A workhorse of the late Victorian era, powered by steam engine and boiler but built to carry auxiliary sail where needed, Robin in her day was a typical small sized cargo steam ship or coaster, one of thousands tramping their way around the world, carrying goods, raw materials, livestock, food and other commodities. Their design evolved from the small sailing ships they helped to replace, whose origins dated back to antiquity.
Born in London
Laid down at Orchard House Yard at Bow Creek, Blackwall in December 1889, ‘Robin’ and her sister ship ‘Rook’, were launched into the River Lea, where it joins the Thames, in August and September 1890.
Constructed on slipways built by Ditchburn & Mare in 1845 and later owned by the famous Thames Iron Works and Ship Building Co, the yard was leased to shipwrights Mackenzie, McAlpine and Co who built the ships under contract to Robert Thomson a shipowner and broker in the City of London. Robin being the last ship built at the yard which closed imediately after.
Sent to the East India Docks nearby for final fitting out, Robin was later towed to Dundee where Gourlay Brothers & Co Ltd installed her boiler, triple expansion engine and ancilliary machinery. She was registered in Glasgow on completion.
Film of Thames Ironworks battleship ‘HMS Albion’ being launched into River Lea from north bank in 1898. SS Robin slipway and yard at centre left, to south west.
Bow Creek and the banks of the Thames; from Deptford to Woolwich, were still the world centre for shipbuilding at this time, with a proud tradition going back many hundreds of years, supporting the capitol as a global trading empire. The Thames Iron Works being the largest company, building the biggest ships either side of the River Lea by Bow Creek.
Quickly overtaken by newer ship builders in Scotland and the north east with lower overheads, the yard closed in 1912 with large shipbuilding coming to an end in London.
Subsequant bombing in World War 2, development and urban regeneration have largly cleared the area of its maritime past. Trinity Buoy Wharf Lightship Depot and the basin of East India Dock remain as important reminders (shown as green above).
Robin survives as one of very few London built ships left of this incredible era.
Maiden voyage & crew
Sold into service with Arthur C Ponsonby & Co of Newport, South Wales. Her maiden voyage began in 1890 when her crew of twelve signed on at Liverpool for a passage to Bayonne, in south-west France, probably to carry out coal and bring back pit props for the coal mines of Wales.
Crewed by a master, mate, two engineers, four firemen and four seamen, life aboard was hard with crew living in basic accommodation with simple table, benches, wooden bunks and mattresses of straw known as ’Donkey’s Breakfasts’. Sharing their space with the muddy anchor chains coming down from deck they would eat their meals by the light of oil lamps.
In contrast the master’s cabin was panelled and furnished with a polished table, settee and chair. Lit by a brass gimballed lamp it also contained a hand washbasin in a wooden cupboard; a gallon toilet can to carry water and a container to catch the water from the basin. Simple food was cooked in a coal fired galley on deck.
Pay for the Master was £2 5s per week with crew at £1 0s who also had to find their own provisions, as a cook was rarely signed on in the UK until after the Second World War. Crew turnover was high, with men staying barely two weeks aboard between ports, but master’s tended to stay on for a year or more.
Robin’s second voyage began at Swansea in 1891, taking her to Rouen, the Mersey, Plymouth, Deauville, Guernsey, London, Rochester, Newport, Bristol, Swansea, Cherbourg, and back again to the Thames.
This was to be her pattern of trading for the next ten years; mainly between the seaports of Britain and Ireland, with side trips to continental ports, carrying bulk cargoes of grain, coal, iron ore, scrap steel, china clay, and railway steel, as well as general cargoes of casked and baled goods, even granite blocks for the Caledonian Canal in Scotland.
Loading at this time still relied on dockworkers or stevedores to manualy handle cargo coming on or off when in larger ports. The ships crew often did the job themselves when at smaller wharves. They were assisted by the ships ‘derricks’; cranes attached to the masts with steam winches which could move cargo via the hold and shore, lifting it up or down using buckets or rope, chain and slings.
