The Story Of The Steam Coaster Robin
Construction and Service under the Red Ensign
In December l889 at Orchard House Yard in Blackwall, the keels of two steam coasters were laid on adjoining slipways. The order for the identical vessels came from Robert Thomson, Shipowner, of 72 Mark Lane, City of London. At their separate launchings in 1890, they received the names of ROOK and ROBIN.
Both were built under Lloyds’ Special Survey which meant that Lloyds Register of Ships appointed one of their surveyors Mr Charles Jordan to attend the ships throughout their construction to ensure a high quality in materials and workmanship. A higher than average standard of ship building was achieved as on the foot of the final page of the Lloyds’ Survey Certificate the following statement is made by Charles H. Jordan in his own handwriting and dated 27th November 1890:-
“We are of the opinion this vessel should be classified 100A1 Steel”
There is no higher classification in the shipbuilding world, and the ROBIN was still steaming and carrying on the work for which she was built, 84 years after her launching date.
After her launch on 16th September 1890, the hull was fitted out in the East India Dock and then towed to Dundee where her boiler, main engines and auxiliary machinery were installed by the famous engine building firm of Gourlay Bros & Co. Lloyds’ machinery surveyor was in attendance and he was able on completion of the work to recommend the award of Lloyds’ machinery certificate with the classification “LMC 9:99”.
The surveyor adds his comments on the workmanship e.g. whether the rivets are “tight sunk” and the wood deck is “well laid”. It is a fair assumption the steaming and steering trials took place in the Firth of Tay and that on their successful conclusion the owners Arthur Cornwallis Ponsonby and lsaac Crocker of Newport, Monmouth, took delivery and ordered the Master to proceed to Liverpool. It is certain that ROBIN commenced her career in the British coastal service at Liverpool on 20th December 1890. On that date a crew of 12 was signed on Articles for the maiden voyage.
The research into the history of the SS ROBIN have brought to light a complete set of “Agreements and Account of Crew” lists for the ten years during which the coaster worked under the Red Ensign. “The Articles”, this document constitutes a legal Agreement between the Master and all who sign it. It comprises a list of the crew, statements on the conditions of service (laid down by act of parliament) including the maximum duration of the voyage, crew entitlements and individual wages and the accepted disciplinary code for seamen. At a “Signing On” ceremony in the presence of a government official known as The Shipping Master, each member of the crew puts his signature or makes his mark against his name and thereby agrees to serve. The Agreement is binding until the paying Off” or “Signing Off” ceremony which takes place on completion of the voyage.
This first voyage extended to Bayonne in South West France, four hundred miles outside the Home Trade limits, a fact revealed by an Endorsement on the Agreement which bears the seal and signature of Her Britannic Majesty’s Consul in Bayonne. The voyage concluded at Swansea on 10th January 1891.
A copy of this Agreement will be on display at SS Robin when the doors open in 2014. Showing names, signatures, ages, birthplaces, previous ships, ratings and wages of all her crew. The Agreement is endorsed “Crew finding their own provisions”.
On 14th January 1891, ROBIN sailed from Swansea and for the next decade her trading was mainly between the seaports of the British Isles with side trips to continental ports carrying a variety of cargoes grain, coal, iron ore or scrap steel, china clay and general cargoes of cased, casked and baled goods, railway lines and even granite blocks for the construction of the Caledonian canal.
ROBIN remained on the London Port Register for two years and had five Masters then on 7th December 1892 she was sold to Alexander Forrester Blackater of Glasgow and transferred to the Registry of that port on which she remained until 13th May 1900. John McNeill of Islay was the longest serving Master of ROBIN under British ownership until Blackater sold her to a Spanish Shipowner.
The Complicated Business of Ship Owning
In the Lloyds Survey Report no.51322 of 25th November 1890 - Robert Thomson placed his orders for the two steam coasters ROOK and ROBIN some time in 1889 with MacKenzie MacAlpine & Co of Blackwall. The firm did not complete the building of the vessels, perhaps they failed financially, whatever the cause there is indisputable evidence that Robert Thomson was responsible for their completion. The name of MacKenzie MacAlpine is entered in the Survey report against “By whom built?” there is a note in the hand of Charles H. Jordan the Lloyds’ surveyor which states “Completed by Robert Thomson”. In corroboration is Robert Thomson’s signature in the space for “Builder’s signature” at the foot of the Survey Report.
