“Taking the Boat” the Great Western

Generations of people from Waterford and the surrounding areas “took the boat” to a better life, for work or to just escape the strictures of Irish society. One of the ships I heard most about as a child was the Great Western. I think her popularity in part stemmed from the fact that there were actually three vessels that shared the name and all operated from Waterford.  The first Great Western (1867-1890) was a paddle steamer, whilst the next (1902) was a twin screw steamer which operated on the route until 1933 and replaced by a third Great Western (1933). 

These ships were all part of the Great Western Railway Company, which sailed from a depot at the Adelphi Quay in Waterford city, close to the present Tower Hotel. Initially the company sailed to Milford Haven and from 1906 to Fishguard.

In 1923 a curious incident befell the second Great Western as she passed down the river close to Cheekpoint.  From the Kilkenny shore, in the trees of Drumdowney, shots were fired into the ship narrowly missing the wireless operator, named Daly, and the master, Captain Owen who was standing on the bridge.  No motive was discovered for the affair.

Departure during WWI from the Great Western Railway wharf (Adelphi Quay, Waterford)

A passenger with a literary turn of phrase, captured the departure at the very same point a few years later, but this time the ship was showered of love, rather than bullets!

“…I stood in the shelter of the bridge of the ss. Great Western on a warm, showery Saturday afternoon early in September. The light grey clouds were playing tig with the sun. It was a half-hearted game touch and run, for the sun was gloriously disdainful. After weeping copiously for a short time in the gleaming brightness, the clouds cleared away in chagrin from the blue sky.

Perched on a deck raft a freckled, Titian haired girl scanned the river bank as we approached Cheekpoint. There was searching look of farewell in her eyes. And then as the riverside hamlet at the foot of the Minaun hove in sight a white handkerchief fluttered from her hand. From every doorway there was an answering response. Away In the distance little groups outside isolated whitewashed cottages signalled to her their parting greetings. Young people on the quay gesticulated, and children ran among the trees and along the path bordering the river shrieking their good-byes. Two prawngs(prongs),boats with high, curved prows peculiar to the Passage and Cheekpoint fishermen—were almost mid-stream, and young men stood up and waved their caps to the girl on the deck raft. There were tears in the girl’s eyes as the scene faded away and the Great Western rounded another bend of the Suir and nosed her way past Passage, Duncannon Port, Woodstown and the Hook lighthouse to the smooth, open sea in the gathering dusk…”[1]

I was most familiar with was the last of these, which commenced on the Waterford – Fishguard route in January 1934.  Built by the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead in 1933 she was another twin screw steamer 283 feet long and 40 feet wide.

An advert for the company dating from the opening of Fishguard in 1906

She didn’t get off to a great start, for as she headed downriver she was forced into evasive maneuvers after another craft crossed her path “…It was then that a swift current caught her stern and carried her on to the bank where she had to remain until the next tide to be re-floated. With extreme difficulty she made the trip to Fishguard, where she was examined by the company’s diver last Monday. On the result of the examination it was found necessary that she should be sent back to her builders in Liverpool for repairs to her stern. Until her repairs are completed she will be replaced by the Ardmore.[2]

The route was expanded in 1939 to three sailings a week, commencing with a 7pm sailing on Monday 6th March[3].  During WWII she was painted in camouflage colours, carried gun platforms on her bow and was used for troop transportation. Although I have heard people say she was involved in the evacuation of Dunkirk I have never as yet proved it. 

Emigration was a primary function of the vessel and this report from one week in August of 1949 gives a clear idea of the numbers. 

“Cross-Channel Visitors Seven hundred and seventy-seven visitors —232 more than arrived —returned to England during last week the ss. Great Western sailing to Fishguard. On the outward journey the vessel carried 274 on Tuesday, 203 on Thursday, and conveyed about 300 Saturday evening. She brought 189 in Tuesday, Thursday and 261 on Saturday morning”[4]

TSS Great Western in camouflage colours WWII entering Waterford. Photo via Tommy Deegan. She was later armed with guns on her forward deck.

My mother often spoke about her journeys and the companions that were with her, it read like an address book of the village, her uncle Christy Moran heading to London to work on the buildings, Pat Murphy, Patsy Moran, Charlie Hanlon etc heading to Wolverhampton, Michael Elliott, Andy Joe Doherty, Anna Sullivan and so on.  All heading away to work and sending vital money home to keep families together.  In my mothers case she would wash floors, serve in shops and work in factories, see the lights of 1960’s London before coming home to marry.  In a way it was an adventure, but the journeys down the harbour, or later on the boat train over the Barrow Bridge were still difficult when leaving but all the more joyful on the return.

