River Dart Steamboat Co Ltd

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River Dart Steamboat Company Limited
Former type Private
Industry Transport
Fate Renamed River Dart Boat and Leisure Co. Ltd
Predecessor Dartmouth & Torbay Steam Packet Co. Ltd
Successor River Dart Boat & Leisure Co. Limited
Founded Dartmouth, Devon, United Kingdom (1906 (1906))
Founder(s) Charles Seale Hayne
Defunct 1976 (1976)
Headquarters Dartmouth, Devon, United Kingdom
Area served South Devon
Products River Dart ferry services
Parent Evans & Reid Investment Co Ltd (1952-1976)
Subsidiaries Devon Star Shippping Co Ltd (1961-1964)
A small, black-hulled paddle steamer passing a commercial wharf, with a power station in the background. The paddle steamer is well loaded with passengers, and has a yellow funnel with black top
PS Kingswear Castle, the last remaining operational RDSC steamer, in service from Chatham.

The River Dart Steamboat Co Ltd (RDSC) and its predecessors: the Dartmouth Steam Packet Company and the Dartmouth and Torbay Steam Packet Company were the major ferry and excursion boat operators on the River Dart in South Devon for 120 years, until its demise in 1976. The company was famous for its distinctive paddle steamers, which were a familiar sight on the river until the late 1960s.


 [v  d  e] River Dart Steamboat Co
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Normal Services
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Services operated for a short period only
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Totnes Steamer Quay
Totnes St Peter's Quay
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Duncannon (for Stoke Gabriel)
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Greenway Quay
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to:Weymouth, Plymouth, Channel Islands

The diagram on the right illustrates the network of routes operated by the company and its predecessors.


The premier route of the company, this route operated year-round until 1929, thereafter being a summer only service. This route was around 10 miles long, and the journey time was an average of 75 minutes, though journey times of less than an hour were possible before the introduction of a 6 knot speed limit.[1] Calls were made en-route at Dittisham Pier, and off Duncannon, where passengers for Stoke Gabriel and Cornworthy were embarked by small rowing boat. Totnes is tidal, and so the ferry could only run at high tide. In its early years the service was a true ferry, connecting Dartmouth with the markets and main line station at Totnes, and carried mail until 1929. As the years went by, it became more of a tourist cruise service[2]

Other routes

From time to time the company experimented with operating other ferry services. These either closed, or were taken over by other operators


For the brief period between the Dartmouth and Torbay Railway reaching Brixham Road Station in 1861 and Kingswear in 1864, a regular connecting ferry service was run four times per day between Dartmouth and Greenway Quay, where the steamers were met with a horse-drawn omnibus to the station at Brixham Road.


On 16 August 1864 the Dartmouth and Torbay Railway reached Kingswear, across the river from Dartmouth. The Act of Parliament incorporating the railway gave the railway company the right to operate the ferry to Dartmouth. The route was a short 5 minute crossing; from the pontoon adjacent to Kingswear station, to Dartmouth Pontoon, where an unusual station was built, with ticket office and porters, but no track. Initially the ferry was leased to the Dartmouth Steam Packet Company, who built the PS Newcomin and the doubled ended PS Dolphin for the route. In 1901, the Great Western Railway (GWR) took over the running of the Kingswear Ferry, and purchased the Dolphin. As the GWR only owned one passenger vessel on the Dart, relief steamers continued to be provided by the River Dart Steamboat Company until 1957[2]


This short route across the Dart was operated by local boatmen for most of it history, but the River Dart Steamboat Company operated it during the Second World War.[2]

Coastal and cross-channel routes

In the early years of the company, attempts were made to run long distance excursions from Dartmouth, to the Channel Islands, St Malo, Weymouth, Plymouth and other ports of the south coast using the PS Pilot. On the arrival of the railway, the PS Eclair was purpose built for a weekly cross-channel service, departing from Dartmouth each Monday night, and calling at Guernsey and Jersey en-route to St Malo, arriving on Tuesday. The following day she would return, again via Jersey and Guernsey, arriving at Dartmouth on Saturday. These sailings were unsuccessful, and ended with the sale of the Eclair in 1868.[1]


