The Harwich Parkeston Quay Boat Trains

The Hook Continental by Malcolm Root
By kind permission of Malcolm Root

Table of Contents

The North Sea Crossings

The southern part of the North Sea was always an extremely important trade crossing between Britain and the Continent. Harwich since the early 18th century had always maintained a role as a packet station for mail and passenger transport to and from the Netherlands. A new port, railway station and hotel was built in 1883 by the Great Eastern Railway (GER) on reclaimed marshland at Ray Farm a mile to the west of Harwich. Initially known as Stour Quay the facility was renamed for its then chairman, Charles Henry Parkes and became known as Parkeston Quay but later renamed again as ‘Harwich Parkeston Quay’ when a new station was developed in 1934. Originally constructed in Victorian times, Parkeston Quay was regarded as a bold decision by the GER but it quickly became the main East Anglian passenger and cargo port with important routes to Belgium, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Parkeston Quay provided regular steamer crossings to the Hook of Holland which became the busiest of the routes.

In 1904 the Hook of Holland gained greater prominence as the key northern Continental passenger port when it was joined to the rest of the European railway network. For the next 70 years this was a system that worked well on both sides of the North Sea where boat trains and ferries would wait for each other – in winter though delays were not uncommon. Post WWI further routes were introduced between Harwich and the Belgian ports of Zeebrugge and Antwerp and a later Dutch route to Flushing in 1927. At its height in excess of one million passengers per annum would use Harwich Parkeston Quay.

In the Victorian period, the other important southern Continental North Sea passenger crossing was at Tilbury Marine developed by the Midland Railway and its former constituent company the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway (LTSR). Strategically, Midland Railway acquired LTSR in 1912 thus allowing the company to gain access to Tilbury Docks for the movement of important freight traffic. Tilbury Marine was later revamped by LMS in 1927 to coincide with a new ferry service to Dunkerque with established routes to Paris Nord and onward luxury train destinations to Strasbourg, Basle, Lucerne, Milan and Rome. These were competitive times – LNER, LMS and Southern all striving to develop their own integrated train/boat/train offers to attract profitable Continental cargo and passengers.

A new liner and ferry landing floating stage was built jointly by LMS and the Port of London Authority (PLA) in 1930. This was developed alongside an existing station and then rebadged as ‘Tilbury Riverside’. An unused hotel in the vicinity was also refurbished by the PLA and LMS but was later destroyed by WWII bombing. Tilbury lost its route to Dunkerque in 1932 (see the Night Ferry story) but still had other longer ferry crossings to Rotterdam, Gothenburg and Copenhagen. With its close proximity to the capital – the train journey taking only 45 minutes – Tilbury also served as London’s main liner embarkation port with P&O Australasia sailings. In inter-war years Tilbury still offered a degree of competition as a liner port to Southampton’s growing dominance; in 1934 the LMS ran some 650 boat trains to service liners. Post-war and in BR era Tilbury was still busy with boat train traffic with out-bound £10 emigration Australia passages (£10 Poms) and in-bound immigrant traffic from the Carribean and the former Empire colonies from the late 1940s. St Pancras – Tilbury boat trains came and went over the years as Midland Railway and then LMS sought to maximise passenger traffic originating from the Midlands and the North. They operated over the Barking, Gospel Oak and Southend line (into Tilbury Riverside) which was eventually taken over by Transport for London (TfL) as part of the newly created London Overground project in 2007. This route was used for the ‘Swedish Lloyd Special’ St Pancras – Tilbury boat trains which ran up to three times a week for the Tilbury to Gothenburg ferry service in the 1950s. Tilbury boat trains originating from St Pancras were moved by BR(M) to Liverpool Street in the early 1960s in an effort to consolidate boat train operations.

