King George V
Current / Last Route
Turbine Steamers Ltd
William Denny & Brothers Dumbarton
Parsons Marine Turbine Co. Ltd, Wallsend.
6 Steam Turbines SRG Sc. New Boiler 1929, 1935.
Hoist & Lifts:
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This celebrated ship was unique; the first passenger steamer built with high-pressure turbines, and by the same yard, William Denny & Bros of Dumbarton, who built the 1901 turbine pioneer KING EDWARD. Also built for Turbine Steamers Ltd, an operating subsidiary of Williamson-Buchanan Steamers Ltd, which served to develop the Campbeltown and Inveraray traffic, the beautiful 1926 vessel sailed well into o the 1970s and her passing was widely mourned. Though most associated with Oban cruises, she was built specifically for the Clyde pleasure trade.
Initially, the innovative machinery of KING GEORGE V was of almost terrifying capacity: two Yarrow water-tube boilers working at a pressure of 550 lb and at a toe-curling steam temperature of 750 degrees F. Rumours still abound of the astonishing speed the KING GEORGE V could attain in her prime – she made 20.78 knots officially on trial, but some insist she could attain a hissing 30 knots – but, in truth, all this state-of-the-art steam plant was more sensational than successful. After an appalling accident – when two engineers were scalded to death – she was reboilered in 1929 and again, with a conventional double-ended Scotch boiler working at a reassuring 200-lb pressure, in 1935.
She was also given new funnels of wider diameter at that refit, but the Parsons turbines – the port set ran on quadruple expansion; the starboard set at triple expansion ahead and both identically astern – hummed on to the end. Turbine steamers like KING GEORGE V, while not quite as manoeuvrable as their paddle contemporaries, were wonderfully smooth and vibration-free in operation and ideal for the pleasure cruising of their day.
It was late in 1926 before KING GEORGE V took her place in the Turbine fleet, and early in the 1927 season she consigned the ageing KING EDWARD to the downmarket up-river traffic on the Clyde, and sailed from Greenock to Campbeltown and Inveraray – important travel connections in their day, as well as playing her part in the Loch Eck Tour. She was the first Clyde steamer to have part of the promenade deck enclosed; the first with her dining saloon was placed on the main deck aft (with the added amenity of its views) rather than on the lower deck as had been custom hitherto; and the first with large, splendid, panoramic windows.
In 1935 the Williamson-Buchanan concern passed to the LMS; the older turbines were absorbed by the CSP and KING GEORGE V and her consort, QUEEN ALEXANDRA (II) were sold to David MacBrayne Ltd in October.
She appeared for the 1936 season on the Oban-Staffa-Iona cruise service – with which she is still indelibly associated – and bearing six lifeboats rather than the previous four; two were inherited from the celebrated paddle-steamer COLUMBA of 1879 (withdrawn at the end of the 1935 season) and had previously done service on MacBrayne's Loch Leven pioneer motor-vessel, SCOUT.
Requisitioned for King and Country in the Second World War, KING GEORGE V served as a tender on the Firth of Clyde and also as a troop-transport in the Dunkirk evacuation, making six desperate dashes in May 1940. She further tendered on the Clyde when the mass-landing of Dominions and, later, USA troops were under way and she proudly carried the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, to his battleship en route to the celebrated Atlantic Conference with President Franklin D Roosevelt – where they drafted the “Atlantic Charter” that underpinned the Allied effort against Hitler and the subsequent rise of the United Nations.
For their heroism at Dunkirk her master, Captain MacLean, and her chief engineer, Mr W Macgregor, were awarded the DSO and her bo'sun, Mr Mackinnon, the DSM.
Restored to peacetime service, KING GEORGE V spent the entire 1946 season on the famous Ardrishaig mail run from Gourock – then a vital link in Highland postal services – and indeed relieved on this service quite frequently. In 1948 one of her lifeboats was motorised but it was 1950 before landings at Staffa, suspended at the outbreak of war, were resumed. During the winter of 1950-51 she was converted to burn oil fuel, with a consequent increase in speed, and in 1952 0 owing to new lighting regulations – she acquired a mainmast.
In 1959 the advent of inflatable life rafts saw her lifeboats reduced to four and – as G E Langmuir wistfully records – she lost the historic pair. For that season, reflecting a rapidly changing society, a buffet was installed for coffee and sandwiches and in 1960 this became a full-blown cafeteria. Her accommodation was expanded somewhat in 1962 with a final increase in her gross tonnage to 985. That year she relieved again at length on the Ardrishaig Mail.
In 1970 KING GEORGE V was chartered by the Highlands & Islands Development Board for a very elaborate “Festival of the Countryside” schedule of cruises,. Despite atrocious weather she was able to pay her first (and only) calls to Mallaig, Kyle of Lochalsh, Portree, Aultbea and Mellon Charles. Conditions precluded a wonderful plan to sail west as far as Tarbert, Harris, though she did reach as far north as Ullapool and, retreating south, landed passengers on the Isle of Rhum. In 1970,. too, she sailed as far as Bangor in Northern Ireland.
Earlier that year she was chartered by the Clyde River Steamer Club for a cruise to Lochranza from Gourock and Wemyss Bay. Early in 1971, too, KING GEORGE V was chartered to the CSP for a month to maintain the sailings of QUEEN MARY II; her turbine steamer was undergoing a face-lift at Barclay, Curle's yard. That year, though, she abandoned the once-popular “Six Lochs Cruise” from Oban, making extra Iona trips instead.
In 1973, passing to Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd, KING GEORGE V duly adopted the new colour-scheme; the lions now fitted to her funnels were inherited from the lamented DUCHESS OF HAMILTON, sold the previous year. In June, following an astonishing run of bad luck – the LOCH SEAFORTH had been wrecked in March and no less than three major car ferries had just broken down – CalMac briefly, desperately considered putting KING GEORGE V on the Stornoway-Ullapool service to provide at least considerable passenger capacity. The plan was firmly vetoed by the DTI, on account of her vulnerable saloon windows in North Minch seas.
The Caledonian MacBrayne timetable for 1974 is wistful reading today: KING GEORGE V, the old favourite, sailed every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from Oban to Staffa and Iona, with an Iona cruise every Wednesday from Fort William, and additional runs to the Isles of the Sea and Corryvreckan Whirlpool – as well as short Oban-Fort William cruises each Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with a ferry-trip ashore to Appin. At the end of this 1974 season she was withdrawn; making her last excursion on 15th September to Loch Sunart and Tobermory – though her demise was not formally confirmed until December.
Laid up in her usual winter berth – the East India Harbour at Greenock – King George V was sold on 3rd April 1975 to Nationwide Transport Ltd of Cardiff and was towed from Greenock on 12th April by the tug MUMBLES - “farewell,” records Langmuir, “to the last two-funnelled (fore and aft) MacBrayne ship – a feature of the Highland scene since the advent of the first MOUNTAINEER in 1852”. Neglected by her new owners, for over six years KING GEORGE V mouldered in a Cardiff dry-dock. Acquired by Bass Charington Ltd and undergoing conversion to a floating restaurant (to replace OLD CALEDONIA, gutted by fire in 1980) the KING GEORGE V was herself ravaged by flames on 26th August – the blaze started, it was concluded, by a tramp.
The hulk was later sold; hopes of any refit abandoned, and what remained of the KING GEORGE V was finally towed to the Cardiff foreshore opposite Penarth and left to be broken up by the sea - as James Aikman Smith remarked bitterly in a subsequent newsletter of the West Highland Steamer Club, “a sad end for a fine ship.” She was the oldest vessel ever to wear the Caledonian MacBrayne colours.