The PS Medway Queen is a paddle driven steamship, the only mobile estuary paddle steamer left in the United Kingdom. She was one of the "little ships of Dunkirk", making a record 7 trips and rescuing 7000 men in the evacuation of Dunkirk.
She was the subject of a £1.8 million National Lottery Heritage Memorial Fund grant to restore her hull. By 2014, her hull had been reconstructed and she is sitting at Gillingham Pier on the River Medway.
PS Medway Queen was built at the Ailsa Shipbuilding Company in Troon, Scotland, in 1924 for service on the River Medway and in the Thames Estuary. Trialled on the River Clyde, she was delivered to be part of the "Queen Line" fleet of the New Medway Steam Packet Company based at Rochester, Kent. She steamed the Thames on the routes from Strood and Chatham, to Sheerness, Herne Bay and Margate in Kent; and Clacton and Southend in Essex.
After attending the coronation Fleet Review for George VI at Spithead in 1937, she was converted to oil-fired steaming by Wallsend Slipway & Engineering Company in 1938.
Requisitioned by the Royal Navy as a minesweeper, she was renumbered No J 48 (N 48), serving for the duration of World War II in the 10th minesweeping flotilla, protecting the English Channel.
Her first task in 1939 was evacuating Kent children from Gravesend to East Anglia. She was refitted in the shipyard of the General Steam Navigation Company (Deptford Creek), her aft being modified to take minesweeping gear. She operated patrolling the Straits of Dover. In May 1940 Operation Dynamo was launched to rescue the retreating British Army soldiers from Dunkirk in northern France. HMS Medway Queen became part of the flotilla of little ships. Medway Queen was fitted with a 12-pounder gun and two machine guns. She left with PS Sandown, PS Thames Queen, PS Gracie Fields, PS Queen of Thanet, PS Princess Elizabeth, PS Laguna Belle and PS Brighton Belle. She was to make seven crossings.
On her first trip, soldiers were taken off the beaches in lifeboats and ferried to the ship. On her return to Dover, her arrival coinciding with an air raid. She shot down a German aircraft outside the harbour. The "Brighton Belle" ran over sunken wreckage and began to sink. All of her passengers and crew were rescued by the Medway Queen without loss of life, and heavily overloaded she made the harbour.
On her second trip she took the soldiers directly off the beach- which required more skill, but was a lot faster. They used a technique with oily bags to conceal their distinctive wash from patrolling aircraft. On later trips, the Medway Queen penetrated the damaged Dunkerque port and took off men from a concrete jetty or mole. Men were discharged at Ramsgate rather than Dover, where the vessel was re-oiled and reprovisioned.
On Monday 3 June Vice Admiral Ramsey gave the order that all ships were to leave Dunkirk by 2.30 the following morning. This was the Medway Queen's seventh trip. She was at the mole in Dunkerque when a destroyer moored astern of her was driven forwards by an explosion and smashed her starboard paddle box, she sustained considerable damage. Medway Queen limped back to Dover with 400 French soldiers on board. By then, she had rescued 7,000 men.
She gained four awards for gallantry, having shot down three enemy aircraft, made seven crossings and rescued 7000 men. In view of this remarkable achievement in rescuing so many Allied troops from France, she earned the title of "The Heroine of Dunkirk". In 1942 she was converted to a mine sweeping training ship, and served out the war in this capacity.
Rebuilt by Thorneycrofts of Southampton in 1946, she returned to civilian service with New Medway Steam Packet Company for the 1947 season. When Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, PS Medway Queen again attended the Coronation Review at Spithead.
She made her last sailing on 8 September 1963, and was scheduled to be scrapped in Belgium. The Belgian ship-breaker, upon discovering that the vessel he was expecting to break up was none other than "The Heroine of Dunkirk", declined to continue (it is reported that he felt that no one should dare to destroy such a gallant and important little ship). The Daily Mail newspaper campaigned to save her.
Having been saved from scrapping, Medway Queen was eventually sold for use as a nightclub and marina clubhouse, and was moored at the Medway Queen Marina (now known as the Island Harbour Marina) on the Isle of Wight. The club opened in 1966. In 1970, a larger ship, PS Ryde, renamed as Ryde Queen, joined Medway Queen at the marina site, also operating as a nightclub. The two premises operated alongside one another for a period, until the Medway Queen was eventually closed and fell into disrepair.
In 1978 the Medway Queen was bought by private owners with the aim of preserving her. She was moved out of the marina to the adjacent River Medina, but sank in the river when the hull sprang a leak. There she remained, in a state of increasing deterioration, until in 1984 she was salvaged, moved to Cowes at the river’s mouth, and thence towed back to Chatham in Kent on a salvage barge. In 1985 the Medway Queen Preservation Society formed, with the intention of preserving the historic ship.
In 1987 she was moved to Damhead Creek, Kingsnorth on the Hoo Peninsula, but the trust lacked funds to bring her back to service, and struggled to preserve the structure. After a series of near disasters, in 2006 the National Lottery Heritage Memorial Fund agreed a £1.8 million funding package to restore her structure, subject to the society raising £225,000. Having completed the fund raising, the trust was disappointed that neither the insurance company or marine engineers were confident that her hull was seaworthy and able of sustaining lifting on to a pontoon. In October 2006, the Trust agreed to the deconstruction of the hull, and salvageable pieces were moved to Gillingham Pier (and a National Lottery funded warehouse) in Chatham Dockyard, in preparation of the hull being professionally restored to seaworthy condition.
In October 2008, the society signed a contract with David Abels Shipbuilders to restore the hull at the Albion Dry Dock in Bristol. This to be done using plate rivetting by a team of 10, and was envisaged to take two years. Work began in April 2009 and was due to be completed in the summer of 2010. On 27 July 2013 the ship was rededicated. Plans were to float her out of the Albion Dock during the summer of 2013 and tow her back to Gillingham for a reception on 2 November.
The tow home to Gillingham using the tug Christine started from Bristol on 24 October 2013, but due to weather conditions they were held up at Avonmouth until 15 November when the wind abated sufficiently, and the tow around Land's End and through the English Channel could continue in safety.
At around 3pm on Friday 15 November 2013 the Medway Queen departed Avonmouth towed by the tug Christine. Benefiting from the good weather the tow continued throughout the weekend with her arriving back on her home territory on the River Medway. Despite earlier delays in commencing the tow the weather remained kind to the 'Heroine of Dunkirk' as she made the entire journey around Lands End and along the South Coats of England in one go without the need to seek shelter along the way. The tug and tow finally arrived on the River Medway on Monday 18 November 2013. Due mainly to tidal restriction the Medway Queen was buoyed in Saltpan Reach until high tide the following day.
The crowds were gathered, the TV crews were in position and around 1.30pm the Medway Queen was finally in sight as she made her final leg of her journey to her new home at Gillingham Pier. Under the guidance of tug master Alan Pratt the historic vessel was brought gently into the pier at high tide.
Medway Queen's website