In 1892 Robin was sold to the West of England & France Steam Navigation Company, who within a few months sold her on to Alexander Forrester Blackater of Glasgow. In 1896 following an engine breakdown she was towed into Plymouth with further repairs recorded in London in 1899.
Sold on 17th May 1900, but this time to a Spanish company, the Robin left the U.K. for the last time, taking a new name ‘Maria’.
Her new owners A. Blanco y Cia, employed her on north west coastal trade out of Bilbao until 1913 when she was sold again to Hijos de Angel Perez y Cia S.A. who used her to transport coal from Gijon to Santander for the bunkers of the liners owned by Cia Transatlantica Esanola S.A.
During the 1914-1918 War she carried iron slabs for the French Government from a foundry at Santiago to Bayonne and Bordeaux, escorted by two navy destroyers to protect her from German U-boats.
In 1929 during a gale she broke from her moorings at St. Jean-de-Luz and was stranded ashore with hull damage amidships. Her crew of six luckily being saved.
From 1930 she carried coal, iron ore and general cargo to ports in northern Spain; mainly Gijon, Aviles, Santander, Bilbao and Pasajes. Laid up for much of 1932-36 due to a slump in maritime trade, she sailed in 1934 but ran aground at Bayonne becoming stranded alongside a quay. A week later she struck the jetty at Adour and was holed in two places, beached at Montbrun to prevent her sinking she later broke her moorings and capsized. Salvaged and repaired in 1935 she was sold briefly to Mr Diaz Romeral of Castro Urdiales. A wheelhouse was fitted to enclose the open bridge around this time.
In 1936 she was commandered by the Spanish Government until Franco’s forces took the port at Santander in 1937.
Reverting back to A. Perez y Cia S.A she carried coal to ports in the north of Spain until 1942 after which she was put out to charter to several firms and used to carry coal from Aville, Gijon and San Esteban de Pravia to Bilbao and Vigo. Return cargoes were of iron ore from Bilbao to Gijon and timber from Corcubion and Noya to Gijon with occasional general cargoes between Gijon and Pasajes.
In 1962 she broke her propellor shaft and had to be towed by a fishing boat into Corunna for repair with a new propellor and shaft fitted.
Between 1964-66 she mostly carried coal from Gijon to Bilbao with iron ore on the return trip.
In 1965 Maria was sold to Eduardo de la Sota Poveda of Bilbao, who carried out the first major alterations to her structure since her launch in 1890.
By now tired and showing her age, major repairs were needed to her hull which needed strengthening to withstand heavy seas. Her whale back covering the aft deck and mizzen mast were removed, the fore mast, main mast and funnel were shortened and the focastle accomodation was extended. Her coal fired boiler was converted to oil firing and oil tanks were installed in the coal bunker spaces. The watertight bulkhead between the cargo hold and boileroom was moved aft to give more cargo space. Cabins, toilets and crew facilities were upgraded and electric generator and lighting installed.
After her refit she sailed carrying coal from Gijon to Bilbao and iron ore from Bilbao to Gijon for another nine years.
Last of the line
Maria at 84 years of age discharged her final cargo at Bilbao in 1974.
With her owner expecting delivery of a new vessel she was laid up ready to be sold for scrap. By this time Maria was unique, having outlived thousands ships of similar design and age which had been destroyed in the preceding twenty years as obsolete or sunk in World War two as a result bombing, mines and torpedo attack.
Her fate should have been sealed but luckily the Maritime Trust based in the UK recognised her significance and with finacial support via the Science Museum, saved her at the last moment from the breaker’s yard to preserve her for future generations.
Still in working order, she left Bilbao on the 12 June 1974 and returned back to Britain under her own steam.
Robin is now the only complete survivor left, her sisters and decendants built up until the 1950’s and sailing until the early 1970’s have all gone.
