Great Eastern Railway

The Great Eastern Railway (GER) acquired Parliamentary powers to operate steamers from Harwich in 1863, some nine years after its line had reached the port. In fact, it had become a ship-owner in the previous year through its acquisition of the Eastern Counties Railway Company, which operated ferries on the Orwell and Stour in succession to the Ipswich Steam Navigation Company. These services were to continue into LNER days. While the improvement and extension of services from Harwich, for the benefit of the railway, became the central role of GER shipping, it is worth mentioning two diversions into ferry services on the Thames.

Between January 1866 and November 1902, the GER leased the London and Blackwall Railway which operated a connecting ferry service from Blackwall to Greenwich, ceasing only on the opening of the Blackwall Tunnel. From 1868, they also took over the working of the Woolwich Ferry which continued until 1908, the Free Ferry having been then established by London County Council.

Returning to Harwich, the main objective of the GER was to use its position to offer services to Continental ports east of those served by the Channel Ports, principally Rotterdam and Antwerp. It began in October 1863 with chartered vessels running cattle and general cargo to the Dutch port, the first vessels built for the GER being the trio ZEALOUS, HARWICH and ROTTERDAM in 1864. A service to Antwerp began in July 1882, consequent on the opening of the St. Gotthard rail tunnel which opened up new passenger and cargo trade through to Italian cities.

Of the early vessels which did not survive to the 1923 grouping, four are perhaps worth mentioning. The paddle steamer RICHARD YOUNG of 1871 became the first vessel to enter the New Waterway on its inauguration on 9 March 1872. On a sadder note, the fine steamer BERLIN of 1894 was tragically wrecked on the northern pier while entering the New Waterway in a north-westerly gale on 21 February 1907, only 15 lives being saved and 128 lost in the worst peacetime disaster so far on the North Sea routes. On 29 September 1913, DRESDEN sailed from Antwerp for her overnight run to Harwich, carrying Dr. Rudolf Diesel of engine fame, who was missing on arrival and whose body was recovered off the Dutch coast some months later. Lastly, BRUSSELS under Captain Fryatt warded off a U-boat attack by trying to ram the aggressor in March 1915, and after subsequently being captured with his ship off Hoek van Holland in June 1916 the German authorities tried and executed the unfortunate Captain, causing widespread international condemnation.

Changes of terminals occurred in 1883 when Parkeston Quay replaced the Harwich town berths, and from 1893 when a new terminal at Hoek van Holland allowed the gradual transfer of services from central Rotterdam. An overnight service to Hoek began in the same year, allowing a passenger to leave London in the early evening and reach as far as Berlin by the next night. The mail contract to the Netherlands was won in 1899, in place of the Zeeland Company's Queenborough to Vlissingen route. This Dutch company relocated to Parkeston Quay in 1927, permitting a joint service day and night to the Hoek.

The shipping operations of the LNER in succession to the GER therefore comprised the Antwerp and Hoek van Holland services, in the 1920's a seasonal service to Zeebrugge, a ferry between Shotley, Harwich and Felixstowe and summer excursion sailings between Harwich, Felixstowe and Ipswich and from Lowestoft. The excursion sailings ceased from 1931 and the Antwerp service from January 1951, having been served post-war by the ex-GCR steamers ACCRINGTON and DEWSBURY.

'Out of service' refers to the year the ship left railway operated services with the LNER or BR. In many cases, the ships were sold to new owners or entered service with the Admiralty.

Harwich & Lowestoft

The following were operated by the GER and entered service with the LNER:

NameTypeIn ServiceOut of Service
Despatch Paddle steamer 1878 1930
Amsterdam Passenger 1894 1928
Vienna / Roulers Passenger 1894 1930
Suffolk Paddle steamer 1895 1931
Norfolk Paddle steamer 1900 1931
Cromer Cargo 1902 1934
Munich / St. Denis Passenger 1908 1940
St. Petersburg / Archangel Passenger 1910 1941
Pin Mill Motor ferry 1912 ??
Epping Motor ferry 1914 1964
Hainault Motor ferry 1914 1964
Kilkenny / Frinton Passenger / cargo 1917 1927
Felixstowe Cargo 1918 1951
St. George Passenger 1919 1929
Antwerp Passenger 1920 1940
Bruges Passenger 1921 1940
Malines Passenger 1921 1940

The following were built for the LNER:

NameTypeIn ServiceOut of Service
Brightlingsea Motor ferry 1925 1964
Sheringham Cargo 1926 1958
Vienna Passenger 1929 1941
Prague Passenger 1930 1948
Amsterdam Passenger 1930 1944
Arnhem Passenger 1947 1968

See also: Great Eastern Train Ferries Ltd - Harwich


Compiled by George Robinson.