SS Robin Lerwick

Build and working in the UK 1890-1900

In December 1889 at Orchard House Yard, Bow Creek two identical vessels were being built. In 1890, upon completion, they received the names of Rook and Robin.

“We are of the opinion this vessel should be classified 100A1 Steel”, as stated on the Lloyds’ Survey Certificate by Charles Jordan on 27th November 1890. There was no higher classification than this in the shipbuilding world.

On 16th September 1890 the hull was fitted out in the East India Dock then towed to Dundee where her boiler, main engines and auxiliary machinery were installed, and on 20th December 1890 SS Robin commenced her career in the British coastal service.

On 14th January 1891 the SS Robin sailed from Swansea and for the next decade her trading was mainly between the seaports of the British Isles with side trips to over 140 ports including Plymouth, London and areas of Northern France. She carried a variety of cargoes grain, coal, iron ore or scrap steel, china clay and general cargoes of cased, casked and baled goods, railway lines and even granite blocks for the construction of the Caledonian canal.  

On 7th December 1892 she was sold to Alexander Forrester Blackater of Glasgow where she was re-registered until 13th May 1900.   

Service under the Spanish Ensign

On 17th May 1900 the SS Robin was sold to Blanco Hermanos in Spain - where she was registered in the port of Bilbao - and her name was changed from ROBIN to MARIA. Very little is known about her first thirteen years under the Spanish flag. In 1913 Hermanos sold MARIA to Perez y Cia.  When Perez y Cia celebrated it’s 21st anniversary a scale model of MARIA was made in silver and still occupies a place of honour at the Perez y Cia office in Santander. During her time under the Spanish ensign she continued her trade in the cruel Atlantic seas of North and North West Spain.

During WWI MARIA was engaged for some time carrying iron slabs from the foundry in Santander to Bayonne and Bordeaux for the French Government. Senor Perez described the amusing sight of this small freighter being escorted by two French destroyers to protect her precious freight from the prowling German U boats.

In 1966, her third Spanish owner Senor Eduardo de la Sota Poveda carried out a major refit in which the masts were lowered as was the funnel. Areas were extended to include shower and washing facilities. Down below the coal fired furnaces were modified to burn oil and wing oil tanks were constructed in the coal bunker spaces.

The original main engines and their auxiliaries remained and the ship eventually steamed back to Britain at the age of 84 under the power of her original machinery which is a true testament to her construction - most ships were retired after 2 or 3 decades - and the crews who maintained her.

MARIA discharged her last cargo at Bilbao a few days before the Maritime Trust bought her.

The Maritime Trust was founded by H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh in 1969 not with the object of saving “old ships” but to restore, preserve and display vessels of historic importance in Britain’s maritime heritage.  

The Maritime Trust was to draw up a list of significant British ships concentrating on the era of transition when sail was giving way to steam and oak and elm to iron and steel. High on the list of significant types was the steam coaster, the design which was unique to Britain. At the request of the Maritime Trust, Lloyds’ Register of Ships produced a list of surviving British steam vessels built prior to 1925 and it was this list which led to the discovery on the Spanish coast of MARIA formerly the British steam coaster SS Robin of London.

She was to have been broken up in September 1974. Her reprieve arrived in May and still in Spanish colours she steamed out of Bilbao on 12th June on her repatriation voyage.  On 15th June 1974 for the first time in 75 years her bows were pointed eastward or her destination in the Medway. MARIA soon to be renamed SS Robin was coming home.

Homebound

From 15th to 17th June 1974 wondering if it were a ghost ship, post-war mariners on the bridge binoculars pick up the shape of an 1890 steamer coasting up-channel. Although she wore the Spanish ensign and the name MARIA on bow and stern for them she was unmistakeably a British steam coaster.

She was 84 years old and returning to Britain not on the end of a tow line but proudly under her own steam.

At 1708 hours on a lovely June evening at a steady rhythm of 70 revolutions per minute the old lady covered the distance from Brixham to Dover Strait at an average speed of 7½ knots.

It was a day for nostalgia and no doubt the same question was being asked on the bridges and decks of all who passed her during that three day passage: “Where did they all go, all those steam coasters?” 

On Monday 17th June 1974 she moored at St Katharine Docks.

Restoration on the river Medway

On 24th July she was towed to Doust & Company’s Medway Slipway Yard at Rochester, cradled and hauled up the slipway to be prepared for the survey which was the preliminary step to a restoration programme which was to extend over four years and to cost a quarter of a million pounds.