Cradled out of the water at Doust & Co’s Slipway yard, at Rochester for repairs, she was later restored over several years and returned back to her original appearance as far as practicably possible and given her original name.
Hull repairs, new masts of timber, open bridge and conversion of hold space for visitor access all being completed with the help of volunteers at a time when it was very difficult to raise funds.
In 1980 she arrived under her own steam, to join the Maritime Trust’s Historic Ship Collection at St. Katherine’s Dock, London, where she was opened to all displayed alongside historic sailing vessels; ‘Kathleen & May’ and ‘Cambria’, steam herring drifter ‘Lydia Eva’, Steam Tugs ‘Challenge’ and ‘Portwey’ and the ‘Nore’ Lightship.
In 1986 this popular collection was sadly closed and dispersed, due to re-development of the Dock area and lack of funds. Robin was moved to South Quay, West India Docks where she was laid up.
Funds for maintenance were limited and in 1991 she sprang a leak and it was decided to dry-dock her in Chatham for repair. During this refit a number of hull plates were cropped with new steel let in, while some plates were doubled. The main and mizzen masts, which were of wood and rotten, were replaced in steel.
On her return from Chatham, Olympia & York the developers of Canary Wharf paid for the vessel to be moved to West India Quay. This required the unshipping of the masts, funnel, lifeboats and anchor davits in order to allow her to pass under the Docklands Light Railway. Shortly afterwards the developers ran into financial difficulties and their support for the ship ceased, leaving her with no financial security. The Maritime Trust continued to carry out basic and minimal maintenance, using crew from Cutty Sark, but was unable to find a use for the ship which could generate the revenue needed for her upkeep whilst still keeping to her original appearance.
In 2002 David & Nishani Kampfner took the vessel into their care using her as maritime museum and photography gallery and set up the SS Robin Trust, a registered charity.
Using the ship in imaginative ways they were able to attract a wide ranging and younger generation of visitors and tap into new ways of raising funds.
In 2008 building on their sucess they were awarded a large Heritage Lottery Fund grant allowing Robin to be moved and extensively restored and refurbished at Lowestoft in Suffolk.
A major undertaking, much of the ship was carefully dismantled and rebuilt and in recognition of her condition, age and rarity was permanently lifted out from the water and positioned onto a new purpose built pontoon which had been specially constructed in Poland, designed to accommodate museum and visitor facilities. This radical new approach ensured the survival of the ship with the minimum of intervention to its historic fabric.
Due to the construction of Cross Rail works at Canary Wharf, SS Robin and the new Robin II Pontoon were to lose their intended home alongside the Museum of London Docklands. Instead being moved to a new temporary berth at the Royal Docks in 2011.
Sadly as result of the move and due to limited funds, the Heritage Lottery Fund were not prepared to offer a second award for the completion of interior restoration works to the ship and full museum fit out to the pontoon. This along with major changes to the SS Robin Trust board and a period of development at the Royal Docks has meant that the Trust has had to re-think all the proposals for displaying the ship in the last few years.
In the most recent chapter of her history, SS Robin has gone into partnership with Urban Space Management and Trinity Buoy Wharf and from 2016 various options have been explored to try and find her a new permanent home which will be suited to good public access and footfall somewhere within London.
A major step forward in 2019 has been the proposed redevelopment of the entire Royal Docks complex with reactivation of 3 kilometers of water and development of vacant or derelict land which surrounds it to create a new community and cultural destination within London. Draft masterplans are now going out to public consultation and maritime heritage is likely to be included as part of this.
The SS Robin Trust hope that SS Robin can form part of these exciting proposals, perhaps becoming the centre piece of a London themed maritime heritage vessel collection.
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SS Robin: 143 feet 0 ins (43.50 metres) Long x 22 feet 9 ins (6.91 metres) Wide
Draught 14 feet 9 ins (3.59 metres).
Gross Tonnage 366 tons, Under Deck Tonnage 273 tons, Net tonnage176 tons