Dartmouth Steam Packet Co Ltd

In 1856 John Moody and Charles Seale Hayle established a Dartmouth–Totnes steamboat service. The first vessel in the fleet was the purpose-built PS Lousia, a 90 foot paddle steamer built at Deptford on the River Thames in 1856. Two years later , two additional paddle steamers were acquired second hand - the PS Mary for the Totnes run, and PS Pilot for towage work in Dartmouth harbour. In 1859 the company was incorporated under the name the Dartmouth Steam Packet Company. The new company bought all of the shares of the Louisa and a majority of the shares in the Pilot in 1859; with the Mary returning to South Shields. For the next few years, the Pilot, having being refitted as a full time passenger boat ran coastal and cross channel trips, in addition to the normal services.[3]

Seale Hayle's primary commercial interest was the establishment of the Dartmouth and Torbay railway, so when this railway reached Brixham Road, the company operated the connecting ferry service to Greenway. This service was changed to run to Kingswear in 1864, when the railway reached its terminus, and a new steamer was built for the route: the PS Newcomin. In 1865 the company took delivery of the largest ever Dartmouth-based passenger steamer - the 180-foot-long PS Eclair. This steamer was purpose-built for cross-channel services to the channel islands, which were operated in connection with the railway, but the service was unsuccessful, and the Eclair was sold in 1868

The Louisa was broken up in 1868, when only 12 years old. Her replacement in 1869 was the double ended paddle steamer Dolphin; designed for the short Kingswear route - the Newcomin now being used on the Totnes route. Also built in the same year was PS Guide - a wooden-hulled tug. In 1871 the formerly competing steamer PS Dartmouth was acquired, giving the Dartmouth Steam Packet Company a monopoly of all of the river's passenger services. From 1872 therefore the Dartmouth-Totnes service was run by the Newcomin, Dartmouth and Pilot, with the Dolphin on the Kingswear ferry and the Guide chartered out to the Scilly Isles Steam Navigation Company, as a replacement for their wrecked SS Little Western. She returned to the Dart in 1876 [1]

Dartmouth and Torbay Steam Packet Company

In 1877 a new syndicate, named the Dartmouth and Torbay Steam Packet Company took over the fleet from Seale Hayne's company. The Guide was immediately sold, followed by the Pilot two years later. In their place came two small screw steamers - the SS Hauley and SS Nimble. In 1879 the Dartmouth was replaced by the trend-setting paddle steamer Berry Castle whose basic design was followed for the next 44 years. In 1883 a further screw-steamer: the SS ""Dart"" was purchased, and in the following year the Newcomin was replaced by the first PS Dartmouth Castle

Following this period of fleet modernisation were ten years of stability, with the two 'castles' on the Dartmouth–Totnes run, the Dolphin on the Kingswear ferry, and the three screw steamers assisting. At this time the single fare to Totnes was one shilling in the saloon, or ninepence in the forecabin. In 1893 the Dart was sold, and a new paddle steamer: the first PS Totnes Castle entered service. Designed for the winter run, this vessel was smaller than the other paddle steamers, and was flush-decked. The Hauley was sold in 1898. [1]

The Edwardian years

In 1901 the Kingswear ferry lease was due for renewal, and the Great Western Railway decided to operate the service themselves, purchasing the Dolphin for the purpose. The 'Torbay' element in the company's name was therefore no longer relevant, and in 1904, the company was renamed the River Dart Steamboat Company. At the same time another paddle steamer was added to the fleet: the first Kingswear Castle. In 1906 the company was incorporated - it appears that the Nimble was not transferred to the incorporated company, so its fleet consisted of the four 'castle' class paddle steamers.

In 1907 the first PS Dartmouth Castle was replaced by a similar vessel of the same name. In 1912 the Totnes Castle was sold, two years later her replacement the PS Compton Castle entered service. This steamer was the first to have her deck extended out over her paddle sponsons, in the style which would become typical of the Dart paddlers.[4]

World War One

Initially there was little effect on the company services following the declaration of war, though later the service was reduced and the company's oldest steamer - PS Berry Castle was laid up, and broken up in 1917. It is worth noting that the Dartmouth–Totnes service was still a ferry route, and a Royal Mail service at this stage.[2]

Between the Wars

In 1922 the company introduced their first motor vessel - the first MV Berry Castle a 60 foot long, twin paraffin engined vessel. The small MV Dittisham Castle was introduced in the same year, to operate a shuttle service from Dartmouth to her namesake village. The following year, two new paddle steamers: the second Totnes Castle and second PS Kingswear Castle were ordered to the same design as the Compton Castle. The second Kingswear Castle inherited the engines from the first, which became an isolation hospital ship at Dartmouth, before being burnt at Fleet Mill Quay to avoid contamination. In 1926 a third motor vessel entered service - the MV Clifton Castle.

