They were a familiar sight on the banks of the Usk in Newport. Rakish white-funnelled ships would sail up to the town bridge from where hundreds of people would travel across the Severn Estuary for Minehead, Clevedon and Ilfracombe.

WOODEN posts in the mud near the town bridge in Newport are the only reminders of a great spectacle that used to grace the city. They're not fragments of ancient buildings deluged by the river. They are all that is left of where graceful paddle-steamers would take crowds of day-trippers over the sea.

The line which became synonymous with these pleasure cruises was P&A Campbell or the White Funnel line. Although based in Bristol, they were set up by the Scottish brothers Alex and Peter Campbell moved their shipping firm from the River Clyde to centre their operations on the Severn Estuary.

Beginning sailing in 1893 they were beset with competition. Other firms like the Barry Railway Company vied for the growing day-trip trade. This led to many instances of overcrowding. In 1900 a Captain Ashford of the White Funnel was found to have carried 797 passengers on his ship which was licensed for only 541.

South Wales Argus: SHIPPING CENTRE: The Glen Usk setting off from Davis Wharf in Newport with the twon bridge and castle in the background (49160484)

SHIPPING CENTRE: The Glen Usk setting off from Davis Wharf in Newport with the town bridge and castle in the background

The Usk in Newport today is crossed by four bridges downstream from the town bridge. When steamers last sailed into Newport, there was only the Transporter to contend with. Built to let the tallest of ships pass underneath, vessels could sail into the heart of the town.

The departing paddle-steamer would face south on Davis Wharf with the Art College to its left and the town bridge behind. A floating landing stage would rise and fall with the tide.

The ‘paddlers’ were well-suited to cope with the huge tidal range of both the Usk and Severn Estuaries. Their flat bottoms meant they stayed in service long after paddles gave way to propellers elsewhere on the sea.

While other towns like Penarth, Minehead and Clevedon had piers extending out into deeper water, Newport had no such luxury - the steamers then would always be in a race against the tide.

For Newport historian Jan Preece Davis Wharf was an evocative place: “Aged creosote timbers were sunk deep in the mud – their oily infusion oozing into the nostrils.”

BUSTLING: One of the White Funnel steamers gets ready to sail from Davis Wharf. Newport Art College can be seen in the backgound. Pic courtesy of Jan Preece.

He recalls how on a high tide in the summer, his family would walk over “that divine bridge and across the pontoon to the decks of the Waverley” (or whichever of the steamers was on that day).

As the ship sauntered down the Usk towards the sea, the excitement would build he recalls” the overpowering aroma of oil and steam and seeing Pillgwenlly slide past as we cruised towards the open sea.”

He says the decks would be brimming with families, grandparents who “were suddenly experts at all things nautical.”

The steamer would have barely met the open sea when “bottles of brown ale appeared and curly ham sandwiches littered the laps of the mums who had prepared for the adventure”.

He adds: “The greatest adventure was being in the engine room near to the massive paddles, the smell of oil and steam and the rush of the water as the paddles ploughed through the waves”.

The gathering swell would produce an audible ‘slap’ as the flat -bottomed Waverley hit the waves.

When war came, many of the steamers were requisitioned by the Admiralty as minesweepers and troop ships. During the First World War, twelve of the fleet were taken up. Two of them, the Brighton Queen and Lady Ismay were lost.

A regular visitor to Newport was the Glen Usk. Built by Ailsa Shipbuilding Company of Troon in 1914 she served as a minesweeper in both world wars. She had not long completed her first journey from Weston Super Mare to Newport on 17 July 1914 when she was called upon by the Navy. She was still with them at the war’s end in November 1918 when she was present at the surrender of the Imperial German High Seas Fleet.

During the Second World War, many surrendered their white funnels to be painted navy grey. The Glen Usk was renamed HMS Glenesh.

Three steamers were lost during the Dunkirk evacuation. The Glen Avon too was taken into service. She was sunk off the Normandy beaches on September 2 1944, not by enemy action but by a large wave which capsized her, resulting in the loss of 15 crew.

After the war the Glen Usk was one of the few Campbells steamers that were considered fit for reconditioning, although she needed much overhauling.

After the end of the war there was optimism that the days of busy sailings would return. The line introduced two new paddle-steamers, the Bristol Queen in 1946 and the Cardiff Queen a year later.

NEWPORT CALL: The Cardiff Queen sails up the Usk having passed under the Transporter Bridge

Many did still enjoy the trips across the water, but other factors came into play, such as the increasing cost of coal and the rise in popularity of the car. All these conspired against the White Funnel line.

Steamers had stopped calling at Newport by 1955 and P&A Campbell went in to receivership in 1959 and was taken over by the firm which would become the Townsend Ferries group.

The last two paddle steamers, the Cardiff Queen and Bristol Queen had been withdrawn by 1967 but the firm continued with motor vessels until early 1981 when operations finally stopped.

Steamers did come back to Newport though. After being restored in the 1970s, the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world, the Waverley still can be seen plying the routes across the Severn and calls at Newport. The Balmoral, while not a ‘paddler’, still sails with the White Funnel. Although they must make do with a mooring at Newport docks, they still rekindle memories of the days when steamers hooted in the heart of our city.