Memories of a magical – if nerve-wracking – time

I’VE ALWAYS loved the pleasure boats that carry passengers up and down the Thames and I wrote in a recent column that as a youngster in the 1950s I used to enjoy watching the steamers coming and going from the pier at Richmond as they carried passengers upstream to Hampton Court or downstream to Westminster.

And I mentioned a particular boat, originally owned by Hastings Launches, called the Yarmouth Belle.

Last week, I heard from a man who had very special memories of the boat – and a wonderful story to tell.

John Hankey, who now runs a car showroom in Isleworth, told me about his younger days in the 1950s when he and his friends used to play around Teddington Lock on a Saturday – and how that led him to a Saturday job aboard the Yarmouth Belle.

John said: “We used to hang around on the lock side and take the lines from boats that were passing through – we’d sometimes get threepence or sixpence for helping out.

“One of the regulars was the Yarmouth Belle and her skipper was Harry Hastings, the chap who owned her and three other launches that used to carry passengers between Richmond and Hampton Court.

“He got to know me and after a while he asked if I’d like a ride down to Richmond and back and I jumped at the chance. That became a fairly regular thing and eventually I got offered the chance to be a Saturday boy getting paid half a crown a week (12.5 pence in today’s money).

“Yarmouth Belle was a beautiful old boat – a huge steering wheel, twin engines and a proper brass bridge telegraph to the engine room. In those days there was an engineer down below and the skipper used to ring down instructions. One of my regular jobs was to polish that telegraph so that it shone.

“Harry let me steer her – but I was only 12 or 13 at the time so I had to stand on a wooden Schweppes bottle crate so I could see over the wheel.

“There was a bar in the saloon for the passengers and Harry used to like a glass or two. He’d often leave me steering and nip down to the saloon for a quick one and come back up a few minutes later.

“Well, on one occasion he went down for a drink but he didn’t come back up and we were approaching Teddington Lock cut from upstream.

“I thought – what the heck do I do? There was an 84-year-old mate called Arthur who used to handle the lines in the lock and he was on the side of the boat. He looked up, saw me steering and just gave me a thumbs up – and fortunately, the lock keeper had seen us coming and had the gates open. I used the telegraph to ring down ‘engines easy’ and we glided into the lock. Arthur dropped the mooring line over a bollard and with a very gentle bump we stopped alongside.

“Harry came running up from the saloon and said: ‘Oh, we’re in – well done, son.’

“I was awfully nervous while it was going on – but I felt very proud of myself afterwards.”

I had to laugh when John told this story – you can just imagine what the health and safety police would have made of allowing a 12-year-old to take a crowded passenger boat into a lock if it happened these days!

But that was part of what made growing up in the 50s so much fun – you did occasionally get the chance to do things like that – and it was a magical time.

I’m very grateful to John for telling me the story.

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