Photo: Ambrose Greenway
A miraculous survivor of Britain's Victorian merchant fleet, which was threatened with the scrap heap earlier this year, has been thrown a lifeline by London's Crossrail project.
The steamship SS Robin, dating from the late 1800s, is one of only three Core Collection ships in London (on the National Historic Ships Register – the equivalent of a Grade I listed building). Moored under the towers of Canary Wharf at West India Quay, she stands as an example of maritime and commercial heritage.
Taken over by a charitable trust in 2001, SS Robin was converted into a gallery and children's education facility. Despite this work, SS Robin is in desperate need of repairs, but a funding application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for £3m was turned down a few months ago. Since then, her future has hung in the balance.
"Until just last month SS Robin was in grave danger – we were facing the possible loss of a 118-year-old ship, a fantastic education facility and a hugely successful volunteer conservation programme, both of which contributed to an inspirational new lease of life for this iconic symbol of our Merchant Navy," said David Kampfner, Co-founder of the SS Robin Trust and Director of the repair project.
Crossrail, which has been ordered by the government to pay compensation for construction works in London, will underwrite essential minimum repairs to the ship that have become urgent in the face of the development of the Isle of Dogs station due to be built at West India Quay. (Crossrail is a project to build major new rail connections under central London.)
However, SS Robin will have to repay the money, which is a loan.
Photo: Ambrose Greenway
"Historic SS Robin was rapidly running out of time, and we're extremely grateful to Crossrail for this eleventh hour lifeline. Now we have a huge job to do – not just repairing the ship but fundraising to repay the loan."
Before construction of the new station begins, the ship will be moved to a shipyard and taken out of the water for essential repairs to the hull. Many of the same craft skills as were used in the 19th century will be employed to restore her, over the course of about six months, before she is towed back to her mooring.
"We're a small volunteer-led organisation with the fate and sole responsibility of one of the UK's most important ships in our hands – it's a daunting but potentially very exciting situation for the Trust, but also for Londoners as a whole as the intention is to create a new and remarkable visitor landmark once she returns from refit."
One of a pair of 'coasters' built at Bow Creek in 1890, SS Robin was originally intended to carry raw materials and the products of British industry around the UK and northern Europe. She is now the oldest remaining complete steamship in the world, still boasting the original engine, lifeboats and winches.