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The EAWA campaigns for the preservation, restoration and good management of all inland and tidal waterways in East Anglia.

The Association is a Registered Charity (No. 251382) and was first established in 1958.


Sophia Viscountess Bury figurehead

 Unravelling the mystery of the Viscountess Bury …….

 For over eighty years the MV Viscountess Bury was a familiar and well-loved sight on the rivers Cam and Great Ouse, carrying trippers from Cambridge to Ely and beyond.  But in about 1996 she disappeared from the river.  Rumours circulated about her fate.  There was hope that the story of her being taken away for restoration was true and she would, in time, return to grace the river for many more years.

 ‘Vi’ as she was affectionately known through her years on the Cam has a fascinating history dating back well over a century.  Her life actually started on the river Thames in 1888 where she was built by W.S. Sargent & Co. of Chiswick.  She was powered by two 7.5 HP electric motors and carried 200 storage batteries under the stern deck. 

 She was the largest and finest of a fleet of electric launches operated by the Moritz-Immisch Electric Launch Co. in which Viscount Bury was a partner. She was capable of running almost silently at over 5 knots for up to 10 hours after an overnight charge at one of the company’s barge-mounted steam driven generating plants. There was no public electricity supply at the time.  Here was ‘green’ technology in operation over one hundred years ago.

1890 on the Thames

1888 press report

At just over 65 feet in length with a 10 foot beam the Viscountess Bury had a displacement weight of 12 tons and a draught of 22 inches.

Presumably to cater for the immense weight of the batteries, she was constructed to very robust standards with a triple-skinned hull; two of diagonal teak with an outer skin of horizontal mahogany. 

Her long keel was a single piece of elm.  Her elegant lines were completed with a decorative bowsprit and an impressive carved figurehead representing the lady, Sophia -  Viscountess Bury, who had inspired her name. 

With all the electric power plant housed out of sight below deck there was much more space for accommodation than with the usual steam powered launches of the time.

Internally, the vessel was luxuriously appointed with figured red velvet upholstery and decorated white and gold. 

The windows, door panels and mirrors were of fine etched glass.

1888 Press Report


Some original 1888 saloon pictures from the Immisch Electric Launch Company brochure   -    Courtesy of Chris Jones

Saloon looking forward
Saloon interior - 24 people could be seated for dinner

Saloon View - "Separate Lavatory Accommodation was provided for Ladies and Gentlemen"

The journal Marine Engineer reported in November 1888:

Through the courtesy of Messrs. Immisch and Co. we were recently afforded an opportunity of inspecting, in company 
with their chief engineer, the electric launch Viscountess Bury, now lying at Tagg's Island, Hampton.
 The vessel, which is claimed to be the largest electrical vessel yet built, is 65 ft. 6 in. long with 10 ft. beam, and on a mean 
draught of water of 22 in. has a displacement of 12 tons. She is built for passenger service, and will carry eighty passengers,
though we should be inclined to think the limit of comfort would be reached with fifty on board.
 The vessel will be provided with 200 electrical accumulators, which will suffice to propel her by means of two “Immisch" 
motors at a speed of 6 miles for ten hours, or for proportionately higher speed for less time.
 The propellers, two in number, are three-bladed, built up of steel, of 12 in. pitch, and 2 ft. 3 in. diameter, and will run 
at 6OO revolutions per minute.


essrs. Immisch and Co. are also establishing charging-vessels and stations at
different points on the Thames, where the
accumulators of their vessels
(for the Viscountess Bury is to be, if successful, the pioneer of a fleet)
can be re-charged as required.


Immisch Electric Launch Company Charging Station at Hampton                              Pictures courtesy of Chris Jones
Look Closely - Viscountess Bury is there!

