The Red Funnel years
BALMORAL was ordered in October 1947 by Red Funnel of Southampton as a replacement for the paddle steamer of the same name. She was built at the famed Thornycroft yard at Southampton and was launched on a hot June day in 1949. She had an attractive appearance and had a dual role of providing passenger ferry services between Southampton and Cowes on the Isle of Wight as well as carrying out a wide range of wonderfully scenic coastal excursions around the Isle of Wight during summer months.
BALMORAL instantly became a popular ship on the Cowes ferry service and soon had an enviable reputation for speed, comfort and cleanliness on her cruises around the Isle of Wight. Her regular excursions were enlivened by many special sailings. These included participation in the glorious Coronation Fleet Review in 1953, welcoming HRH The Duke of Edinburgh aboard in May 1958 and bidding farewell to the RMS QUEEN MARY as she left Southampton for her final voyage in September 1967.
As car traffic to the Isle of Wight increased during the mid 1960s, it was clear that BALMORAL wouldn’t fit into Red Funnel’s future plans for large car ferries that were then needed by the growing number of people that wanted to take their car on holiday to the Isle of Wight. It was also apparent, that the tradition of coastal cruising was changing and BALMORAL’S future as part of the Red Funnel fleet would soon be at an end. BALMORAL was quietly withdrawn in 1968 and her days operating as flagship of the Red Funnel fleet ended. Through her preservation, BALMORAL provides a strong historic link to the famous Red Funnel fleet.
The White Funnel years
BALMORAL was chartered from Red Funnel by P. & A. Campbell of the Bristol Channel in 1969. When BALMORAL arrived, she was placed on a heavy programme of cruises along with her former fleet-mate WESTWARD HO. With her newly painted white funnel, BALMORAL soon became a well-loved steamer as she cruised to Lundy and the other Bristol Channel resorts.
BALMORAL appeared in full Campbell livery for the 1970 season. With her speed, BALMORAL was placed chiefly on the Bristol to Lundy and the Swansea to Ilfracombe via Tenby routes. By 1971, BALMORAL became the sole member of the Campbell fleet and she was based at Swansea, sailing regularly to Ilfracombe and Lundy. From 1973, BALMORAL undertook additional cruises from Penarth, Weston and Bristol.
BALMORAL was now becoming well-known around the rest of the UK and she undertook a number of special cruises as well as tendering work. During this time, she visited North Wales, the Isle of Man and Fleetwood. She also undertook some important enthusiast charters around the Isle of Wight as well as taking part in the 1977 Silver Jubilee Fleet Review.
The 1970s saw fuel prices and wages rise. This combined with challenging weather and problems with her parent company (European Ferries). In 1979, the traditional operations of P. & A. Campbell’s White Funnel Fleet ceased. But, BALMORAL was not to be defeated. In 1980, she was transferred to Campbell’s ownership and in turn was chartered to a new company – White Funnel Steamers. The plan to maintain services to Lundy in co-operation with the Landmark Trust ultimately led to failure and BALMORAL’S last cruise took place in October 1980. It was thought to be the end of an era.
BALMORAL had become a great success in the Bristol Channel during her twelve years of service. Her speed, reliability and suitability for the Bristol Channel had shown her potential. The Campbell empire had ended, but the most exciting years were still to come for BALMORAL.
The Preservation years
From 1978 onwards, the paddle steamer Waverley undertook a full programme of cruises around the UK each year. Her success led to a search for an economical screw-vessel to join her. A second vessel would provide support in case of breakdown as well as promoting greater usage of piers and harbours around the UK.
Balmoral had faced great uncertainty after being withdrawn from Bristol Channel service in 1980. After laying at Bristol and Avonmouth, Balmoral was acquired to become a floating restaurant and disco at Dundee. This venture soon failed and Balmoral was placed for sale. Balmoral was then identified as a suitable consort for the famous Waverley .
Despite not having seen service since 1980 MV Balmoral only required minimal attention to put to sea again. She had now been acquired by the Waverley organisation.
The Waverley organisation inspected Balmoral and duly purchased her. Balmoral arrived at Glasgow in March 1985for restoration. An appeal was launched to raise the funds to restore and adapt her.
In she March 1985 sailed under her own power from Dundee via the Pentland Firth to Glasgow for renovation – but funds still had to be raised for that.
In January 1986, enough money had been raised for MV Balmoral to go into the Govan Dockyard and begin work on her major re-build. Her old car deck was plated over to provide the galley and dining saloon, a new mast, wheelhouse and lifeboats were fitted and the passenger areas renovated. She emerged with a white hull, yellow funnel and a new port of registry – Bristol.
She returned to service on 13th April 1986 under the command of Captain Steve Michel with a trip from Bristol to Ilfracombe, which was repeated on 27th April as her official maiden voyage. She soon settled into a busy programme of cruises each season.
Central to her timetable was the popular sailings on the Bristol Channel. She soon started to operate popular cruises to Ilfracombe and Lundy from such places as Bristol, Clevedon and Minehead. She also undertook a great number of special cruises to such places as Gloucester, Briton Ferry, Chepstow and Padstow.
From the start, it became apparent that Balmoral would have to operate a long season each year to become successful. This was effectively achieved by sending her around the UK to open up new areas of operation.
By 1989, Balmoral had established an exciting ‘Round Britain’ timetable each year calling at around sixty different ports. Regular cruising areas such as the South Coast, North Wales, Isle of Man, the River Thames and Sussex soon become popular operating areas each year. They were supplemented by rare calls at East Coast harbours, Lancashire, the River Humber, Western Isles, North-East Scotland, Firth of Clyde and Northern Ireland.
It was during this year that MV Balmoral celebrated her 40th birthday, back on the Solent. She had carried 109,504 passengers over the course of the season.
By the time the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic was celebrated with a Fleet Review off the coast of Anglesey in 1993, MV Balmoral was back to having a “Red Funnel” look – but no evidence of the thin gold band between red and black on the funnel. Unfortunately the weather was atrocious and no passengers could be carried.
1995 produced another change in funnel – this time back to cream but with a black top.
In 1996 she had a “Sherwood Green” hull when she was unusually dry docked on the Mersey for a prop change. She also made one of her rare foreign trips – to Boulogne – in June.
In 2007 MV Balmoral “went foreign” again, sailing light-ship from IOM to Carlingford Lough and then, after a call at Carlingford, up the re-opened ship canal to Newry
2012 proved to be MV Balmoral’s last season under the WSNC flag. It was an Olympic year and the ship had been chartered to provide spectator/hospitality cruises from Weymouth for the sailing events. MV Balmoral’s final revenue earning trip for WSNC was another charter – to open the Ormonde off-shore wind farm in the Irish Sea.
Balmoral has also taken part in many special events such as the D-Day Royal Fleet Review, Tower Bridge Centenary in 1994 as well as offering special cruises to Boulogne and well as acting as the Isles of Scilly ferry. Balmoral gained a reputation for becoming the UK’s most versatile excursion ship.
Throughout all of her preservation career, Balmoral has spent each winter at Bristol and has become an important reminder of the port’s proud maritime heritage.