Whatever Happened To…The White Horse Ferries

With the excellent news that Blue Funnel Cruises took over running Hythe ferry in Hampshire from the 21st April 2017, I thought I’d do a piece about the ferries the former owners, White Horse Ferries Limited, actually built and owned as well as the ones they bought.

The Lay brothers have been busy over the past decades and created a few companies for their inland waterways business, as well as having multiple mortgages and deeds of covenants.

White Horse Ferries Limited was formed on the 31st January 1991 and is still going. They took over the Tilbury-Gravesend run in 1991 until 2000 and later Hythe Ferry in 1994, beating Blue Funnel Cruises in the bidding. They bought everything from what the 1994 Debenture said was from General Estates in Prospect Place including all the buildings, slipway, pier, train and 1946 ferry, Hotspur IV. General Estates used to service their own boats but sold out to Southern Coastcrafts Limited in 1980, who then sold to Waterfront Ferries. White Horse Ferries sold New Forester as well as the buildings and slipway, preferring to use the services at Saxon Wharf for refits.

There have been a couple of incidents during their ownership. In 1999, one of the mates fell overboard at Town Quay from Hotspur IV, hitting his head. Despite working part-time for three years, he had never received training in handling mooring ropes. He was also wearing his own, normal shoes, since White Horse didn’t provide approved, non-slip footwear, which was a maritime regulation that year.

In 2001, a section of Hythe pier failed a safety check due to concerns over the ironwork structure beneath the train track. The pier remained open but train halted. A year later, a freak gust of wind caused Hotspur IV hit the pier, bending on of the main supports. Hotspur was in the news again in 2003 when vandals cut her mooring ropes, causing her to drift across Southampton Water. Meanwhile, in 2011, Great Expectations had a prang. They did their own patch up job which caused the MCA to withdraw her passenger certificate until it was repaired. She was laid up alongside Hotspur while Ashleigh R, from Blue Funnel, did the run.

The dredger, Donald Redford, famously collided with the pier in November 2003, resulting in it being sliced in half and causing a £300,000 repair bill, which was mainly paid by the dredger’s owners.

Over the years there were complaints about losing business due to various factors, including car parking charges in Hythe with claims they suffered a significant drop in trade for the first time since 1994. This was just three months after the pier reopened from the Donald Redford incident, which they also said lost them business. Then there were Labour’s planned business rate hikes in 2005, causing their bill to rise from £1,459.20 to £12,257.25.

The business received annual council subsidies as well as a £450,000 grant over 5 years in 2007 to restore the pier, which continued falling into disrepair right up until Blue Funnel’s takeover.

White Horse Fast Ferries Limited began on the 29th August 1997. In June 1999, they launched the Central London Fast Ferry between the Embankment and London Bridge City, including Canary Wharf on weekdays. The following year it was due to be extended to include the London Eye, Blackfriars and the Tower of London but it only lasted 6 months before being withdrawn. They had been awarded the riverbus service from the Cutty Sark to the Millennium Dome, running two ferries from 1st January 2000, so concentrated on that and would not return the other service until they had completed their commitment on that route.

A month later they reduced the service to one boat and, due to the Dome’s failure, they closed the service on the 10th October 2001. They also ended other services, having only made a profit when it opened. They put assets, including vessels, worth £1.6 million up for sale, blaming outside issues, such as not being able to erect signs advertising the service or put up ticket machines. A petition was made on the 12th March 2001 to wind the company up, and the process began on the 17th May. An Order of Court was made on the 14th June, finally being dissolved by Begbies Traynor on the 14th July 2010.

White Horse Fast Ferries Holdings plc ran from the 2nd June 1998. A creditors meeting was announced on the 4th July 2001, entering voluntary liquidation until being wound up by Begbies Traynor the 27th December 2002.

International Fast Ferries Limited began on the 4th October 1991 as Tamesis Boats Limited and is still active.

Hythe Ferry Limited was created on the 2nd February 2015, although they didn’t bother informing their employees for a further 6 months. Now they have sold it to Blue Funnel, who have already incorporated Blue Funnel Ferries Limited on the 6th February 2017.

So, what happened to their many boats from all these companies?

Let’s begin with the current main Hythe ferry, Great Expectations. Built by Lay Construction in 1992 for the Gravesend-Tilbury route, she was transferred to Hythe in 1995 and replaced at Tilbury by Martin Chuzzelwit. In 2017, Great Expectations’ 9 day refit ended up taking three weeks due to the many issues they kept discovering after years of neglect. As a result, it will take a couple of years to bring her back up to standard, although improvements have been made such as being a smoother, quieter ride. She has been renamed Hythe Scene and at some point in the future, will undergo a major revamp to include heating and new seats.

Martin Chuzzlewit was the first of six identical ferries built by White Horse Ferries at their Gravesend yard. Entering service in 1995 and still on the route when White Horse went bust in May 2001. During the administration period, the boat maintained the route. Five months later, the Lower Thames and Medway Boat Company took over but broke down on 10th April 2002, leaving passengers without a boat. She has operated as Thames Swift, first for Thames Luxury Charters and from 2nd May 2017 Jetstream Tours of Chatham and is back on the Tilbury-Gravesend run.

