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Historic canal boat funeral for 'inspirational' waterways volunteer, Diana Skilbeck MBE

Inspirational waterways volunteer Diana Skilbeck MBE (80) was given a highly appropriate send-off today at the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port, when her coffin was transported on a historic working boat, Gifford, which she had once helped to save and restore.

A woman in early 20th century costume sitting on a boat with a dog

In recognition of her 50-year contribution, HM King Charles sent a letter of condolence from Buckingham Palace to say he was sorry to hear of the death of Diana Skilbeck MBE and offered his sincere sympathy and very best wishes to the National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port. He described her role as an early volunteer at the Boat Museum as “inspirational”.

Memorial service at Ellesmere Port

After a memorial service at her local Holy Cross Church at Woodchurch on the Wirral, the coffin was taken from the hearse and transported by boat along the Shropshire Union Canal for a short distance before cremation at Blacon Crematorium, near Chester.

Old narrowboat callled Gilford leading a funeral procession

We will be hosting a special memorial service celebrating her life on Saturday 8 April, 9am, as part of the Easter Boat Gathering Festival over the bank holiday weekend.

Diana Skilbeck, known as Di, has been volunteering at the museum site since the 1970s and is one of the hard-working band of enthusiasts who rescued the derelict port and transformed it into a national home for the UK's historic boat and waterways collection.

A passionate waterways supporter

Richard Parry, our chief executive, said: “Di Skilbeck MBE has been a passionate waterways supporter for half a century and she has given so much to them in that time; her record of achievements is remarkable. Her passion for local history and the canal network placed her at the centre of the ambitious work to restore the derelict Ellesmere Port and as a founder of the museum society. Since then, she has served tirelessly as a volunteer in a range of leadership roles that have made such a vital impact on the Waterways Museum, its historic boats and the wider collection of artefacts.

“As a retired schoolteacher and headmistress, Di had a natural gift for sharing her knowledge and enthusiasm with adults and children alike. Always a source of generosity and good humour, she will be greatly missed by all who knew her. Everyone who today shares Di's passion for our working canal network owes her a debt of gratitude - a great lady and a giant of the waterways.”

A lady in early 20th century costume standing on a boat

The Life of Diana

Diana Skilbeck was born in Heswall, on the Wirral, in November 1942. Her father was a local police sergeant, who died when she was 13, and her mother Elsie is recorded on her birth certificate as a shipwright. She was a pupil at Wirral Grammar School for Girls, before training as a teacher in London.

She then returned to Wirral to teach geography and history, later becoming deputy head at West Kirkby Grammar School, head mistress of Sheffield High School and finally head mistress at The Queen's School in Chester between 1989 and 2001.

Di became involved in the Boat Museum, now the National Waterways Museum, in 1974, when she and her students joined the first working party to restore the site and then became regular Sunday helpers.

She once recalled: “I was horrified by the dilapidated state of the once thriving Ellesmere Port site. Desperate to do something, I offered to help with the restoration work and enlisted my students in the massive and muddy project. We pulled so much from the mud in the upper basin – a scooter, car doors, tyres, cans of oil – the site had become a dumping ground.”

In 1981, she took on the role of working party organiser and in 1985 chair and 1995 president of the Boat Museum Society, which established the museum in the 1970s. She personally led the major restoration of two historic boats – the tar boat Gifford and Box boat 337. And in recent years had continued as an enthusiastic volunteer at the museum, regularly dressing up in traditional costume and giving tours to visitors.

In 2012 she was awarded an MBE for Services to Heritage, in 2015 the University of Chester presented her with an Honorary Master of Art degree for her outstanding contribution to heritage and education and in 2016 she won a Canal & River Trust Outstanding Achievement Award.

Last Edited: 04 April 2023

photo of a location on the canals
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