There now followed a long period of stability, with the PS Dartmouth Castle, PS Compton Castle, PS Totnes Castle and PS Kingswear Castle running the main Totnes service, MV Dittisham Castle on the Dittisham shuttle. The MV Berry Castle and MV Clifton Castle operated the winter services, and additional services in the summer.

In 1938 a new vessel - the MV Greenway Castle was built, but went to went to the Thames shortly afterwards. A further new vessel: MV Seymour Castle entered service in the following year.[4]

World War Two

Unlike the First World War, all excursion traffic stopped immediately following the declaration of war. The Totnes Castle was used briefy as a Liberty boat at Devonport Dockyard, and during 1941 operated a limited summer service to Totnes in full peacetime colouring. She also, along with the Kingswear Castle, occasionally relieved on the Kingswear Ferry. Compton Castle was used by the Admiralty as an ammunition carrier. The Seymour Castle was requsitionned by the Admiralty, and used for marking swept channels at Ramsgate. She also took part in the Operation Dynamo to Dunkirk. The Clifton Castle was also sold to the Crown, whilst the MV Dittisham Castle was sold to the Dartmouth Coaling Company. The Berry Castle and Dartmouth Castle were laid up in Old Mill Creek for the duration of the war, by the end of the War Dartmouth Castle was in such poor condition that she never sailed again, and her remains are still in the creek.[1]

The postwar years

After the war the company was left with only the three paddle steamers and the MV Seymour Castle. The work of rebuilding the fleet commenced with the construction of the MV Dartmouth Castle in 1948, and the MV Berry Castle the following year.

In 1952, following the death of the managing director: John Tolman two years earlier, the company was taken over by Evans & Reid Investment Co Ltd of Cardiff. The new company valued the three motor vessels at a collective £17,311, whilst the three steamers were valued at a scrap value of just £797. Nevertheless the service ran unchanged until 1961, when a controlling interest was bought in the Devon Star Shipping Co Ltd, operators of the MV Torbay Prince from Torquay. This interest was sold three years later.

After the 1962 season the PS Compton Castle was refused a passenger certificate, and was replaced with a new motor vessel: the MV Conway Castle. The following year the PS Totnes Castle also required major work, and was replaced with a sister to the Conway Castle - the MV Cardiff Castle. The final steamer PS Kingswear Castle remained in service until the end of the 1965 season, when she was sold to the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society.[3]


Despite having a modern fleet of five motor vessels, the company continued to decline in the late 1960s, with various factors including the sinking of the Torrey Canyon, poor weather and unemployment contributing to poor seasons. In a diversification, two pilot boats were bought for chartering. MV Berry Castle and MV Seymour Castle were sold after the 1972 season, and the 1974 season was to be the company's last as an operator of pleasure boats. The following year saw the introduction of a new operator on the river: Dart Pleasure Craft, who introduced three motor vessels from the River Thames. The MV Dartmouth Castle was sold in 1975 to Millbrook Steamboat & Trading Co Ltd of Plymouth, who also bought the last RDSC vessel, MV Cardiff Castle in 1977, the MV Conway Castle having been sold earlier in the year.[3]

After the closure of passenger services the company was renamed River Dart Boat and Leisure Co Ltd. It still survices today as part of Evans & Reid Investment Co Ltd, with its activities listed as development and sale of real estate.[5] The diagram below illustrates the transfer of vessels between the various ferry companies of South Devon during the following years.