Where possible traditional materials and methods have been used, the plates of the replacement funnel were riveted not welded. Three new masts were needed and two suitable pine trees were bought and towed to Dousts where Mr Wilfred Carter, Dousts’ carpenter and shipwright in the time honoured and ancient manner made two tall masts for the main and mizzen. 

The Spanish wheelhouse was demolished and a new open bridge was made. The steam cargo winches and anchor all original were lifted off and taken to Gateshead, where the world famous firm Clarke Chapman had built them in 1889 were to restore them as an exercise for their apprentices at no cost to the Maritime Trust.

Removal of the cargo winch bed-plates revealed severe wasteage of the steel deck plates which had to be removed and renewed and there was similar wasteage of steel components. The lifeboats fell apart when they were lifted out of their cradles. Their replacements had to be clinker built and of the correct dimensions, they came from one of the old Isle of Wight ferries and were a gift from the new owner.

West India Quay

In 1991 SS Robin was moored in West India Quay and was allowed to fall into a state of disrepair despite the original plans to save her for restoration.

In 2000 David and Nishani Kampfner were looking for a unique space to be transformed into an area for innovation and learning. They bought SS Robin for £1.

In 2002 SS Robin Trust was created to bring awareness to the general public about the importance of the ship. With the help of many volunteers they began restoration on this coastal steamer.

In 2003 restoration onboard the ship had begun, floors were being replaced and general groundwork was going to plan. Surveyors were brought in for an underwater steel thickness assessment to ensure SS Robin was in shipshape. After a year of hard work SS Robin was almost ready to be opened to the public as a gallery and educational centre for school kids.  

The first pictures in SS Robin Gallery were hung up in May 2004. Between 2004 and 2007 workshops were set up for school children to encourage creative thinking, these workshops were called the Captains of Tomorrow. Run by David Kampfner, professionals were brought in to engage with the children by the use of multimedia such as cameras and laptops with the workshops focused on contemporary photo journalism.

In 2007 the exhibitions and workshops had to be closed down due to the need for further refurbishment.  SS Robin Trust applied for the Heritage Lottery Fund with an appeal of £3 million, £2 million of which was needed to be spent on the restoration of this great vessel. The application was set back. With a lack of funding it looked like SS Robin was headed for the scrap yard after years of hard work and good luck on her behalf.  

Soon another problem would be facing SS Robin. Crossrail had put a scheme forward to turn the West India Dock into a brand new station to be called the Isle of Dogs. This posed a threat to SS Robin as it meant she had to be moved but without any financial backing this was seemingly impossible.

The Kampfners made the decision to phone The Bar Pro Bono Unit for legal advice and were put in contact with Robin Knowles who coincidentally is the son of SS Robins’ last captain, Captain Norman Knowles.

Eventually a negotiation was made between SS Robin Trust and Crossrail. Crossrail provided SS Robin with a £1.9 million loan to enable her to move to dry dock for restoration works to commence. Before she was able to be moved she had to be stripped of her funnel, mast and rigging. She was then gently towed from West India Quay down the Canary Wharf locks to South Quay for temporary mooring. Around this time The Heritage Lottery Fund had also been approved and SS Robin was awarded a grant of just under £1 million.

New pontoon and restoration

In June 2008 SS Robin was to undergo her 1st seaward journey in 35 years from South Quay to Lowestoft.

Once at Lowestoft a detailed examination revealed that after 118 years she was now considered too fragile to be able to float again. Initially it was thought that SS Robin would need a 40% steel replacement, but after the examination it showed that she would need an 80% steel replacement thereby essentially ruining her historical value. These new findings urged SS Robin Trust to find a less destructive approach maintaining SS Robin. The suggestion to build a pontoon was made, although at first this was almost a throwaway comment, it soon became clear that it would be the most innovative and least destructive method to keep her floating; it also provided a wealth of more space.

In 2010 SS Robin was lifted by two cranes and placed onto her new pontoon. She was then towed to Tilbury were she was moored for a year.

After 3 years of conservation work in July 2011 SS Robin finally returned to the River Thames, at the Royal Albert Dock. She was then subsequently moved to the Millenium Mills Pier, where she is temporarily berthed and is currently undergoing further restoration and development before reopening to the public in 2015.