Ships as living history

Paddle Steamer Waverley

Britain’s maritime heritage

John Robinson is member of the Advisory Council of National Historic Ships UK, and serves as Hon Treasurer of European Maritime Heritage. Here he discusses the preservation of Britain’s historic fleet

Until recently, it could be claimed that nearly every British family had a member or relative who was or had been a seafarer. This may no longer be the case, but the fact remains that no one in Great Britain or Northern Ireland lives more than about 140 kilometres from the sea. Our national temperament, our everyday speech, even our political thinking, all provide reminders of our situation as an island nation. The RNLI ranks near the top of our best-supported charities, our sportsmen and women regularly excel in Olympic and other international water-sports activities, and woe betide any broadcaster who might presume to meddle with the schedule of shipping forecasts on the radio! We cherish our maritime identity.

Three great ships saved for the nation

When in 1922 the Admiralty decided that HMS Victory had outlived her usefulness as a training ship in Portsmouth Harbour and threatened to break her up, a public appeal led by the Society for Nautical Research led to her being dry-docked and remaining under the White Ensign as a warship in commission.

A generation later, the Cutty Sark was towed from Falmouth to the Thames, where the London County Council provided a purpose-built dry-dock at Greenwich for her permanent display ashore. Superbly positioned beside the river, she rapidly established herself as a major visitor attraction and an icon for the London Borough of Greenwich. Admission revenues were sufficient to generate a modest maintenance fund, fostering the perception that ships displayed to the public could be made to pay their way.

Private generosity made possible the salvage and repatriation of Brunel’s pioneer steamship Great Britain from the Falkland Islands in 1970. Her triumphant return to Bristol may have perplexed the municipal authorities there, who only three years previously had proposed to infill some of the Floating Harbour to accommodate an inner-city motorway. Today this uniquely important industrial monument draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

Massive expansion, but not all plain sailing

Within a decade, dozens of new ship preservation projects were proposed across the nation. Maritime museums with floating exhibits appeared in Cardiff, Exeter, Grimsby, Irvine, Maryport and Swansea, to name only a few. With experience, however, came the realisation that vessels displayed afloat in museums require upkeep and maintenance hardly less than those still plying their trade.

A seminar on Priorities in Ship Preservation convened by the National Maritime Museum in 1991 examined the problems facing the sector. In a lucid summing-up, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Lewin, then Chairman of Trustees, noted ‘a steady stream of problems facing ship preservation, with no consistency in solving them’. At his behest, the NMM bid for government funding to create a National Historic Ships Committee. Captain Colin Allen, who had overseen the restoration of the ironclad Warrior at Hartlepool and had recently retired as her commanding officer, set up a secretariat for the new committee and charismatically serviced it for nearly fifteen years.

Making progress

The nature and extent of the nation’s historic fleet was only partly understood at that time; the museum sector was well documented, but no comprehensive list existed of historic vessels in private ownership. The Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies at the University of St Andrews was commissioned to carry out a nationwide survey, and after several years of work had inspected more than 1,800 vessels of all sizes, of which nearly two-thirds met the criteria of being at least 50 years old, more than 40 feet long or 40 tons, British-built and still in British waters. The records assembled by the survey team were deposited at the National Maritime Museum. After Colin Allen’s retirement as first Secretary of the NHSC, his functions passed to a small secretariat housed within the museum but with independent status, under the title National Historic Ships UK.

Lord Lewin had identified the lack of consistency in looking after preserved ships, and a quarter of a century later National Historic Ships UK strives to improve that situation. Its terms of reference are to be found at, where details of the vessels recorded on the National Register may also be viewed. A small Expert Advisory Group meets twice yearly in London, and its members are regularly consulted by email on current issues. An illustrated Annual Report is published and widely distributed. National Historic Ships UK is also active in promoting apprenticeships in the conservation and safe management of historic ships of all sizes through its Shipshape Heritage Training Partnership.

