The Origins and History of the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port.
It is difficult to separate the history and development of the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port with that of the Boat Museum Society, the organisation which founded the museum and continues to support it.
Proposals for a museum focused on traditional canal boats
The idea for a small mainly volunteer run museum based on the conservation and use of a representative collection of canal and river craft was first suggested by the late Edward Paget Tomlinson who at the time was the keeper of Shipping at The Liverpool Museum. The idea was enthusiastically supported by Peter Froud who operated a waterborn cargo carrying business at Preston Brook, along with operating passenger holiday boats; Harry Arnold MBE a waterways enthusiast, professional journalist and photographer and Tony Lewery a well known canal enthusiast and expert on and applying the traditional decoration of canal boats,who lived near and often worked at Peter’s boatyard. Harry knew David Owen CBE the Director of the Manchester Museum and a great canal enthusiast. He had commissioned a number of very detailed models of canal boats, collected canal painted ware, furniture, doors and written a number of books on canals including ones based on travels on his narrow boat. He was invited to join the group.
In September 1970 they met in a pub in the Cheshire village of Daresbury, determined to save and preserve the significant craft of the inland waterways, many of which were rapidly disappearing. A number of craft were identified: Gifford a tar carrying narrow boat, Mossdale one of the few remaining flats which had brought goods across the River Mersey to Ellesmere Port from Liverpool, a Bridgewater Canal tunnel boat, known as a ‘starvationer’ and the ice boat Marbury.
They decided to form a society and to draw up a list of boats which they should try to acquire to be preserved in working order, as well as to find a suitable home for the collection. The society was named and registered as The North Western Museum of Inland Navigation, (NWMIN). The society’s primary objective was “ to establish operate and carry on in such places as the company shall think fit, a museum or museums to provide facilities for exhibitions and displays of all things having a connection with the navigation of the Inland Waterways of England and matters pertaining thereto.”
In the 1980s, the society changed its name to the more appropriate Boat Museum Society (BMS).
In search of a home for the project
The search for a suitable basin and buildings to accommodate the boats and displays soon became the most important decision that had to be made. Preston Brook, Runcorn and Anderton were considered, but for a variety of reasons were found to be unsuitable.
In the spring of 1974 Adrian Jarvis, another curator at Liverpool Museum met Councillor Peter Jones the new leader of the planning department at the newly created Ellesmere Port & Neston Borough Council (EP&NBC). After much discussion and reference back to the main council, support was received. The Council in turn sought the permission of the Manchester Ship Canal Company who owned most of the docks at Ellesmere Port, and British Waterways who owned the Toll House and the Locks down to the Lower basin and Ship Canal. In August it was agreed that NWMIN could use the part of the site which included the Island Warehouse, Upper Pumphouse, Toll House, Pattern Shop and the Upper Basin to moor their boats and establish a museum.
It took until November before members were officially allowed on site with the first working party taking place over the weekend of the 12/13th December 1974.
Meanwhile, boats and other artefacts were being collected and cared for.
Work finally starts at Ellesmere Port
The first job was to secure the Toll House, Island Warehouse and Pump House, which had been neglected and vandalised over the previous 15 or so years.
Tony Hirst was made working party organiser and from the beginning of 1975 he and many others arrived for at least one day each weekend to clear the rubbish and secure the site from vandals. Three signs painted by Tony Lewery proclaiming that this was the proposed site of ‘The Inland Waterway and Industrial Museum’ were fixed to the Island Warehouse, Toll House & Pattern Shop.
This work took place until the spring when some members went to Preston Brook to help demolish a warehouse that had been given to the museum by Alf Hayman, the manager of the Bridgewater Canal. The slates were a major boost to re roofing the Toll House roof and the timber for general use. There were a series of iron pillars that supported the roof which we intended to come to the museum but the day after we freed them from their bases virtually all of them were stolen. The slates and timber were transported to Ellesmere Port in Gifford, the first delivery for many years.
