Historic Windermere Steamboats Get Restoration Funding

By Caroline Lewis | 04 August 2006
photo of a long boat on a lake

TSSY Esperance, 1869. Courtesy Lakeland Arts Trust

A grant of nearly half a million pounds will enable the Lakeland Arts Trust to save a historical collection of boats, including the world’s oldest mechanically propelled boat.

The National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) has awarded the trust £465,596 for the urgent conservation of vessels at the Windermere Steamboat Museum, which holds the most one of the most significant collections of its kind in the world. Among the rare and elegant boats at the museum is Dolly, built in 1850 – the oldest mechanically propelled boat in the world.

The boats, however, are in desperate need of conservation. Currently displayed on the water, they need to be lifted on to dry land for restoration – a delicate and expensive operation. A new storage building is also necessary for work to be carried out.

“They’re in varying states,” explained Sandy Kitching of the Lakeland Arts Trust. “Some are seaworthy and are being taken out on the lake; some are in the wet dock and need to be pumped out now and again – they keep filling up with water. Others need completely new engines.”

photo of a wooden steamboat on a lake

Swallow, 1860, still used for trips on the lake. Courtesy Lakeland Arts Trust

Lakeland Arts Trust, the charitable trust that runs Blackwell Arts and Crafts House near Bowness, Cumbria, in conjunction with the Windermere Nautical Trust, turned to the NHMF for funding.

“Many thousands of people have enjoyed spending time on the Windermere Steamboats over the last 150 years,” said Stephen Johnson, Head of the NHMF. “The National Heritage Memorial Fund is delighted to be able to help secure the future of this wonderful collection, which so perfectly demonstrates the important part heritage plays in our leisure time.”

The salvage operation and conservation project will bring the Steamboat Museum under the wings of the Lakeland Arts Trust, which hopes to meet the legal, financial and conservation conditions necessary for the NHMF grant by March 2007. The grant will then trigger a further series of gifts and funds that will help to keep the collection together.

Windermere Steamboat Museum’s collection was largely amassed by local builder George Pattinson, who had a passion for the Lake District’s boating history. With the help of divers, he had many boats raised from the lakebed, and displayed them on the waters for which they were built.

photo of a small steamboat on a lake with a wooded hill in the background

Dolly, 1850, the oldest mechanically propelled boat. Courtesy Lakeland Arts Trust

Some boats in the collection have very interesting stories. The oldest yacht in Britain, dating from 1780, was tracked down by Pattinson to Southport, where it was being used as a hen house!

TSSY Esperance, from 1869, is the oldest boat on Lloyd’s Register of Shipping. She was used by her owner to commute to work. Apparently, he would leave his house preceded by a butler carrying his breakfast on a silver tray, and walk towards the boat on Esperance Pier. She has made two film appearances, in Swallows and Amazons and the French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Other notable vessels at the Museum include Beatrix Potter’s rowing boat; the first boat to be steered by remote control; and MV Canfly, powered by the world’s only working Rolls Royce Aero Hawk engine.

The most delicate boats were kept on dry display, while others have been steamed on the lake for demonstrations. While making it a lively museum, keeping the boats in the water has created long-term conservation problems.

photo of a long wooden steamer boat on a lake with mountains in the background

Branksome, 1896. Courtesy Lakeland Arts Trust

Lifting the boats is a massive undertaking – some are 50 feet in length and even with heavy boilers removed they still weigh several tons. However, vintage boat experts agreed it is necessary, and each boat will have a bespoke trolley to support its hull once out of the water.

They will be placed in temperature-controlled building with steady levels of humidity while parts are cleaned and oiled and timbers slowly dry out. Some boats will be given special attention, such as Dolly, who was submerged in deep water for 65 years after she sank in 1895.

The lifting of the boats and their initial conservation is just the first step in a long process. More money will need to be raised to fulfil the Trust’s intention to hire a team of specialist boatbuilders for the project and use the operation to create a centre of excellence in the field of historic boat restoration.

The Trust plans to create new jobs and a training scheme for local people that will give them the skills needed to maintain the boats once they are back on public display and being sailed on the lake.

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