The official trial trip of this novel craft took place on the Thames on Dec. 20th, a large and distinguished company honouring
 the occasion with their presence. The vessel, the dimensions of which appeared in our issue for November, presented a very
handsome and unique appearance on the water, the total absence of engines, boiler, coals, and funnel, allowing of the best
portion of the boat being devoted to a roomy and elegantly designed and furnished saloon, occupying the whole of the
midship portion of the vessel.
The steering wheel placed right forward gives the helmsman a completely uninterrupted outlook ahead, and in close proximity 
to the wheel are the three switches, one for the starboard and one for the port motor, and the third for controlling the storage
batteries so as to alter the output of current according to whether it is desired to go full or only half speed.
After the naming of the vessel, which was gracefully performed by Mrs. Immisch in the absence of the Viscountess Bury, 
the vessel was taken for her trial run, some forty visitors being on board at the time, and certainly, so far as room was
concerned, she would comfortably have carried a dozen or twenty more.
When running full speed ahead a rate of progress equal to thirteen knots per hour was attained, with no perceptible noise 
and scarcely any vibration, while the handiness of the vessel, both when using the rudder and when manoeuvring by means
of reversing set one screw and then the other, was proved by demonstration; in fact, from first to last, the trial left nothing
to be desired, and Messrs. Immisch & Co. were warmly congratulated by all present.                           
(Marine Engineer 1889)

With international interest aroused, the important article from which this extract is part appeared in the New York Times:



As before stated, electric navigation has made most progress in England.  Of the sixty and more small boats in use on the Thames River, more than twenty-five are propelled by means of electricity.  All these boats are fitted with accumulators, charged sufficiently to enable them to cover a distance of about forty miles before recharging becomes necessary.  They are built of wood and vary in size from the smallest in length of 29 feet to the largest at over 64 feet and carry from a dozen to seventy passengers.  One of these boats deserves some attention.

Her name is the Viscountess Bury and she is the largest and the best-arranged electric boat ever built.  Her dimensions are: Length 64 feet; Breadth of Beam 10 feet and Draught of water 3 feet.  Her fittings are sumptuous and not excelled by any other yacht of her size in the world.  She is fitted with electric lights and other modern conveniences and can carry easily sixty-five or seventy passengers.  Her speed is six miles an hour but is usually maintained at five miles.  The levers for manoeuvring the boat are placed aft and are manipulated by but one man.  The screw propeller is of phosphor-bronze, two-bladed, with a diameter of 19 inches and a pitch oh 17 inches.

 The navigation laws relating to the part of the Thames where these electric boats ply limit the speed of boats to five miles per hour; at this rate the Viscountess Bury can run for nearly nine hours without recharging her accumulators.  At her fastest speed, six miles, the boat can run for about six and a half hours.

The motor of the Viscountess Bury is one of the Immisch type, weighing about 1,500 pounds, and develops a force of nearly ten horse power.  Full speed corresponds to 1,700 turns a minute, moderate speed to 1,100 turns.

In the first case the expenditure is 180 volts and 45 ampères, and in the second is 90 volts and
32 ampères when the boat is fully charged.  The ordinary electric boat, carrying but twenty people, takes 88 volts and 25

(New York Times 1889)


A Royal Vessel

The Viscountess Bury was truly a royal vessel. 

During her first seven years on the Thames from 1888 to 1895 she was chartered to the Prince of Wales, (Bertie) who would succeed to the throne in 1910 as King Edward VII

Bertie used the Viscountess Bury for trips to and from Windsor Castle. 

'Bertie' had a reputation as a playboy and his scandalous affair with the actress, Nellie Clifden, had angered and upset his father when it was made public.  Prince Albert came to Cambridge to remonstrate with Bertie who was at the University.  It would lead to Queen Victoria holding her son responsible for her beloved Prince Albert’s death just two weeks later.  He had been "killed by that dreadful business", she said.

The Imposter ...... NOT the Viscountess Bury

Cashing in by deceiving the trippers on the Norfolk Broads!

An imposter - The Enchantress c1910
There are picture postcards from about 1910 purporting to show the Viscountess Bury as a trip boat on Oulton Broad, suggesting that she may have spent some time in use there before completing the voyage to Cambridge.

In fact, these are of a similar vessel believed to be “Enchantress” just cashing in on her famous name! Herbert Banham was reported to be livid and soon put a stop to the deception!

Leo Robinson, was the owner of a large boatyard on Oulton Broad.  In addition to running a sizeable hire fleet he owned a general store.  It is not known for sure whether or not it was Leo that ran the vessel posing as the real Viscountess Bury, but there is no doubt that he fostered the deception by selling these picture postcards of the imposter to the tourists.

vb arnold bh

    Vessel believed to be 'Enchantress' posing as Viscountess Bury - Oulton Broad


The "imposter" Enchantress, now converted to steam power.  (Steam Boat Association)

She was last reported seen at Kingston upon Thames,still afloat but in a semi-derelict state. 