It appears that Robert Thomson may have overstretched his finances because it is recorded in the London Register of Shipping for 1890 on 29th November whilst ROBIN is in Dundee having her engines installed, Thomson raised a mortgage on her. The mortgagees were Arthur Cornwallis Ponsonby and his partner, Isaac Crocker, described in the document as Shipowners of 72 Dock Street, Newport, Monmouthshire.
Traditionally, the ownership of a British ship is divided into 64 shares. Two equal partners would thus each own 32 shares. The sixty-fourths were negotiable; for example they could be traded just like stocks and shares, used as collateral for borrowed money or for raising mortgages. According to the London Register of ships, there were nine such transactions over ROBIN between the 29th November 1890 and 7th December 1892, with sixty-fourths passing back and forth between Thomson, Ponsonby and Crocker so that it is difficult to say at any one period where ownership lay. Until the 21st July 1892, however, the one name of Arthur Cornwallis Ponsonby appears consistently on the B.o.T. Agreement & Crew Lists as the Registered Managing Owner. On that date the London Register of Ships recorded that Robert Thomson acquired again all 64 shares and thus outright ownership. This was obviously a necessary preliminary to the final transaction on the London Register which took place on 7th December 1892 when, by Bill of Sale, all 64 shares passed from Robert Thomson to Alexander Forrester Blackater, Shipowner, of 17 Oswald Street in the City of Glasgow, and the records of the coaster herself were transferred to the Port of Glasgow Register of Ships.
Shipowning apparently continued to be a chancy business and shipowners were prone to hedging their bets, for within a couple of days of acquiring his 64 shares in ROBIN, Blackater had sold 42 of them to John Henderson Strang, described in the documents as “Pipe founder”. Blackater continued to sell shares, usually in ones, two or threes, to a variety of Glasgow citizens, including a surgeon, the wife of a Master Mariner, merchants and the like until, on 27th June 1893, Blackater himself retained only one share. However, on 28th June in that same year, J. H. Strang transferred to Blackater all 42 shares he had bought in the previous December. Unfortunately, documents stating the facts do not also reveal the reasons behind these moves.
Thereafter Alexander Blackater seems to have financed his ventures with loans from the National Bank of Scotland secured by Marine mortgages on his shares in the ship. On 12th June 1899 all 64 shares were transferred to the Robin Steamship Co. Ltd. at the same address 17 Oswald Street, Glasgow, - and the records show that A. F. Blackater was appointed Registered Managing owner of ROBIN the appointment being made by A. F. Blackater in his role of Secretary of the new company.
Nearly one year later, on 17th May 1900, the Robin Steamship Company sold the S.S. ROBIN to the Spanish firm of Blanco Hermanos y Cia of Llanes in the Asturias province of Spain. A line was ruled underneath her entry in the Port of Glasgow Register of Ships and her new owners entered her on the Spanish Register with the name MARIA. With that name painted on her bow and stern she entered upon a new career as a Spanish coastal steamer which, under three Spanish owners was to endure for just under three quarters of a century.
The Spanish document of Registration is in the possession of the Maritime Trust and is displayed on the ship now renamed ROBIN in their Historic Ship Collection at St. Katharine’s Dock.
Service under the Spanish Ensign
The new owners, Srs. Blancos Hermanos, having changed her name from ROBIN to MARIA, registered her in the port of Bilbao. Unfortunately, we have been unable to contact anybody connected with the firm which, according to Lloyd’s agents in Bilbao, probably went out of business many years ago. Consequently very little is known about her first thirteen years under the Spanish flag. In 1913 she changed hands again.
It says much for the quality of the products of British shipyards, for the craftsmen and for the materials of nearly a century ago, that when Hermanos y Cia sold Maria to the Santander firm of Perez y Cia., the ship was already 23 years old. In case there is anyone who can see nothing unusual in that, it is necessary to explain that the majority of modern steel freighters are condemned to the scrapyard well before their twentieth year. Few get past their fifteenth year of service because owners cannot afford the shipyard cost of making ships of that age fit to be granted a renewed Certificate of Sea Worthiness.