The Ferries

Harwich for the ContinentRailway company owned steamers were an essential component of the ‘Holland Boat Express’ and the North Sea crossing all designed to create a seamless travel experience to reach a wealth of north European destinations. In 1910 GER introduced three ferries for the Hook of Holland service including SS Copenhagen, SS St Petersburg and SS Munich all triple-screw turbine ships capable of 21 knots. At the same time the SS Brussels was introduced for the Harwich to Antwerp service. In 1923 the vessels, loading dock and link-span facilities that were used to move locomotives and freight across the Channel for the war effort (see Sowing the Seeds for Night Ferry) were moved to Harwich. A dedicated freight service owned by a new company the Great Eastern Train Ferry Company was established running between Harwich and Zeebrugge. The company was taken over by LNER in 1934 with the service continuing until the outbreak of war in 1939. Post-war newer and larger rail ferry ships were introduced – many lasting until the end of the Harwich all train freight ferries in 1987. Facilities were then transferred to Dover and Calais until the Channel Tunnel was opened.

Around grouping a new vessel RMS Antwerp joined the GER/LNER passenger fleet in 1923. SS Vienna built in 1929 then joined the Hook of Holland service with Dutch partners on the route – the Zeeland Steamship Company – still running a number of older steamers. The elderly Oranje Nassau built in 1909 lasted until 1954 before being scrapped and the Mecklenburg built in 1922 was scrapped in 1960. Prior to the outbreak of war in 1939 two new Dutch motorships joined the North Sea fleet – Koningin Emma and Prinses Beatrix – both eventually being made redundant in 1968.

Harwich – Hook of Holland boat trains services resumed on 14 November 1945 initially heavily reliant on Dutch vessels – the elderly SS Prague being the only LNER/BR contribution until two new ships – the Arnhem in 1947 and sister ship, the Amsterdam in 1950, came on stream. Both vessels were built with a high proportion of cabins for the overnight service. Unfortunately, shortly after Arnhem was introduced the Prague was lost when she was gutted by fire in a refit at her original builders on 14 March 1948. The Arnhem was initially built as a single-class ship but two years later was converted to first and second class segregation (to conform with European practice) with common public spaces of lounge, restaurant and promenade decks. However, a two-class specification allowed BR to maintain the allure of the Hook Continental as an evening luxury boat train service. The Zeeland Steamship Company – the Dutch counterpart – operated the daytime service and was met by the Day Continental boat train.

On the Harwich – Esbjerg route a new and futuristic looking motor vessel, the Danish owned Kron Prins Frederik was introduced on 3 June 1946. The ship ordered in 1939 and delivered to owners the United Steamship Co. Ltd of Copenhagen without propellers in 1941 and managed to avoid requisitioning by the Nazis. In 1953 the ship survived a major fire and port sinking in Harwich: having been declared a total loss by insurers, the Danish owners bought the salvage rights and refloated the vessel, refitting the ship in Denmark and then returning her to full operation on the same route in April 1954. At different times the Kron Prins Frederik also operated on the Newcastle to Esbjerg route (‘The Norseman’ boat train) until she was taken out of service in 1974.

The last of the old style traditional steam-powered vessels – the Avalon – was introduced by BR in 1963 for the Harwich and Hook of Holland route. In 1968 BR and Zeeland Steamship Company took delivery of the first of a new breed of all purpose ferries accommodating greater drive-on capability for cars and commercial vehicles. At the same time Harwich Parkstone Quay was developed to cater for the increased volume of roll-on, roll-off business.

Harwich Boat Trains

GER had operated express boat train services over the 69 mile route to and from Liverpool Street Station and Harwich for a long period of time. To coincide with Hook of Holland’s linking to the rest of the European railway network in 1904, GER introduced its first 13-coach corridor train formation specifically for these services. By mid-1920s Harwich Parkeston Quay had really established itself as the main terminus for passenger ferry crossings to north Europe and Scandinavia. The port was home to a succession of boat trains and in particular a trio of pre-war luxury restaurant car expresses that included the ‘Flushing Continental’ (later retitled as the ‘Day Continental’), the ‘Scandinavian’ – known to Stratford Depot railwaymen as the ‘Scandy’ – and the most important the ‘Hook Continental’ which could be traced from GER times.

