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Black and white image of the IOW

Our History

The Southampton Isle of Wight and South of England Royal Mail Steam Packet Company Limited (better known as Red Funnel ) was formed in 1861, the year Prince Albert died. The Company is the original operator to the Isle of Wight and has a distinguished and colourful history spanning over 160 years. Our famous house flag was derived in 1861 from the names of the first four steamers in the newly merged fleet - Sapphire, Emerald, Ruby and Pearl.

Blue to the mast, Green to fly, Red on deck, White on high

Our Story

The story began in 1820 when scheduled year-round Steam Packet Services started operating between Southampton, Cowes, Ryde, Southsea and Portsmouth Harbour. Excursion Services were also a mainstay activity during those balmy Victorian and Edwardian summers with daily trips along the South Coast and across the channel to France. In the 1900's, the growing interest in travel provided the Company with an important string to its bow - the provision of tendering services to the great passenger liners.

Many would anchor in Cowes Roads and use Red Funnel's steamers for alighting passengers and transferring all kinds of cargo. In 1885 the Company expanded into Tug Ownership and continued to consolidate its market position throughout the wars. After World War II, recession and changing holiday habits led to the decline of the excursion business and preoccupation with the Southampton-Cowes packet services, particularly in light of growing car ownership and the transfer of cargo onto wheels. Diesel propulsion marked a turning point in the Company's history with the first purpose-built diesel vehicle ferries joining the fleet in the 1950's.

Drawing from the Company's archives, this microsite offers a nostalgic insight into cross-Solent travel since the 1820's. It's rare for a firm to have survived for so long, and the Company is rightly proud of its illustrious history and grateful to those who've played a part.