London’s paddle steamers magic lantern slides

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Long before the construction of canals, railways and motorways, navigable rivers were our transport super highways. In the UK, the River Thames gave London direct access to the seas, oceans, countries and continents of the world and was its ‘raison d’etre’ and source of wealth.

Traffic congestion on London’s roads has always been a problem and Victorian photographs show streets thronged with horse drawn taxis, carts and buses, probably crawling at the same pace as today’s traffic ….. a topic for a future post.

Of course, boats on the river don’t suffer the same delays as road vehicles although, in its heyday, with docks lining the river banks for many miles, congestion must surely have been an issue. So, in Victorian times, one solution to the transport needs of the ever-growing population, was a fleet of fast, highly maneuverable paddle steamer ferries, serving piers at popular points along the river for passengers to embark and disembark. This was before the days of regulation and coordination and boat owners would compete to carry as many passengers as possible between the busiest places. Today’s photographs show Westminster pier (top) with a queue of boats waiting to come along side and a stunning image of a paddle steamer approaching Greenwich pier.

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The saying ’there’s nothing new’ is often true and in addition to the many sight-seeing boats that currently ply their trade on the River Thames, there are regular ferries providing the same service as those shown here, often to and from the same places. But is a diesel-powered, sleek, fast, comfortable and safe ferry as romantic as a coal-fired paddle steamer? And think of all the jobs the steamers created ..… miners to extract the coal; railway staff to transport it to London; coal depot staff; delivery men and stable boys to look after the horses; stokers to feed the boilers; engineers to maintain the engines and many more. Were they the good old days?

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