded to Bristol’s Albion Dockyard, but consultants advised that the hull was too fragile to move. All re-usable material was moved by road, and in 2009 the keel was laid and reconstruction began.

Preserving history

In 2010, the Gillingham Pier site was leased from Medway Council with support from the European Development Fund, and an apprentice training scheme worked to provide sub-assemblies for the hull build and to prepare for the ship’s return.

On Saturday 27 July 2013, Medway Queen was re-dedicated in the Albion Dockyard. There were speeches and a bottle of champagne was cracked on the ship’s bow by the Managing Director’s young daughters. Over 1,000 visitors and guests came to witness this milestone, and Medway Queen was handed-over to the MQPS soon afterwards. The ship was towed out of the dock on 24 October and moored in the harbour until fair weather allowed her to set off finally on Friday 15 November, arriving off Sheerness the following Monday. The next day Medway Queen berthed at Gillingham Pier.

Fitting out has begun in earnest, but funds are short and progress slow. Work that has been undertaken includes companionways, temporary decking in the lower saloons, the bow rudder and main steering system. The priorities for the MQPS are safe access, restoring a saloon that can be used for revenue-generating functions, and restoring the engine room to working order, as well as improving visitor numbers.

A testament to the hard work and passion of the people determined to see the Medway Queen made good again, in May 2015 she was towed to Ramsgate for the 75th anniversary of the Dunkirk Evacuation. An impressive flotilla of surviving Dunkirk Little Ships gathered in the Royal Harbour and made their way across to Dunkirk, reliving moments that are written large in our history. She is now settled in her berth at Gillingham Pier and welcomes visitors interested in seeing this fine slice of British maritime history up close.

The Medway Queen Preservation Society

The Medway Queen Preservation Society was formed in 1985 to support a current restoration project for the ship. With plenty of work still to do, the MQPS is actively raising funds and drumming up volunteers. If you’d like to offer assistance of any sort, please do get in touch.

The Medway Queen Visitor Centre on Gillingham Pier is open on Saturdays from 11am to 4pm (last admissions 3pm). The ship is accessible to visitors – you can view the great engine and visualise how it would have looked and sounded powering the ship through the water. The lower aft saloon contains displays and exhibitions; from 27 May to mid-August you can experience Memories of Dunkirk, with guides on hand to answer your questions.
A number of special events are planned for 2017, including a model boat show on 15 and 16 April.

The MQPS is looking for volunteers to fill technical, administrative and sales/marketing roles, as well as more people to join the visitor team, and more hands specialising in woodwork and mechanical fitting would speed the ship’s fitting out. Willingness and enthusiasm are the most important qualifications! If you’d like to help out, call 01634 575717 or email

The MQPS has spent many years raising funds to restore the ship to operational use. The hull was rebuilt with the aid of the Heritage Lottery Fund and European Regional Development Fund; the next phase of the project is fitting out the ship and re-commissioning the machinery. Every penny helps to finish the Medway Queen’s restoration; you can donate via or send a cheque to: Medway Queen Preservation Society, Gillingham Pier, Pier Approach Road, Gillingham, Kent ME7 1RX.


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