The Hook Continental was regarded as one of Britain’s most important boat trains and for prestige purposes on a par with Southern’s Golden Arrow and Night Ferry. In LNER timetables the Hook service was not initially given promenance as a dedicated luxuary boat train and known collectively by a number of titles including the ‘Hook of Holland Boat Express’, the ‘Hook of Holland Continental Express’ and the ‘Hook of Holland’. The train title graduated to become the ‘Hook Continental’ although this took several attempts by LNER management before eventual conferment. The first period was from September 1927 to July 1932, the second between July 1937 to September 1939 (the service being suspended due to hostilities) and eventually the name was adopted for good in 1947. Ironically, when boat trains resumed on 14 November 1945 the service was known for next couple of years as ‘Hook-of-Holland’.

Harwich also operated an evening sailing to Antwerp. This boat train was not named and followed the Hook Continental from Liverpool Street ten minutes later. The port’s position was further enhanced and consolidated in this period as the main east coast passenger port when the Flushing service was transferred from Folkestone on 1 January 1927. The Flushing Continental was introduced by LNER on 26 September 1927 and ran continuously until September 1939. Its claim to fame was that it was the only express, pre-war, with its headboard displaying the name of a European town or city. Post-war Flushing was renamed Vlissingen and the service was again re-routed to the Hook of Holland and the connection to Harwich. LNER’s Flushing Continental became ‘The Day Continental’ boat train service on 8 June 1947. The Day Continental as its name implies was a day-time crossing leaving London at 9.15am and reaching Parkeston Quay at 10.55 returning with the up-train at 7.00pm and reaching Liverpool Street at 8.36.

The LNER evening Scandinavian boat train service, operated in conjunction with the United Steamship Co. Ltd of Copenhagen, provided an overnight sailing from Harwich Parkeston Quay to the Danish port of Esbjerg. In LNER timetables from September 1928, the service was known as the ‘Esbjerg Continental Express’ and then from September 1930 as the ‘Scandinavian Continental Express’. Its shortened name was adopted on 1 May 1931 running continuously until hostilities in September 1939 and again resuming on 7 December 1945.

With the opening of Harwich Parkeston Quay GER wanted to develop an additional main route to the north of England to supplement the main London service. The Harwich steamer port was linked to the north of the country via a joint GER/Great Northern Railway (GNR) route connecting Doncaster and York and, in due course, a more circuitous route with through coaches via Peterborough, Rugby and Birmingham. During LNER times the Harwich north-country boat train was re-routed several times. From the 1960s the ferry terminal was connected to the north of England by the ‘Harwich – Manchester Boat Train’ which ran from Manchester Piccadilly via Sheffield, Retford, Gainsborough, Lincoln, Sleaford, Spalding and March. The last vestige of luxury trappings went with this service as it was well-known for running of the elderly ex LNER Gresley teak bodied buffet cars painted in BR blue and grey livery. From 7 May 1973 the Harwich – Manchester Boat Train ran between Sheffield Midland, Nottingham, Grantham and Peterborough.

Luxury Train Travel

It was the third Harwich boat train service however, that captured public imagination with the evening Hook service becoming one of the country’s most luxurious named trains. Tailboard lettering on the rear coach left passengers at Liverpool Street Station in no uncertain terms regarding the express train they were joining. The LNER pitched the attractions of European travel not just to a wealthy and exclusive segment but by embarking on publicity campaigns that promoted their new steamers as if they were mini ocean liners to a broader market – this was a marketing ploy that had first been used by GWR in the early 1900s with the Irish routes from Fishguard when it opened as a ferry port. The LNER also promoted a plethora of routes that would include the routes to Flushing, Antwerp, Zeebrugge and Esbjerg but it was the Hook route that gained most exposure. A new set of eleven coaches with rounded coach-ends and curved roof-ends and two 12-wheeled Pullman cars was introduced in 1925 making the tare weight of the Hook Continental train around 430 tons. Apart from the Pullman stock (where passengers would pay an additional premium), LNER concentrated on providing a distinctive and memorable catering service. With an 8.30pm departure from Liverpool Street the train would incorporate first-class corridor coaches, an open first-class dining car, a combined first-class diner and kitchen carriage and an open second-class dining car.