MARIA entered the service of her fourth owner at the age of 23 and they, Perez & Cia, were to keep her for another half century to 1965 when she was 75 years old. She was one of the two ships on which the Perez family founded what was to become a prosperous shipping firm and fleet. So well did she serve them that when the company celebrated its 21st anniversary, a scale model of MARIA was made in silver and it still occupies a place of honour in Sr. Jaime Perez Maura’s office in Santander. A company Christmas card used by the firm in the seventies featured a picture of MARIA.
The only visible changes made to the vessel between 1890 & 1965 were the addition of a wheelhouse and the substitution of stockless for stocked anchors. A photograph of MARIA taken alongside the dock at Gijon in 1956 reveal that she was then as ROBIN was on leaving the builders yard in 1890. All the features of the classical British steam coaster of the raised quarterdeck type are there: the long, thin “Woodbine” funnel right aft, the open fo’c’sle head, three slightly raked masts complete with topmasts and even the whale-back over her quarter.
It remained for her third Spanish owner, Senor Eduardo de la Sota Poveda, to carry out the first major alterations since her launching. In 1966 he carried out a major refit in which the mizzen mast was completely removed, the fore and main masts lowered as was the funnel, and the whale back cut off. The forecastle was extended to include shower and washing facilities and the fo’c’sle head fitted with bulwarks in place of the open rails. As angled bulwarks which had supported the whale back were replaced with vertical plates, the result of these alterations was to change her silhouette considerably. Down below the coal fired furnaces were modified to burn oil and wing oil tanks were constructed in the coal bunker spaces.
Taking advantage of the reduced space needed in the stokehold (no need for the fireman to wield shovels of coal) the watertight bulkhead dividing the stokehold from the main cargo hold was moved a couple of frame spaces further aft, thus increasing her freight carrying capacity.
But, and here all praise again to British materials and craftsmanship as well as to Lloyds 100 Al classification, it was not considered necessary to replace the 75 year old boiler built by Gourlay of Dundee, and except for some steel hull plating in the forepart of the vessel above the waterline which had been damaged in collision, neither was it necessary to carry out any replating. The original main engines and their auxiliaries remained also and, indeed, the ship eventually steamed back to Britain at the age of 84 under the power of her original machinery. In this connection, praise is undoubtedly due also to the Spanish owners and crews without whose care and maintenance the fabric and machinery would have suffered more rapid deterioration.
Although the structural alterations outlined above changed the shape of ROBIN, no one familiar with the breed could fail to recognise MARIA for what she was - the classic British steam coaster of the 19th century.
It should not be imagined that her exceptionally long life is due to a soft time in “sunny Spain”! ROBIN did not retire from her arduous service in the stormy seas around Britain to a sheltered existence as MARIA, toting soft cargoes of fruit and wine around the sheltered coasts of Mediterranean Spain. Indeed she continued, after 1900, to trade in the cruel Atlantic seas around the rock-bound coasts of North and North West Spain. Her freights for 74 more years - with only one known break of about four years when she was laid up due to a slump in the freight market – continued to be hard, punishing ones. Bulk cargoes of coal, iron ore, scrap steel and iron slabs, varied occasionally with timber and general cargoes. Her trading ports were Gijon, Aviles, San Esteban, Bilbao, Vigo, Santander, Corcubian and Noya.
During the first World War MARIA was engaged for some time carrying iron slabs from the foundry in Santander to Bayonne and Burdeos (Bordeaux) for the French Government. Recalling this episode recently Senor Perez described the amusing sight of this small freighter being escorted by two French destroyers to protect her precious freight from the prowling German U boats.
In 1936 MARIA was commandeered by the then Spanish Government and she was in Santander in August 1937 when that port was taken by General Franco’s forces. Whether she was employed by them, or how, is not known. We do know, however, that from 1938 to 1940 she was trading again for Perez & Cia. and that, thereafter, she had an unbroken career of trade.
The last years of her Spanish service were in the livery of de la Sota Poveda S.A. carrying coal from Gijon to Bilbao and iron ore from Bilbao to Gijon and, occasionally, to Aviles.
