Brighton boat trips, 1930s-50s

A Brighton boat
Sketch by Bob Herrick
A paddle steamer
Sketch by Bob Herrick

The steamers which plied from the landing stages of the two piers were certainly the aristocrats of Brighton’s maritime vessels, and probably deserved to be called ‘ships’!  However there were many other craft plying their trade.  My pre-war memories are of trips in a rowing boat.  The boat would be stationed half in the water and half on the shingle while the owner shouted a demand for passengers.

Memories of the ‘crew’
When the ‘crew’ was complete the oarsman would push the boat into deeper water, then jump aboard with very wet feet and take the oars.  As a child I used to wonder what would happen to us if he missed his leap.  It never happened!  Another memory is of the oarsman lighting up a rolled cigarette at the start of the trip and not touching it again.  It burned down to nothing on his weather hardened lips.

The war ended our fun
When the war came of course there was an abrupt end to all things aquatic. The piers were closed and cut in two to thwart possible invaders.  For the same reason the beaches were mined and the promenade sealed off with posts, concrete blocks and line after line of coiled barbed wire.

After the war
When victory came, and all the impediments were cleared, there was an enormous appetite for the resumption of boat trips.  There had been steamers plying for trade from the 19th century and these resumed, as did the rowing boats.  However there is an interesting connection to the war with the medium and large motor vessels which also worked from the beach.  The largest two were named “Montgomery” and “Alexander” after the British military heroes.  And of course many boats of all sizes carried plaques to mark their part in rescuing our troops from the beaches of Dunkirk.

Popular paddle steamers
So to the steamers, always popular, especially the paddle steamer.  Day trips to the Isle of Wight and back were a great favourite.  I remember going on the first trip there after the war.  The first stop was at Worthing Pier to take on more passengers.  Suddenly there was a very loud bang, just like a gun.  One of the very thick mooring ropes had snapped and sent the two ends flying like a whiplash.  No casualties luckily, so we continued on our way.  The Isle of Wight was most welcoming, and a splendid brass band was playing as we pulled into the jetty at Ventnor.  A great day out which was to become a very regular feature of the steamer programme.

Fish and chips on the return journey
Having got a wonderful appetite in the bracing sea air, fish and chips were consumed on the return journey, together with a pot of tea and as much bread and jam as you could eat.  A big plus in those days!  As well as also cruising via Eastbourne and Hastings piers, the itinerary eventually included trips across the Channel to France.  To this day I have never understood why such a splendid way of spending a day out faded away and now is just a wistful memory.

Comments about this page

  • During the 50s there were two boats that operated from Palace Pier. There was a paddle steamer the name of which I forget. And there was a boat called the Anzio. I think it was a motor torpedo boat from the war. It was painted a light shade of blue green as I remember. I am sure that years later I saw this boat tied up in Shoreham harbour with people living in it. The local fishermen in the summer used their boats for trips around the piers. These clinker built boats were as sturdy as can be, and looked smart and well looked after. At some tme in the 50s there was an aircraft carrier anchored off of Brighton, and these boats did a roaring trade for sightseeing trips. The aircraft carrier was HMS Eagle. I used to sit for hours with an old pair of binoculars looking at it from the beach.

    By Mick Peirson (07/12/2006)
  • Visiting Brighton these days it seems odd not seeing all those boats drawn up on the beach. I remember one in particular the “Martha Gunn”. This boat along with many others proudly displayed the plaque commemmorating its participation in the evacuation from Dunkirque. Where have they all gone?

    By Raymond (Dickie) Bird (08/12/2006)
  • Another kind of vessel used for pleasure trips after the war was a DUKW, an amphibious landing vehicle which used to come out of the sea and drive a short way up the beach on its road-wheels to embark and disembark passengers. I mostly remember it using the beach opposite Holland Road. Not sure how many years it was operating, but probably not more than two or three successive summers in the 1940s. UKWS were military vehicles developed in the United States. It is said that there were more than 21,000 built.

    By Pat Benham (10/12/2006)
  • My grandfather used to own the ‘Anzio’ so it was nice to hear it’s being used as a home in Shoreham.

    By Karen Bengtsson (09/06/2007)
  • The motor torpedo boat that Mick Pireson refers to was anchored in Shoreham harbour just before you got to boundary road, I can remember this from the fifties as the number 8 bus turned to continue its journey to west Hove.

    By John Wignall (30/06/2008)
  • Ref the DUKW or Duck as it was nicknamed. One of these was running at WicksteedParkLake until quite recently, being a Brighton exile I thought this would be a point of interest.