South Devon Ferries 1972 - 1987
This table shows the transfer of passenger vessels between various operators in South Devon, caused by the demise of the River Dart Steamboat Company (RDSC) and Millbrook Steamboat and Trading Company (MSTC), and the formation of Dart Pleasure Craft (DPC), Plymouth Boat Cruises (PBC) and Tamar Cruising (TC)
Vessel 1972 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87
Conway Castle River Dart Steamboat Co River Severn
Seymour Castle RDSC Various Riddalls
Berry Castle RDSC Various Dart Pleasure Craft PBC
Dartmouth Castle RDSC MSTC Dart Pleasure Craft
Cardiff Castle River Dart Steamboat Co MSTC Dart Pleasure Craft
Humphrey Gilbert Dartmouth Council Various MSTC Dart Pleasure Craft
Adrian Gilbert Dartmouth Council Var Dart Pleasure Craft
My Queen River Thames Dart Pleasure Craft PBC Riddalls
Queen Boadiciea River Thames Dart Pleasure Craft MSTC Scrapped
Queen Boadiciea II River Thames Dart Pleasure Craft Tamar Cruising
Plymouth Sound Newbuilding TC
Northern Belle Millbrook Steamboat & Trading Co Tamar Cruising
Western Belle Millbrook Steamboat & Trading Co Dart Pleasure Craft
Plymouth Belle Millbrook Steamboat & Trading Co Dart Pleasure Craft
Eastern Belle Millbrook Steamboat & Trading Co DPC PBC Riddalls
Southern Belle Millbrook Steamboat & Trading Co PBC
Devon Belle Millbrook Steamboat & Trading Co River Fal
Lady Elizabeth Millbrook Steamboat & Trading Co Kingsbridge Estuary
Plymouth Princess River Thames Plymouth Boat Cruises
Plymouth Venturer Newbuilding Plymouth Boat Cruises
Queen of Helford River Fal Riddalls
Vessel 1972 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87

The River Dart paddle steamer

A paddle steamer as described in the adjacent text
PS Kingswear Castle, showing the classic lines of a River Dart Paddle Steamer.

PS Berry Castle was the first of a series of paddle steamers specifically designed for River Dart service. They were a maximum length of 108 feet, in order to allow them to swing in the river at Totnes. Each was fitted with a two-cylinder compound engine (PS Bery Castle and the first PS Dartmouth Castle had two-cylinder oscillating engines), located forward of the boiler.

Passenger accommodation was located in saloons both forward and aft of the engine room. Open passenger decks were situated above the saloons, with small cockpits at the bow and stern. On the PS Compton Castle and later vessels the deck was widened over long sponsons to the edge of the paddle boxes, and a flying after deck was provided above the aft cockpit. The second PS Dartmouth Castle was later refitted with these features. [6]

The one paddle steamer built to a differing design was the first PS Totnes Castle, which was smaller, and flush-decked, as she was designed mainly for the winter service

Fleet list

Name Built Company Service Notes
PS Louisa 1856 1856–1868
PS Mary 1852 1858–1859
PS Pilot 1852 1877–1879 Long distance excursions including Channel Islands
PS Newcomin 1864 1877–1884
PS Eclair 1865 1865–1868 Long distance excursions including Channel Islands
PS Guide 1869 1869–1877
PS Dolphin 1869 1877–1901 Double ended Paddle Steamer built for Kingswear Ferry. Sold to GWR 1901
PS Dartmouth 1856 1877–1881
SS Hauley 1877 1877–1898
SS Nimble 1878 1879–1910
PS Berry Castle (I) 1880 1880–1917
SS Dart 1883 1883–1893
PS Dartmouth Castle (I) 1885 1885–1907
PS Totnes Castle (I) 1894 1894–1912 Winter Boat for Totnes Service
PS Kingswear Castle (I) 1904 1904–1924
PS Dartmouth Castle (II) 1907 1907–1947
PS Compton Castle 1914 1914-1964
MV Berry Castle (II) 1921 1922–1947
MV Dittisham Castle 1922 1922–1947 Dartmouth–Dittisham Ferry
PS Totnes Castle (II) 1923 1923–1964
PS Kingswear Castle (II) 1924 1924–1967 Now operates for the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society on the River Medway
MV Clifton Castle 1926 1926–1942
MV Greenway Castle 1937 1937–1938?
MV Seymour Castle 1938 1938–1973
MV Dartmouth Castle (III) 1948 1948–1975 Sold to Millbrook Steamboat & Trading Co Ltd
MV Berry Castle 1948 1948–1975
MV Conway Castle 1963 1963–1977
MV Cardiff Castle 1964 1964–1977 Sold to Millbrook Steamboat & Trading Co Ltd

RDSC vessels today

A muddy river bank with the rusted remains of a paddle steamer. The remains are full of vegetation, and have many holes.
The remains of the first PS Kingswear Castle.

