'Labour of love' as Norfolk passenger boat becomes Dunkirk museum

Regal Lady

Regal Lady after restoration. - Credit: Heath Samples

For decades, she was a familiar sight on Norwich and Norfolk's waterways.

From the 1930s until the 1950s, Regal Lady, then known as Oulton Belle, was one of the Yarmouth-Gorleston Steam Packet Company's fleet of pleasure steamers.

The Regal Lady on a late holiday cruise on the River Yare near Norwich in September 1972.

The Regal Lady on a late holiday cruise on the River Yare near Norwich in September 1972.

But many children who grew up in Norwich in the 1970s and 1980s will also have fond memories of a trip on her.

During that period, people used to be able to enjoy riverside cruises on the boat, when Regal Lady was moored close to Foundry Bridge, near Norwich Railway Station.

The Regal Lady passenger trip boat moored on the River Wensum near Foundry Bridge, Norwich.

The Regal Lady passenger trip boat moored on the River Wensum near Foundry Bridge, Norwich.

But in the mid 1980s, the Great Yarmouth-built vessel disappeared from the city.


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She had returned to Scarborough, where she had been based from 1954 to 1970.

However, that is far from the end of the story for the historic ship, which has been lovingly restored and transformed into a floating museum.

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Owner Heath Samples has spent thousands of pounds to restore Regal Lady to her former glories.

He has turned the passenger boat into a museum, which tells the remarkable story of how she joined the armada of 'Little Ships' in the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940.

Regal Lady

Regal Lady before restoration. - Credit: Heath Samples

The 1930s-built vessel carried 1,200 soldiers back to Ramsgate in three trips during the Second World War.

Heath Samples on Regal Lady

Heath Samples, who has converted Regal Lady into a floating museum. - Credit: Heath Samples

Mr Samples, who skippered Regal Lady when its former owner Tom Machin offered pleasure cruises on it, bought the vessel in September 2019.

The 52-year-old decided to turn her into a floating museum - the Regal Lady Dunkirk Experience - with a bar serving drinks to people at tables on the pier.

He said: "I thought the heritage of the boat, including how she had gone to Dunkirk was just so interesting.

"Restoring her really has been a labour of love.

Regal Lady

Regal Lady before the restoration. - Credit: Heath Samples

"We've taken off the whole top deck, replaced 16 tonnes of steel, replaced the windows, put in a 20-seater cinema and a bar.

"We've also gone for a more British red, white and blue for her colours.

"When I look at her now, I think 'did we really do all that?'"

Mr Samples said he has immersed himself in researching the boat's history, particularly its role in the Dunkirk excavations.

He said: "We've got displays with more than 300 items from Dunkirk - dog tags, bullets, gas masks, stretchers, cameras and if we haven't got it, we're trying to get it!"

The museum, in Scarborough Harbour, briefly opened last year, but Mr Samples is looking forward to a full season when lockdown restrictions are lifted.

He said: "I love this boat and it's been fabulous to play my part in restoring her."

The Regal Lady, pictured at sea, is returning to Great Yarmouth for the Maritime Festival.

Regal Lady pictured at sea. - Credit: Archant


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