SOS: The mission to save Merseyside’s lost maritime heritage
'The first rule of conserving a historic ship is: just don’t'
By Abi Whistance
“If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.” — Thomas Aquinas
Perhaps Aquinas has some local admirers. How else to explain that in Liverpool, ship preservation seems to be at the bottom of the agenda? As daytrippers and lifers alike often remark, for a historic maritime city we have few vessels on display. De Wadden, a three-masted auxiliary schooner (built in 1917 by Gebr Van Diepen of Waterhuize, Netherlands, no less) is set to be scrapped. Laura Pye and Janet Dugdale of National Museums Liverpool wrote a blog acknowledging that the disposal was an “emotive subject”. But nonetheless, the vessel, which was the last sailing cargo ship to use Liverpool for trading, was dead in the water.
Meanwhile, the iconic Planet Lightship (once the pride of Canning Dock) was seized in 2017 amid a bitter row over unpaid fees. It now rots in a dock in Gloucestershire. Dundee and Hartlepool have sailing ships at the heart of their historic waterfronts, while Hull has undertaken a large-scale £12 million development of their maritime museum and are restoring historic ships at some expense. Which begs the question, why can’t we?
And that’s before we even get to submarines. Moored on the West Float of Birkenhead’s docks some 20 years ago was HMS Onyx, a Falklands War sub. It had been put on display by the Warship Preservation Trust; a charity which once hosted Europe’s largest collection of warships. Think: the German U-boat U-534, D-Day landing craft LCT-7074 and ship HMS Plymouth. For a time, visitors could step inside and play pretend; clicking buttons and watching control boards flash. It was any child’s dream. Now, little remains of the vessels once proudly displayed there — the trust collapsed in 2006 and the boats were abandoned.
When you start thinking about boats and submarines in Liverpool, you can’t stop. It’s all too easy to get a little bit obsessive, a bit cramped and superstitious on the topic. The more I dig into it, the more I wonder: why do Liverpool’s historic sea vessels seem so cursed?
But let’s rewind. It’s a rainy Thursday morning and I’m at the West Float in Birkenhead, where I’ve arranged to meet Owen Humphreys. Back in the late eighties, he was a volunteer at the Warship Preservation Trust and he’s agreed to talk to me today about why it seems so impossible for Liverpool to maintain and display its marine history.
Owen is a small man with an authoritative presence, and plenty of stories to tell. A former Royal Navy man himself, he worked as a marine electrician onboard submarines from 1968 before retiring to greener pastures — Warrington — in 1975. He remembers the ships and submarines in Birkenhead fondly, and spent many a day watching people pile inside HMS Onyx to marvel at its mechanics.
He tells me that while the ships and submarines hadn’t been in use for some time, most of the radars and periscopes built into them still worked. People could climb in through a hatch built at the front of the submarine and walk through to the control room. Inside, cramped bunk beds and ladders gave visitors a feel for the claustrophobic life conducted at sea.
I ask him if he remembers the moment the Warship Preservation Trust folded in 2006. He says that while he wasn’t working there at the time, the collapse of the charity was “totally sad”. “There’s a lot of history being scrapped there,” he adds. “That’s what really riles me.”
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of why the trust folded and abandoned its ships in the first place. I’ve toothcombed LinkedIn in search of ex-board members and looked through financial records. But it’s been surprisingly difficult to find out exactly what led to its demise, and who became responsible for the ships and submarines left behind. Locals, visitors and marine enthusiasts all offered me tidbits of (mis)information, but nothing concrete. Like the confusion over Peel Port’s involvement. Or, more baffling still, speculation as to why the only warship which remains is German: as the theory goes, anti-patriotic heritage campaigners would rather see a Nazi vessel salvaged than a British one.
In search of answers, I reach out to Peel Ports — after all, they own the waters where the ships and submarines were placed all those years ago. Peel Ports’ harbour master Gary Doyle explains to me that the trust went bust after a period of financial trouble, and as a result, left behind all its ships and submarines. As a harbour authority, Peel Ports were forced to take responsibility for the vessels, but struggled to find a suitable home for them. “The trouble is, we needed to see viable plans for the future of the vessels,” he tells me. “Otherwise we’d be left holding the baby.”
He says that while several proposals were made to find a purpose for the ships and submarines, very few worked out. At first, the future seemed bright for our submarine HMS Onyx; it was bought for £100,000 by Barrow-in-Furness businessman Joe Mullen, and would be placed in a new heritage museum in Cumbria. Unfortunately, the museum went into debt, leaving the Onyx to be towed and scrapped as a financial asset in 2014.
HMS Plymouth met with a similar fate. Initially, Plymouth Council expressed interest in the ship — they were keen to bring the vessel home and put it on display. Yet when no berth could be found for it, the Plymouth was instead piled on a scrapheap at the infamous Aliaga ship breaking yard in Turkey — where unloved vessels go to die.
And what of the jewel in Birkenhead’s collection, the World War II U-boat U-534? This vessel — which was one of only four preserved German submarines in the world — became the property of Merseytravel, who sawed the sub into four pieces. What motive for this dismemberment? The size of the vessel meant it would have been too costly to move it as a whole. The plan was to relocate the sub, piece by piece, and create a new exhibition — titled the U-Boat Story — on the Wirral. It was a success for a while, but when Covid-19 struck, the cost of maintaining the boat became much greater, pushing Merseytravel to look elsewhere for restoration works and close the exhibition.
