For the last four decades Cath and I have dedicated free time at the National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port. As volunteers we're part of a team caring for and researching the history of some of the UK’s historic narrowboats, barges and tugs.
Across the UK thousands of volunteers also give their time to good causes but for Cath, myself and our colleagues, involvement in the museum is much more significant. As part of a team of volunteers, we began the museum in the early 1970s and I'm delighted to say that our collective dedication to conserving a unique piece of industrial heritage culminated in its opening in 1976.
Back in the 1970s both of us were teachers. Cath was teaching chemistry and science. I taught geography and history and was horrified by the dilapidated state of the once thriving Ellesmere Port site.
Desperate to do something I offered to help the restoration work, and enlisted my students in the massive, and muddy, project.
We pulled so much from the docks – a scooter, car doors, tyres, cans of oil – the site had become a dumping ground. Fortunately we didn’t find anything gruesome – surprising given the proximity to the town mortuary. Though we did once find a tombstone!
Cath and her family had moved to the area and were also fascinated by the site...
My husband Mike and I were interested in industrial archaeology and this was a way to get involved in a practical way. I threw myself into everything from building work to fundraising. And it worked – enough money was raised from paper collection to buy the historic narrow boat George. Which has recently been transformed into a floating education and visitor centre.
2016’s anniversary celebrations gave us a chance to take a breath and reflect on the many highs – from the opening in 1976, the VIP visits and the moving of massive vessels such as Mossdale (with collective breath held as she was moved from place to place!). There’s also a sense of personal achievement. After not being remotely interested in boats I’ve enjoyed learning how to handle ex-working boats and to steer a horse-drawn narrow boat. It’s opened up a new world to me and I continue to learn all the time.
Over the years the volunteering tasks have evolved. Though there is still a lot of hands-on work, we also take visitors on guided tours. I also help in the archive and edit the Waterways Journal.
Di is president of the Boat Museum Society and she helps with the schools programme, this involves running workshops for children on Narrow Boat Art and homes from the past. In 2012 she received an MBE for services to heritage and education. And in 2016 she received an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Canal & River Trust as part of the Living Waterways Award.
Why do we continue to volunteer? The answer can be summed up as: friendships, taking pride in being part of something special and seeing Ellesmere Port revitalised and relevant to current and future generations.
Cath and I aren't giving up our volunteering work yet, but we are keen to encourage others to join us. There are so many opportunities: looking after the collections, including the boats, engines and the site, working in the archive, giving guided tours, helping in the café, and so on.
Volunteering can also help with a career. During an interview for medical school one of my former students talked about her involvement with the museum and narrow boats. The interviewer shared her interest and she got the place!
We work together with the Canal & River Trust's full time museum staff and it's a great team. There's always something going on and we're always learning something new.
Cath Turpin and Di Skilbeck, National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port