I’ve yet another update on the whereabouts and history of one of the original Broads Tours passenger launches – it’s amazing just how much information is coming in on this subject and how much affection there is for these classic wooden tour boats.
I was contacted a few weeks ago by Ronnie Rusack who is the owner of the Ratho Princess. As mentioned in a previous blog, Ratho Princess began life as The Prince which was built for George Smith and sons Broads Tours business at Hoveton in 1924 by the renowned boatbuilder Graham Bunn. Ronnie very kindly sent me a whole load of photos and information about the history of this beautiful launch and has given me permission to share some of that on here. The Prince /Ratho Princess is around 41 ft in length with a 10 ft beam and escaped the cutting in half and lengthening process which some of the other early Broads Tours launches underwent when Charles Hannaford took over the fleet in the mid 1930s. The photograph on the left is a very early shot of The Prince, presumably taken at the Broads Tours base at Hoveton. It was originally fitted with a petrol engine but this was replaced c1969/70 with a Perkins 4107 diesel engine.
In 1973 The Prince was sold to Waveney Rivers Tours at Oulton Broad from where she operated until the winter of 1977 when she was then purchased by Cedric Lovewell who owned the Southern Rivers Steamer company at Norwich. Cedric renamed her Princess Victoria after his daughter and, c1983, replaced the Perkins engine with a 1.5 BMC which had been removed from another ex-Broads Tours Launch – The Countess. As Princess Victoria, she was used to run trips on the Wensum and the Yare alongside Empress and Prince Edward, two other former Broads Tours passenger launches. As previously mentioned, Prince Edward had begun life as Princess Pat, built c1924, but was sadly destroyed by fire in April 1991. The photograph on the right shows Princess Victoria passing Cow Tower on the River Wensum in Norwich in the late 1970s.
In 1991 she found another new owner, businessman Joe Holland, who planned to operate a passenger service between Kirkintilloch and Glasgow on the Forth and Clyde Canal. It turned out to be a short lived venture, but a forlorn looking Princess Victoria was spotted by Ronnie Rusack who instantly fell in love with her. After approaching the owner, Ronnie managed to purchase her in 1993 for just £5,000. Ronnie owned the Bridge Inn at Ratho, just outside Edinburgh, from where he also ran two cruising restaurant boats. Princess Victoria was to become a passenger trip boat at the new Edinburgh Canal Centre which he was planning to establish at the Bridge Inn. The photograph on the left was taken on the day that the boat was craned out of the water at Kirkintilloch and transported to her new home at Ratho on the Union Canal. Ronnie recalls that it was a freezing cold November morning and a concrete boat was called upon to break the ice to enable Princess Victoria to reach a point on the canal where she could be craned out onto the lorry. Despite the thick fog which descended over central Scotland that day, she made it safely to Ratho by early afternoon.
In January 1994 work began on restoring and converting Princess Victoria for use on the Union Canal. Head height inside the boat was low and the roll-back sunshine roof was prone to leaks so and new raised central section of the roof was built. The old seating was stripped out and replaced, the decision being made to reduce her capacity from 52 to just 36 passengers to give a little more comfort to those onboard. The aft cabin was also refurbished for use as a galley for serving teas and coffees. Some planking was replaced, the hull was stripped down and repainted, the interior re-varnished and she was ready for use by April of that year. Ronnie approached a local primary school to come up with a new name for her and she was duly re-christened Ratho Princess.
Skippered by ex London policeman Bill Irvine, she proved to be very popular with visitors and made daily afternoon trips between Ratho and the M8 blockage on the Union Canal – navigation on the canal had closed in 1966 and had later been severed by the building of the M8 motorway. The Edinburgh Canal Centre became involved in a campaign to restore the Scottish Lowland Canals, joining forces with British Waterways Scotland to bid for funding from the Millennium Commission for the project. The bid was successful and in the year 2000 Ratho Princess was able to cruise to Edinburgh Linlithgow and Falkirk. In 2002 the magnificent Falkirk Wheel was completed, connecting the Union to the Forth and Clyde Canal once again. Ratho Princess has since attended many events throughout central Scotland and even managed a short sea trip round the coast to the Festival of Sail at Leith Docks in May 2003, passing beneath the Forth bridges en-route (see photo above right).
In 2005, Ronnie decided to sell his business but just couldn’t bear to part with Ratho Princess. Instead, he decided to remodel the interior to make her suitable for living on board whilst away from home. Keen that the redesign should compliment her age and character, the refurbishment took six months to complete with bespoke furniture being commissioned to fit her curves. The aft tea room became a bedroom whilst a new galley, toilet and lounge were created in the main cabin. Looking at the photograph on the left of her new interior, I think a remarkable job was done and she looks stunning. Ratho Princess continued to earn her keep for a little while longer, carrying just six VIP passengers at a time on trips between Edinburgh and Bowling on the Clyde, but since 2010 has been used mainly for pleasure by Ronnie. She still attracts a lot of attention however, and this year attended the celebrations for the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Falkirk Wheel and travelled along the River Forth to Stirling for the Queens Diamond Jubilee Flotilla.
Ratho Princess pictured in 2010 at the event which was staged to mark the 10th anniversary of the re-opening of the Union Canal.
Someone once said that you don’t own a classic wooden boat – you are just a custodian. It’s wonderful to know that this 90 year old lady is still in still going strong and has found such a great custodian in Ronnie Rusack. My thanks to him for providing the photos seen here and also for the wealth of information on her history.
Previous blog posts on the ex Broads Tours launches: