Spartan times of an old puffer

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
Volunteers are keeping the Scottish Maritime Museum ship-shape, despite mixed fund-raising success, writes Douglas Blane

Henry Ford said in 1916: "The only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history we make today," a comment which, with its preamble, "History is more or less bunk", has earned him a place in the history books as an inventive and hard-working philistine.

To judge by the financial support our museums attract, it appears that many would endorse Ford's sentiments.

Up and down the country, museums are surviving only because of the efforts of enthusiasts, amateur and professional, who are willing to give up much of their spare time to identify, restore and maintain the artefacts of history.

The Maritime Museum at Irvine is one such place and John Herd is one such enthusiast.

"You know about painting the Forth Bridge?" he asks, as we stand on a little jetty in the harbour beside an old puffer called Spartan. "Well, that's what look- ing after these ships is like. We keep them running and paint them all the time.

"If we can keep the Spartan's hull sound, we'd like to sail her around the ports where she used to work, up and down the west coast of Scotland.

"I began work on the Clyde many years ago," he continues, as an apprentice at Stephen's in Linthouse and, when I heard they were taking the Linthouse building apart brick-by-brick and rebuilding it here in Irvine to hold the museum, I decided to get involved as a volunteer.

"We're always looking for volunteers" he says, tipping his head back and gazing up at the slim, tall mast of the Spartan.

"Right now we're looking for someone to climb that mast."

He pauses and the harsh cry ol an oystercatcher on the mudflats across the estuary is carried towards us on the breeze.

A group of Primary 4 pupils from Abbey Primary school in Kilwinning, North Ayrshire, are filing down the steps from the puffer. Next stop on the tour is the shipyard workers' tenement flat, restored and fitted out with appliances, ornaments and furnisnings trom Edwardian times.

"A family of seven or eight would live in this room," says the guide. "They had no electricity.

The heating came from that range where Mum cooked."

"Isn't it beautiful?" says a parent. "I'd hate to have to polish it, though."

"There were no washing machines in those days, and the wife did all the washing by hand with this washboard and mangle," the guide continues.

"This big wooden spoon was used for stirring porridge, which was then poured into a drawer.

The husband cut offa slab each day to take to his work."

The children's faces show various shades of fascination and disbelief. One of the boys tries on a bowler hat. It comes right down over his ears.

"The foreman wore that hat," says the guide, "partly as a status symbol and partly to protect his head when the workers dropped hot rivets on it."

The children return to the Linthouse building, built in 1872 as the engine shop for Alexander Stephen and Sons of Govan. Sunlight streams through 26,000 square feet of glass on to ships and boats, and the machinery once used to drive them.

"We enjoy having children here," says manager Bridget Denniston. "It makes the place come alive. They enjoy it too, because they get to see real ships that men worked in, rather than just reading about them."

As the pupils eat their lunch in the children's activity area, they remember the tiny ship's cabins where the men ate their meals; the great steam hammer and anvil for shaping metal; the wooden moulds used to make the turbines on the QE2; the old lifeboat's dark, pitted mahogany hull peppered with nails; the little sloop that was built in the maids' room of a Glasgow house; the ship's boiler rescued from a tomato farm where it was used for soil sterilisation; and the helicopter built in Dumbarton.

A few years ago, the museum raised money for work on the building, its contents, the ships and the streets around the harbour. Then it applied several times to the Heritage Lottery Fund for support for further development but, unfortunately, without success.

"They seemed to keep moving the goalposts," says Bridget Denniston, who has been customer services manager at the musuem for the last two years, as she stands outside the towering red brick building. "It's a great shame. But we'll carry on.

"We're now working on a plan to develop the museum slowly in seven easy stages."

Leading down to the harbour, Linthouse Vennel now features two rows of fresh looking houses painted in blues, greens and creams overlooking a cobbled street lined with wrought-iron streetlights and occasional black capstans. "I think we've achieved quite a lot," she concludes. "But there's plenty still lobe done."

The Scottish Maritime Museum, Gottries Road, Irvine KA12 8QE. Tel: 01294 278283.

Open daily 10am-5pm except Christmas and New Year.

School groups pound;1.75 children; pound;2.50 adults, free adult 1:10 children, 10 per cent discount on total price.

Activity pack can be requested when making a booking.

The museum is a 10 min walk from Irvine railway station.

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