Medway Queen

– in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 15th March 2005.

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Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford 4:00 pm, 15th March 2005

In every constituency there are many examples of great people and great buildings. In my town great people have built great ships, including, in 1765, Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory. It follows that we in Medway are passionate about our maritime history, and that is what this debate is about—our maritime history. It is about a unique ship that took working people on excursions and holidays, saved 7,000 men from the Nazis, and would now be lost to the nation if it were not for another great set of people, the Medway Queen Preservation Society. Our ambition is to see the Medway Queen restored, so that she can once again sail the River Medway in all her glory.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister and his Department value our ships. Following consultations, our noble Friend Lord McIntosh recently announced the intention to set up a national historic ships unit that will advise the Government on policies and priorities and co-ordinate with those directly engaged in the preservation of ships to promote public interest in our maritime history—laudable aims that we all support.

One important response to the consultation was the desire for the unit to engage fully with small craft and not to become preoccupied with the preservation of large ships. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to comment on that issue, or write to me if he is unable to comment today. I expect that he will tell the Chamber that there are thousands of ships and many worthy causes, and that there will simply never be sufficient funds to restore all of them. He will rightly say that there must be a better way of co-ordinating policy, so that grant-giving bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund are better informed when considering applications. That is right, but part of the thinking behind policy must be about the uniqueness and history of the craft, and, as the Government have rightly said, the consideration of the public interest.

I am fully aware that my right hon. Friend does not have a cheque book in his pocket today, and nor will he have one tomorrow. Making grants is the job of independent bodies, but they will be informed by Government policy, and in securing this debate that is what I seek to influence.

The Medway Queen is a paddle-steamer. She was built in 1924, in Troon on the banks of the Clyde, for the New Medway Steam Packet Co. as part of its Queen Line fleet. She was a fine vessel and a model example of Scotland's shipbuilding at its best. I say that because we in Chatham know a thing or two about shipbuilding. Her passenger load was 800 with a top speed of 15 knots. Today, she is the only surviving paddler of her type. The Medway Queen has survived, and that is remarkable given the number of attempts there have been to blow her up, scrap her or sink her. However, despite her remarkable record of survival, given her current state she cannot survive for much longer without financial support.

The Medway Queen was one of many pleasure steamers operating at the time. The ship's regular route was from Medway to Southend. From Chatham she called at Sheerness and Herne bay before reaching her destination on the Essex coast. She also sailed up and down the Thames, to Clacton. That was her life for 15 years from the day on which she was commissioned, apart from occasional repair at the Acorn shipyard, where the finest and most skilled boilermakers in the land attended to her needs.

After war broke out in 1939, the Medway Queen carried children who were being evacuated from Kent to East Anglia. She joined the Royal Navy as a minesweeper, serving for the duration of the war in the 10th minesweeping flotilla in the English channel. By then she was HMS Medway Queen. In 1940, like many small ships, Medway Queen took part in the evacuation of our troops from Dunkirk. She distinguished herself by rescuing 7,000 men. On her seventh trip across the channel, she was badly damaged and reported lost. However, as has become her hallmark, she survived. During those seven trips she gained four awards for gallantry, having shot down three enemy aircraft. She became known as the heroine of Dunkirk—a paddle-steamer shot down enemy aircraft; a paddle-steamer saved 7,000 men.

After the war, the Medway Queen returned to her commercial service on the River Medway. In the 1960s our access to cars and changes in holidays meant that paddle-steamers were becoming redundant. Many were broken up, and the Medway Queen was sold for scrap. There was a public outcry and, once again, she survived. She became a maritime clubhouse on the Isle of Wight. However, by the 1980s the Medway Queen was unused and deserted and once again the breaker's yard beckoned. Yet in 1984 a group from Kent brought her back to Chatham dockyard, intending to restore her. Sadly this group was unable to carry through its intention and she sank, lying abandoned in the River Medway—a seemingly tragic end to a wonderful ship that had once graced the same river but was now filled with tonnes of mud. In 1985, the Medway Queen Preservation Society was formed and became the owner of the ship. It spent the next two years removing the mud and patching the hull so that she might be refloated. A full and professional maritime survey was carried out and the results were promising. She was refloated and moved to her present site at Damhead Creek in the estuary of the River Medway. That is the potted history of this unique craft.

