Company Timeline

Below, our company timeline traces our roots back from the present day to the year it all started in 1820.

George Ward and William Fitzhugh of Cowes establish the Isle of Wight Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, the first steamer service between Cowes and Southampton.

Southampton introduces its own ferry service to Cowes, known as the Isle of Wight Steam Packet Company.

The two firms begin to co-ordinate their operations after a year of commercial warfare and introduce a common timetable in 1928. By 1860 the two companies had a combined fleet of six steamers and were in a healthy financial state.

A new company, the Southampton, Isle of Wight & Portsmouth Improved Steamboat Company was formed in March 1860 and brought 2 modern steam deck saloon steamers into service the following year.

This new threat persuaded the established operators to join forces. A new Board of Directors was formed and on the 10 September 1861 the Southampton Isle of Wight and South of England Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. Limited was formed.

The assets of the Improved Steamboat Company were acquired in May this year. Regular services to East Cowes were discontinued and replaced by a steam launch linking East with West Cowes packet steamers.

The Company purchased the Cowes Floating Bridge Company and retained control until 1901 when it was compulsory purchased by the local councils.

The Company branches into tug ownership by purchasing the New Southampton Steam Towing Company, an activity that has played a major part in its success.

The Bournemouth & South Coast Steam Packets Ltd was purchased and considerably strengthened the Company's scheduled and excursion services to the west.

SS Titanic, the pride of the White Star Line, departs Southampton Docks assisted by the Company's tugs, on her fateful maiden voyage across the North Atlantic.

1914 - WW I
A proportion of the fleet is requisitioned by the armed forces. The PS Princess Mary and the PS Stirling Castle are lost in action.

MV Medina III breaks tradition. It was diesel powered with no paddle wheels - the first motor passenger vessel on any of the three Isle of Wight routes.

An experimental high speed service is started using the 11 seater 'sea coach'. It operated until 1938.

The famous red funnel and black top was uniformly adopted across the entire fleet and the abbreviated name, Red Funnel was born.

PS Gracie Fields is the last paddle steamer to be built for the Company.

1939 - WW II
Once again much of the fleet was pressed into military service and losses were suffered. The PS Gracie Fields, PS Her Majesty and the tug, Sir Bevois, were lost in action, and the PS Lorna Doone and the PS Balmoral returned in such poor condition that they had to be scrapped.

Red Funnel purchase the Bournemouth operator, ship builder, repairer and engineering firm Cosens & Co Ltd, after rumour of a rival take-over.

Plans are developed for the first purpose-built car ferry to be introduced on the Cowes to Southampton service.

The motor vessel, Carisbrooke Castle, began service as the first purpose built car ferry. Ferries of this class gradually replaced the excursion vessels with the final vessel, Balmoral II ending its service with the Company in 1968.

Red Funnel acquire ownership of shipping and transport firm, Vectis Transport Ltd.

A high speed service is re-introduced using Italian built hydrofoils to counteract a hovercraft service started in 1966 between Southampton and Cowes by British Rail's Seaspeed Ltd. The latter was withdrawn in 1981 and the Cowes to Woolston Shipyard commuter hovercraft service was acquired in the same year.

A new flagship, MV Netley Castle, begins service as the first roll-on roll-off vehicle ferry.

MacTay Marine of Bromborough complete two new 35 tonne bollard pull tractor tugs for Red Funnel Towage.

Under threat of a hostile take-over by Sally Line, the Red Funnel Group is acquired by Associated British Ports Holdings plc.

A £3m investment in two ground-breaking Hi-Speed catamarans revolutionises high speed travel. Two hydrofoils are sold and vehicle ferry services into West Cowes are discontinued. Andover Transport Ltd, the mainland haulage operator is sold.

Red Funnel Holidays is created to sell ferry inclusive holiday packages.

Two state-of-the-art 'Raptor' class passenger vehicle ferries are ordered from Ferguson Shipbuilders in Glasgow for £16m.

MV Red Falcon and MV Red Osprey enter service on the Southampton - East Cowes route. Red Funnel Ferries now owns the youngest fleet on the Solent. MV Cowes Castle and MV Norris Castle are sold to Croatian interests.

A £3.5m order is made for a powerful new tractor tug, 'Redbridge', for Red Funnel Towage. A third 'Raptor' class passenger vehicle ferry is ordered from Ferguson Shipbuilders on the Clyde for Red Funnel Ferries.

MV Red Eagle, the Ferry Division's flagship, enters service on the Southampton - East Cowes route. MV Netley Castle is sold to Croatian interests.

A third 'Solent' class Hi-Speed catamaran is ordered from FBM Marine at Cowes for £3.5m. The Company's Website was launched in July to a receptive market.

Red Jet 3 enters service in time for Cowes Week, a 190 seat Hi-Speed catamaran. The two remaining hydrofoils are withdrawn and sold to interests in Thailand.

Red Funnel Distribution is launched to handle the Group's drop trailer business and FMCG contracts.

Associated British Ports Holdings plc sells the Red Funnel Group to JP Morgan Partners Inc. for £71m

Red Funnel Towage is sold to Australian, Adsteam Marine Ltd, for $25m AU as the group decides to concentrate on its ferry and road transport interests. The Company augments its Hi-Speed fleet by commissioning the state-of-the-art Red Jet 4 from North West Bay Ships, Tasmania.

Red Jet 4 is launched in Cowes by Dame Ellen MacArthur on 18th June and enters service on 23rd June. The Board approves an £11m 'stretch' project for the raptor vehicle-ferry fleet. Contract awarded to Remontowa, Gdansk, Poland. Project to take 3 months per vessel and involves insertion of new mid-section and additional vehicle deck. Post-refit vehicle capacity increased by some 60%. (Red Osprey Sep '03 - Dec '03; Red Falcon Feb '04 - Apr '04; Red Eagle Dec '04 - Mar '05)

Red Funnel's management, in partnership with HBOS purchase the Company from JP Morgan Partners.

In June Red Funnel launched the Steam Coffee Company, its new premium coffee brand.

In February, Red Funnel launched its onboard food brand 'ReFuel' and bar brand 'Bar1861'. In June, Red Funnel is sold by its management team to Infracapital, the Prudential Group's infrastructure fund.

A second-hand, US built 35m Solent class catamaran is purchased from the Bahamas and is named Red Jet 5 by Shirley Robertson OBE on 21 July 2009.

The company celebrates its 150th anniversary and commissioned Keith Adams to write the book 'Red Funnel 150' to mark the occasion. In the same year an updated website was launched. The freight business is re-structured and Red Funnel Distribution is sold to Steve Porter Transport Ltd.

Red Falcon's passenger accommodation was given a £2.2m refurbishment which included the addition of two new lounges on A deck. Seating capacity was increased by 55%. 

Red Osprey's passenger accommodation was refurbished to match sister ship Red Falcon. Costing £2.2m, the work included the addition of two new lounges on A deck.

Red Jet 6, the first Hi-Speed vessel of her kind to be built in the UK for sixteen year, was named by HRH Princess Royal and entered service in July 2016. Meanwhile, Red Jet 5 was sold to Toremar Toscana Regionale Marittima S.p.A

Further reading

'Red Funnel and before' by R.B Adams
Publisher: Kinfisher Railway Productions ISBN 0 946184 21 6

Red Funnel at 150 by Keith Adams
Publisher: Richard Danielson (31 Oct. 2010) ISBN-10: 0951315552   ISBN-13: 978-0951315552