Cosens' Last Paddle Steamer Captain: John Iliffe


2012 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Cosens' last paddle steamer captain, John Iliffe, pictured here on the starboard bridge wing of the Embassy in 1965 with Bournemouth's then mayor, Alderman Reginald Morris.

One might think that Cosens' last padddle steamer master must have been with the firm man and boy and have had a long paddle steamer history behind him. But, actually, John Iliffe, spent only a very small proportion of his long career and life with Cosens.

As a boy he went to sea and ended up with a Foreign Going Master's ticket. In 1937 he joined the RNR and took up flying before being shot down over Norway in 1941 and taken prisoner. On release he stayed in the Navy until he retired as a Lieutenant Commander in 1957 at the age of 45 when he joined Cosens.

In 1959 Capt Rawle retired and John Iliffe found that, despite having been in the company for only two years and being the very junior mate, he was the only one of the mates to have a Master's ticket and so leap-frogged the others and became captain of the Consul in 1960.

However, his success was at first short lived. With the withdrawal of Monarch and the fleet reduced from three to two ships at the end of that season, Capt Iliffe was sacked after only one summer as a paddle steamer captain. However, the following year, Capt Haines left Cosens to become a Poole Harbour pilot, so Capt Iliffe was recruited once again and returned as master of the Consul in 1962. When she was sold at the end of that season, he replaced Capt Holleyoak on the Embassy where he remained until 1966, when she too was sold, and his career as a paddle steamer captain, which had lasted just six seasons, came to an end.


And so Capt Iliffe became the last captain of Cosens' last paddle steamer, the Embassy.


However it might not have turned out like that as there was another contender, Eric Plater, pictured on the left aboard the Embassy in conversation with Boatswain Sandy Rashley, who, if things had worked out differently might have become Cosens's last captain.

Born in Ilford in Essex, Eric moved to Weymouth in the 1930s. After War service in the Royal Navy, in which he ended up a Lieutenant Commander, just like John Iliffe, he joined Cosens in 1949 and sailed as mate of the Emperor of India and the Embassy throughout the 1950s under the command of Capt Rawle from whom he picked up a vast understanding of the complexities and intricacies of paddle steamer handling.

As a Naval Lieutenant Commander he had been qualified to command a warship but he could not command a passenger ship, for which he needed, at the very least, a Home Trade Master's ticket. Capt Rawle thought that he should get one. Capt Defrates gave him tuition and loaned him books. Things were going well. But at the last minute, his employers, Cosens, decided that they would not give him paid time off for the final study, courses and examinations. He could take time off of he wanted. But he would not be paid for it.

This was a great difficulty for Eric as he had a family, including a son, and they just could not live without an income. So after a great deal of thought and with the very greatest reluctance, he decided that his family must come first, that he could not afford to take the time off and, as a result, his studies were put on hold until perhaps he could afford it.

If Cosens had paid him, if he had taken the exams and if he had passed, which is very likely, when Capt Rawle retired in 1959, it is probable that he, as the senior and more experienced mate would have been promoted master of the Consul in 1960 and later the Embassy  with John Iliffe becoming his mate.

 But, as it turned out this was not to be. Fate decreed otherwise and, instead, Eric continued to sail as mate of the Embassy, right up to 1966 under Capts Haines, Holleyoak and finally Iliffe.

How funny life is with its ups and downs, its ifs and buts and its "might have beens", maybes and "if onlys". 

When the Embassy was withdrawn, Capt Iliffe was out of a job and spent the remainder of his working life doing various things including, for a period, running an ice cream van which he positioned in a lay-by in a beauty spot at the top of the hill at Abbotsbury overlooking West Bay. It is said that he kept a detailed log of the ice-cream sales and associated weather conditions.

He lived to a great age, well into his nineties, sometimes sailing on the Lake Geneva paddle steamers when visiting his daughter who, for a time, lived there. Also, in retirement, he was always very generous in his praise for the help and advice he had received from his former mate, Eric Plater.

Eric did not fare so well. After a brief period working as foreman during Cosens' refits of other ships at Weymouth, he died in August 1967 just eleven months after his beloved Embassy was withdrawn.

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