It is 20 years since the preservation society started its huge project. The setbacks along the way have included the ship sinking, the destruction of the visitor centre, including irreplaceable archive material, by vandals just last year, and two rejections from the lottery, the last one being particularly painful. Despite all that, the preservation society has continued because of the huge public support for the project. Everybody in Medway knows somebody who has a story about the Medway Queen. She is held in great affection.

It is important for me to pay tribute to the members of the GMB union. With their help, a new funnel was built in 2002 by young apprentices from the Appledore shipyard in Devon. The lads used parts of the original funnel and riveted them to the new one. Most recently, the unveiling of the new paddle took place with the help of south-east Co-op. Those are just two examples of public interest being aroused, and young people being involved in maritime skills, thanks to the Medway Queen.

As I said earlier, last year's lottery rejection was painful. The society was bidding for £6 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund in order that the hull could be restored to its original riveted specification. A cheaper option of plating the hull was advised against, so the MQPS produced a professional business plan that cost tens of thousands of pounds. It did that because that was what the HLF appeared to be recommending.

I know that there is not enough money for every project. However, when people give their time and effort, not to mention raising funds—which is hard work, as we all know—they should be given clear guidance from the lottery as to what is expected. If necessary, they should also be given help. Otherwise, the criticism of the lottery that it is accessible only to well connected and professional types will continue.

It appears that all is not lost, continuing the theme of the Medway Queen's survival. Shortly after the rejection, Mr. Stephen Johnson, a director from the lottery, said on a local radio station that the lottery was keen to assist the Medway Queen. There have been meetings, a grant has been applied for and the society will work up a cheaper option for the hull, namely a plated one. That was referred to earlier but was rejected. The society has not been discouraged, has made the application and is waiting to hear. The application is for a project management scheme to provide the detail on whether plating the hull can be achieved; it will still cost in the region of £2 million.

The society has been told by the south-east Heritage Lottery Fund that it will be given every assistance in applying for the grant. I hope that that is the case, because the Medway Queen's restoration will be a project for all people. Older hands from the skilled group of retired craftsmen who attend to the ship every Thursday will be able to show younger hands skills that we need to preserve, not just for this ship but many others in our nation.

I conclude with an extract from J.B. Priestley's "Excursion to Hell":

"But now—look—this little steamer, like all her brave and battered sisters, is immortal. She'll go sailing down the years in the epic of Dunkirk. And yet our great-grandchildren, when they learn how we began this war by snatching glory out of defeat, may also learn how the little holiday steamers made an excursion to hell and came back glorious."

The Heritage Lottery Fund said that the Medway Queen was not of sufficient historical importance to warrant a grant last time. Well, the ship helped to shape the nation's history. At Dunkirk, 7,000 souls were saved, so let us save the Medway Queen.

Photo of Richard Caborn Richard Caborn Minister of State (Sport and Tourism), Department for Culture, Media & Sport 4:12 pm, 15th March 2005

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jonathan Shaw on securing this important debate. After hearing his contribution, if I had the cheque book in my pocket, I would sign one for him straight away. He spoke passionately about a subject that I know is close to his heart, and it is important that the Chamber hears such messages coming from a constituency. I hope that the advice that is given can be heeded, not just in Government but in other quarters.

As my hon. Friend said, the Medway Queen had a particularly distinguished record in evacuating British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. It is appropriate that we are recalling that now in 2005, when we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war. The Medway Queen saved some 7,000 men not only from the beaches but from the sea, thanks to the courage and tenacity of her crew. I know that some of the men saved still remember vividly, and often recall, how they were rescued.

