Symbolic indeed.

Shropshire Union Fly-boat Symbol

The first weekend in December 2001 saw the disposal of the remains of the Symbol, one of the two remaining examples of the Shropshire Union Canal Company’s elite fleet of fly-boats. 

 

How did this sad state of affairs come about? How did this last surviving wooden narrow boat to be built in Wales come to such a state of dangerous collapse that it had to be dismantled and destroyed?  How come that the remains were burnt within yards of where it was built nearly a century ago and it never became a national treasure to be cosseted and kept? What did we do wrong?

 

It all started so well. In 1987 Charlie Cartwright, who had owned and loved Symbol for many years, realised he was losing the costly uphill battle to keep her afloat and maintained.  Regretfully, but sensibly it seemed, he handed it over to a group of enthusiasts (of which I was one) who wanted to get the boat restored as a very important part of canal history.  They formed themselves into an official restoration organisation, slipped the boat at Chester on the old Shropshire Union dockyard operated by David Jones and started raising money and interest, with limited but reasonable success.

 

The big difference to any other similar projects at that time was that they never intended to do the work themselves - they were to be an enabling organisation only, finding funds and channelling grants to get the restoration work done professionally, to the highest standards possible.  It was a good plan, but a bit ahead of its time somehow and it never really achieved forward momentum.  Meanwhile the boat got older, dried out and became even more fragile.

 

In 1991 Symbol was moved to Trefor, to the dry-dock at the end of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct close to where she was built, a triumphant journey of very gentle boating combined with an enormous piece of polythene wrapped right around the hull to keep her afloat.  This move theoretically brought her within range of some more substantial regional grant aid in Wales, but once more the really big money eluded her, lost in time-consuming planning wrangles.

 

But rot and decay waits for no-one and the boat deteriorated at an ever increasing rate.  The cabin collapsed after a few years whilst the hull started to sag down between the bostocks.  In 1999 the stern fell off into the dock and early this year the stempost and bow followed suit.  It was no longer information or inspiration - quite the reverse in fact - and on the 1st and 2nd of December the remains were dismantled, the ironwork labelled and stored and the wood was consigned to a funeral pyre. Very sad.

 

But what a difference a decade makes!
Two significant changes have made the earth move as far as boat restoration is concerned-- the National Lottery, which did not exist then, and the management attitude of British Waterways.  To be fair our local B.W. management was always gently supportive within the confines of what they were told to do from Watford, and their acceptance of the long-term occupancy of the Trefor dock by Symbol was generous by any criteria.  However the underlying attitude was at best patronising (“I suppose these anorak enthusiasts had better be kept sweet…”) whereas we now have a positively co-operative partnership ethos beaming down on us.  Long may it remain so.

 

When Saturn, the other surviving Shropshire Union boat suddenly came on the market in 2000 the Chester B.W. office immediately came into partnership with the Fly Boat Restoration Group and other societies to secure its future.  They quickly put up the initial money to buy it and then offered staff time to help the volunteers to apply for a Lottery bid for the restoration.  Now that’s the way to do it!  The bid was successful and much of the other match funding is now in place and although there is still much work to do, Saturn’s future looks good.  (For more information see the website:  www.saturnrestoration.org.uk)  If only such a thing had happened for Symbol thirteen years ago… but everything and everyone was younger then, and thirteen years less historic.

 

Symbol is not lost or forgotten, just resting in kit form as pallets full of ironwork and a folder of measurements and drawings.  As one looks back with hindsight over these last two decades of canal boat restoration it is now much more possible to look forward to a time ten or twenty years hence when she might well be re-created again, a phoenix rising from these autumn ashes of 2001.  Now all we have to do is keep the canal system in a fit state to receive her back. Commsymbol burnsents please.

 

Tony Lewery December 2001

 

Top 3 images right - Symbol in dry dock in Chester in 1987(?).
Centre right at Trefor in 1997.

Remainder during breaking up December 2001.

symbol
shropshire union flyboat
flyboat bow
Trefor
wooden remains
breaking up


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