A Short History of the Ullswater Steamers

During this year’s Ullswater Outdoor Fest, the Friends of the Ullswater Way organised a series of five talks on the history and heritage of the valley. The first was by Nick Smith entitled “A Short History of the Ullswater Steamers.”

Nick SmithNick began with a fascinating account of how he came to be a skipper on the Ullswater Steamers. Born in South Devon Nick arrived in Cumbria via Africa, Canada and various parts of Europe. He worked on ferries, fished for oysters and owned his own trawler before coming to work for the Ullswater Steamers when his wife took up a post with the Cumbria Constabulary. As a master boat handler, it took just 5 weeks intensive training before Nick’s first solo voyage as skipper of Raven.

From his own story, Nick turned to the history of the Ullswater Steamers, taking us back to 1855 when the Ullswater Steam Navigation Company was formed. In those days, before the road was completed around the base of ‘falling rocks’, the Steamers were a lifeline, transporting goods, people and mail from one end of the lake to the other. The Society’s first boat, bought in 1859, was a paddle steamer but it was soon replaced by Lady of the Lake, purchased in 1877 and Nick’s firm favourite. Lady of the Lake was built by T.B. Seath & Co. at Rutherglen near Glasgow and was transported in sections to Waterside where she was reassembled and winched into the lake. This year she is 140 years old and is thought to be the oldest working passenger vessel in the world.

Lady at Ullswater Hotel
Lady of the Lake at the Ullswater Hotel. Courtesy of Ullswater Steamers

However, it has not been all plane sailing for Lady of the Lake. In 1881 she sank at her moorings, in 1958 she sank again when swamped by a gale and 7 years later she caught fire on the slipway and lay idle until 1978. Today all this is behind her and she is a simply majestic site as she plies the Lake.

Steamer Lady of the Lake Howtown Pier
Lady of the Lake in Howtown Bay. Credit Janet Wedgwood.

It was not long after the purchase of Lady of the Lake that Thomas Cook, the agency bringing tourists to the Lakes, suggested that a bigger boat was needed. Raven was built by the same company as Lady of the Lake and was launched in 1889. In 1912 she briefly became a royal yacht when the 5th Earl of Lonsdale entertained the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Earl’s personal colour was yellow so Raven’s decks were painted yellow for the occasion.

Raven at Patterdale
Raven arriving at Patterdale. Courtesy of Ullswater Steamers.

Both Lady of the Lake and Raven were converted from steam to diesel in the 1930s but they are still lovingly called Steamers.

The Raven turns into Howtown Bay, Ullswater
Raven turns into Howtown Bay. Credit Janet Wedgwood.

In recent years Lady Dorothy, Lady Wakefield and the Western Belle have been added to the fleet. Pier houses have been built at both Glenridding and Pooley Bridge and a new jetty has been installed at Aira Force.

Ullswater Steamers continues to break records, with visitor numbers up to 300,000 last year.


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