Britain's Nautical Heritage: The National Historic Ships Unit

By Veronica Cowan | 06 January 2006
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a head and shoulders photograph of a man with grey hair and a suit standing before the bow of a ship

Martyn Heighton has recently taken the helm of the Historic Ships Unit, which is helping to oversee the future of our Maritime Heritage. © DCMS

Veronica Cowan talks to Martyn Heighton, the new Head of the National Historic Ships Unit, about his plans to help preserve our nautical heritage.

Most people accept that historic British ships are an important part of our heritage, but Martyn Heighton, head of the new Historic Ships Unit, is especially keen to fly their flag.

“There is an enhanced need to create and promote the National Register of Historic Vessels," he says, "so greater profile and awareness will be on the agenda.”

A former chief executive of the Mary Rose Trust, Mr. Heighton is not only enthusiastic about his new role but also has impeccable maritime heritage credentials.

He has been director of leisure at Bristol’s Historic Harbour, and was leader of the Merseyside Maritime Museum development in the 1980s as part of the regeneration of the Albert Dock.

His new role is a result of the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) making £100,000 available to establish a new Historic Ships Advisory Committee, operational from April 2006. Their job will include looking after historic vessels on the Register as well as deciding what a historic vessel is. The latter, as Mr Heighton explains, is not all plain sailing.

a photograph across the deck of a galleon with cannons and rigging visible in the foreground

HMS Victory is one of the Britain's most famous pieces of Maritime Heritage. Jon Pratty © 24 Hour Museum

“There is a rigorous definition, and a scoring system, which has to be satisfied in order to determine the classification,” he says. “The top group is the historic significance of the vessel - what story it tells - but you also have to look at factors such as the condition of the vessel, and whether there is a conservation plan in respect of it.”

The score the vessel achieves helps determine whether it forms part of a ‘core’ collection, like ships of enormous importance such as the Discovery in Dundee or HMS Belfast in London.

The next category is the ‘designated’ ships, followed by the ‘registered’ vessels, of which there are 1,000, primarily but not exclusively in private hands.

Designated and core groups tend to be owned by museums, and include ships like the Victory, which is funded by the Ministry of Defence.

Another famous vessel in the core category is Brunel's ss Great Britain – currently in a state of the art dry-dock at Great Western Dockyard, Bristol. This was the world’s first large iron vessel, which was ‘re-launched’ last summer, following a major £11.3 million restoration and conservation programme.

a photograph of a WWII era warship moored on the Thames in front of Tower Bridge

HMS Belfast. Richard Moss © 24 Hour Museum.

Leading experts were brought together to bring the 162-year-old passenger ship’s history back to life. “She has been completely re-presented and has an interesting solution to conservation,” notes Heighton. A glass plate - made up of 169 laminated glass panels - has been put all around the ship at her waterline level, and water has been put around it to make it look as if she is floating.

Conditioned air is pumped below the glass to ensure the correct humidity for conservation. “The HLF is looking at this project to see how the experience can be made more widely available in an educative, and conservation sense, and other dockyards can look at it to share this experience and approach,” says Heighton.

Despite the success of the ss Great Britain restoration, the historic maritime sector is not awash with money, although the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) is a key source of revenue. Last year it saved the clipper Cutty Sark from sinking.

“The HLF won’t fund private vessels, only those run by a charitable trust, or a public agency,” explains Heighton, whose committee will not have capital grant-giving powers, although it will advise the HLF on applications.

Carole Souter, Director of the HLF, warned recently that it alone is unable to meet all the demands of maritime heritage, so Mr Heighton’s committee will need to look for other income streams, including “talking to industry about sponsorship”. He also wants to explore ways of persuading the DCMS to see this project as on a par with DCMS-sponsored museums. “There is an interesting parallel with the designated museums,” he says.

a photo of a the stern of a ship seen through a glass floor with water shimmering across it

The ss Great Britain was salvaged and brought back to dry dock in Bristol in 1970 before its relaunch in July 2005. Jon Pratty © 24 Hour Museum.

The DCMS will be seeking a chairman and members for the advisory committee, and Mr Heighton is keen for the experience of applicants to extend beyond the heritage and historic ships sector to commerce and industry. He wants to see a wide skills base, “but including those who are passionate about ships and are persuasive”, given that this is an influencing role. An ability to approach the wider industry for sponsorship is very important.

He is relishing the task ahead, working with the DCMS, other Government departments, the private sector and the private owners of the vessels on the list, and stresses that he is looking at this broadly – and not just from a museum perspective.

“This is not an academic thing,” he explains. “It is of importance to the regeneration of the waterside, where boats and ships are part of the scenery. Take Portsmouth Historic Dockyard – without the Mary Rose, the Warrior and the Victory nobody would go there.”

Try telling that to the Royal Navy!

Veronica Cowan is a freelance journalist.

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