MARIA discharged her last cargo at Bilbao a few days before the Maritime Trust bought her. Up to that point she had been destined for the breakers yard. Sr. de la Sota was awaiting delivery of a new vessel to replace MARIA. She was to have been broken up in September 1974. Her reprieve arrived in May. Thus with the last of the coal dust washed out of her, and newly painted but still in her Spanish colours, she steamed out of Bilbao on l2th June and laid a course for Ushant and the English Channel, the property of The Maritime Trust, on her repatriation voyage.
On her arriva1 off Start Point, Devon, on the afternoon of Saturday 15th June 1974 the author, for the Maritime Trust, took over from the Spanish Master and, for the first time in 75 years, her bows were pointed eastward to “butt up-channel” for her destination in the Medway. MARIA, soon to be renamed ROBIN, had come home.
Ancient, that is pre-war, mariners proceeding on their lawful occasions about the waters of the English Channel in the three days, 15th to 17th June 1974 wondered if it were a ghost ship. Less ancient, that is post-war, mariners were probably right in declaring they’d never seen the likes of it. After all, it is not every day that bridge binoculars pick up the shape of an 1890 steamer coasting up-channel. Although this one wore the Spanish ensign and the name MARIA on bow and stern, the ancients’ eyes were not deceived. For them she was unmistakeably a British steam coaster, the like of which they were wont to see, and like as not alter course for, around the headlands of the entire British coast in the good old seafaring days before the war when ships had some shape to them and lines to be proud of.
Among the remarkable things about this particular maritime antique in the English Channel in 1974 were her age and her ability, after an arduous existence, to return to her native shores. She was 84 years old and returning to Britain not on the end of a tow line, or disabled on a nautical stretcher, but proudly, very much under command and under her own steam.
We embarked our Channel pilot, Captain Bob Curtis, and took departure from Brixham breakwater with some difficulty because of the flotilla of sightseers surrounding us. We had been detained for a couple of hours by them and by the news and television cameramen who continued to plead for “just one more shot”. With tides not to be missed I hardened my heart and set the bridge telegraph to “Full Speed Ahead”. So it was that at 1708 hours on a lovely June evening and, belching a smoke trail from her old “Woodbine”, we set course for Portland Bill and all points east. With her old heart at a steady rhythm of 70 revolutions per minute, the old lady covered the distance from Brixham to Dover Strait at an average speed of 7½ knots. Up on her bridge I considered it incredible that the beat I felt through the soles of my boots was being produced by the same triple expansion reciprocating engine which Gourlay Bros. had built and installed at Dundee 84 years earlier. To visit the top grating of the engine room, maintained in gleaming condition still, to see and hear the pounding pistons and catch once more that unique odour of steam and hot oil was to return to an earlier era of sea-faring.
The liner QE2 could not have raised greater interest from Channel Shipping. Vessels, outbound and inbound, altered course towards us for a closer confirmatory inspection. Salutes on their compressed air sirens were returned on our fluty and sometimes asthmatic steam whistle. It was a day for nostalgia and no doubt the same question was being asked on the bridges and decks of all who passed us during that three day passage: “Where did they all go, all those steam coasters?” For almost a century they had been a common sight around our coasts. To those of us who had known and taken them for granted it suddenly occurred that, somewhere about the middle of the 1950s, they had disappeared. And so they had, to the breaker’s yard, victims of the march of “progress” in the shape of foreign diesel coasters, British Railways’ freightliners and, worst of all, the long distance lorry. A few were “sold foreign” to be run to death in the Mediterranean and on the reefs and atolls of the Pacific and Caribbean. The steam coaster had been an essential part of Britain’s maritime and economic development for nearly an hundred years and then, suddenly, it was gone into history. All, so far as The Maritime Trust knew, except this one, ROBIN alias MARIA which, thanks to good British materials and workmanship and to skilful Spanish ship husbandry, survives as an example.
Thus, happily, I found myself bringing MARIA up channel, charged by The Maritime Trust to deliver her to a shipyard on the Medway and then to mastermind her restoration programme. As the familiar landmarks unfolded along the South coast of England, I reflected that not even John Masefield, for all his lauding of the British Coaster, could have envisaged one surviving as a working freighter for nigh on ninety years. Between Start Point and Portland Bill, the Trinity House Pilot Tender PATRICIA, bound toward the west, found us and circled, making signals and gestures of welcome. Aboard her was Captain John Bury, one of the Senior Brethren of Trinity House and a member of the Ships Committee of The Maritime Trust. He recorded the occasion with his camera: an historic occasion for ROBIN, being repatriated after 74 years overseas.