I think the most poignant story I know of is the leaving of the Condon family from the village in 1955.  The 50’s were a hungry and bleak time nationally so much so it’s been described as a black decade, or a lost decade.  Chris Condon recently recalled the leaving to me.  His dad Christy had invested in new nets to fish in 1954 but even the fish seemed to have deserted the country.  Christy chose the boat to England, but he left his wife May and his eight children at home. 

Christy was set up in a job by his brother Laim.  Liam had come in from a cold, wet and fruitless night of fishing with my grandfather (Andy Doherty) in 1946 and spotted an advertisement in a local paper for a new engineering firm, British Timken in Northampton.  He was interviewed in a hotel in Waterford and was given the job on the spot.  He was foreman by the fifties and he helped Christy find his feet in the same company, and with the job he kept the family fed and earned enough to put a deposit on a home.

TSS Great Western, the third and final ship in her standard livery, Photo via Frank Cheevers

In the summer of 1955 he returned to Cheekpoint and the family readied themselves for the journey.  The family were a vital part of the community, went to school, to mass, played on the village green, swam off the quay.  Steps of stairs, they were part of the vitality of the community.  The decision to leave was a huge wrench. 

The evening they sailed down from Waterford on the Great Western the village turned out to wave them away.  Fires were lit from the Rookery to the Mount Quay and their cousins, the Rogers family, lit a fire at Passage East.  Another local, Tom Sullivan, told me that he was a deckhand on her that evening, and he overheard one person saying that if only she would sink now passing the village, the children could swim ashore, and never have to leave.

The scourge that was emigration has never really let the country.  But the last trip of the Great Western was Christmas of 1966.  It wasn’t that emigration was coming to a close, although the industrial improvements of the Sean Lemass Government were having an effect.  Air travel was coming to the fore and now those who went abroad had a quicker and more comfortable way of travelling.  She was replaced with a container ship, a freight system that would become the backbone of shipping in the city for the next few decades, until the closure of Bell Lines in 1997 (I think). She brought an end to a proud shipping tradition in the area. Here’s a link for the many other ships from the company that were involved.

This is a heavily edited excerpt from a chapter of the same name that I’m working on for my forthcoming book called Tales from the Aft Oar. I intend to publish it later this year. I’d be delighted with any feedback on the story or the book, you might let me know in the comments section.

Next week we join the crew of a local sailing ship, the Lady Bagot as they battle to prevent her sinking in the Atlantic.


[1] Waterford Standard – Saturday 07 October 1933; page 6

[2] Waterford Standard – Saturday 24 February 1934; page 4

[3] Waterford Standard – Saturday 11 March 1939; page 7

[4] Waterford Standard – Saturday 27 August 1949;  page 3

13 Replies to ““Taking the Boat” the Great Western”

  1. Captain Chestnut,I think was the master of the Great Western while Captain Price was the master of the Rockabill.

    1. Thanks John, I have a section on some of the crew involved in the final piece, it covers the company, emigration, cargo and crew. Of course there’s several books in it all.

  2. First I’ve ever heard of this Waterford – Fishguard run.
    Amazing. The quoted journey time is faster than the Fishguard/Rosslare run of the 1960’s

    1. Perhaps the quoted times might have had more to do with travel to Rosslare included Kev? According to my mother it was cheaper to get to town by taxi and straight on the boat, rather than include a train journey, which was probably a major factor in her decision.

      1. Indeed it was time saved in that respect.

        Incidentally the old railway line from Rosslare to Waterford passes within a 100 yards of our house here on its way to Wellington Bridge and beyond.
        I travelled from Rosslare to Waterford via that up/down train just the one time in the mid 1960’s.

  3. All my family travelled home from England every summer on “ The Western”. Aunts, uncles, Cousins and in laws. Beds were in short supply so you never knew if you had one or not.Most of the time we were sleeping on the floor. The bonds that built up between us have endured all our lives and the escapades and fun we had will never be forgotten. Bernard Barry.

  4. My father left on the Great Western in 1950. Mum who was from Ferrybank and then Catherine Street left in early 1951 and myself and two older brothers left a few months later. Over the years we came back many times always on tbe GW. We would catch the boat train as it was referred to from Paddington to Fishguard. Memories of some horrendous crossing remain. But to see so many relatives waiting on the quay early on the Saturday mornings what just amazing.

  5. Lovely reading all the replys Andrew I too travelled as a 12 year old to a wedding in England from Fishguard to Paddington. I just remember it took a long time.
    Thanks again for your very informative talk to our group.
    Marie Quinlan

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