After the war the Medway Queen settled into the less adventurous but important role of a pleasure steamer. Sadly, the great ship had the indignity of hitting an underwater obstruction and sinking in the River Medina in the early 1970s. She was tied up at Chatham where her decline and neglect have been sad to witness. I pay tribute to the Medway Queen Preservation Society, which my hon. Friend has congratulated, which was formed to save the ship and secure her future. The society's devotion and commitment and that of the ship's owner, the New Medway Steam Packet Company, bring the story of the proud ship right up to date. Thanks to the work of volunteers, the Medway Queen is now at least afloat in a safe berth in Damhead Creek at Kingsnorth in Kent.

I appreciate that the owners and the preservation society face a huge task in restoring the ship to full working order; there is no doubt about that. I confirm to my hon. Friend that the Government do not provide direct funding support for the acquisition, movement or conservation of historic ships, other than by providing grant-in-aid to museums that we sponsor which have vessels of historic significance in their collections.

However, we are committed to delivering a national policy on ship preservation which preserves the best of our maritime heritage. In February, we announced the creation of a national historic ships unit. That unit will, for the first time, formally advise the Secretary of State and the Heritage Lottery Fund on historic ships, their funding needs and their investment priorities. We expect the unit to be up and running by April 2006. Capital funding for historic ships projects will continue to be dealt with by the HLF and other public or private grant-giving bodies.

In July 2004, as my hon. Friend recalled, the HLF considered a major grant application from the New Medway Steam Packet Co. for £6.7 million towards full restoration of the paddle-steamer. The HLF's trustees recognised the heritage importance of the Medway Queen and the role that she played in British history during the Dunkirk evacuations. They also praised the enthusiasm and commitment of the company and its members. However, the trustees felt that the high cost of restoring the ship, and the level of rebuilding necessary, would not represent value for money in terms of heritage and the long-term viability of the ship. The HLF also felt that a couple of their key criteria for awarding grants—sufficient public access and opportunities for learning—had not been demonstrated.

In August 2004, Heritage Lottery Fund staff met representatives of the New Medway Steam Packet Co. to explore whether there might be scope for a more modest project, funded by the HLF, that would play a part in securing the ship's long-term survival. As a result of their discussions, the company has identified an alternative approach, which could provide a renewed hull and, potentially, a new weather deck. Completion of that work could secure the ship in the medium term and provide the company with a platform for further fundraising to complete the full restoration over time.

Heritage Lottery Fund staff have continued to provide advice on developing the project, resulting in a recent application to the fund for a project planning grant of £31,500 to enable the New Medway Steam Packet Co. to complete detailed survey work, a conservation and management plan for the ship and other technical approvals needed to underpin the restoration of the ship. The HLF received the application on 21 February and, subject to a full assessment of the proposals, a decision should be made in three months. As my hon. Friend recognised, some progress is being made and the way forward is now clearly identified.

The Heritage Lottery Fund will remain the principal source of funding for historic ships. Its trustees make decisions independently of the Government; it is not open to Ministers to intervene or seek in any way to influence its decisions. The HLF has a role to play and it is engaging in that role enthusiastically, giving advice to the New Medway Steam Packet Co. The company's relationship with the HLF does not guarantee funding, because there are always so many competing bids for the available funds. However, we hope that the new national historic ships unit will provide an authoritative source of advice for the HLF and for those engaged in the preservation of our maritime heritage. My hon. Friend clearly outlined how that has impacted on our nation over the years.

I congratulate my hon. Friend again on his support and commitment to this project. He represents an historic constituency that is famous throughout the world for its history and record of shipbuilding. In this 60th anniversary year of the ending of the second world war, I am grateful to him for giving us the opportunity to discuss the future of one of the ships that played such a distinguished and magnificent role in that war.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Four o'clock.