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Preserving Vessels In A Diverse Local History Museum

Andy King
Curator of Industrial & Maritime History
Bristol Industrial Museum, U.K.


Bristol Industrial Museum is one of six museums run by the city's local government. Its role is to preserve material relating to Bristol's long and varied industrial history, a theme taken to include most aspects of maritime and transport matters

Bristol is well-known as an important maritime centre, a notoriety which it is hoped will be vastly enhanced when the conjectural reconstruction of the Matthew arrives in Canada in June 1997, re-enacting the European discovery 500 years ago of the American mainland by the Venetian navigator and honorary Bristolian, John Cabot.

Like many places with a proud heritage, the tradition in Bristol is rather greater than the sum of its parts. It is true that Cabot sailed from there and that in medieval times Bristol was the second port to London (although ten times smaller); that in the 17th and 18th centuries the city grew rich on the triangular trade to Africa and the West Indies, a trade partly based on slaves; and that Brunel built both the p.s. Great Western and the s.s. Great Britainin the port. Set this against the city's stubborn refusal to improve her port facilities until too late and a cautious approach to shipbuilding entirely at odds with Brunel's risk taking, however.

Like many ports, Bristol developed a bewildering range of industries at first based on the commodities traded by the ships. Perhaps unlike other ports, these industries, and others independent of the sea, came to represent at least an equally important aspect of Bristol's wealth, and, from the beginning of the 19th century, a far more significant contribution. Bristol had the unique second string in the UK of locally-available coal, which allowed the growth of engineering, in particular, earlier than other towns; Brunel's decision to build the s.s. Great Britainin Bristol was influenced by the availability of men with the skills needed to work in iron.

Thus, from serving the port with trade goods, industry came to be served by the port, together with the waterways, roads and railways on which Bristol is a cross-roads. One of the difficulties, therefore, of our relatively small and under-resourced Industrial Museum is to strike a balance between these influences upon the city's history. This need has influenced the selection of ships to preserve; in each case, the vessels have to demonstrate not only an importance in their own right as ships but act as examples of the city's shipbuilding industry and illustrations of aspects of day-to-day life in the port.

I mentioned the word selection; in fact, the vessels we have managed to preserve are simply the best of the half-dozen or so that have become available during the last twenty years. Efforts to preserve ships before that came to nothing, but those that we failed to get would, arguably, have been better, sounder examples, although quite big. Fortunately, the vessels available have tended to be small and manageable - on average 55 to 75 feet long and 12 to17 feet beam.

What made ship preservation more than a vague possibility was the establishment of a dockside Industrial Museum in 1978. Our collection of ships started in 1981 with the acquisition of the 1861 steam tug Mayflower. She is without doubt an exceptionally important vessel, being the last of a common type in the locality, where screw was always preferred to paddle for towing. Her long working life on the Gloucester and Sharpness Ship Canal and upper River Severn meant that many changes had been wrought to suit her better to changing tows - at first ketches, trows (West Country sailing barges) and small schooners, then steamships, later still predominately dumb barges and finally mud barges and the ship canal dredger - but her basic form had survived all this. Having fallen into disuse in 1964, she was sold to a succession of well-meaning enthusiasts who failed to achieve anything much, except allowing her to sink at one stage. When we finally managed to get her, she had reached the stage of requiring very major overhaul to engine and boiler, and serious repair to parts of her wrought-iron hull and steel superstructure and deck. This sort of thing has set a trend - the vessels which have followed have been through a similar period of dilapidation before coming to us, and, ironically, their purchase price only drops low enough once this sort of condition is reached!

None of you will need telling that a boat is a hole in the water into which one pours money. Where that money comes from is in the lap of the gods, and with each of our boats, the restoration costs were met by a combination of grant aid from the national Science Museum PRISM Fund, assistance from the Museum's Friends organisation, shop profits, sponsorship, public donations .... in fact anywhere except a formal Museum budget. Each restoration project has ended in the red and efforts to repay this from operational profits have not met with resounding success. Winning a couple of awards for Mayflowerwas a very useful boost, but our diesel tug John King, a 1935 product of a local yard, locally-owned and -operated throughout her working life has proved very hard to finance and quite expensive to deal with. She lacks the sex appeal of the s.s. Great Britainor, more recently, the conjectural reconstruction (I still can't bring myself to call her a replica) of the Matthew, whose construction has been contemporaneous with John King's restoration and has been seen as a much more attractive sponsorship proposition. Nevertheless, I am proud that we have spent little more than 35,000 pounds restoring each ship.

