Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Waterways Museum Society who established its Ellesmere Port home. From the very beginning, it was a venture driven by the passion, drive and determination of volunteers. Many of them dedicated a whole life’s work to restoring and securing the heritage of our canals. Today we pay tribute to all they’ve done to save it for us all to enjoy today.
29 September 1970: Rescuing our boating heritage
Way back in 1970, four canal enthusiasts led by Dr David Owen, Director of the Manchester Museum, met to hatch a plan. They could see that many of the working boats carrying so much of our history on their rapidly rotting bows were in danger of being lost forever. So the North Western Museum of Inland Navigation was set up by the group, who decided to do all they could to conserve and restore these boats and establish a museum which could tell their story.
Ellesmere Port was eventually chosen as its home, thanks to its combination of a strong canal heritage, a willing partner in the local council and a site ripe for redevelopment. By 1974, the volunteers were in.
“We ended 1974 with a growing society, active working parties, a few important boats, money coming in and a suitable home which, despite all its problems, had enormous potential. With goodwill all round, we were there to stay. The National Waterways Museum was on its way.”
Dr David Owen
Di Skilbeck still volunteers at Ellesmere Port today. In the 1970s she was a teacher and never afraid to get her hands dirty or enlist girls from Wirral Grammar School to help.
“My early memories are of venturing out on the mud and digging it out. At lunchtime we lit a fire and heated up soup for the girls' lunch. We hauled some amazing things out of the water including tyres, a safe and a scooter. Parents were very understanding. They had been warned that the girls' clothes might be beyond washing!”
11 June 1976: Opening day
Crowds attended the opening of the first stage of the Boat Museum in the partially restored Toll House. Scorpio arrived by road and was craned in, but Gifford and Mossdale were among many more boats that had already been towed in.
A year later, the first Easter gathering of ex-working boats took place, a tradition that has continued almost every year since.
Di also remembers the visit of Her Majesty the Queen in 1979. Di and the girls were aboard Gifford, “but the little ones were terrified in case the Queen spoke to them!”
Right from the outset the museum was much more than a collection of boats. The volunteers were also determined to make sure the collection included every artefact of the canals' history. Another stalwart of the society, Jan Burnip explains:
“My husband Tony, Tony Hirst and Keith Robinson had become known as the three musketeers. Being totally committed, they started travelling around the canal depots, asking for any contributions to what was to become the well-respected National Waterways Archive. The archives have given enormous gravitas to the museum. There was so much talent, knowledge and expertise in those founding members. Nothing defeated them. It was hard work. Teamwork. Fun. I'll remember the great humour of those friends for ever.”
1981: The Boat Museum Trust
As we entered the eighties, the Boat Museum Trust was set up to run the museum and what began as a voluntary venture, started to consolidate as a going concern with full-time staff working alongside the volunteers.
Following the Toxteth riots of 1981, Michael Heseltine MP visited the area and, in conjunction with the local authority, the Boat Museum Trust were able to show him plans for the future of the museum and the wider area. This impressed him so much that a £2m investment in regeneration was made. This helped complete the restoration and fitting out of the Island Warehouse as the major exhibition area of the museum.
In the mid-1990s North Western Museum of Inland Navigation was renamed the Boat Museum Society and its collection of boats and artefacts were transferred to the Boat Museum Trust. However, as Ken Catford remembers it, money, or the lack of it, was a major issue throughout the 80s and 90s.
“There was little opportunity to improve the museum's facilities, to restore the boats or to attract new visitors. By the late 1990s, the financial situation was dire. Then suddenly, the cavalry appeared over the hill in the form of The Waterways Trust. The Waterways Trust saved the museum.”
2012: A new partnership with the Canal & River Trust
In 2012, the government created the Canal & River Trust, which absorbed the Waterways Trust. The Canal & River Trust took over the management of the museum. Since then, we've worked hard to earn the trust and respect of the original volunteers and those who followed in their footsteps.
After the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the opening of the museum held in 2016, the Boat Museum Trust decided to close down and entrust the ownership of its collection of boats and precious artefacts to the Canal & River Trust in perpetuity. Barbara Kay, current chair of the Waterways Museum Society remarks: “The Canal & River Trust has been very supportive and professional, investing a lot of time and money into the museum, securing the legacy of the original volunteers for future generations.”
We're grateful to each and every one of the volunteers for their faith in us as custodians of their life's work. Many continue to volunteer in the museum today. We hope you'll come and meet them yourself, once restrictions ease. But in the meantime, let's give the last eloquent words to the former chairman, Steve Stamp:
“As the museum went from strength to strength, the fruits of our labours materialised before our eyes. Boats floated, chimneys smoked, brass shone, visitors came and history was celebrated.”