A Decision was made to restore the Toll House as the first stage of the Museum
In the summer of 1975 it was decided to start the restoration of the Toll House for opening in the spring 1976. Fortunately there was an architect in the membership, Bob Keaveney who undertook a survey of the Toll House to asses what work would have to be undertaken to bring it back to a usable condition and was persuaded to lead the team restoring the building. Most of the ground floor brickwork was stable but that forming the upper floor was unstable as was the floor. All the wood in the building was beyond redemption as there was considerable damp rot and fungus. A contact who ran a damp proofing company gave a very competitive quotation for the work and came from Harrogate to undertake it.
The building also needed to conform with current building regulations and the clay which was behind the partition in the cellar needed to be dug out and replaced by bricks. This was done over several weekends, using bricks which had been part of the Telford Warehouse in the lower basin that had been destroyed by fire in 1970.
The roof was renewed using the Preston Brook slates and the ground floor of the building was used to house two excellent exhibitions created by Tony Lewery and Andy Millward.
The first stage of the Museum opened as The Boat Museum on 12th June 1976.
The Merseyside IWA organised a rally of boats; other boaters turned up. Mossdale was brought along the Manchester Ship Canal from the River Weaver and the Yorkshire West Country barge Ethel was brought from Wigan. Coal barges Scorpio & George would not have obtained a certificate of seaworthiness so they were brought from Liverpool by lorry on the opening day and lowered into the water near the museum entrance and were a great attraction. The first stage of the Boat Museum was officially opened by Sonia Rolt, widow of the IWA pioneer L.T.C. Rolt.
The whole event was a great success. There was no room in the Toll House for a shop, but fortunately the summer was one of the driest on record, so books and other items were on sale in the open; everyone there remembers the plague of biting ladybirds. The Toll House was open each weekend during the summer, staffed by NWMIN volunteers.
The museum and Toll House exhibition closed at the end of September for the winter and the displays were removed. A regular group of volunteers re-floated boats which had sunk during the week, helped by the local fire brigade.
Work commenced again on the building to fit a new first floor. This created a large storage area for the increasing number of items donated to the museum. Eric Garner was in charge of this project; the principle part was to fix steel bars to the walls to support the wooden floor. All was complete before Easter 1977 when the museum re-opened for the summer and the first of the annual Easter gatherings of ex-working boats from many parts of the canal network came to the museum.
A Dry dock and the first Pump House engine in steam
As soon as the first stage of the Toll House restoration was complete, attention switched to bringing the Pump House to life and developing a dry dock to repair the boats. Friends at British Waterways agreed that we could build supports to rest the boats on in the pound between the two wide locks. This was completed at the beginning of September 1977. Boats then began to be docked, the leaks in their hulls sealed and the hulls painted with bitumen. This was the first time dry access to the hulls of the wooden boats had been possible. This dry dock is still in regular use.
Adrian Jarvis gathered a team to work on the Pump House, which had suffered from vandalism and theft. The objective was to get at least one engine in steam generated by an external boiler fed on scrap wood. Bill Robinson, who had recently retired as a lorry driver at Vauxhalls, took on this project with practical help from apprentices at Vauxhalls to replace missing parts. The engine was in steam just in time for the visit of HM the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in November 1977.
Protection for the site
In the summer of 1977 the local authority listed as Grade 2 all the buildings on the site and declared the whole complex a conservation area, so protecting the existing buildings and ensuring that any new ones would be compatible with the originals. At the end of 1977 EP&NBC received a grant of £124,000 from central government to undertake work on the Island Warehouse, replacing the first floor, repairing the roof and preparing it to house a major exhibition.
The society’s initial objective of creating a Museum had been accomplished, but its support was needed more than ever.
Full time professional staff at last
In February 1981 the museum became managed by The Boat Museum Trust, which included representatives from Cheshire County Council, EP&NBC, NWMIN as well as independent members. Tony Hirst was appointed as Museum Director and other full time staff were recruited. Activities during the following months activities contributed more than any other to the development of the museum.
