Leamouth: How the SS Robin has returned to within 150m of her London birthplace

Historic ship’s move is the start of the latest chapter as Trinity Buoy Wharf prepares her for opening

The SS Robin, moored at her new home at Trinity Buoy Wharf – image Harry Dwyer

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So there she sits, resplendent in her red and black livery, atop a specially constructed pontoon and ready for the next chapter of her life.

The SS Robin has, after some 133 years, returned to within 150m of the shipyard where the iron plates of her hull were first riveted together. 

She might be smaller in size than the Cutty Sark and HMS Belfast – but make no mistake – as historic ships in London go, she’s deserving of attention.

And following her most recent relocation from Royal Victoria Dock to Trinity Buoy Wharf, the story of the only surviving Victorian steam ship in existence is a big step closer to getting appropriate prominence.

It’s a move that’s been a long time coming.

Having spent a chunk of her retirement (1991-2008) at West India Quay opposite Canary Wharf, the Crossrail project saw her moved to Suffolk, with funding secured for restoration.

That saw her lifted from the water and mounted on a pontoon in 2010, with the intention of returning her to Docklands for public exhibition. 

But plans to open her as a museum ship in Royal Victoria Dock faltered so, while she has been moored near Millennium Mills since 2011, she’s remained mostly closed to the public and inaccessible. 

Nearly there – passing the cable car over the Thames – image Simon Richards

Schemes were mooted, plans made and locations suggested, but in more than a decade, Robin failed to find a permanent home.

A site was not forthcoming in either the Royals or West India Docks, amid the ironically choppy administrative waters of the bodies managing these vast human-made lakes. 

Eric Reynolds is founding director of Urban Space Management, which runs Trinity Buoy Wharf.

He is a man who makes things happen. London is strewn with projects he’s had a hand in – Camden Lock Market, Gabriel’s Wharf on the South Bank, Greenwich Market and Merton Abbey Mills, to name a few.

After becoming involved with the SS Robin and growing frustration at the failure to open her to the public as promised, he’s now overseen the relocation of the vessel to the mouth of the River Lea, where she will have a permanent home among the growing historic fleet at Trinity Buoy Wharf.

“The original intention was to keep going with the project and leave Robin where she was in Royal Docks,” said Eric.

“But eventually I gave up – I just couldn’t get any of the organisations to get off the fence.

“So instead we turned to the Port Of London Authority to get a licence to drive two piles into the riverbed at Trinity Buoy Wharf.

Heading through the Thames Barrier on her way to Trinity Buoy Wharf – image Simon Richards

“The ship and her pontoon probably have a combined weight of about 600tonnes, which is not something I’d want to moor directly against the listed river wall as it would pose some risk.

“So, instead, it’s held between two giant ‘knitting needles’, which weigh 17 tonnes each. There’s a seven-metre rise and fall of the tide, so Robin will demonstrate that every day.”

That change in level also presents the last significant stumbling block to opening the vessel to the public.

A 40m gangway is set to be installed over the next couple of months that will go up and down with the level of the water, providing access at a suitable gradient.

Then, members of the public will be able to tour the vessel and view a wealth of information about her past and why she’s been preserved in this way.

“The driving idea is to make that information and Robin herself available to people who live here and know the area, as well as newcomers to it,” said Eric.

“There’s a population the size of Swindon scheduled to move in – a whole new town is being created.

“Shipping is still the major way by which the world trades with itself and London is here because it was driven by this tidal river and the trade that took place on it.

“Robin is the very last complete trading vessel of the period in the world with its original method of propulsion still in place.

“She was sold reasonably early in her life to the Spanish who operated her on a bit of a shoestring, so they didn’t do what nearly everyone else did, which was to take out the steam engine and put in an easily operated diesel.

“When you look at the ship and see the small size of the rudder and the huge propeller, you realise she’s relying on torque rather than revs.

Urban Space Management’s Eric Reynolds – image Jon Massey

“I really take my hat off to her crew – operating her in a crowded dock. With modern vessels you have bow thrusters and they can turn on a sixpence whatever the weather.

“With Robin you’d have had to spend 12 hours just getting steam up – their lives were so hard. We have a lot of material about her working life so we’ll be able to tell people all about it – the crew on her maiden voyage, for example. 

“What we won’t do is commercialise her in any way – the whole point about this ship is she looks and feels like one that would carry coals from Newcastle and salted herring from Aberdeen.

“That should be respected and the entire idea is to create a free access open museum, along the lines of Blists Hill in Shropshire, where people can come to learn.”

Trinity Buoy Wharf plans to work with a cross section of organisations including schools, artists and musicians to explore and illuminate the vessel’s heritage as a jumping off point for study, not least in the fields of science and technology.

It also intends to tell the story of the ship’s construction at the yard of Mackenzie, MacAlpine And Company in Blackwall.

“That’s really quite amazing,” said Eric.

“With health and safety now, we could never imagine a 14-year-old boy throwing lumps of red hot metal up for someone else to catch in a shovel.

“The majority of the ship is original, and when we cut some of the metal and sent it away, the people said that you couldn’t get iron like this any more.

“It was probably made by some process that you wouldn’t be allowed to do now.

“For young people it’s a window into a lost world – an educational asset rather than a tourist attraction.”

In time, Trinity Buoy Wharf plans to bring all the historic vessels in its collection together with row barge Diana and the tugs Knocker White and Suncrest connected to the SS Robin, so visitors can tour all of them.

Watch this space for an opening date for the historic vessel.

