CHALLENGE is the last surviving example of a large purpose-built, Thames ship-handling steam tug, where she was based for her entire working life, although she carried out work as far afield as Scotland , Holland , Belgium , France and the south coast of England . She was built in 1931 by Alexander Hall & Co. Ltd of Aberdeen , for the Elliott Steam Tug Co. Ltd (who operated her until 1950). Her 1100hp triple expansion steam engine was also built by Hall, whilst her boiler* was by Palmer's Shipbuilding & Iron Co. Ltd, of Hebburn. She passed through two further ownerships: Ship Towage (London) Ltd (1950-1969) and London Tugs (1969-74).
CHALLENGE was one of the Dunkirk Little Ships engaged in the evacuation of Allied troops from France in May and June 1940. On 31 May, she worked at Dunkirk berthing vessels in the harbour during the evacuation and, the following day, towed small craft to Dunkirk to evacuate troops. At one point, she towed a disabled destroyer loaded with troops back to port. She was also involved in duties at Dover around this time, assisting ships which were engaged in the Dunkirk operation.
After returning to the Thames , she was fitted with a flying bridge to mount an Oerlikon cannon, and a forebridge for two Lewis guns. Her work in 1941 included towing Maunsell anti-aircraft towers out into the Thames estuary; towing Army Sea Forts for assembly in the estuary. In 1944, she towed parts of the Mulberry harbours used in the D-Day landings.
On 3 July 1944, she was damaged by a V1 flying bomb in the Royal Albert Dock and was repaired at Rotherhithe. She still bears the marks of this attack. After the war, she continued in Thames service and was converted from coal to oil firing at Sheerness in 1964.
In about 1971, she was laid up at Gravesend, having been the last steam tug to serve on the Thames . In 1973, CHALLENGE was sold to Taylor Woodrow Ltd for preservation at St Katharine's Yacht Haven, near Tower Bridge, and was berthed there as a static exhibit. More recently she was acquired by the Dunkirk Little Ships Restoration Trust (July 1993) for restoration to steam. With the aid of Sun Tugs and the Port of Tilbury she was moved downstream to Tilbury where groups of volunteers slowly brought her back to working condition. The hull was in need of repair, particularly along the waterline.
After obtaining a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2001 she was towed to Marchwood (Southampton), slipped and repaired and repainted. After relaunch she was shown at many locations including Liverpool, Bristol , Brest , Holland etc. In 2005 Challenge returned to Dunkirk for the first time since the 1950’s. In 2007 increasing concerns about her boiler – still the original – led to investigations which made it clear that it needed replacement to meet pollution and safety requirements.
Currently she is still being cared for by the Dunkirk Little Ships Restoration Trust at Shoreham Harbour where she is under constant maintenance by her dedicated volunteer team whilst awaiting (March 2011) the results of the subject of a further bid to the HLF for the second phase of her restoration including a new boiler.
Source: Paul Brown, Historic Ships The Survivors (Amberley, 2010), updated Feb 2011.
Update, July 2020: Under new private ownership. The new owner has set a Gofund me to raise funds for her restoration, and plans to then relocate her from her current base in Southampton to a new home port on the East coast. www.gofundme.com/f/keep-steam-tug-challenge-steaming
Brouwer, Norman J, International Register of Historic Ships, Anthony Nelson, pp142, Edition 2, 1993
Ransom, P G J, Ships Monthly: Still in Steam: Thames Tug Challenge, pp40, 1978
Steamboat Register: An illustrated Register of surviving steam vessels in the British Isles, Steam Boat Association of Great Britain, May Edition 6, 1994
Classic Boat: The Register: Little Ships Restoration, pp15 September 1995
- 1931 Built Aberdeen for W Elliot Steam Tug Co Ltd
- 1931-1939 Based on the Thames, towing barges of bricks from Holland and Belgium, laden square rigged ships, cargo ships and passenger liners and carrying crews to their vessels
- 1939-1945 Requisitioned by the Admiralty but continued to work as a tug
- 1940 Called to assist in the rescue of British and allied troops from Dunkirk
- 1942 Helped to tow AA forts to the Thames Estuary
- 1944 Damaged by a V1 flying bomb and repaired at Rotherhithe
- 1954 Rescued three survivors from the sinking of the tug CERVIA towing the P&O liner ARCADIA
- 1964 Converted from coal to oil and continued in service
- 1974 Last steam tug on the Thames due to be scrapped but instead sold to St Katharine’s Dock Yacht Haven to be part of an exhibition
- 1993 Again due to be scrapped but saved by the intervention of The Dunkirk Little Ships Restoration Trust that acquired her for £1. Moved downstream to Tilbury where groups of volunteers slowly brought her back to working condition
- 2001 Received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and was towed to Marchwood (Southampton), slipped and repaired and repainted. After relaunch, she was shown at many locations including Liverpool, Bristol , Brest, Holland etc
- 2005 Returned to Dunkirk for the first time since the 1950s
- 2007 Boiler due for replacement. Cared for by the Dunkirk Little Ships Restoration Trust at Shoreham Harbour with constant maintenance carried out by volunteers
- 2011 Application to Heritage Lottery Fund approved for second phase of the restoration including a new boiler
Two new diesel generators, refurbished boiler feed water tanks and new boiler installed Also been dry docked and towed the Shoreham
Confirmed restoration grant of £909,440 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The money will enable her to return to active service as a fully operational, educational and public accessible historic vessel
The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded £937,400 for project to increase understanding and access
The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded £44,200 for restoration of machinery
The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded £274,500 for developing the main application for restoration, conservation and development
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