None of the projects would have been achieved without volunteers. The staff at the Museum has basically remained the same for sixteen years, with one curator and one conservator available to do everything. The development of a team of enthusiastic, skilled and thoughtful volunteers, (at first principally around Mayflowerbut later prepared to work with almost any of our range of exhibits) has made it feasible, if not advisable, to try to maintain a small fleet. Like all Museums, however, we find it difficult to attract and retain younger volunteers - the average age must be around 60, often people retiring early from engineering. Because we are known as an Industrial Museum, we seem to attract the engineers rather than the nautical enthusiasts.

The volunteers would not be as many, nor would they be as committed if we had static machinery. Our policy has always been to bring things back to life, sometimes taking steps which might be frowned upon by some of you. I believe that our vessels are better maintained by working them, that an equivalent of a ship's crew builds esprit de corps that you don't get with a stationary lump, and that gradual decay gets noticed and remedied more easily and quickly by people who are frequently aboard and familiar with the vessel. Moreover, there is no way that we would be able to allow the public aboard under normal circumstances, as we have insufficient staff to ward the vessels. Far better that the public should see the vessel as a living entity when they go aboard, and better still that they should actually go somewhere.

Here again we are lucky with Bristol's superb Floating Harbour, a non-tidal stretch of water just large enough to make a reasonable half-hour trip. This is our only way of funding the ongoing care and maintenance of the vessels. We do trips on Mayflowerfor up to 12 people at a time, and they can visit the engine and boiler room and the cabins, seeing everything at close quarters. There are obvious attractions to a steam ship. We were less confident of a market for Pyronaut, the 1934 fire boat which provided cover for the City Docks in Bristol for 40 years, including during the Blitz. We need not have worried - it seems that a diesel boat can be just as popular, particularly if you spray water everywhere while the punters are aboard. We also do this for a fee at major events and at private functions. This year we are investigating running longer, chartered trips on both craft into the tidal Avon and under Brunel's famous suspension bridge, and looking into the market for 'steam experience' days, already popular on our steam railway. We have yet to complete John King, whose operation will be a further source of income, we hope.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the Museum's role is to cover a range of very disparate subjects, and the vessels are simply three of the exhibits which we are forced to keep outside, along with four electric quayside cranes, a 35-tons steam crane and about a dozen railway wagons. In trying to achieve their preservation, we have developed a broad knowledge base that applies similar techniques to all these things, some of which might not be common in dedicated maritime Museums. It is hard to think of a specific example, but we favour paints and coatings developed for exposed sites on land over marine paints. We always seek the best available materials for each job, preferring to use long-life, low-maintenance modern products and selecting those which could be used and applied by the least skilled of our volunteers.

On the down side, the need to spread so widely means that the specialist maritime knowledge that many of you take for granted is more difficult for me to acquire. I love the variety - one day skippering a steam tug, the next operating a Linotype machine, then answering enquires about the local brass industry or telling yet another family history enthusiast that we have very few records of 17th century emigration ships and even fewer photographs of them! It does mean that I cannot devote the time that I need to sourcing materials for the ships. Our vessels fall between the very large Great Britains and Cutty Sarks and the small craft which proliferate amongst private collectors and are so often wooden. Finding parts, in particular, for mid-sized iron and steel ships has proved difficult over the years. Conferences like these are very useful!

My Museum will not be able to preserve another vessel - we are at full stretch with those we have. In addition, because the city government needs to reduce its commitments, it is likely that the present Industrial Museum will further widen its brief and become a general social history Museum of Bristol. This trend has my support, but it means a further reduction in our ability to specialise in ships. However, the arrival in Bristol of part of the former Exeter Maritime Museum collection has presented an enticing opportunity in the shape of the drag-boat Bertha. Built in Bristol in the 1840s at the recommendation of Isambard Brunel (another honorary Bristolian), this ungainly craft - effectively a steam winch on a pontoon - kept Bridgwater Docks clear of mud for 130 years. She worked at Exeter Maritime Museum initially, too, but has not moved under her own power for about 12 years. We are looking at selling our restoration abilities to the new owner as a way of helping to generate funds for the ongoing restoration and maintenance of our outside exhibits. If we can reach an agreement that allows us to meet our commitments to our own craft, this could open the way to a more entrepreneurial approach to the whole business. I can only say "Watch This Space".

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Version 1.01, 7 July 1997