    By John Wignall (30/06/2008)
  • As a youngster I was a beach rat. I spent every spare minute on Brighton seafront, my second home was the Palace Pier. The Anzio ran hour long trips and early in the piece was a Bristol based paddle steamer, one of the Campbell ships that did the Isle of Wight run. There would be no more famous name on Brighton beach than ‘The Skylark’. “Anyone for a lovely ride out?” was the catch cry, that lovely ride left many hanging over the side voiding their midday meal. I loved the early Brighton seafront, it was alive and vibrant, there were wooden barrows from which fishermen sold their early morning catch. The nets hung out to be cleaned and dried, on occasions to be treated with ‘Cutch’, an anti-rot chemical. The boats all lined up in front of King’s Road Arches, the winches, the wooded turntables on which the boats were turned to face the sea for launching. Then there were the fishermen sitting in tight groups making and repairing their nets, or just telling tales (spinning the cuff). A real prize was to leave the beach with a half a dozen ‘silver darlings’ local herring, no sweeter fish in the sea but oh those damned bones. Near forty years ago I left to live on the far side of the world, we started a new life in New Zealand. I had to wait a further thirty years to once more walk the Brighton beach I knew so well. What on earth had happened? The boats were gone along with the fishermen, the shingle gave the impression it had been manicured, the life had gone out of the place. There was a fishermens’ museum, a total joke. The guy manning the door had never heard of the Alexander or the Montgomery, he looked bewildered when I mentioned the names of Leach, Gillam or Mitchell, and the Skylark was a wreck sitting on the hard. The good Captain would be turning in his grave, which is quite a monument. His remains are in Brighton Cemetery, probably the best place, he can’t see his beloved beach from there.

    By Robin Hutchinson (15/08/2011)
  • I wish to add, the good Captain I was referring to was Captain Mitchell. I had the very great pleasure of meeting one of his grandsons whilst fishing in the middle of a lake in the North Island of New Zealand. This is an interesting story I may publish later. I will just add Barry Collins gave me a picture postcard, I would assume taken very early this century, of the Skylark. At present I am having it scanned and sent to my PC, once this arrives I will post it on this page. The card is treasured and a wonderful piece of memorabilia. I must add Barry was apprenticed into boat building in a yard at Shoreham. He was fishing from a rather handsome dingy he had built himself. We exchanged many stories on the Brighton beach we loved, some of which were quite astounding. Maybe more later.

    By Robin Hutchinson (16/08/2011)
  • Would anyone have, or know where I can get, a photograph of the backboards that used to be in the boats? Regards

    By Rick Smallman (14/05/2012)
  • Hello, Thinking of the Alexander and the Montgomery, both my older brothers used to work for the owner/s; moving the gangway steps on the shingle and helping people on and off the boats, and also plying for customers. Their names were David and Mick Wilson. They were both quite young at the time. I think it would have been during the ’50s.

    By Vivienne Maynard (nee Wilson) (15/05/2012)
  • My Dad, Harry Russell, worked on the Alexander and Montgomery in the late 40s. My sister and I spent happy summers on them, especially the last run of the day to Shoreham Harbour where they were kept overnight. The owner, Major Hill, was a lovely man.

    By Roger Russell (23/05/2014)
  • I well remember the Anzio mooring up at the Palace Pier. I fished regularly from that pier and of course had to remove the line at the time she was in. The delightful paddle steamer that also moored up was the Waverley and I believe she can still be seen in the Solent area.

    By Melvyn Smith (02/07/2015)
  • My dad was the skipper of the Montgomery, the owner, Major Hill, lived at Paston Place in Kemp Town. My dad’s name, if he was my dad, was Joe Andrew. My mother was Molly Rolf of the fishing family in Market Street.

    By Joan Taylor (19/12/2015)
  • I can well recall the ANZIO in the 1950s. She would go from Brighton Pier along the coast to Newhaven harbour, and many of the passengers would return by bus to Brighton, or in our case to Rottingdean. I’m not convinced she was a Motor Torpedo Boat though. I seen to recall she was an ex Minesweeper. Certainly she was diesel powered in the fifties.

    By Clive Taylor (25/02/2017)
  • The ex minesweeper was the Regency Belle. I was the helmsman and was an AB in the Merchant Navy then. The Captain’s name was Greenalgh and he was a gentleman. We did cruises from the West Pier. Very popular. We went aground once with the sea abeam. Lot of passengers were sick. I stood in the bows and eventually caught a heaving line thrown from the pier. We got alongside the pier on the east side and the passengers quickly escaped. That was about August 1952. I have a photo of the crew. At night we berthed at Newhaven. Great days!
    I remember the Anzio well. Think the skipper was Jack Nye,wore yachting cap and striped t shirt. Bob Pelham.

    By Bob Pelham (17/08/2019)
  • The “ANZIO” was a converted WW2 ‘Fairmile B’ high-speed launch. She had two sisters : “DUNKIRK” & “MATAPAN”. So far as can be established it appears the latter two ran along the Sussex Coast during 1951 only. They were sold on for operation based at Poole, sailing primarily on services from Bournemouth Pier. I am archivist for POOLE MARITIME TRUST and we are currently engaged upon researching the history of these boats. Does anyone have any further details of the boats and their operations in the Brighton area, please. Photographs, timetables and ephemera would be very helpful and much appreciated.

    By Karl Lamb (20/05/2020)
  • In Ramsgate we had Anzio for conversion. I think this 1962-63. The vessel sailed south but sank on passage.

    By Allan (03/02/2021)

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published.