The Daniel Adamson in the 1970s

At The Heart Of Our History

4th July 2014

For a maritime nation, says Deborah Mulhearn, we’re really not so good at looking after the historic ships that are at the heart of our history

There are over a thousand entries on the National Register of Historic Vessels (NRHV) but many of these vessels – our maritime heritage – are under threat for lack of funding. Only about ten per cent of those on the register are accessible to the public as museum ships or visitor attractions. And of these, very few are government funded. Even those with funding are under constant threat because the maintenance and running costs are so high.

Yet around the UK coastline and on lakes, rivers and canals, dozens of vessels of all shapes, sizes and ages are being lovingly restored by volunteers and enthusiasts. Some have been acquired by museums and trusts to be made accessible as visitor attractions, and for educational visits, youth training and corporate events. The fate of many, however, hangs in the balance.

“We are an island nation and our whole connection with the world has been by the sea. From submarines to sailing ships, they are right at the heart of our history,” explains Martyn Heighton, director of the National Historic Ships UK (NHS-UK).

The NHS-UK works to raise awareness of the plight of these ships, working with ‘at risk’ vessels to try and find a solution, or, if a sustainable future cannot be found, recording the ship for the National Archive of Historic Vessels, which lists around 500 ships that have been lost.

But saving a ship is just the beginning, explains Heighton. “Unlike paintings, ships are difficult to keep, even when dry. So we have to make sure that we keep the right ones, and sometimes we have to tell owners that their ships are not of national significance.”

There have been some controversial losses, he admits. “We lost a paddle steamer called the Lincoln Castle, but on the plus side we’ve got an agreement with the MOD to hand over the HMS Caroline, the last surviving light cruiser that fought at Jutland, to be restored in Belfast. And I’m particularly proud that we found a future for the HMS City of Adelaide in Australia as the centrepiece of a new museum of immigration. She is a composite clipper like the Cutty Sark and a quarter of the population of south Australia descends from someone who sailed on this emigrant ship.”

A rare few have their future assured. Iconic ships such as the Mary Rose in its stunning new museum ‘shell’ in Portsmouth, the award-winning SS Great Britain in Bristol and the renovated Cutty Sark in Greenwich, are all rightly celebrated and accessible to visitors.

Not all historic ships are glamorous flagships or celebrated war veterans, of course. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a place in the National Historic Fleet Core Collection – the maritime equivalent of Grade 1 listed buildings – of the historic ship register. The SS Robin is a coastal steamer and the world’s oldest complete steamship, built on London’s River Lea and now moored permanently at the Royal Victoria Dock in East London.

She is one of only three Core Collection vessels based in London, alongside the Cutty Sark and HMS Belfast, and is the archetypal ‘dirty British coaster’ celebrated in John Masefield’s poem Cargoes.

The Robin is being restored with help from a generous Heritage Lottery Fund grant and currently sits on a floating pontoon moored temporarily at the Royal Victoria Dock. “She will move to a more prominent position at the western end of the dock for the official opening next year, which is also her 125th birthday,” says Project Director Dave Green.

Volunteers are at the heart of what they do, Dave explains. “It can be heavy work – the Robin is made of iron so there’s a lot of stripping, sanding and sealing to be done over the summer to prevent rust. The best thing about it is the inter-generational nature of the work. People who, if they sat next to each other on the bus, would be suspicious or dismissive of each other are working together and chatting away.”

“I used to work in historic buildings, but there’s something about ships,” adds Green. “It can be more of a challenge but it’s also more engaging. Everyone wants to come on board, people are so enthusiastic about what we are doing and it makes all the hard work worthwhile.”

This year, for the centenary of World War One, the HMS President in London and the Edmund Gardner in Liverpool will be painted with dazzle paint. Developed as camouflage during World War One and linked to the Vorticist art movement, when painted with it, the ships became floating artworks that broke up their shape and line to foil enemies.

Beyond London, famous sailing ships such as the HMS Victory, moored at the historic dockyard in Portsmouth, is one of most popular visitor attractions in the country, and tells stories of the great sea battles of the Napoleonic era. But the oldest warship still afloat is the spectacular frigate HMS Trincomalee; although built later than the Victory in 1817, it stakes its claim as the oldest British warship still afloat and seaworthy because Victory is in dry dock.

Trincomalee, a three-masted Leda class frigate built in Bombay, is berthed at the restored historic quayside, part of Hartlepool’s Maritime Experience run by Hartlepool Borough Council. Trincomalee was made from Malabar teak, a durable Indian wood, rather than the customary oak, which accounts for its longevity. “The hull is sound, and while she could still sail, we don’t take her out any longer,” says David McKnight, general manager of the HMS Trincomalee Trust, whose members restored the ship and now run it as a museum ship and educational resource.

“People don’t expect to find an historic warship in this part of the world,” says McKnight. “Up until recently the focus has been on the restoration, but it’s now a vibrant visitor attraction with a committed team who present the ship in its best possible light.”

At the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, which opened last summer, visitors can learn about Tudor medicine as well as naval history. The Mary Rose was Henry VIII’s naval flagship and a favourite of his fleet. It sank in the Solent in 1545 and was raised in 1982. The ship is part of the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard complex, which also contains the HMS Victory, HMS Warrior and the Museum of the Royal Navy.

“There’s nothing like going on board to start to understand life at sea, and there are some wonderful experiences,” says Heighton. “The social history is just as important as the national heroics and heritage, learning what it was like for their families waiting at home, about working life on the docks.”

One of the ships on the register and part of the National Historic Fleet is the Daniel Adamson. The ‘Danny’ is a coal-fired tug tender built in 1903 that guided ships on the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal. Ten years of restoration work has made the Daniel Adamson seaworthy once more.

The Danny is berthed at Sandon Dock in Liverpool, where volunteers from the Daniel Adamson Preservation Society have restored the tug’s covered promenade and two art deco saloons. “The Danny is a very different type of ship than the grand fighting and sailing ships from the 18th and 19th centuries,” says chairman Daniel Cross. “But she is unique in the UK and that’s why she sits in the top tier of historic vessels alongside the Cutty Sark and Mary Rose.”

“The expertise offered by the volunteers, from joinery to engineers and designers, to the young cadets we have had helping out, has been phenomenal,” says Cross. “We could not progress without them.”

SL Branksome, 1896 © Lakeland Arts Trust

Due to open in Spring 2016, Windermere Steamboat Museum will display its nationally and internationally significant collection of historic lakecraft, from steam launches to rowing boats. “We are currently in the process of conserving many of our forty vessels, which will be housed in a beautiful new museum,” says project manager Charlotte Upton.

Vessels include The Osprey, a 1902 launch that was probably one of the first to be built for private leisure use on Lake Windermere. There is also Beatrix Potter’s rowing boat, and Margaret, one of the oldest sailing yachts, dating from 1780, which was rescued from the ignominious fate of being used as a henhouse, upturned in a field near Southport.

“The museum will be a world-class attraction,” says Upton. “There will be space for the craft to tell their stories, where visitors can see live conservation work and the cycle of wet and dry dock works in a rolling programme at water level. These historic sailing vessels are our heritage – a microcosm of 200 years of history located on the lake…”

From Sail Stornoway to Cowes Classics, a dazzling array of river festivals, regattas and rallies takes place across the summer. See

For info on many of the ships and organisations mentioned in this article, see the following:

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