First-class Pullmans became a regular luxury feature of the Hook Continental and a new coach set was introduced in 1936 increasing the tare to 443 tons. In October 1938 LNER introduced a new set of ten spacious teak varnished Gresely pressure-ventilated coaches making the Hook similar to other prestigious streamlined services operated by the company. Some of the coaches were semi-open first-class with only three compartments with the remainder of the coach being open-plan with centre aisle (a feature promoted by LMS) but accommodating just 24 seats. As previously noted LNER adopted a broader approach to their promotion in the early 1930s being acutely aware of the severe downturn in Continental passenger volumes between Britain and France (see the Golden Arrow story). The Hook Continental also provided passengers with a ‘budget conscious’ first-class service for those happy to take the comparatively long overnight sailing to the Hook rather than taking the day-time crossing and then having to take expensive onward Continental sleepers. Again this was an alternative to the shorter Dover boat train crossing to France where onward destinations would be conducted via Paris. The Hook Continental was also regarded as an eastern counties version of ‘The Irish Mail’ boat train as it was incorporated into a Royal Mail route sailing to and from the Hook of Holland. The train formation did not include a TPO although a locked baggage car(s) was nearly always the first coach in the make-up.

European Luxury Trains

RheingoldWhen the steamer docked the following morning there were many onward European destinations that were available to the Hook Continental traveller. The jewel in the crown of onward itineraries was the two luxury train services linking the North Sea with the Alps. One of these trains was the ‘Rheingold’ – a Continental service operated by the German company MITROPA – introduced on 15 May 1928. This was a highly successful train – the Rheingold being a daytime luxury Pullman style service commencing its journey at the Hook of Holland and then run through the Netherlands and Germany to Basle with onward connections to Milan and the south of Italy. The Rheingold met the overnight steamer at the quayside at breakfast time. Over the next 11 hours the maximum 96 passengers would be pampered in spacious and luxurious surroundings. The Rheingold was favoured by some British and American passengers as staff spoke good English. Lunch and dinner would also be accompanied by quality German wines as the train ran through the Rhineland to Switzerland.

Rheingold posterThe alternative Alpine luxury train was provided by Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits (CIWL) – also known as Wagon-Lits with its branded ‘Edelweiss’ service named after a mountain flower and a Swiss national emblem. The Edelweiss was introduced in 15 June 1928 (a month after the MITROPA operated Rheingold) by CIWL and ran until 1939. The Edelwiss did not meet the Harwich steamer but began its journey from Amsterdam but also with a connecting Harwich ferry to Antwerp and onward rail journey to Brussels. The Edelweiss then followed a similar axis route to the Alps as the Rheingold but running through the French and Swiss cities of Strasbourg, Basle and Lucerne. Both the Rheingold and Edelweiss would meet each other in Basle. Post-war these services would run with modifications to the journey itinerary and with different railway owners.