The remains of two RSBC paddle steamers can still be seen on the Dart. the first PS Kingswear Castle was burnt in 1924 after being used as a fever hulk, and beached on the bank of the Dart south of Totnes at Fleet Mill Quay. Her remains (pictured) can still be seen today, from a boat on the river.[2] The second PS Dartmouth Castle was laid up in Old Mill Creek, near Dartmouth for the Second World War, and never returned to service. Her remains now form a retaining wall in the creek.[1]

The PS Compton Castle was used for a succession of ventures after being sold by the RDSC, including periods as cafes in Kingsbridge and Truro. She is now a floating flower shop at Truro, but bares little resemblance to her original condition. Her engines have fared rather better, having survived in museum condition on the Isle of Wight, at Blackgang Chine .[1]

The second PS Kingswear Castle is the best preserved of all of the company's vessels, being owned by the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society, and operating out of Chatham Dockyard on the River Medway in full passenger service.[7]

With the exception of the first MV Berry Castle, all of the larger RDSC motor vessels are still in service. All have had major alterations, with the addition of a deck house saloon of various designs, with the exception of the MV Seymour Castle, which remains in original condition. The MV Cardiff Castle is in service on the River Dart for Dart Pleasure Craft, whilst The MV Dartmouth Castle is laid up at Torquay. The MV Conway Castle is operating on the River Severn for Severn Leisure Cruises. The MV Seymour Castle (now named Devon Belle) and the MV Clifton Castle are operating on the Thames, for Thames Rivercruise of Reading and Colliers Launches of Richmond respectively. Finally, the MV Berry Castle, renamed MV Lady Wakefield is operating on Ullswater in the Lake District for Ullswater 'Steamers'.[8]


The early steamers had a black hull and cabin sides and a black funnel. On the incorporation of the company in 1906, the funnel colour was changed to yellow, with a black top. Wheelhouses and companionways, where fitted were of varnished wood. Early motor vessels also followed this livery, though none were fitted with funnels. a black hull - none were fitted with a funnel. By the time of the introduction of the MV Dartmouth Castle of 1948, the motor vessels had their hulls and cabin sides painted white.[1]


Early steamers had a variety of names, the two interesting ones being PS Newcomin, named after Thomas Newcomen, an early steam engine pioneer, and SS Hauley, named after John Hawley, a fourteenth-century privateer

Most of the vessels built for the company had names ending with 'Castle'. Of these, Dartmouth and Kingswear Castles are the pair of small fortifications which protect the mouth of the River Dart from attack by sea. Totnes Castle is a Norman motte and bailey castle, high above the town of Totnes, whilst Compton Castle is a fortified manor house some 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) to the northeast of the river. Berry Castle refers to Berry Pomeroy Castle, a ruin some 3.5 kilometres (2.2 mi) to the northeast of the Dart, whilst Greenway Castle is a house at Greenway, home to the Gilbert family, and later to Agatha Christie.

The other castles are somewhat more esoteric. There is no such place as Seymour Castle, but the Seymour family owned both Totnes and Berry Pomeroy castles. Clifton is an ancient part of the town of Dartmouth, so Clifton Castle may refer to Dartmouth Castle, or to Bayard's Cove Fort, a small fortification nearer the town centre, designed to be a second line of defence for the town. There is no Dittisham Castle, this name simply indicated the vessels normal destination.[1]

The final two vessels of the company broke with tradition, and were named after Cardiff Castle and Conway Castle, both large castles in Wales, reflecting the company's Welsh ownership.[4]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Clammer, R & Kittridge, A. (1987). Passenger Steamers of the River Dart & Kingsbridge Estuary. The Paddle Steamer Preservation Society in association with Twelveheads Press. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Langley, M & Small, S. (1984). Estuary & River Ferries of South West England. Waine Research Publications. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Boyle, I. "River Dart Steamboat Company". Simplon Postcards. http://www.simplonpc.co.uk/RiverDartSBCo.html. Retrieved 13 November 2009. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Kittridge, A. (2003). South Devon Steamers & Ferries. Tempus Publishing Limited. 
  5. "WebCHeck". Companies House. http://wck2.companieshouse.gov.uk/00e1e819f6d33a2f0cb8c02206715e7d/compdetails. Retrieved 13 November 2009. 
  6. Simmonds, C. (1987) Cutaway Diagram of PS Kingswear Castle drawn for the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society
  7. "National Historic Ships Register". http://www.nationalhistoricships.org.uk/ships_register.php?action=ship&id=35. Retrieved 6 November 2009. 
  8. Hamer, G. (2005). Trip Out 2005/06. Self Published.