The Liverpool riots and the major developments at the museum
The Government responded to riots in Toxteth, Liverpool in the summer of 1981 by creating the Merseyside Task Force and Michael Heseltine became “Minister for Merseyside”. This was an enormous benefit to the Museum and large sums of money were committed to the buildings and docks, which to enabled the museum to widen its activities. Fortunately at the time for the museum, a number of boat builders and repairers were made redundant by the local boatyards which the museum were able to recruit.
Major work was carried out on the boats and an exhibition installed on the first floor of the Island Warehouse. This opened at Easter 1982, followed by an “official” opening by the Duke of Gloucester in the summer. The museum’s archives were for the first time brought to the museum and housed in a dedicated secure room on the ground floor.
In 1983, The museum won ‘The Best Industrial Museum’ and ‘Museum of Europe’ awards. Visitor numbers built up steadily, particularly in the early years to a peak of 100,000, but like many other museums, they dropped towards 60,000 by the end of the millennium.
The Tom Rolt conference centre was created in the top floor of the former workshop building next to the slipway and in 1987 the ground floor was fitted out as the new home for the museums growing archive, with ample storage, a reading room, exhibition and education room. Much of the funding for this was raised as a tribute to David Owen who had died suddenly a few days before the cottages in Porters Row were opened. It was named after him as the ‘David Owen Archive and Resource Centre’. The British Waterways Archive collection was moved from the unsuitable conditions in the top floor of the Llanthony Warehouse at Gloucester to Ellesmere Port at the end of 2011, to form The Waterways Archive. Considerable alterations to expand the accommodation were needed and carried out.
The ownership of the majority of the items that had been collected by NWMIN – now known as the Boat Museum Society – was transferred to the Boat Museum Trust. Two boats, Gifford and the tunnel tug Worcester remained the property of the Society, with the intention of transferring them to the museum when the time was considered right.
The research publication, Waterways Journal was established under the editorship of long standing volunteer Tony Burnip in 1999 and continues to use the resources of the Waterways Archive. Volume 20 will be published in 2018.
In the latter half of the 1990s, the National Waterways Museum at Gloucester (run by British Waterways) and the management of the Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port became concerned that there was not sufficient income to sustain them as separate organisations. Considerable research was undertaken and initiatives were discussed with the Museums and Galleries Commission, which supported an initiative which proposed a merger of these museums and the one at Stoke Bruerne . After much debating an agreement was reached with British Waterways for the three museums businesses to be passed over to BW to operate and help fund the museums. There were conditions re the ownership and responsibility for the collections which were to ensure their security for the future. The museums were to be managed by The Waterways Trust, a subsidiary of British Waterways. The Boat Museum became the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port.
However, lack of sufficient funding meant a reduction in investment and a significant reduction in staff, particularly on the curatorial side. The subsequent deterioration in the condition of many of the wooden boats was marked and caused much distress.
In 2012 the Canal and River Trust, a charity formed to take over the functions of British Waterways, took over the management of the National Waterways Museum, with the main site at Ellesmere Port.
Now that the Boat Museum Trust has been wound up, the ownership of the collection, including Worcester, has passed to the Canal and River Trust.
Considerable funds have been invested in the buildings at Ellesmere Port, which were beginning to suffer from a lack of maintenance over the previous 30 years. The curatorial care of the collection has been greatly enhanced. The slipway was opened up as the culmination of the Window on the World Heritage Lottery funded project.
Looking to the Future
Under Graham Boxer, who is now Head of Museums for CRT, the Museum has changed, with a more professional approach to conservation and restoration of its significant collections. It strives to increase the number of visitors with changing exhibitions and involvement with national organisations as well as the local community. Researchers with a variety of interests use the increasing collection of documents, plans, records and photographs in the Waterways Archive.
The Boat Museum Society continues to support the work of the Museum in many ways, as it has done over the last 40+ years, through good times and the not-so-good times. Co-operation between staff and volunteers takes place at all levels and all aspects of the Museum’s work and is still essential to the viability of the museum.
We look to the future with increased optimism.
Cath Turpin – July 2017
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