An interesting case of Old Lady Bembridge
Written by Unity Line   

This story has it all. It would make a great Hollywood film. It has plenty of revelations, plot twists, a suicide, a visit by Her Majesty The Queen, a brothel, a threat of scrapping, and an unexpected rescue mission from Poland. It is a ship with a soul… or actually a ghost.

The Old Lady was born in 1938 in the most famous shipyard in the United Kingdom, Smith’s Dock. No-one could expect her to become so special. It's difficult to say which child in the line she was but the expectations towards her were the same as for all ships built shortly before 1939. Although Smith’s Dock focused on small (but resistant to the worst storms) whaling ships, global developments drew Bembridge on the boisterous waters of the Second World War. And what waters were they! The Old Lady took part in both key naval operations ‘Dunkirk’ and Normandy landings. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.


A star is born

Bembridge was named after her predecessor that set sail in 1924. Her father and designer was William Reed who developed the ship in 1938 for Trinity House. Bembridge was the first motor pilot vessel in Great Britain. It was not modest in shape. It weighed 412 tonnes, was 46 metres long and 8 metres wide. She bathed first on 17 July 1938 and this is where the unbelievable story of the Old Lady starts. A story that gains momentum like a fame train.

In 1938–46, Bembridge served in the Isle of Wight District. In 1940, she participated in the evacuation of Dunkirk. A year later, World War II affected the ship directly but it was already protected by some kind of a mysterious force. It may be a chance or just luck. In 1941, during German raids, Bembridge was hit but the bomb failed to explode and the Old Lady lost ‘only’ the mast and part of aft bulwark. She returned to the front after repairs. In 1942, she met the Polish destroyer ‘Błyskawica’ when the vessel was moored and supplied by Bembridge and then piloted by it to and from Cowes.

bembridge3Eternal pilot

Although the war spared the ship, it did not spare its crew. In 1942, during a raid in Southampton, a bomb hit the house of one of the sailors, Jack Saunders. He lost his family of seven. This broke his heart and he hanged himself below deck. According to the legend, and there is a grain of truth in every legend, Jack Saunders is still aboard and intervenes each time someone tries to hurt the Old Lady. He was abundantly clear twice: in 1972 when part of the aft enclosure was destroyed and in 2004 when the vessel was earmarked for decommissioning. Someone even called an exorcist to the ‘haunted’ Old Lady. He contacted the ghost and learnt his name. What sends a shiver down the spine is that at that time, the story of Jack Saunders was still buried deep in the archives…

Honour and glory 

After the ship survived the war, she continued its service and transported pilots until the 1950s. At the beginning of 1956, its two motorboats used to carry pilots were damaged. Without them, the Old Lady was useless. But it was not the end of the naval adventure. In the 1960s, Her Majesty Queen Elisabeth II and Prince Philip stepped on board of the Old Lady during a Fleet Review. Bembridge led the parade and then was positioned so that the whole fleet would pass before her (and the royal couple) and salute the Queen. After the ceremony, Elisabeth II ate lunch in pilots' mess. The Old Lady enjoyed the privilege due to her age (the oldest Trinity House vessel) and the operations it participated in during the WW2.

Sharing experience

The turn of the 1960s saw the retirement of the ship, which could now spread its experience and take part in educational activities. The vessel was sold to Arundel Priory from Sussex in 1971 to serve as a floating naval school for underprivileged youth. Her educational mission ended in 1972 with the purchase by Cosag Marine Service. She was now a survey ship in the North Sea search for oil. Bembridge once again found her way to history. The ship took part in the construction of the first British oil platform on the North Sea and laying of the first British oil pipeline in the area.

A fire interrupted her career in 1976. Although the event took place in a port, the loss was too great to plan any repairs. It seemed it was over, especially when a ship-breaker became interested in her. The fate smiled at Bembridge once more when the ship with a past was purchased by the Essex Yacht Club from Leigh-on-Sea, which was looking for a replacement for Lady Seville, an 1897 ferry. The Old Lady served the club till 2004 when she followed Lady Seville's footsteps and was substituted with a younger HMS Wilton. She would not give up. Breaking was not an option. She could feel she had plenty more to do.

Indecent nightclub

That was what the first buyer thought. The idea was to open a floating restaurant but the costs were so huge that the vessel was sold. The next owners were not as quick to give up. After necessary repairs, they started a disco. The business went bad. The owners decided to turn the venue into a nightclub. This really ‘moved’ the Old Lady and the new owners were happy with the cash flow. Until the scandal. It turned out that local politicians also partook in ‘club’ activities. Bembridge was done; the owners lost their alcohol licence and the night business was closed down in 2006.

Time to break the ship?

It seemed it was over for the Old Lady, yet another in her history. After almost three years of being on offer, she was almost sold to a ship breaker. She was saved by a group of Poles who bought her in 2009 and towed her to Szczecin. After a long renovation, when the vessel was restored to a state as close to the original as possible (including the installation of the original equipment), Bembridge was operational once more.

Magemar Poland had its office there since 2011. Apart from the office space, the ship offered a conference centre and a museum. The waters grew calmer and the Old Lady found a nice, quiet, and friendly haven at Szczecin wharf in East Dock in a port that can only be accessed with a permit. In 2015, Magemar Poland decided to sell the ship. No buyer was found till this day. Bembridge's career is suspended but there are still active faithful fans who try to collect the sum necessary to buy the ship. To help the Old Lady remain a living testimony of the past.

To be continued?

Will they make it? It's hard to say but in light of Bembridge's past, her difficult history, it may as well be just an interval and she will return on stage once more because life has another intriguing scenario for her.