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Little Ship, Big History

As a Friend, it’s well worth using your free entry to the National Waterways Museum, Gloucester this summer. Especially because there’s now a new outdoor exhibition to enjoy, celebrating the history of our popular trip boat, Queen Boadicea II. Little Ship, Big History tells the tale of this remarkable vessel and the fascinating people who sailed on her. Known affectionately as QBII, her story includes heroic exploits, trailblazing figures and a brush with royalty.

A blue boat moored at Gloucester docks

The story of this marvellous little pleasure cruiser begins with pioneering businesswoman, Charlotte Smith. Dubbed the Queen of the Thames, Charlotte had been carrying day trippers along the river on sister ship, Queen Boadicea I, for the best part of a decade before taking delivery of QBII in 1936.

As the only female skipper of a passenger-carrying vessel on the Thames, Charlotte was an indomitable figure. Leading a crew of four, she would cast off from Westminster Pier at 6 a.m. and often not return until midnight. Quizzed about her arduous job for a piece in the Daily Mirror, she told the reporter that she wouldn't swap it for any other on Earth: “This is hard,” she said, “but it is all business, and I love it.”

A lady at the helm of a boat

Purpose-built for Charlotte by renowned shipwrights, J.I. Thornycroft, QBII was a sturdy passenger boat with a 65 feet long, all-steel hull; perfect for the relatively calm waters of the Thames. But the boat's first stint as a pleasure cruiser would be short-lived. With the outbreak of war in 1939, she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and put to work at Sheerness Naval Docks. Within a year, the little pleasure craft would become embroiled in one of history's most pivotal events.

A boat being tested on the Thames prior to WWII

Following the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, Allied forces found themselves pinned down on the beaches at Dunkirk, surrounded on all sides by enemy troops. Facing certain defeat, Churchill launched one of the most daring rescue missions in history.

Codenamed Operation Dynamo, the audacious plan saw the Royal Navy commandeer a fleet of civilian vessels to pick up soldiers on the beach and transport them to larger ships that would carry them home to England. Manned by a team of plucky volunteers, the boats would go down in history as the Little Ships of Dunkirk.

Among them was QBII, crewed by Lieutenant J.S. Seal, Captain J. Whitaker and Thames Waterman, Alan Spong. Braving enemy fire and manoeuvring through the debris of sunken ships, the trio rescued dozens of soldiers from Dunkirk's war-torn beaches.

“There was black smoke from burning oil,” Spong later recalled, “German aircraft were bombing and the noise was frantic. Nothing will ever happen to make me forget what I saw and did in the last days of May 1940.”

A group of people standing at the stern of a boat, looking at camera

Queen Boadicea II spent the rest of the war as a naval auxiliary vessel, before returning to London to resume work as a pleasure craft. In 1953, her country would come calling once again, this time for a happier venture, as she was chosen to take part in Queen Elizabeth II's coronation celebrations. Carrying members of London's Great Twelve Livery Companies and decorated with their ornate crests, QBII formed part of a 150-strong flotilla for a Royal River Pageant on the Thames.

A small boat travelling down the Thames

After nearly four decades as a pleasure cruiser on the Thames, in 1976, QBII was relocated to Devon, working as a passenger ferry between Dartmouth and Kingswear. In 1985, just a year after sister ship Queen Boadicea I was sadly scrapped, QBII was on the move once more, this time to Plymouth, where she would spend the next six years as a pleasure boat, cruising the River Tamar.

In 1991, she finally came into the possession of the National Waterways Museum, where she has been ever since. Today, she runs leisure trips along the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, cutting through the water just as she did all those years ago on the Thames when the indomitable Charlotte Smith was at the helm.

See history come to life

If you'd like to learn more about QBII and her extraordinary journey from Westminster Pier to the bullet-strafed beaches of Dunkirk and beyond, come along to the National Waterways Museum, Gloucester this summer. You'll be able to take a trip on QBII and discover first-hand how this remarkable little ship left such a big imprint on our maritime history.

Last Edited: 02 June 2023

photo of a location on the canals
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