River Thames to the River Cam at Cambridge

In about 1895 the Viscountess Bury's cabin and upper passenger deck were lengthened and she became a public passenger launch. At some time in the next fifteen years her electric motors were replaced by a 20 hp. petrol engine. Her 22-years of fame on the River Thames would soon be over.

In 1910 she was purchased by Mr H. C. Banham, a Cambridge boat-builder, and she would set out on her epic 300 mile voyage through London, down to the Thames Estuary and round the East coast en-route for Banham's Cambridge base.

1910 ..... The real Viscountess Bury's hazardous voyage to Cambridge

It is recorded that the real Viscountess Bury's sea journey via Great Yarmouth, Wells and Kings Lynn was undertaken in stages and proved extremely hazardous at times.  It is reported that on the longest leg, from Yarmouth to Wells, in worsening weather, she rolled terribly, being all top and no bottom, and shipped water over the bow.  The late Ted Appleyard of the Ely boatbuilding family who is fondly remembered locally as the last skipper of the Fens fuel barge 'Shelfen' claimed to have been on the voyage as a young boy in 1910 although he would have been just seven at the time.

The Viscountess would take shelter in Wells Harbour for several weeks awaiting kinder weather conditions.

Even when the sea leg of the voyage was completed with her arrival at Kings Lynn, problems were not over for the Viscountess.  Her helm was mounted on the upper passenger deck, some twelve feet above water level.  With very limited clearance at some of the bridges on the tidal Great Ouse she had to wait for the right tide, in daylight, to clear the bridges and avoid running aground on the notorious mudbanks.  But she made it, up the tidal river, through Denver Sluice and on to Cambridge where she would be based for the next 60-odd years.

banham burgee

From 1910, the Viscountess Bury was owned by H.C. Banham, the Cambridge boat-builder. Banhams were noted for the fine quality of their boat-building and in 1914 H.C.B. even had a contract to build launches for the Russian Navy. They built and operated the largest and most significant hire cruiser fleet on the Fenland waterways.  Some of their pretty wooden-hulled craft dating back to the 1950s or earlier are still in use on the Great Ouse today, maintained in superb condition by enthusiastic owners.   Local legend has it that Herbert Banham always secreted a gold half-sovereign in the stem post of his wooden cruisers for luck but none has ever been found - yet!


First known picture of the Viscountess Bury under Banham's ownership

Ely Trip Society Outing to Denver - August 1911

VB 1919 CC

     Barham's Brush Works Trip on the Viscountess Bury 1919 (Harry Barham's factory was in Tibbs Row before moving to Coldham's Lane)


These lovely early photographs are from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Note the deck guard rail has only two horizontal bars here when later photos clearly show three.

It is not clear when the rails were altered but the difference can cause confusion when trying to authenticate photos.

The etched windows are a good clue and the vessel name and 'Sophia' figurehead are just visible in the top image.

For many years from 1910, Vi was immensely popular for works outings, Sunday School treats and Band of Hope voyages.  There are many accounts in the Cambridge Independent News of trips for up to nearly 100 children and adults.  "All were delighted" is a common theme.  The late historian, A. F. Leach, recounted a trip to Clayhithe as a child in 1911 at a cost of sixpence. “She was then all bright varnish and polished brass-work” he recalled.

Mike Petty's fantastic Cambridgeshire News Index provides the following snippets:

In 1922 the Cambridge News item on the annual May Races recorded warm weather, the wonderful display of frocks, flannels and blazers and a sky full of balloons with a procession of motor launches including the Viscountess Bury with a “long string of hangers-on”.

 After a meeting in 1948 the Cam Conservators set off for Bottisham Lock aboard the Viscountess Bury but it had barely left Jesus Lock when it became stuck on a sandbank.


