It is our heritage not firewood!

24 July 2009

Britain's maritime heritage is facing a crisis and several major historic ships are either immediately threatened or have been destroyed in the last few months. Historic ships have little or no statutory protection, beyond a listing on the historic ships register (a non-statutory list maintained by DCMS) and the slim hope that something more positive might be done was dashed with the loss of the Heritage Protection Bill; Meanwhile museums that hold these vessels, but cannot pay for their upkeep or restoration, see that the only solution is to scrap them,  preferably with as little fuss as possible.

The most recent scandal concerns the MV Wincham, a steel estuarine cargo vessel built in 1948, to carry chemical products from Winnington to Liverpool. Listing on the National Historic Ships Register was no protection from the Wincham ‘Preservation' Society, who owned her.They decided that a reported, but probably highly inflated, bill of around £40,000 for essential repairs and maintenance was too high. They simply sent her for scrap, without any consultation, or attempt to find alternative owners that might have been able to take on the preservation task. The original plan was for the ship to be a working exhibit alongside the Merseyside Maritime Museum, part of the National Museums of Liverpool, and the preservation society had received a grant of £47,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to enable this to happen. The National Museums claim not to have known about the decision to scrap the vessel, although they had recently axed their own grant to help pay for the upkeep the vessel.  Meanwhile the fate of the HLF grant is unknown!

Next on the list is the long-running saga of the City of Adelaide. The future of this vessel, one of the nation's core collection in the National Historic Fleet and probably one of the most important surviving merchant ships from the Age of Sail hangs by a thread. The City of Adelaide was built in 1864, in Sunderland as a Composite Clipper to make the journey out to Australia, carrying cargo and emigrants, and returning with wool and minerals. Between 1864 and 1886, she made 23 voyages to South Australia, returning to London, via Cape Horn, sailing around the world. She carried during this period a recorded 889 passengers, and it has been calculated that there are some quarter of a million living descendants of these migrants or about 25% of the population of South Australia.

After her voyaging to Australia was over, she was used to carry timber from North America, and was eventually bought by the Royal Navy, and taken to Greenock to act as a base for the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. By 1992, she had been acquired by the Scottish Maritime Museum for their new base in the Irvine New Town in Ayrshire. Still floating, the vessel was towed to a slipway next to the Museum, but owned by a commercial company, Ayrshire Metal Products (AMP). The details of the deal with AMP have never been made public, but after a period of grace, the Museum agreed to pay a substantial annual fee for the use of the slipway. By 1999, the Museum had run out of money to restore the vessel, and all work on her stopped. Fortunately the ship had been listed by Historic Scotland, but this did not deter the Museum applying for permission to ‘demolish' the ship in 2001 to avoid paying the slipway fees. This was initially refused, but a reapplication in 2003 was successful. The only thing stopping the chainsaws at this point was a referral to Historic Scotland, and the reluctant agreement of the Advisory Committee on National Historic Ships to allow for a careful ‘archaeological' deconstruction of the ship under strict guidelines, including a full laser survey.

At this point in the saga, literally hours away from chopping up the City of Adelaide for firewood, the disastrous May 2007 fire  broke out on the  Cutty Sark;  the only other surviving Clipper. Everyone then realised that it was simply not possible to scrap the only complete surviving Composite Clipper, while spending over £30m to reconstruct the Cutty Sark, the more famous, but much less well preserved survivor. There are at least two groups who would like the ship - one in Australia and the other in Sunderland, but it is unclear whether either could raise sufficient funds to pay off AMP and move the ship, let alone undertake a costly restoration. There are reported to be behind the scene discussions with National Historic Ships to work out some kind of viable proposition that will enable the ship to remain intact, but the main stumbling block continues to be the Scottish Maritime Museum who simply want to be rid of the vessel in the cheapest and quickest way possible.   

It is doubly ironic that Scotland is celebrating the ‘Year of Homecoming' in 2009, yet one of the largest artefacts associated with emigration in Scotland is under such a dire threat. The Scottish Government seems uninterested in helping to save the ship, but clearly public money is needed to break the deadlock. One solution is to give the ship to South Australia to celebrate its 175th anniversary - there is even a Downing Street petition to sign ( but a huge sum of money would be needed to finance this.  

A third example also highlights the failings of the current protection regime for historic ships that have been preserved as hulks on our foreshores. These hulks are now being recognised as some of the best survivals of historic vessels; often well preserved in the mud where they were dumped at the end of their working lives.

One of the best collection of hulks is at Purton in Gloucestershire where an amazing 79 vessels have been beached since the 1940's to shore up the Sharpness Canal against erosion from tidal flow of the River Severn. Taken as a collection these boats are a cross-section of early-twentieth-century coasters,  schooners, trows, and barges, and the life history of every one has now been carefully documented, with a very active Friends Group set up to help preserve the site. Here the threat is the public, who regularly strip out timber from the hulks for their barbeques, claim souvenirs (such as name boards), or even try to burn out the ships for fun. They are not breaking the law and there is nothing to stop them.

English Heritage assumed control of the protection of inter-tidal and submerged maritime heritage some ten years ago, yet  it has failed to offer any advice or action to preserve the Purton Hulks. Numerous approaches have been made by the Friends Group requesting listing or scheduling, or even designation as historic shipwrecks. They have not been been given any explanation why protection is impossible and the Purton hulks (along with all the other coastal extant hulks) seem to be stuck in some bureaucratic conundrum! Ironically, the only protection comes from the site's status as an SSSI; it is fine to steal bits of heritage, but utterly forbidden to pick any self regenerating flowers!

These three cases are simply examples of a huge problem. Our maritime heritage is a vital part of our national story but is in a perilous state. National Historic Ships have no powers to ‘spot list' vessels under threat and prevent outrages such the Wincham saga, although it would like to gain them (see English Heritage seem to be completely incapable of taking their responsibilities for inter-tidal and foreshore wrecks seriously. There seems little desire by Government to give priority, either financial or protective,  to ensure the preservation of these and other historic vessels, and many museums who have these costly artefacts cannot afford to keep them going. If something is not done soon many more will end up on bonfires or a scrap heap!

Mark Horton, Professor in Archaeology

Dept of Archaeology and Anthropology

University of Bristol


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