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British Industrial History

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PS Medway Queen

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The PS Medway Queen is a paddle driven steamship, the only estuary paddle steamer left in the United Kingdom. She was one of the "little ships of Dunkirk", making a record 7 trips and rescuing 7,000 men in the evacuation of Dunkirk.

PS Medway Queen was built at the Ailsa Shipbuilding Co in Troon, Scotland, in 1924 for service on the River Medway and 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 Co based at Rochester, Kent. She steamed the Thames on the routes from Chatham and Strood, 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 and Engineering Co 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.

After evacuating Kent children to East Anglia in 1939, she became part of the flotilla of ships evacuating British Army soldiers from Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo. Medway Queen was fitted with a 12-pounder gun and two machine guns. On her first trip, she shot down a German aircraft on her return to Dover, her arrival coinciding with an air raid. HMS Brighton Belle ran over a wreck and began to sink. All of her passengers and crew were rescued by Medway Queen without loss of life.

After making seven trips (the record number of crossings by a civilian ship involved in the evacuation), Medway Queen sustained considerable damage on her final trip when a destroyer astern of her was driven forwards by an explosion and damaged her starboard paddle box. Medway Queen limped back to Dover with 400 French soldiers on board. By then, she had rescued 7,000 men, gaining four awards for gallantry and having shot down three enemy aircraft. In view of this remarkable achievement in rescuing so many Allied troops from France, she earned the title given to her 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 Thornycroft 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.

Taken out of service in 1963 and 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", he declined to continue (it is reported that he felt that no one should dare to destroy such a gallant and important little ship).

Having been saved she was eventually sold for use as a nightclub in the Isle of Wight. Proving an attraction, she was replaced by the PS Ryde and moved to the River Medina, where she was sunk by accident.

In 1984 she was bought by private owners with the aim of preserving her, and returned on a pontoon to the Chatham. However, the plans soon fell apart, and after she sank again in 1985 the Medway Queen Preservation Society formed, with the intention of preserving the historical ship.

Moved to Damhead Creek, Kingsnorth on the Hoo Peninsula in 1987, the trust lacked funds to bring 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 structure, subject to 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 unable of sustaining lifting on to a pontoon. In October 2006, the Trust agreed that the deconstruction of the hull and salvageable pieces 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 will 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. However, in mid 2012 the work in Bristol is not complete, but is continuing.

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