The largest ever movement of historic boats in the UK has launched a major conservation programme at the National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port.
Eleven historic narrow boats and barges, ranging in size from 33ft to 72ft in length, have been lifted from Thomas Telford’s canal basin using a massive crane ready for storage and conservation.
The boats date from the late 1800s to the 1950s with the majority being on the National Historic Ships Register making the lift the UK’s largest ever movement of historic vessels.
The boats, said to be old and fragile, have reached the end of their lives as operational and outdoor exhibits and their re-floating and move to a dry store starts a major conservation programme by the Canal and River Trust, the charity that runs the museum.
Graham Boxer, head of museums for the trust, joined conservation and technical colleagues and specialist teams of experts, volunteers and museum staff as they skilfully manoeuvred the vessels from water to dry land.
The boats date back to the days of freight carrying on the nation’s waterways and include former horse drawn barges, narrowboats and an icebreaker.
They have reached the South Pier Road museum, formerly run by the Boat Museum Trust, over the decades since it opened in 1976.
Since the 1980s lack of money available for conservation and suitable storage space has meant that the gradually deteriorating vessels have had to remain in the water.
However, thanks to an Arts Council England grant of over £300,000, the Canal and River Trust is now able to give each boat the attention it deserves.
Safely on dry land and in newly developed storage, the conservation team will be able to fully assess each vessel.
Experts will consider several options depending on the condition and historical significance of each boat including whole or partial conservation or, where this is not possible, deconstruction.
Boats will also have a 3D image created so that even if the actual vessel has been deconstructed an accurate record is captured for future study.
Mr Boxer explained: “I am relieved that we are finally able to start moving these boats. In the 1980s it was felt that the most appropriate way to conserve them was to keep them in the water which is why some were sunk intentionally while others have just leaked water over the years.
“Now we know that the best way to conserve them is to remove them from the water. There’s no denying they are deteriorating and unfortunately they will not all be in a condition to be conserved.
“Our priority is to get them into the stable environment of our new dry store. Each one will be treated according to its construction and materials. Some are built from wood, others steel and even concrete, so there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach.”
He continued: “Every one of these vessels has its own story to tell. It’s our aim to ensure that these stories are told in the best and most appropriate way so that we can preserve this important history of the waterways.
“By using the latest conservation thinking and techniques we are future proofing our historic collection.
“It’s also our mission to bring this unique collection to a wider audience and we are already using 21st century technology, including augmented reality, to make our waterways history relevant and exciting to generations of future visitors. I’m delighted to see work beginning on this project.”