The Dirty British Coaster was immortalised in John Masefield’s poem ” Cargoes .”
Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.
Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
The British coastal cargo steamships were the workhorses of the Merchant fleet in the late 19th, early 20th Century around the ports of Britain and Northern Europe. However by the 1960s they had all disappeared.
Well nearly all ,and that brings us to the story of the SS Robin, a story that takes us as far away as Spain but has many connections to the Isle of Dogs.
SS Robin 1890s
SS Robin is a traditional raised quarterdeck coastal cargo steamer built at the famous Thames Ironworks, in Orchard House Yard on the eastern tip of Isle of Dogs and launched in 1890.
She was built to high standards regarding materials and workmanship with her hull fitted out in East India Dock. From there she was taken to Dundee to have her boiler and engines fitted. After trails she was taken to Liverpool to begin her career as a coastal steamer in 1890.
For the next ten years she plied her trade around the ports of Britain and occasionally some of the continental ports carrying the heavy cargoes such as coal, steel and china clay for which the steamers became famous for.
However in 1900, she was sold to a Spanish owner who renamed her Maria and spent the next 70 odd years going up and down the North Atlantic coast, she survived Two World Wars , once getting an escort from the French Navy to protect her from U Boat attacks.
But then at the end of a hard working life and due to be scrapped, there was another twist of fate she was recognised by the Maritime Trust as a one of a kind and in 1974 was purchased and travelled back to Britain under her own steam.
In West India Dock 2005
From 1974 she was given her original name back and moored in St Katherine’s Dock and her restoration began. In 1991 she moved to West India Quay where between 2003-2007 she was used as a Education Centre and Gallery. When she moved into West india Quay she was barely a mile away from where she was built in Orchard Place therefore she really was coming home.
However more structural restoration was needed, so in 2008 she went back to the coast this time to Lowestoft to prepare for her latest reincarnation as a floating museum in the Royal Docks.
In 2011 she returned to the Royal Docks still only a mile away from where she was built to prepare to be finally unveiled to the public in 2014.
She may still be a Dirty British Coaster of John Masefield’s poem but now she is in elite company.
She’s part of the National Historic Fleet and one of only three ‘Core Collection’ (Grade 1) vessels in the capital. The other two ships are the Cutty Sark and HMS Belfast.
And next week she will have a Royal Visitor when The Duke of Edinburgh will visit the ship on June 5th.
The Duke was an important part of the campaign to save her forty years ago and will unveil a plaque to inaugurate the Ships new permanent home.
To find out more about the SS Robin press here
Other Posts you may find interesting.
Living on the Isle of Dogs, being near the water is part of the everyday experience, we are surrounded by it with the Thames and large parts of the Island are taken up by the docks.
Therefore I have been intrigued by the work of the Water City projects especially the ‘Water City Murals’. a new mural painting social enterprise for East London.
The first part of the project is the 90 metre SS Robin Heritage Mural currently underway in the Royal Docks close to the SS Robin.
The theme of the Mural is the history of the SS Robin and the Royal Docks in five parts :
The first 50 metre section has been designed and created by artists in residence Frank and Nick Creber working with the SS Robin history team and volunteers.
A second section of 12 metres will be painted and designed by the local community
A third section of 5 metres will be painted by the local Britannia Village Primary School,
A forth 12 metre section will be printed on aluminium composite sheet with photos and architects’ illustrations showing future plans for SS Robin, and a final 12 metre section will contain singular images that emerge out of the whole process of the mural project.
It is great to see the incredible history of the docks bought to life in Art , the colourful and vibrant mural captures some of the manic activity that symbolised the docks in their heyday.
Although still work in progress it is undoubtably worth a visit.
If you want to find out more about the project press here
A new piece of sculpture has appeared on the Thames foreshore in Limehouse. But rather than the usual fanfare, the new arrival has been quietly put in place.
Entitled Another Time it is a life size figure by the well-known sculptor Antony Gormley creator of the iconic Angel of the North.
