Close to the Wire

Shropshire Union tug, Ralph Brocklebank, Manchester Ship canal tug, Daniel Adamson

The news came quite suddenly—after twenty years of doing nothing the Manchester Ship Canal Company had finally made up their minds and decided to scrap the Daniel Adamson.
The what? The veteran twin screw steam tug Daniel Adamson, commissioned originally as one of three for the Shropshire Union Canal Company in 1903 to take passengers and tow their barges across the Mersey from Ellesmere Port to Liverpool. She was built locally in Tranmere with engines from Liverpool, and was originally called the Ralph Brocklebank. In 1922 she became part of the Ship Canal’s own tug fleet and was renamed after the company’s first chairman and spent the next fourteen years of her working life shepherding big ships up to Salford docks, usually as the stern tug of a pair for which the Shroppie twin screws were particularly well suited. Then in 1936 she was promoted. Due to her grace and distinguished vintage she was refitted again as the Canal’s own special inspection craft with an imposingly high bridge, an open promenade deck and a sumptuously fitted boardroom, all mahogany, cut glass and leather upholstery. She was painted annually, polished constantly and was the pride of the company, respected by directors and employees alike.

Right & below: Daniel Adamson, February 2004. Images used by permission of John H Luxton,

But then the world moved on, canal traffic decreased and the Daniel Adamson was used less and less. She did her last trip under her own power from Runcorn to Manchester and back in 1984. Gradually the canal company became a property company, Peel Holdings, and the once proud flagship was soon transformed by their accountants into an embarrassing and expensive problem. However, staff sentiment and public relations would not allow her to be disposed of gracefully and she languished about at the Old Quay yard at Runcorn until Ellesmere Port and the Boat Museum offered her a cheap berth out of harm’s way in the old shipping basin below the canal locks. There she has remained ever since, looking sadder and sadder whilst rampant rot got a hold. The museum vaguely hoped there would be a change of heart by the owners and they might acquire a prime exhibit by association, whilst the Ship Canal Company—always mysterious and devious in their long term planning-- presumably hoped the museum would do the hugely expensive restoration and maintenance for them. Some hope! If anybody from the management had ever visited and seen the unequal battle being fought to preserve the museum’s own fleet of barges and boats above the locks at their masthead level that answer would have been seen to be hopeless. So finally the once immaculate steam packet became a safety hazard as well as an eyesore and the council and museum asked the owners to move it somewhere else before there was a disaster, either to the ship or local life and limb. OK, they said last month, it can go for scrap.

Consternation! Scrap this lovely historic craft, this graceful example of the cream of the shipbuilder’s art? Disgraceful! What do the museum think they’re doing allowing this fantastic exhibit to be scrapped, even though they don’t own it? Better to ask why a fantastically profitable property company were allowed to neglect a significant part of the British maritime culture on an accountant’s whim. That’s disgraceful, but then of course the cultural decisions of a capitalist organisation are sacrosanct. Sentiment and historic values must not be allowed to influence them or get in the way of the profit. Meanwhile the poor museum with no money and no responsibility is seen to be failing in its duty of care to the inland waterways by allowing it to leave. Let’s have some cool thinking here.

There is good news, although it is scarily near the limit, for this desperate situation has galvanised an heroic last ditch response. Tug crews from Liverpool have got together and arranged a dry docking for the old ship, for a proper survey and a black round the hull. The dock company are waiving their fee, the tug company is towing her over for free and the paint’s been donated. The news of her imminent demise shocked tug enthusiasts everywhere into action and a fresh preservation society has already come into existence. The members have clubbed together and have agreed to buy it, for £1-00. Yes, one pound, in money, and suddenly there is a spark of hope for her future, a fresh injection of enthusiasm. The battle’s not won by a million miles (or a million pounds) but a start has been made. But why-oh-why do we have to leave it to the last minute, why does human nature have to go to the brink every time when some cool forethought twenty years ago could have saved the situation more comprehensively at a fraction of the cost? But good luck to all who intend to sail in her.

Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, February 29th 2004


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