GSN Shipping Co - Alan Peake

GSN Shipping Company connections


We recently heard from one of our members, Alan Peake, by way of a fascinating email;

Aboard the Crested Eagle in the early 1930s with Bill Peake second from left.


I am a very interested observer of the efforts being made by the Society, since my background is the shipping company itself, rather than the Southern Railway.

My late father, William George ‘Bill’ Peake (1899-1962) joined the GSN as an apprentice engineer at their Stowage Repair Works at Deptford in 1916.

After serving with the Royal West Kent Regiment towards the end of the 1st WW, Bill went to sea as third engineer on several GSN cargo ships before joining the paddle steamer Eagle serving under her Chief Engineer Julius Prior. He obtained his Class 1 MOT Certificate of Competency in 1928 and was then appointed Chief Engineer of the Golden Eagle standing by her the following winter whilst she was converted to oil firing.

In 1932 Bill was appointed Chief Engineer of the Crested Eagle running the long day trips leaving Tower Pier at 9am, calling at Greenwich 9.30am, North Woolwich 10am, Tilbury 11am, Southend 11.45am and Clacton 2pm before sailing on to Felixstowe for 2.55pm. Return was just five minutes later at 3pm with similar calls on the way back to Tower Pier for 8.35pm.

This was a long trip, particularly on days punching the tide both ways, with little margin built into the timetable for making up any delays. And with twelve calls in a day, the manoeuvring alongside the piers had to be smart, quick and efficient with team work and rapport between the captain on the bridge, the chief engineer on the engine controls and the rope handlers. A loss of just five minutes per pier would have made the ship 5 mins x 12 piers = 60 minutes late back in the evening; a ten minute loss a full two hours late back which would not have pleased the passengers, the management or any crew members looking forward to maximum drinking time in the pub ashore afterwards. On the return trip, as passengers disembarked at Greenwich, the day's empty beer bottles were landed in crates for transhipment to a nearby brewery and the next day's supply loaded aboard by casual dock labour who must have thought it worthwhile waiting at the pier for the chance of the extra work and, perhaps, the odd mislaid bottle of beer.

Crested Eagle (pictured right with the Royal Eagle on the left on the buoys off Tower Pier on 19th May 1934)  

The days were long with the twelve hours or so of steaming time extended with bunkering and getting the ship ready in the morning and with cleaning up after hundreds of passengers, re-stocking the bars and galley and carrying out any necessary machinery maintenance in the evening.

Before the last war, the GSN bought the New Medway Steam Packet Company which was based at the Acorn Shipyard, Strood in Kent. At the end of 1937, at the age of 38, Bill Peake was appointed Engineer Superintendent of the New Medway Steam Packet Company and had responsibility for all engineering aspects of the fleet which, at that time, included the two new motor vessels Queen of the Channel and Royal Soveriegn and the paddle steamers Medway Queen, Thames Queen, Essex Queen, City of Rochester, Queen of Kent and Queen of Thanet.

He helped to organise the marine evacuation of the children from nearby Gravesend.

The General Steam, to my knowledge, provided the paddlers Royal Eagle, Golden Eagle, Crested Eagle, Laguna Belle and Medway Queen along with the motor vessels Royal Daffodil, Queen of the Channel and Royal Sovereign to transport youngsters from the old Gravesend West railway pier to Felixstowe, Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth on the East coast.

Between Friday September 1st and Sunday September 3rd 1939, 19,578 children had been uplifted and safely delivered!

Bill Peake, pictured with his son, Alan on the Medway Queen; August 1952


For inf., both the Queen of the Channel and my father's old ship Crested Eagle  were lost at Dunkerque.

(In fact the remains of the Crested Eagle are still visible at low water on the beach at La Panne.)

The Royal Sovereign  was subsequently lost later in the war, when she hit a mine in the Bristol Channel and her master, Capt Tommy Aldis was blown off the bridge!


In 1951 Bill was appointed a Director of the New Medway Steam Packet Company which continued to operate the paddle steamer Medway Queen’ until 1963 against a background of decline in the excursion trade nationwide and its eventual collapse in the 1960s.

Eventually Bill took over as the Managing Director of the company on the retirement of Mr O'Keefe and died in that role at the young age of 63 on 1st November 1962.


I am now the Chairman of the Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle Trust. Kingswear Castle continues the paddle steamer tradition on the Medway and Thames and has now sailed in the area for as long as the Eagle and longer than several other famous paddle steamers from the past including La Marguerite, Halcyon, Crested Eagle, Royal Eagle, Clacton Queen and Laverock and, not counting the war years when they were doing other things, Queen of Kent and Queen of Thanet.

The Acorn Shipyard at Rochester still exists today, although under different management, and Kingswear Castle goes there each year for her annual slipping.


Hopefully, therefore, you'll understand my interest in our society, since I knew nothing other than the General Steam as a child - spending all my spare time on their ships, in their shipyards and on their wharves!

I am sure, also, you can imagine my whole house is full of General Steam memorabilia - including, I may add, a copy of the March 1945 issue of the Southern Railway Magazine with an artist's impression of our loco on the front cover and an article inside about her and the naming ceremony at Waterloo! (Featured in The Packet Issue 6 –Ed)


Finally, you might like to know that the crews of the GSN used to refer to the company as "Generally Sure but Never Certain" - and I guess that sums up where we are with our air-smoothed rebuild!  (oh, we’re CERTAIN Alan!! Ed)


Alan Peake


If there is any interest amongst the membership (or others known to the group, perhaps) in purchasing photos of the Shipping Company's ships, Alan has many that he can supply and has kindly offered the proceeds to our Society's funds.  Please contact Alan directly via his email here for further details.