1960s Banham Advert

A 1960s Banham's advertisement for the Viscountess Bury

In July 1968 the Cam Conservator’s Engineer reported that Messrs. Banham’s launch, Viscountess Bury, was making an average of five late night trips each week through Baitsbite Lock after normal closing time of 9 p.m.  This meant that the Lock Keeper had to be available for excessively long hours.  An ‘out of hours’ arrangement previously agreed with Banham’s was for occasional use only.  The Conservators responded by limiting the facility to just a single late voyage each week with the latest time for opening the lock to be 11 p.m.  The Conservators also decided to negotiate an increased fee from Banham’s for the facility and to investigate the possibility of paying the Lock Keeper more for opening the lock after 9 p.m.    (*Thanks to Jed Ramsay, the Conservators' River Manager for this snippet from the archives.)

One especially notable cruise during this era was from Cambridge to Ely in 1961 when members of the Ship and Boatbuilders' National Federation were wined and dined aboard by Harry Lincoln before being taken to inspect his newly-built Appleyard, Lincoln and Co. boat-building works on the Babylon site (now Ely Marina).  The new factory would go on to build over 1000 'Elysian' craft in the 'new' glass-fibre material marking the end of a long local tradition of wooden boat-building.

Banham Riverside Works

Herbert Banham died in 1953 and towards the end of the 60s Banham’s traditional boat-building business was in decline. The company eventually passed to the Pye radio company of Cambridge whose factory was close-by. A decade later Pye closed the boat-building and hire business and sold the riverside site alongside the present Elizabeth Way bridge for residential redevelopment.

1970s ......

vb Riverside

Viscountess Bury passes Riverside, Cambridge - 1970s

  Vi at Ely 1970s

..... and somewhere on the river, again 1970s.

In 1972, after her 62 years work on the Cam as a public trip boat, a floating restaurant and a private charter vessel, Banhams had treated the Viscountess to an extensive refit.  It cost £2,000.  The hull was repainted white; she was given new canopies and awnings plus a 50 hp. diesel engine originally from a council dustcart.

** Another Cambridge News report in 1975 announced “plain sailing from now on for one of Cambridge’s best known sights, the Viscountess Bury pleasure boat”.  The council had found her a new mooring site near the gas-works at Riverside.  It means the 87-year-old boat will still be plying the Cam next season.  Earlier it looked like it would leave Cambridge as Banham Marine have to move to a new site at Upware.

But by May 1980 her future on the Cam was again in doubt.  The News reported “The ‘Viscountess Bury’, best-known pleasure boat on the Cam is in danger of leaving the river – only eight years short of her centenary.  Banham Marine have decided to advertise it for disposal on the Thames

Perhaps there were no takers or just a change of heart because in February 1981 came news of a re-launch.  “The Viscountess Bury plopped into the Ouse with a new nose, a new right arm and a dud battery. The 93-year-old doyenne of pleasure boats was relaunched at Ely after a refit that included restoration of its figurehead, a well-upholstered Victorian lady. But she would not start and it took over an hour to get her under way. It should be available for hire by the end of April.

Sure enough, in May 1981 it was recorded that “The Viscountess Bury, one of the oldest pleasure boats in the world, has made a come-back after a £10,000 restoration. The 93-year-old boat began the new season with a 16-mile round cruise along the Ouse north from Ely. She originally ran on electricity but is now diesel-powered and ready to ply the rivers, 24-hours a day, for many years to come.  **

(** These reports are again all courtesy of Mike Petty's Cambridgeshire News Index - a fabulous resource for all aspects of Cambridge local history).

Vi at Victoria Bridge Cambridge 1970s
Photo: Donald Monk
Vi en-route to CMBC with Miss Anglia 1974

The Viscountess Bury in Cambridge in the 1970s.

Miss Anglia CMBC 1974

At Easter 1975 when the Cambridge Motor Boat Club at Waterbeach put on its own spectacular Boat Show, local beauty queen Kathy O'Neill, crowned Miss Anglia, was photographed at the helm of the Viscountess Bury.

She must have been pretty chilly at the helm as the March day was also remembered for its snow storm!

The Viscountess Bury was one of the star attractions amongst a great variety of boats, old and new, moored at the club for the 3-day event.

Vi at Ely 1976

Viscountess Bury at Ely 1976

1980s .......