The piece was rumoured to be acquired by Sir Ian McKellen and now takes pride of place behind his pub the Grapes.
It is part of a series of figures created by Gormley which have been put human figures next to water.
Standing on top of a post the figure will look at certain times that it will be standing on the water, but will never be fully submerged.
Some of the best views will be from the river, however it can be viewed from Dunbar Wharf.
Or of course you can go into the Grapes itself and view from the small terrace at the back.
The Museum through the replica of the West India Docks Gate
As the Museum of Docklands celebrates its first decade in existence it is important to pay tribute to the people whose forward thinking bought a derelict historical industrial building into public use.
One of the pleasures of visiting the Museum is to be able to see the old warehouse in all its glory.
No 1 Warehouse where the museum is housed was originally designed and built by George Gwilt and Son in 1800 -1803. It was significantly added to by Sir John Rennie in 1827. It was originally part of a complex of huge warehouses that were a half a mile long. unfortunately only Warehouse 1 and Warehouse 2 remain due to the rest of the complex being destroyed by bombing in the Second World War.
The West India Dock Warehouses in 1921 before they were destroyed.
Although the warehouses are now dwarfed by the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, when they were built they were considered a source of national pride when the docks became one of the centres of the trade between Britain the rest of the world.
Warehouse No 1
The Museum charts the role of the Docklands from its beginnings to the dark days of the Second World War and to the eventual decline of the Docks and the growth of Canary Wharf.
The Old London Bridge
Amongst its highlights are a 1:50 scale model of Old London Bridge , many articles from the Docks, a gallery about the Blitz including an Air-raid shelter and Sailortown a full size reconstruction of the dark and dingy streets of Victorian Wapping. In Sailortown you can visit a local tavern or look through the window of the Animal Emporium.
Welcome to Sailortown
The Local Tavern
The Animal Emporium
Young children have their own section called Mudlarks which has a play area.
Other than the exhibits the museum is a bit of a cultural centre with regular events , there is also a popular Café and Shop.
Its exhibits are not all inside, there are still relics of the old docks around the warehouses not least the statue to Sir Robert Milligan directly outside. In the dock itself is a couple of boats belonging to the museum.
The museum is one of the hidden treasures of the Isle of Dogs and although not on the scale of the bigger London Museums it provides hours of entertainment for young and old.
West India Dock, Blackwall and Poplar. 1929
To follow up from the previous post about Britain from Above, I thought I would look at some areas surrounding the Isle of Dogs. If the Isle of Dogs has changed considerably, the same certainly could be said of Limehouse, Blackwall and Poplar. It is worth remembering that within 10 – 15 years many of these areas were devastated by bombing which makes these pictures all the more important.
On one of the photographic flights Aerofilms spotted the famous Graf Zeppelin LZ – 127 flying over Limehouse in 1931. The Graf Zeppelin 127 was one of the most famous airships of its day going around the world in 1929 and flying over the Arctic in 1931.
Limehouse Basin in 1929
A wider view of Limehouse with Narrow Street bottom right and St Anne’s Church at the top
Another view of Limehouse
The Graf Zeppelin 127 over East India Dock , Orchard Place to the right.
Another picture of the Zeppelin over East India Docks
Blackwall and Canning Town 1929
Previous Posts on this subject
To go to the Britain from Above Website press here
An Aerial view of the Docks 1934
Some weeks ago I posted an article about the Bombsight project which tried to chart where many of the Bombs fell in World War Two.
The Britain from Above project is yet another incredible website that is making available thousands of aerial photographs taken above Britain between 1919 and 1953.
Not only do you get access to the photos on the website, you can play an active part identifying many of the locations.
To give you a taste of what is available here are some of the latest photos of the Isle of Dogs in 1934.
Millwall Dock 1934
South Dock 1934
Cubitt Town 1934
Millwall Dock – Flour Mill 1934
Millwall Dock from South 1934
To go to the Britain from Above Website press here