The most popular and iconic passenger boat in Bristol
In 1920 Sir W G Armstrong Whitworth & Co Shipbuilders (Walker Yard) Newcastle built the Tower Belle. This illustrious ship builder was experiencing a boom period with orders for ships to replace those lost in the Great War. Between the huge Battleships and Cargo vessels this small passenger ship was completed and launched into the Tyne. She was named Wincomblee after the area around the shipyard, later named Tower Belle after Tower Bridge.
We can only speculate why the shipyard needed a 100-seat passenger launch. It could have been to carry dignitaries, or to link the Elswick and Walker shipyards, or to ferry the foreign navy crews to and from their ships during hand over. For whatever reasons this 72ft passenger vessel was built on lines similar to the battle ships and cruisers taking shape around her.
The ships registry shows Armstrong’s owned the Wincomblee until 1939 when the registration transferred to the Lord Mayor of Newcastle and she became the property of the City and used as a ferry. In 1946 she was sold to a Dutch national and taken by sea to London. Based at Westminster Pier with three different owners (Thames Launches ltd, George Hastings then W R Withams Ltd). She ran to Greenwich and up as far as Hampton Court. Many people have childhood memories of traveling on the Tower Belle during the 1950s and 60s
In 1976 Tower Belle was up for sale again and lay unwanted on Eel Pie Island. The enterprising Nick Gray who had started Bristol Packet Boat Trips three years earlier carrying passengers on Narrow Boat Redshank bought her and she arrived in Bristol on the back of a truck in 1977.
In Bristol the Tower Belle quickly gained enthusiastic friends. Offering an Avon Gorge Cruise, a voyage not available to the general public since Campbell’s Paddle steamers had stopped trading in the early 1960s. It also started running trips to Beese’s Tea Gardens, Hanham and Keynsham. Carrying general public on advertised trips and available for private parties, often with jazz bands onboard.
Today she is the most popular and iconic passenger boat in Bristol. A typical day can start with a school party of 80 children screaming under the bridges, followed by a leisurely afternoon cream tea cruise, then an evening party with music and dancing on the aft deck.