After guillotine gates were installed at Baitsbite and Bottisham locks the Viscountess Bury could no longer safely navigate into the City of Cambridge.  She passed into private ownership, based at Ely and continued as a trip boat through to the late 1980s.  Local enthusiasts assisted the new owners, the Dobson brothers from March, with her running and day-to-day maintenance.  One such volunteer recalls how the two brothers shared duties with the stronger, fitter one up on the top deck at the helm in all weathers whilst the brighter one always tended the bar down below!  Vi's last known private owner was Dan Weller.

Newly discovered!

Dan Weller's company, Viscountess Marine, based at Littleport ran the vessel in the late 1980s, offering afternoon and evening trips and  celebration trips for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and other special occasions.  There was a licensed bar and choice from an extensive cold buffet menu.  Music, dancing and entertainment could be arranged on request.

Here, courtesy of Andrew and Linda Stannard of Cambridge, is the newly discovered 1988 brochure:


The 1988 Viscountess Marine Brochure (courtesy of Linda Stannard)

Vi at the Ship Brandon Creek

At the Ship, Brandon Creek late-1980s

Vi at the Fish and Duck

Vi at the Fish and Duck - junction of the river Cam/Old West River/Ely Ouse - late 1980s.

It would prove increasingly difficult to meet the requirements of the annual Board of Trade inspection needed for a commercial passenger licence.  With many of her internal water-tight bulkheads removed during alterations over the years it was something of a miracle that she was still afloat.  Another difficulty arose through the helm position on the upper deck.  It was necessary to remove the wheel to pass under some low bridges. It is said that the inspector’s attention would be diverted at bridges while the wheel was quickly removed and replaced by the helmsman.

In 1988 the Viscountess Bury celebrated her centenary with her owners proudly proclaiming her as:

"The oldest wooden passenger boat in the UK."


This fine Viscountess Bury Centenary tankard is owned by Mick Jones of St Ives. 

It is on display in the well-stocked chandlery at Jones' Boatyard, St Ives, Cambridgeshire.

One of the UK's first inland marinas and now in its third generation of the same family ownership.


1990s ........

Inevitably, and without the Banham professional expertise and boatyard facilities to hand, her great age would begin to tell as the Viscountess Bury moved into her second century.

Still afloat but looking sad -  1994

At Ely

Chainsaw .....

Eventually by 1994, she was languishing at Brandon Creek on the Little Ouse below Ely with her deteriorating condition causing great concern.  It was rumoured that her owner by this time, Dan Weller, now desperately unable to maintain her properly, was threatening to take a chainsaw to her.

Friends to the rescue ....

Towed back to Ely

A group was formed, led by Linda Ashton, calling themselves ‘Friends of the Viscountess Bury’ and they succeeded in buying the boat and towing it back to Ely Waterside to generate some publicity.  An ambitious plan to save the Vi was hatched.

Vi is towed back to Ely 1994

With support from the Electric Boat Association and Heritage Afloat, a public meeting was called at Ely Maltings in December 1994. Over seventy people attended to hear a talk on the options available to try and save the historic vessel.

Public Meeting 1994letter


Subsequently, the Viscountess Bury Trust was formed by a small group and its first task was to arrange a feasibility study into the possibility of restoration and future ‘Vi-ability’. The hope was that she could return to use as a passenger craft, once again generating commercial income to support her upkeep. It was seen as an ultimate aim to install a modern equivalent of her original electric power plant as part of the restoration.  Initial estimates of the cost were around £40,000.

The sheer enthusiasm and commitment of this small band of supporters could not be faulted.  They appealed for help and rattled their collecting tins around Ely but never the less raising the substantial sum would be a difficult task.  The boat was moved to the River Board yard at Roswell Pits where she was taken out for inspection. 

 Perhaps inevitably, there were differences of opinion within the Trust.  Some members thought she could be repaired sufficiently by local voluntary labour for casual use. Others maintained that only a full professional restoration and licensing for commercial use was a feasible way of sustaining her future.

Back at Ely Riverside 1994 - but looking so sad

At Ely 1994

Then ....... dereliction at Roswell Pits - but is there still hope?

