Spreading the word about ‘butter boats’ which carried our mail

The mailboat England, which operated between the Tyne and Esbjerg.
The mailboat England, which operated between the Tyne and Esbjerg.

REMEMBER the ‘butter boats’? You would have to be over a certain age to recall them now.

But for a time the phrase was verbal shorthand for the mail boats that used to operate between the Tyne and Denmark.

It was a service with a long history here on the east coast.

Over the past week, DFDS has been celebrating 20 years of its Tyne-Amsterdam route. Congratulations to them.

The sound of the King Seaways blowing as she departs her Ro-ro berth at teatime is one of those ‘you can almost set your clock by her’ things that you wouldn’t want to be without; while to have such a service from our own doorstep to what is, effectively, a gateway to Europe, is an asset to the port.

But the shipping line’s links with the Tyne go back much further – almost 140 years, to when the United Steamship Company, as it then was, opened its service between the Tyne and Denmark in 1876.

The first vessel on the route was the steamer Esbern Snare, which carried just 24 passengers – Danes who were emigrating to the United States and were en route to Liverpool to catch a transatlantic liner.

She also carried several hundred sheep and numerous cattle.

By the way, United Steamship Company is Det Forenede Dampskibs-Selskab, in Danish, hence the abbreviation, DFDS, adopted later.

From this grew the ‘butter boat’ traffic which, by a century later, was handling hundreds of thousands of tons of Danish butter, bacon, eggs etc, as well as thousands of passengers.

DFDS celebrated the centenary, in 1976, with a gala lunch aboard this vessel, the 8,000-ton car ferry England, which operated between the Tyne and Esbjerg.

She had taken over from the smaller Kronsprins Frederik, which had been a veteran on the route, and may be recalled for the £5 pensioners’ mini-cruises which she used to undertake – three-day round trips from North Shields and Esbjerg, with four hours and afternoon tea in the historic old town of Ribe – the one where storks nest in the chimney tops.

What would £5 then equate to in value now? About £55 – still cheap at the price.