I’VE always had a real soft spot for historic ships and boats. Vessels that hark back to an era when Britain really did rule the waves and when craftsmanship was something to be proud of rather than regarded as old-fashioned.
So I’m really sad to report that one of the most beautiful steam launches ever to grace the River Thames – SL Belle – is in danger of being scrapped because the present owner can no longer afford to keep her ashore at a marina in Hull after plans to operate her as a passenger boat on the River Ouse in Yorkshire collapsed.
SL Belle was originally built in Kingston in 1894 – I think by Turks – and originally she carried passengers up and down the Thames from Maidenhead.
But her extraordinary story really began when she was navigated down the Thames to the estuary, around the North Foreland and along the English south coast.
She rounded Land’s End and steamed up the Bristol Channel and along the River Severn all the way to Worcester where she spent in excess of eight decades taking thousands of sightseers for river trips.
She eventually returned to the Thames and was bought by a gentleman called Ted Harris who owned EG Harris in London. In 1980, she underwent a whole scale refit, which included replacing her original steam power unit with a diesel engine from a Sherman tank!
She was extensively rebuilt to bring her back to her full Victorian specification and once again graced the Thames.
Belle is recorded on the National Historic Ships register as a vessel of historic significance. She is 75 feet in length, built of teak on oak frames and when she was last used as a passenger craft, she was licensed to carry 100 people.
Her more recent life has, however, been something of a downward spiral.
Her current owner, Yorkshireman Jim Sanderson, bought her with the intention of operating a passenger service on the Ouse, but his plans were scuppered by red tape and he has been spending £1,000 a month to keep her on dry land at the marina and having paid bills of more than £30,000, he has simply run out of money.
He has until the end of March to find somebody willing to take her on and keep her afloat but the highest offer Mr Sanderson has had so far is £6,500 from a buyer who wants to strip out Belle’s Victorian fittings and scrap her.
Martyn Heighton, Director of National Historic Ships UK, said: “It will be a real loss if SL Belle is scrapped. Historic vessels can be protected under Listed Buildings or Scheduled Monuments legislation but only if they are immovable from where they lie (as in Cutty Sark).
“These conditions do not apply to Belle so I have no legal mechanism which would prevent her being scrapped. I am sure that the owners do not want to see this happen, but clearly despite all efforts, no one has come forward to take on this vessel.”
In her current state, Belle needs re-caulking and two or her ribs need replacing, but the majority of the restoration work needed is cosmetic and although estimates vary, she could be worth as much as £300,000 is she were put back into her original condition.
It seems terribly sad that no one has come forward to rescue this fine old boat – particularly when you consider the copious amounts of money that are wasted on much less worthy projects.
But unless someone does come forward in the next couple of weeks, yet another part of Britain’s nautical heritage will disappear forever.