Find out more about the SS Robin at Trinity Buoy Wharf here

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Leamouth: How Uber Boat By Thames Clippers is cutting emissions of the river

CEO Sean Collins on the launch of hybrid vessel Earth Clipper and forthcoming cross-river services

Uber Boat By Thames Clippers CEO Sean Collins

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The passenger craft Sean Collins has been running on London’s great river have always had a futuristic edge to them.

Starting with three Hydrocats in 1999 – each able to carry 62 people from Greenland Pier in Rotherhithe into the City – the zippy little twin-hulled craft helped carve out an image of Docklands’ modernisation that boosted the area’s ongoing regeneration.

As Canary Wharf, east and south-east London have grown and developed – so too has the river bus service, now based at Trinity Buoy Wharf.

Today, the vessels in Uber Boat By Thames Clippers’ fleet are larger – long slender craft that hug the water as their engines blast them rapidly along. 

While to the untrained eye, the sleek lines of the 220-passenger vessels might appear similar, don’t be fooled.

There’s change afoot – a journey that started with the arrival of Venus Clipper in 2019 as the service targeted green improvement. 

The next step on that path, somewhat delayed by the pandemic, was the recent launch of Earth Clipper – a vessel that is aesthetically similar to the rest of the fleet, but is also completely different.

Earth Clipper runs purely on battery power in central London

Firstly, at 40 metres long, she can carry an extra 10 passengers. 

But this is a mere tweak in comparison to the main difference – the way she is propelled. Earth Clipper uses a hybrid combination of electric power and biofuel power to slice through the brown waters of the Thames.

In central London, she uses only an electric motor with a biofuel engine kicking in out east to recharge her batteries and push water through her jets.

“Earth Clipper has been just under three years in the making.

“We started working on the specification in 2019,” said Sean, CEO of Uber Boat By Thames Clippers.

“We needed extra capacity, to be able to serve our routes with the expansion down to Barking – the increasing volumes that were there and those in the pipeline, such as Battersea.

“We’d just commissioned their predecessor – Venus Clipper – and we were already focused on reducing weight and therefore power in that vessel.

“That was already a 20% emissions improvement on the core boats in our fleet for the same carrying capacity.

The boat is similar to other vessels in the fleet but produces 90% less CO2 emissions

“With that one, we were asking how we could make the boat lighter while providing an enhanced level of comfort and all the facilities our passengers expected.

“We worked on that whole design with 123 Naval Architects and came up with Venus.

“From that, we decided we had to move it on to the next level.”

The drive to do that came from the company’s goal to cut carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and to achieve net zero for the overall business by 2040.

Sean said: “Boats have to last 25-30 years – they haven’t got a similar shelf life to most other above ground vehicles. 

“With that in mind, to reach our sustainability goals, we realised we had to have a significant step forward.

“We looked at the options, took a lot of data from the operating profile of Venus and used it to establish what might be achieved by using a hybrid model. 

“From that, we realised we were not going to be able to achieve 100% battery power at high speeds, but that we could when going more slowly, as we do in central London.

“We formulated a specification and went to the shipyard that had built our previous five vessels and signed contracts to move on with building Earth Clipper.

She has a biofuel engine that charges her batteries and provides power outside the centre of London

“It does exactly what we wanted it to do.

“The model has resulted in a 90% reduction in our CO2 emissions and a 65% drop in oxides of nitrogen and sulphur.

“Those are figures based on measurements we’ve taken during actual running on the Thames.

“There are two more in build – Celestial and Mars – which will both have joined the fleet by spring 2024.

“We all have a duty of care and a duty to deliver on improving the environment.”

There are other benefits too.

Earth and its two sister ships hail from the Wight Shipyard Co on at East Cowes on the Isle Of Wight – a boost to the local economy with 65 people involved in their construction, including 14 apprentices. 

There are also other operational benefits closer to home – welcome news as passenger numbers are already exceeding levels seen in 2019.

“Earth is significantly quieter and smoother on battery and that’s even the case when the engine is running,” said Sean.

“From a noise perspective, it’s a significant improvement and there’s absolutely no compromise at all from the customer’s point of view.

“The seating is also an upgrade in design – we’ve managed to make all 230 lighter, improving the efficiency of the vessel.

“We had to add nearly nine tonnes of additional weight with cabling, batteries and the motor to enable us to use this method of powering the boat.

“So that’s a process we’ve been through with every component.

“When stepping on Earth Clipper, we feel a sense of achievement.

“We’re really inspired by feedback from the public and also the crews that are working on the boat.

“They really love it – the technical advances and the sense of having taken that step forward.”

The use of battery-only power in central London equates to an extra 16.5% reduction in emissions in comparison to using the biofuel engine alone.

In the future, Sean said hydrogen would likely provide further cuts in emissions as electrical power was currently impractical as a way to deliver high speed services on the river, given the charging times needed.

Earth Clipper can carry 10 extra passengers

A Rotherhithe – Canary Wharf Crossing

However, Uber Boat By Thames Clippers is also pressing ahead with plans for an all-electric cross-river service for pedestrians and cyclists.

The aim is to have this up and running on the company’s Rotherhithe-to-Canary Wharf route by spring 2025 and then use it as a template for similar services elsewhere.

Sean said: “We’re committed to delivering that as part of our plans to invest £70million in new boats up to 2030.

“There are also opportunities between Silvertown and Charlton as well as Thamesmead and Barking in the east.

“We’re also aiming to add more stops including a pier that has planning permission at Blackwall Yard, which the developer will hopefully build over the next few years.

“One of the things that happened over the pandemic is that more people discovered the river and we’ve had three record days this year. 

“Our figures for 2022 were higher than 2019 and Canary Wharf, for example, is thriving. The footfall at that pier is exceeding pre-Covid levels.”

Find out more about Uber Boat By Thames Clippers here

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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