A lottery boost

The launch of the National Lottery in 1994 provided a crucially important boost to the finance of ship preservation. The world’s last seagoing paddle steamer, Waverley, now 70 years old, continues to give pleasure to many thousands of passengers thanks to Lottery support for dry-docking and upgrading, as does the Southampton-based steam sludge carrier Shieldhall, which also offers excursions seasonally.

Legislative issues

Attractive as these elderly steamships are, they were built in compliance with regulations which have since been tightened and rewritten with today’s environment in mind. Their exhaust gases must meet modern regulations, and fire regulations may require them to reduce the extent of interior panelling – which is part of their attraction. Doorway dimensions are being increased to suit larger seafarers, which may be difficult to achieve sympathetically in older vessels. The safety of those travelling or working on such vessels must be guarded no less diligently than that of people embarked on newly built vessels.

But new legislation – hastily enacted in response to an accident at sea involving modern tonnage – may have unintended consequences for our historic fleet. The paddle steamer Kingswear Castle was launched in 1924, reusing a steam engine already 20 years old, and her design deliberately emulated Edwardian practice. Her saloon is situated below water level, which would not be tolerated in a modern design. Restricted to operations in sheltered waters such as the Medway and the Dart, this elegant excursion steamer has an impeccable safety record, and now operates in conjunction with the South Devon Steam Railway along the Dart. In truth, the safety record of UK excursion paddle steamers in the past 100 years is far better than that of ro-ro ferries.

Pride in private ownership

The fieldwork that generated the National Register of Historic Vessels, now held at Greenwich, has confirmed that the huge majority of Britain’s historic vessels are privately owned. This fact excludes them from access to Lottery funding, yet pride of ownership motivates their owners to expend care and money on maintaining them to a high standard.

Organisations such as the Transport Trust, the Old Gaffers Association (for owners of gaff-rigged sailing boats) and the Historic Narrow Boat Owners’ Club offer awards for excellence in restoration. Regattas and maritime festivals such as those held in Portsoy and Falmouth attract large public attendances and increase popular understanding of the role of the sea and shipping in our national history.

Several high-class monthly magazines such as Classic Boat and Classic Sailor promote standards of authenticity in looking after such vessels. In 2010, National Historic Ships UK published an authoritative handbook entitled Conserving Historic Vessels, which as the only publication in its field is highly regarded here and in other nations where historic vessels are cherished.

Keeping up the good work

It is regularly suggested that statutory protection, similar to that provided by Listing and Scheduling of historic buildings, should be extended to historic ships and boats. But it seems likely that not all private owners would welcome such oversight, and might resort to the expedient of simply removing their vessel beyond UK jurisdiction if they objected to official interference. In general, success in maintaining a high standard of upkeep and resisting unsympathetic alteration has been achieved by good example.

Occasionally losses occur, such as that of the riveted river cargo vessel Wincham, built in 1948 to carry ICI cargoes along the Weaver to Liverpool. Although listed on the National Register and in active preservation by local volunteers, this vessel, the last of her kind, was precipitately cut up in 2012 following a change of policy at the adjacent Merseyside Maritime Museum. Her loss was lamented by National Historic Ships.

There was a happier outcome for the Sunderland-built emigrant sailing ship City of Adelaide, which had lain on a slipway at Irvine for more than a decade, having been towed there after sinking in Glasgow but without funds to repair her. National Historic Ships helped to broker her transfer to South Australia, where she will be displayed in the city after which she is named and whither she transported tens of thousands of emigrants late in the nineteenth century.

The United Kingdom has long been an international leader in preserving historic ships. The Maritime Trust was established in 1970, a pioneer in this field, and was succeeded by the Maritime Heritage Trust, on whose Council private owners of traditional ships and boats are strongly represented ( European nations and those further afield continue to look to the UK for leadership, and this nation was a founder member nearly 20 years ago of European Maritime Heritage, a volunteer-run organisation providing a forum where the operators of traditional ships work alongside maritime museums in raising standards and campaigning for safe operation of old ships (see At its recent triennial Congress, this organisation vehemently asserted the welcome that it will continue to extend to our nation, whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

For more information about National Historic Ships UK, visit