At Roswell 1995
Roswell 1995
Interior 1995
Etched window
Roswell 1995 Saloon
Underwater Gear
Saloon roof
Vi at Roswell 1995

 The last photograph of the 'Viscountess Bury'?   Roswell Pits - 1996

Some work was carried out by keen volunteers at Roswell Pits but it soon became clear that Vi required more extensive structural repairs if she was ever to return to service as a passenger vessel. Ultimately, the more ambitious full restoration option was agreed.

Using the funds raised, the trust paid to have her lifted and taken by low-loader to the International Boatbuilding Training College at Lowestoft.  Her return to Oulton Broad would be almost as precarious as her voyage to Cambridge eight decades earlier.  It was feared that she may just fall to pieces but the move was completed successfully, at least in part. The Trust would continue to try and raise money for college students to restore the Viscountess Bury whilst completing their course on traditional boatbuilding skills.

In 1999, Gordon Chesterman, a leading member of the Trust, responded to an enquiry:

The Viscountess Bury, after languishing in Roswell Pits for a year, was taken by low-loader with a police escort to the International College of Wooden Boatbuilding at Lowestoft. We had investigated doing the restoration ourselves with local skilled and unskilled volunteers and also using a commercial boatyard - but the college solution seemed the best option.  The small but active and enthusiastic committee is now constituted as a registered charity (1073043).

The college have taken very accurate drawings, realigned the hull, removed the cabin and taken all the bits out. We managed to sell the diesel engine.

Long term plans: yes, we will need to raise LOTS of money. A bigger issue than the restoration itself has been where to store and display her. We have been riding on the back of all discussions over the last five years surrounding the use of the waterside area in Ely - the old Jewson's site. Fortunately the East Cambs District Council are taking a very keen and supportive role in our restoration plans. They rightly see it as providing a key element in developing the Ely tourist trade and recreational use of the river.

A feasibility study has been prepared with practical (and we hope realistic) plans for the Viscountess Bury to earn her keep once again after restoration.

From then there was little or no public information on progress and to many the fate of the historic vessel appeared rather shrouded in mystery.  By 2006, a number of people simultaneously began to make enquiries at the IBTC about progress. But no one at the college seemed to know anything about the Viscountess Bury. Although the college had changed hands during the intervening period, staff there maintained that they would have kept records of the boat even if she had subsequently been destroyed. One enquirer was told, “You are the third person to be asking about her this week”. For some reason it seems she may never have actually made it to the college. 

......... So where did she go?

Paul Rogers, one time owner of the Boathouse Restaurant at Ely and now living abroad was one of the merry band of volunteers who had operated the Viscountess in the 80s. He was determined to solve the mystery. On a hunch, he decided to widen the search to other boatyards in Lowestoft. 

Nearby is Newson’s yard.  Paul’s email to Keith at the yard produced a response that would finally provide the answer.  Keith told him, “The boat in question came to us, not the college. She was in such a bad state that all that could be salvaged were a few items.  The lines of the hull were taken before she was broken up and burned. We did want to rebuild her but the trust that owned her did not have the funds I believe and she was taking up the entire workshop and costing money whilst there”.

Why she ended her days at Newson’s yard instead of the college remains a mystery. Was she moved to Newson's when new owners took over the college? It is likely that her ultimate tragic fate would have been the same as the Trust was never able to maintain interest and raise sufficient funds once she had left Ely.  Perhaps today it would be possible to seek grant funding from the National Lottery but back in the 90s awards were only available for more major “Good Causes”.

Vi's ship's wheel

A sad end indeed for the Viscountess Bury, but this noble lady will long be remembered on the river at Cambridge and Ely. What a long and eventful life she had; a tribute to her original builders, to Banham's and all those who worked so hard to keep her afloat for over a century and made a valiant effort to save her.

    Vi's original Ship's Wheel

David Mercer – 2015


Some of the pictures are from the collection of the River & Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames,

originally donated by the Viscountess Bury Trust, and reproduced with their kind permission.

Acknowledgements are also due to Chris Jones for providing images from the 1888 Immisch Launch brochure

and to Andrew and Linda Stannard for preserving and supplying the 1988 Viscountess Marine brochure.


 Do you know any more facts about this historic vessel?  Have you found errors or omissions in this account?  Please contact us HERE


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