Wilkins Micawber followed a year later. On the 24th January 1997, the boat was destroyed an an engine fire while carrying about twelve passengers. They wanted £315,000 for her in September 2000. She ended up in Sierra Leone for Allied Marine running a service alongside Daniel Quilp from 20th November 2009.

Philip Pirrip was built in 1999 but laid up at the White Horse Ferry yard at Gravesend from 2000 for years before being moved to Faversham. They wanted £378,000 in September 2000, reducing it to £161,000 and was eventually sold in 2017, minus wheelhouse and canopy, to be a houseboat for £4000.

Daniel Quilp was next as they churned them out like sausages during 1999. By 2000, she too was up for sale at £433,000. She ended up on the Tyne and Inverness in 2007 before going to Sierra Leone to begin a new service for Allied Marine from 20th November 2009 alongside Wilkins Micawber.

Uriah Heep was also built in 1999 and laid up at the White Horse Yard at the Railway Pier, Gravesend at the same time as Philip Pirrip. A year later they were asking £433,000 for her, reduced to 187,000 three years later. After several years she was moved to Faversham Creek. In 2014, they decided to resurrect her for the Hythe ferry run to Southampton, replacing the much-loved and much-neglected Hotspur IV.

From the beginning there were problems with steering, as well as having problems coping with the wash from regular passing traffic. How on earth the MCA were satisfied enough to give out a passenger certificate is a mystery to this day. There were a couple of kisses with the dock at Town Quay but the end came when she hit the pier, wheelhouse and canopy being sliced off. It was bloody lucky no one was killed.

They had intended to repair her but in the end she was towed initially taken to Hamble for repairs but then taken to a yard in Portsmouth once there was no chance she would return to service. There were whispers they would resurrect Philip Pirrip but it never happened. Uriah Heep is currently for sale, complete with new wheelhouse and canopy which need fitting, plus a set of moulds, for £45,000.

Abel Magwitch was the last in 2001 but by then White Horse Fast Ferries had stopped doing the route but it didn’t stop them putting her up for sale with her sisters for £420,000. Instead she was operated by Thames Clippers on the Hilton Hotel-Canary Wharf run until October 2004.

Now the ones they inherited.

Hotspur IV was a classic boat, designed by General Estates for the Hythe ferry run, and built at Rowhenge Ironworks in Southampton. She had a bar on a lower deck with extra seating and used to operate trips. She was unpopular with the Lays, who were rumoured for years to be trying to offload her, and they closed off the lower deck. She ended up on the National Historic Ships Register so they kept her but ran her into the ground with deliberate neglect.

By the time she failed her 2014 inspection, her hull was porous and she needed tens of thousands of repairs, including a new engine bed. She was eventually sold in 2016 for £2000 to become a houseboat but at the time of writing nothing has happened except she has deteriorated further.

New Forester was the last newbuild of the old guard and entered service in 1982 using the engines originally in Hotspur III. A completely modern vessel and sleek, she had limited outdoor space at the back but inside the seats were comfortable and the boat had heating for winter. From 1995 to 1999 she was laid up while Great Expectations and Hotspur IV were solely on the route.

She was sold first to River Dart Cruises and renamed Baltic Star. She has been operating on the Thames as a party boat since 2006 for Capital Pleasure Boats under the name Golden Star. She also does a tour Mondays-Thursdays.

So, will the Lays pop up again running a ferry service? Who knows? What we do know is all of their prior services have new people in charge so the future is looking good for regular passengers and tourists.

If anyone has any further information about the former White Horse Fast Ferries Tilbury-Gravesend boats, please comment below.

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6 Responses to Whatever Happened To…The White Horse Ferries

  1. Steve boyce says:

    When I found out that Hotspur IV was neglected, and sold off for just £2000, I was saddened, I would have snapped her up so quick, without the thought of the cost of her preservation, just to keep her safe, then, perhaps with help from other enthusiasts, could have restored her to her original blue and white colours, with all her fittings intact, ok, £2000 would have been the easy bit, but eventually, I would hope she would end up her true self again. Thankyou so much Patricia for a wonderful web site 🙂 , and detailed information, I hope to get back to my Hythe pier web site some day, where I can promote yours, in the meantime,  I kick myself for my neglect, Steve Boyce

    • Thank you Steve. 🙂 I think it’s disgusting they are now selling her for £17,500 without engines or £22,500 with. The description fails to mention all the work she needs or the huge hole in the bottom of her hull. White Horse were scum. I’m glad they’ve gone. Just sad it’s too late for Hotspur. 😦

  2. Andrew Thomas says:

    Where is Hotspur IV laid up? So sad. Used to go on it every summer.

  3. carl says:

    I thankyou for your wonderful and informative article which I have read with much interest I’m the new owner of phillip pirrup and I’m gratefull for all the new information I now have on the vessel many thanks

  4. Mark German says:

    An interest artical bringing me more or less up to date. I was the foreman during the build of Great Expectations having joined White Horse and the Lay brothers at the begining of their venture at Gravesend. Previusly I had worked at Conyer Marine as steelwork foreman/supervisor. I was wondering as to the where abouts of the Edith 2 that Great Expectations replaced at Gravesend? .
    Shortly after the completion of Great Expectation I moved to Devon.

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