Although it was high summer and we would not be, as John Masefield described in his immortal coasters poem in a different season…
”..Butting through the Channel in the mad March days..”
nevertheless ROBIN was to experience again the fickleness of the British climate. The sunshine and calm seas of the Western Channel gave way, on Sunday evening, to heavy mist off Dungeness and to sudden impenetrable fog in Dover Strait. I was obliged to creep blind, sans radar, sans echo depth sounder, towards a coastal anchorage under the White Cliffs. The sound of a train about to run over our fo’c’s’le head was all the warning I needed that we were near enough to drop the anchor. Six hours later, at midnight, a violent thunderstorm coming over from the French coast brought a clearance revealing the beach a bare half mile away and the White Cliffs vertically above us and at 0100 on Monday we hove the anchor and passed through Dover Strait.
It remained clear for the pilot to guide us through the Downs and round North Foreland into the Thames estuary, but shortly after daybreak on Monday as we passed Princes Tower, fog caused us to anchor again. Eventually we arrived at Garrison Point and boarded an incredulous Medway Pilot, Mr. R Milne, who demanding to know what he was boarding, climbing on to the bridge with the question “Where, in God’s name, have you come from?” At 1130 hours on Monday 17th June 1974, we moored to No.9 buoy in Chatham Reach. The steam coaster ROBIN was truly home from her long exile.
On 24th July she was towed from her mooring to Doust & Company’s Medway Slipway Yard at Rochester, cradled and hauled up the slipway to be prepared for the survey which was the preliminary step to a restoration programme which was to extend over four years and to cost a quarter of a million pounds.
Dirty British Coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
(Verse 3 of John Masefield’s poem “Cargoes”)
Restoration on the river Medway.
The Maritime Trust was founded by H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh in 1969 not with the object of saving “old ships” as such, but to “restore, preserve and display vessels of historic importance in Britain’s maritime heritage”. To the Trust this qualification means that an “old” ship must be important either by reason of its evolutionary significance or because it had itself played a prominent role in an historic episode.
CUTTY SARK qualifies because she represents the pinnacle of sailing ship design and the fast ocean going freight carrier of the closing days of the sailing ship era. HMS VICTORY meets the second criterion in that as Lord Nelson’s flagship at the battle of Trafalgar she played the leading role in one of the most significant sea battles in world history. The earliest task of the newly formed Maritime Trust was, therefore, to draw up a list of significant British ships and then, to discover whether, in the case of survivors, preservation was feasible. As regard types, the scope was wide, covering all sea going vessels (but not estuarial or inland waterway boats), fighting and mercantile and including fishing vessels. There were obvious limiting factors governed by age, and the Trust decided to concentrate on the era of transition, when sail was giving way to steam and oak and elm to iron and steel.
Thus, KATHLEEN & MAY was acquired as the survivor of the wooden, three masted, topsail schooner which with the brigs and the ketches had carried the coastwise trade of Britain until they were finally displaced by the steam coaster. All played a significant role in the nation’s economy.
HMS GANNET, a mid Victorian sloop of war, is being preserved because she represents
(a) the transitional age in naval construction when sail had not completely given way to steam and both forms of propulsion were employed, and
(b) the type of warship deployed in Queen Victoria’s reign on foreign stations to maintain the “Pax Britannica”.
High on the list of significant types also was the steam coaster, the design of which was unique to Britain and had evolved from an iron hulled ancestor built in the 1840s as a consequence of the invention of screw propulsion. At the request of the Maritime Trust, Lloyds’ Register of Ships produced a list of surviving British steam vessels built prior to 1925, and it was this list which led to the discovery, on the Spanish coast, of the steamship MARIA formerly the British steam coaster ROBIN of London.
So, here, in July 1974, we had her on the ways at Doust’s shipyard in Rochester. The contract for slipping had been given Dousts not only because they possessed one of the few remaining suitable slipways in the Thames/Medway area which was available for ROBIN when the Trust needed it, but on account of their long experience of building and repairing such vessels. Eventually, the contract for the entire preservation and restoration job was to be awarded to Dousts because it became, evident that from the managing director downwards, their workforce shared our enthusiasm for the preservation of this ship.