Harwich Boat Train Locomotives and Carriages

Prior to grouping the 4-4-0 D14, D15 and D16 ‘Claud Hamiltons’ – a nickname given when Lord Claude Hamilton (the name of the GER chairman) – became the first in what was to become the largest class of GER locomotives to haul heavily laden boat trains. Following grouping the new large and powerful LNER locomotives could not operate on the Harwich route due to a height restriction (maximum 13’) coupled with bridge weight and speed restrictions due to sharp curves over parts of the line. Older locomotives would include 4-4-0 classes such as D16/3 no: 2532 which hauled the Scandinavian but increasingly 4-6-0 locomotives became the norm for boat trains before and after WWII. A variety of locomotives would be involved including B1 class 4-6-0s and B17s prior to the arrival of the Britannia class. Examples of boat train haulage included B1s no: 61226, no: 61264 and no: 61149 on the Hook Continental, no: 61361 on the Day Continental, B2 no: 1671 Royal Sovereign on the Scandinavian,  B17 no: 2826 Brancepeth Castle on the Flushing Continental, no: 2836 Harlaxton Manor on the Scandinavian, B17/1 no: 61612 Houghton Hall and B17/4 no: 61666 Nottingham Forest on the Scandinavian.

BR Timetable Eastern CountiesOne of the features of the Liverpool Street and Harwich Parkeston Quay route was the boat train having to negotiate some of the country’s busiest commuter lines in order to meet cross-channel ferries to and from the Hook of Holland and Esbjerg. BR 4-6-2 Britannia class Standard Pacifics were well-equiped to meet these tight demands which included dealing with electrification of many lines and partial re-routing of services. By 1951 the Stratford depot based Britannia locomotives became the staple of the East Anglian boat trains. Britannias were allocated and maintained by Stratford but operated by Parkeston based crews. The powerful Britannia class were particularly useful as the Hook Continental weight had grown to regularly over 500 tons. Britannias were used in both directions requiring a significant roster of locomotives. The Hook Continental was regularly hauled by no: 70000 Britannia, no: 70001 Lord Hurcomb, no: 70005 John Milton, no: 70006 Robert Burns, no: 70007 Coeur-de-Lion, no: 70008 Black Prince, no: 70010 Owen Glendower, no: 70011 Hotspur, no: 70034 Thomas Hardy (which also hauled Night Ferry in a six week spell) and no: 70035 Rudyard Kipling.

With the Day Continental Britannias were also prominenant including hauling by no: 70037 Herwood the Wake, no: 70008 Black Prince, no: 70012 John of Gaunt, no: 70035 Rudyard Kipling, no: 70036 Boadicea and no: 70037 Hereward the Wake. Similarly, with the evening Scandinavian service Britannias again provided regular support with no: 70006 Robert Burns, no: 70007 Coeur-de-Lion, no: 70008 Black Prince, no: 70009 Alfred the Great, no: 70010 Owen Glendower, no: 70011 Hotspur, no: 70012 John of Gaunt and no: 70035 Rudyard Kipling.

The Last Years of the Hook Continental

With the end of steam traction Class 40 diesels started to takeover motive power in 1963. However, this class of diesel did not deliver any immediate or substantial increase in performance over that of the steam hauled Britannias. Class 40s became more dominant on BR Eastern Region and Mk1 maroon coaches gave way to repainted BR blue and grey liveried stock. The last change in motive power occurred in the late 1960s with the introduction of BR Class 86 standard electric locomotives as the line was electrified. The look of the Hook Continental started to change with modernised Mk2 coaching stock leaving the service more utilitarian in nature and starting to lose its magic as a luxury named train. In its various forms Harwich boat trains had a long and illustrious history straddling GER, LNER and BR eras until its final demise as a dedicated boat train. In May 1987 the Hook Continental, the Day Continental and the Scandinavian train names were dropped by BR as a result of changing travel patterns, the growth in car accompanied ferry travel and the appearance of the budget airline. However, one of the key legacies of the Harwich boat trains is that they conveyed large numbers of passengers and cargo to and from north Europe ensuring the commercial importance of Parkeston Quay was never underestimated. Today, deep water facilities at near-by Felixstowe help maintain this part of East Anglia as one of Britain’s most important container ports.

These boat train services will be featured in Martyn Pring’s fourth book in the luxury travel series on North Sea crossings to Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia scheduled to be published Autumn 2022.