But perhaps this is just business as usual. After all, I’m not exactly a boat expert, and for all I know, this might be the exact same approach other cities take when it comes to their historic relics. But Gary the harbour master sets me straight, telling me that there are several other charities and organisations across the UK that have managed to preserve their wartime vessels.
Take Hull, for example. A £30.3 million project (funded by Hull City Council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund) saw a Grade II-listed maritime museum gifted with an impressive renovation, complete with the repair of two historic vessels: the Arctic Corsair and Spurn Lightship. Head further south and you’ll find the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth. Set up in 2009, the museum found success in its vast collection of ships and submarines, with a team of experts working around the clock to maintain and restore each vessel. So what made this task so difficult in Birkenhead?
“The first rule of conserving a historic ship is: just don’t,” Andrew Baines tells me — not exactly the answer I’ve been expecting, given that he’s the head of historic ships at the National Museum of the Royal Navy. He explains that unlike buildings, ships and submarines are not built to last forever, so preserving them is extremely difficult.
“If you look at HMS Victory, the most famous ship in our collection for example, it’s built of timber and would’ve been expected to last about nine years before it effectively would’ve needed to be rebuilt.” He tells me that when it comes to something like a non-nuclear powered submarine — something like HMS Onyx, say — you’d be looking at around 20 to 25 years before they’re going to scrap.
He adds that the process of extending the life of wartime vessels is extremely expensive, with the costs increasing tenfold if that ship or sub is left in the water. “That’s the fundamental problem,” he says. “If you’re going to try and push the lifespan beyond that, in many ways you’re trying to defy the laws of physics. You’ve got to try and generate enough income to care for them.”
I ask Andrew why, apart from cost, the Warship Preservation Trust would have struggled to stay afloat. “You need exhibits that are going to appeal to everyone,” he says. He explains that while HMS Onyx may have been the only non-nuclear submarine that served in the Falklands war, that tagline feels a tad too esoteric to draw in the masses. “The vessels need a really compelling story that resonates with the public. These days you’re competing in the same market for a day out at the cinemas, or at theme parks. Is going to see that ship in Birkenhead more interesting than a day at Knowsley Safari Park?”
At this point, I’m a bit down in the mouth. Despite headlines about the Titanic submersible tragedy dominating the summer, over the course of reporting this, I’ve come to love submarines. Their very existence strikes me as being absurd: heavy contraptions that refuse to sink, suspended in water while crews of people scuttle around inside. It’s hard to imagine yourself in one; hard to imagine the sonar rays and cartoonish periscopes peeking out from beneath the waves. It seems sort of wonderful to me that they exist, and sad that we’re losing historic examples of them.
But thankfully, it’s not an entirely downwards trajectory for the ships and submarines once displayed on the Wirral. Remember our German vessel U-534? Merseytravel gave Liverpool preservation group Big Heritage control of it in 2021, and they promised to transform it into the centrepiece of the latest multimillion pound attraction in Merseyside: the Battle of the Atlantic Centre. Under a scheme titled How to Fix a U-Boat, Big Heritage is restoring the vessel to its former glory, documenting the process on social media. Submarine enthusiasts unite — I’ll see you at the drop-in curator sessions.
“Obviously we want it to have visitors, so we’ve spent tens of thousands on asbestos removal,” Dean Paton, the founder of Big Heritage, tells me. He explains that now that is complete, he’s in talks with several local shipbuilding companies and painters to get to work restoring the boat. “One of the funniest jobs we’ve had so far is over Covid, plants and stuff started growing on top of [the boat] and one of our engineers had to climb up and trim them,” he laughs, adding that the engineer has now put “professional boat mower” on his LinkedIn page. “He might be the only man in the world who’s experienced mowing a U-boat!”
He tells me that one of the joys of restoring U-534 has been the discoveries of other historical items left inside. “There were a lot of artefacts and papers that were never properly analysed,” he says. “So now we’ve got a lot of German experts coming over and unearthing some incredible hidden gems.” Gems like half-written postcards with Hitler stamps and badges from old Nazi uniforms were rare and impressive finds. Maybe less so the packet of condoms and half used tube of toothpaste also discovered inside.
Dean explains that they are just three weeks away from putting in the final planning application for the entire project, with hopes to fully open both the U-boat exhibition and Battle of the Atlantic museum by 2025. “We’ve got a bit of a winning formula when it comes to heritage projects,” he says. “We’re a fairly small company and we do punch above our weight, but we’ve always managed to take sites and make them into something really special.”
But how does Owen, the former volunteer at the Warship Preservation Trust, feel about the prospect of the U-Boat’s triumphant return? He tells me he’s glad at least a part of the old exhibition will remain, but it’ll never live up to the full spectacle he so fondly remembers. “It’s really sad what’s happened,” he sighs. “But you just can’t save everything.”
Being the saviour of a whole fleet of ships and subs is not easy. Andrew of the National Museum of the Royal Navy explains the costs of these preservation projects often don’t add up. Most of these ships weren’t scrapped due to a chronic and pervasive submechanophobia (look it up). There isn’t — if you’ll forgive me — something in the water.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t sad. Because when you look across at Hull, or up at Hartlepool and Dundee, you see that with the right level of care it can be done, and historic vessels can be made the pride and joy of their harbours. After all, we are a maritime city. Perhaps it’s a good thing Thomas Aquinas was never employed as a Liverpool City Council heritage officer. Ships might undergo more wear and tear than a gorgeous historic building — the Taj Mahal they ain’t — but does their utility and transience mean we shouldn’t preserve them with the same respect we’d accord any other part of the past? Ships are part of Liverpool’s story. It would be a shame if we lost them entirely.