The restoration programme was laid out in three stages. The first was to make a thorough survey of the entire hull and machinery; the second was to combine making good all damage and decay revealed by the survey with preservation of the fabric against further deterioration; and the third was to restore the ship to her original (1890) configuration.
The survey revealed some acute corrosion of steel components in parts of the ship particularly vulnerable due to perpetual exposure to the elements, but elsewhere, to our relief and to the everlasting credit of the builders and to (especially) the steel makers of a century ago, comparatively little replacement of steel was required. This was a remarkable find given that the average working life of the modern, steel cargo vessel is less than two decades, whereas ROBIN had been worked for the best part of 84 years in the hard trade of steel, coal, ore and scrap metal carrying.
Throughout their working lives all ships are subject to structural alterations and replacement of component parts. Robin was no exception and under three Spanish owners her outline underwent many changes especially during the major refit in 1966. For the preserver of ordinary working vessels requiring to know the details, the sad fact is that records, plans, drawings and textual accounts get mislaid, lost or destroyed. Consequently research is difficult.
In 1974, Orchard House Yard had long since disappeared and the early British owners of ROBIN had, likewise, gone their ways without trace leaving no records. Earliest attempts to uncover any drawing, painting or photograph, of ROBIN or her sister ship Rook failed. However, Dr. Charles Waine, an authority on the British steam coaster and author of a definitive work on the subject, was the source of much valuable data and of the drawing on which much of the restoration work was based. Miraculously too the National Maritime Museum were able to produce a copy of the detailed report of the Lloyds surveyor under whose supervision the vessels were built (ROOK & ROBIN). This document furnished enough statistical data to build an identical steam coaster. Moreover it provided the answers to a great number of questions which would otherwise have remained in doubt to the detriment of authenticity in the restored ROBIN. It told us, for instance, that she was schooner rigged and had been provided with sails for all masts; that her anchors were of the stocked variety with an anchor davit to cathead them; that there was an after ballast (trimming) tank as well as a large one forward. It even revealed the names of the makers of the steel and iron components as well as the dimensions of each of them. Unfortunately, the corresponding survey for Robin’s machinery was not available but that for ROOK was and, as they were identical twins, it served our purpose too. Nevertheless, to put flesh on these bare bones, I still required a picture to show how she looked in 1890.
An appeal for pictures printed in the nautical magazine “Sea Breezes” eventually brought success. A certain Mr. Anderson living in Ulster wrote to advise the author that there was, in the collection of the National Library at Dublin, a photograph of ships in Coleraine harbour, circa 1895, among which was a steamer bearing the name, he thought, ROBIN. He was right and enlargements made from that photograph illustrated the disposition and the shapes of various features, such as the bridge furniture, ladders, ventilators and the manholes in the whale-back aft, in a way that the Lloyds building report could not. Taken together, this one photograph and the survey report ensured if not a perfect reproduction of the S.S. ROBIN of the 1890s then, at the worst, a fairly faithful one.
Where practicable, traditional materials and methods have been used. The plates of the replacement funnel were, for instance, riveted not welded. Three new masts were needed. There was no mizzen mast and the other two had been shortened. Two suitable pine trees were bought, towed down the Thames, up the Medway, hauled up the slipway at Dousts and into the shipwrights shop where Mr. Wilfred Carter, Dousts’ carpenter and shipwright, using his adze, in the time honoured and ancient manner, made two tall masts for the main and mizzen. Cannibalising the old fore and main masts, which he jointed with a married with a splendid scarph, he fashioned a new foremast.
The Spanish wheelhouse was demolished and a new, open bridge was made. The steam cargo winches and anchor windlass, all original, were lifted off and taken by lorry to Gateshead where the world famous firm, Clarke Chapman had built them in 1889, were to restore them as an exercise for their apprentices at no cost to the Maritime Trust. A valuable and generous contribution.
