Ullswater steamers - historic lakeland fleet dating from 1877

Living History

Ullswater steamers - historic lakeland fleet dating from 1877

Ullswater Steamers is a boat company which provides leisure trips with a vintage fleet on Ullswater in the north-eastern part of the English Lake District. It is based in Glenridding, Cumbria. Founded in 1855, it currently operates five vessels between four locations on the lake, with the oldest boat, 'Lady of the Lake', dating back to 1877. She is believed to be the oldest working passenger vessel in the world.

The lake and its surroundings have inspired many famous artists and poets throughout the centuries, including William Wordsworth and JMW Turner, and became an important tourist destination in Victorian times.

Ullswater Steam Navigation Company was established in 1855, and its first vessel, The Enterprise was launched on 13th August 1859, she was a paddle steamer but was beset with problems with her paddles being choked by weeds in the lake. She was later replaced by Raven in 1889, by which time the Lady of the Lake had been introduced, and still survives.

The main purpose of the original Steamers was not only to carry passengers, but also Royal Mail, provisions, slate from nearby mines and lead from the Greenside mine in Glenridding.

In 1877, the Lady of the Lake was launched, designed by Douglas Hebson of Penrith and built in Glasgow by Joseph Seath & Company. She was transported in three sections by rail to Penrith, then horse drays to Waterside where she was put together at Elder Beck. Lady is 29.8 metres long and weighs in at 42.7 tonnes. In 1881 she sank at her moorings and was re-floated by a team of divers from Liverpool. She sank again in 1958 in a severe storm, and then in 1965 she was badly damaged by fire and was out of service for 14 years until company owner Lord Wakefield had her restored and refitted.

The second vessel, the Raven was launched in 1889, and built by the same company as Lady of the Lake. The son of the owner, Winifred Parkin, aged 6 broke the bottle of champagne across Raven's bows. According to legend, the younger the person that names a vessel, the longer she will live. Raven is now over 120 years old.

One of the shareholders, Thomas Cook, was the reason behind the launch of a second Steamer. He voiced his concerns to the Directors that when Lady of the Lake had broken down at the height of the season, a second vessel would have alleviated this problem.

In subsequent years, the company became Ullswater Navigation and Transit Company. Raven was made a temporary royal yacht in 1912, and her decks painted yellow to mark the visit of the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II to Lowther Castle – the home of Lord Lonsdale. In 1934 she was converted from steam and fitted with twin diesel engines, cruising at approximately 12mph or 10 knots. Today, Raven and Lady both have Cummins engines; Raven has a bph of 155 and Lady 180 bhp.

In 1953 Sir Wavell Wakefield discovered that the controlling shareholder was going to wind up the Company so he bought up all but three percent of the shares to ensure the future of the Steamers. He was a three-times Grand Slam-winning England rugby captain, WW1 Fighter pilot and Member of Parliament. His vision for the future of the Steamers is continued by the family to this day.

Other vintage vessels have been added to the fleet, including Lady Dorothy in 2001. She was previously a sea-going vessel in Guernsey, and her arrival meant for the first time winter sailings were introduced into the timetable. The other vessels are Lady Wakefield, built in 1949 in Dartmouth, which originally worked on the River Dart and Plymouth Sound. The Western Belle, built in 1935, for the Millbrook Steamboat & Trading Co. Ltd, worked on the River Tamar, before joining the Ullswater Fleet in 2011 after a complete refurbishment at the Heritage Shipyard on the Wirral.

In 2018 HRH Prince of Wales took a cruise on board Lady of the Lake whilst visiting Cumbria to celebrate the Lake District becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Further reading

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