Vintage Paddle Steamers on Germany’s beautiful River Elbe

Not all of Nicholas Dawlish’s life was a struggle and I like to think of him enjoying breaks from duty. There’s reason to believe that, like many Britons of the Victorian era, he found holidays in Germany enjoyable, especially in the company of his beloved wife Florence. Memoirs from the time make frequent reference to such visits by British tourists, not least because Germany was then the music-centre of the world and travel there was easy.  River cruises were particularly popular, not only on the Rhine but on the Elbe, especially between Dresden and the picturesque “Saxon Switzerland” to the south. One can still get a feel for the relaxed elegance of such cruises since a number of paddle-steamers, the oldest dating from 1879, are still active.

P.S. Stadt Wehlen (1879) and P.S.Dresden (1926) moored at Dresden 16.09.10

I visited Dresden in 2010 to see not only the wonderful Zwinger art-gallery and the reconstruction of the city after the 1945 firestorm, but also the preserved paddle steamers. There are nine in total, owned and operated by the Sächsische Dampfschiffahrt Company and this is claimed to be the largest and oldest paddle steamer fleet anywhere in the world. For me the pleasure started on my first evening there, when I was able to look down from the Carola bridge (Carolabrüke) to see the vessels manoeuvring so as to be tied up for the night. On the following day I took one of the later steamers, the Leipzig, which dates from 1929, upstream through beautiful countryside, stopping off at the summer palace of the Kings of Saxony at Pillnitz and returning by a later steamer. The vessels are superbly maintained and the clinically-clean machinery is open to view. It’s also possible to look into the paddleboxes from inside the vessel.

All but two of the vessels were built in the 19th Century and it’s easy to imagine Nicholas Dawlish, back from foreign parts and perhaps recuperating after yet another bout of his recurring malaria, passing  pleasant hours on the oldest, the Stadt Wehlen, or the Diesbar, built a few years later.

P.S. Diesbar (1884) – Photograph taken in Black and White

Had Dawlish visited Dresden earlier, in 1864, he might have run into an English tourist slightly older than himself. This was the future Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood VC, then a 28-year old captain taking a summer break from the Staff College to visit battlefields of Fredrick the Great and Napoleon to improve his German. I find Wood a very sympathetic character, and he was a very proper gentleman with some of the same social hang-ups Dawlish struggled with. (He must later have been much embarrassed by the antics of his sister, Mrs. Katherine O’Shea, mistress of Charles Stewart Parnell).

In his delightful memoirs Wood tells of a bizarre encounter on the deck of just such an Elbe steamer:

I found an Indian dressed in the irregular Cavalry uniform, a long dark green coat, red pugaree, cummerbund and knee boots…. Going up behind him I said gently in Hindustani, “Can I be of any assistance to you?” Jumping around he replied, “All praise to the Almighty, I once more hear a civilised tongue.

His story, which I translated sentence by sentence to the Germans standing around, was peculiar. After leaving our service he had lived in Jerusalem for twenty years as a Muhammadan missionary, with what success he did not say, and was travelling to England as a mendicant…

Wood and the German onlookers organised a collection to help this missionary on his way and as Wood was leaving the ship the Indian caught him “by the skirt of my frock-coat, with the apposite Eastern expression, “I clutch the hem of your garment.”

Back at his hotel “while I was having tea, the waiter ran in to me saying “Your friend has taken off most of his clothes on the river bank. Can you speak to him?”

To find out how Wood coped with this crisis and avoided “that I might be saddled with his company for an indefinite period”, not to mention a lifetime of hair-raising escapes, desperate adventures and strange experiences, I recommend to you his wonderfully entertaining autobiography “From Midshipman to Field Marshal”

I had no such bizarre encounters on the Elbe but I enjoyed not only the scenery and the sight of these beautiful ships, which have survived two world wars and some fifty years of Communist rule, and are now as pristine, and as well maintained as when they were built. One gets a very strong impression of what travel in this way would have been like in the late 19th Century. I strongly advise anybody who is visiting Germany to make a deliberate detour to see these vessels.

P.S. Dresden (1926) heading downstream 17.09.10

 P.S. Dresden (1926) heading downriver 17.09.10

P.S. Dresden forging upstream 17.09.10

 P.S. Leipzig (1929) – 17.09.10

P.S. Leipzig (1929) – moored, evening of 16.09.10

P.S. Kurort Rathern (1896) – moored 17.09.10

P.S. Diesbar (1884) – moored 17.09.10

   P.S. Krippen (1892) – moored 17.09.10

Click here to return to Steam, Steel and Strife