Removal of the cargo winch bed-plates revealed severe wasteage of the steel deck plates which had to be removed and renewed. There was similar wasteage of steel components at the after end of the for’ard well deck, a spot particularly vulnerable to seas and sprays breaking aboard, in this type of vessel. The lifeboats fell apart when they were lifted out of their cradles. Their replacements, which to look authentic had to be clinker built as well as of the correct dimensions, came from one of the old Isle of Wight ferries, and were a gift from the new owner who had been a refugee from Uganda of Indian origins. He had bought the ferry for conversion to a night club!
Extensive alterations were made to the fo’c’s’le head and to other parts of the upper deck to conform to the original building plans. One item which presented a special problem was the stepping of the new mizzen mast. The original mast step had disappeared with the removal, at some point in her history, of the after ballast tank. The problem was how to get the heel and lower part of the mast down through the engineers’ accommodation without blocking the ladder leading down from the messroom.
These are but a few examples from the restoration programme but space does not permit a comprehensive account. Suffice it to add that the forecastle, bridge house and poop spaces were gutted (much worm eaten timber for burning), to get at the main steel fabric which was scaled and treated for preservation. The accommodation was renewed to conform to the original pattern. Likewise the hold spaces were cleared of all rotten timber ceilings and decking in order to get at the steel, which was then scaled, first by high pressure water jets and then by hand. Every plate, beam, stringer, knee and stanchion. was inspected, scaled and treated with anti-corrosion paint with repairs and/or replacements made as required.
The engine room and stokehold presented particular problems, not only because of age, but on account of the rapid rate of deterioration which inevitably follows in spaces where there has been steam and water, when they are allowed to go cold, and when there is no longer the hourly and daily maintenance routine that obtains in a working engine room.
It being the Trust’s intention at that time to keep ROBIN “in steam”, the restoration of the venerable and original triple expansion, reciprocating engine, together with the (original) boiler, the ancillary machinery and the spaces occupied by them, was put in hand (but not until 1979 when the completion of the entire restoration programme could be anticipated). Having been idle (though turned at regular intervals) for the best part of five years, the machinery was in need of a comprehensive overhaul. The boiler was tackled first since failure there would inevitably obviate the need to restore the main engine. Happily, after it had been cleaned and all defective tubes replaced, it passed firstly the water pressure tests and, later, when some difficulties with the Spanish patent oil fuel injection system had been overcome and the furnaces prepared, withstood a steam pressure test of 120lbs per sq inch, at which, in the expert judgement of Doust’s managing director, Mr. Dudley Moakes, ROBIN would steam at, say, six knots. Thus tested the boiler was re-clad with new (non-asbestos) insulation and kept warmed through to facilitate further steam raisings to test main and ancillary machinery as required.
The comprehensive overhaul of the main engine revealed the necessity for a good deal of repair work which included the “stitching” of a fracture in the port forward support column of the main engine casing; the dismantling and rebuilding of the main circulating pump and plugging a hole in condenser casing. All valves were overhauled, repaired or replaced as necessary and packings in steam joints etc. renewed.
On the afternoon of the 7th February, 1980 all was set for a trial “alongside” run of the main engine. High water at the berth was 1700 hours. Just before 1600 hours, the engine having been warmed through and the pressure gauge showing 90 Lbs per sq inch, the main steam valve was opened “a crack” and the pistons revolved with ease. An almost horizontal jet of water through the overside discharge indicated the successful repair to the condenser circulating pump. The steam whistle functioned, and the replacement deck steam line carried power to the steam windlass on the foc’s’le head and the after mooring capstan. There was much jubilation in Messrs. Dousts’ shipyard. After nearly five years work and in her ninetieth year, the S.S. ROBIN, looking very much as she did in 1890, was alive and in business again.
This time however in business as a museum ship with a few refinements unheard of in 1890, installed now for the comfort of the viewing public and, admittedly, to help preserve the fabric. The ship was wired for electricity supplied either by shore mains or by the new diesel generator installed in the boiler room. Also, oil-fired central heating was installed throughout to lessen, in conjunction with improved ventilation, the humidity ever present in spaces at the waterline. To the same end, the steel in the spacious cargo hold which was to become the main exhibition “hall” was coated with vermiculite and a wooden sheath deck laid on the permanent steel deck which is the “roof” of the hold. The bottom of the hold which in its cargo carrying state is hazardous to the feet of all but the stevedore gangs has been smoothly decked over with beautifully seasoned pine joists and decking salvaged from the demolition of an early Victorian …………