Tide runs out for jewels of maritime history

Click to follow
The Independent Online
For the John H Amos, a unique piece of Britain's maritime past sitting on a slipway in Chatham, the launch yesterday of a National Register of Historic Ships may have come too late.

All known vessels over 40 feet long and over 40 tons, built in Britain before 1945 and which still lie in UK waters, will be included on the register. There are believed to be more than 3,000 craft in this category of which 900 have so far been identified. The future of some is already assured, like the1817 sailing frigate Trincomalee in Hartlepool, the oldest warship afloat, and the Discovery at Dundee, the research vessel in which Scott made his voyage to the Antarctic.

But others, like the John H Amos, face an uncertain future. Built in Paisley in 1931, it is the last intact steam sidewheel paddle tug in Britain, a fact which for enthusiasts more than justifies its preservation. Martin Stevens, a businessman from Sittingborne, Kent, has been trying for 20 years to save the tug from the scrapyard. He bought the vessel for pounds 3,500 from the then Cleveland County Council - the vessel spent her working life on the Tees - and after a civic send-off, complete with brass band, she was towed to Chatham. It became one of two vessels in Mr Stevens's Medway Maritime Museum.

Three years ago the John H Amos sank - or rather the tide came in as she sat on her mooring and she never rose with it. Pumped out, she was hauled up on to the slipway where Mr Stevens has sand-blasted the hull and filled in the holes.

As he puts it, he has "wangled" materials, including sand, paint and ropes, and the labour has been his own. "But that's no way to restore a boat. It's just hanging on by one's finger tips waiting for something to turn up. And, frankly, it's got to turn up a bit quickly."

Mr Stevens is trying to form a trust to bid for Lottery money. Restoring the boat could cost tens of thousands of pounds. "The worst thing that could happen is that I'm turfed off the slipway and have to find a mud mooring," he said. If that happens the hull will quickly deteriorate.

The register is a key component of a report Towards a National Policy on Historic Ships which gives guidance on assessing a vessel's significance as owners compete for money, particularly from the Lottery.

It became clear during research by the University of St Andrews, under the direction of Robert Prescott, director of the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies, that most historic vessels remained in private hands. Getting details proved difficult.

Keeping old ships afloat is expensive and only a minority will get help from the Lottery. Dr Prescott said the "attrition rate" was very high. "A large number of light vessels and paddle steamers have been turned into pleasure craft and then gone to the breaker's yard when they have failed in that capacity."

"Britain, like most countries, is much more experienced at looking after old buildings. We have yet to learn the lessons of looking after old ships."