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Isle Of Dogs: Why the Massey Shaw fireboat is seeking new volunteers

Historic vessel lying in West India South Dock looks to ensure its stories continue to be told

Massey Shaw is currently moored at West India South Dock
Massey Shaw is currently moored at West India South Dock

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This is not the story of the fireboat Massey Shaw. How could it be?

Just to stand on the deck of this remarkable craft at her berth in West India South Dock is to feel her planks and steel plates quietly pulse with the decades of history they’ve absorbed.

It would be possible to fill this space many times over without coming close to bottoming out the sheer depth of material associated with this remarkable boat.

It might be the part she played saving goods worth many millions of pounds just a year after coming into service by blasting down the walls of a warehouse with the power of her main jet to stop a fire in its tracks at Colonial Wharf in Wapping. 

It could be the more than 500 lives she saved as part of the flotilla of little ships launched to help rescue British servicemen from the beaches at Dunkirk in 1940 – ferrying soldiers from the land to larger craft and herself taking about 100 back across the channel, making three trips despite the danger of the sea and enemy fire.

Or it may be the part she played in the desperate firefighting effort during the Blitz.

Massey in full flow

But these stories – and many more – are best told by those who know, the volunteers who are working to keep her shipshape and who hope eventually to open her to the public as a museum ship.

Built in 1935 by J Samuel Whites at Cowes on the Isle Of Wight for £18,000 (more than £2million in today’s money) she served the London Fire Brigade from launch until 1971.

After a decade in the wilderness, in 1982, the Massey Shaw And Marine Vessels Preservation Society embarked on a project to restore her and to sail her once again to Dunkirk for the first time since the 1960s.

Today, after much passion, a sinking, restoration work, vandalism, repair and renovation, she lies by the entrance to West India Docks, sharing space with the 1920s steam tug Portwey and the Dockland Scout Project. 

From there, the Massey Shaw Education Trust, as the society has become, intends to use its 40th anniversary year to raise awareness of its work, the vessel herself and the opportunities available for those who might like to get involved with the ongoing  project.

Rescuing troops from Dunkirk

Trust CEO David Rogers – himself a former firefighter, albeit a land-based one – said: “We’re a completely voluntary organisation and we’d really like to engage with a wider audience including people who are in Docklands.

“Perhaps they’ve seen this black and red boat that looks a bit strange – we often get questions about what she is and what she does.

“So one of the things we want to do is to get more volunteers of all ages who can come along and support us in our plans for the boat.

“We’ve had her for 40 years, but we see ourselves as custodians and we now need people to take her forward for the next 40.

“This boat has a unique history and we want to help people understand it and to help shape it whether they’re involved in the fire service or not.

“We want people to come and be trained so they can run the engines, operate the boat and man her pumps so she can appear at events. 

“But we also have a big archive that we’ve built up over the years, so we need people with IT skills to help organise and digitise that.”

Massey Shaw Educational Trust CEO David Rogers
Massey Shaw Educational Trust CEO David Rogers – image Matt Grayson

Currently the team are working towards getting Massey Shaw ready to once more cross the channel in 2025.

“We’re part of Dunkirk Little Ships, which celebrates the journey made by those boats in 1940 to save troops from the beaches,” said David.

“The crews who went over during the war were all volunteer firemen and fortunately they all came back safely, but some of the soldiers they rescued had been badly injured.

“We’d especially like young people to take part in our next trip, to learn the skills that were taught back in the 1930s, which are needed to operate the boat so future generations can continue to enjoy and learn about her.

“Volunteering is a great deal of fun – over the 40 years I’ve been involved, I’ve met some fantastic people and I’ve always enjoyed it.

“It’s great when visitors come onto the boat, especially if they have stories to share about individuals who perhaps served on Massey Shaw or were associated with her. 

Massey's 'monitor' which shoots its main jet
Massey’s ‘monitor’ which shoots its main jet – image Matt Grayson

“Also, the opportunity to go out on the boat, to show people what she can do and what it was like in its early days gives you a real buzz. We’re here to prove she can still do the job she was built for.”

Descend into Massey Shaw’s engine and pump room and you can see exactly what he’s talking about.

The beating heart of the vessel is her two main engines that require constant maintenance to both propel the boat and to power its firefighting equipment, capable of pumping enormous amounts of water to where it’s needed.

David says the main brass cannon on deck – called ‘the monitor’ – is capable of pumping 13,000 litres of water every single minute with enough force to propel the whole boat along when in full flow. 

“Last year we had an open day and the pump was running and the harbour master ran up the dock and said it was just fantastic – that he’d never seen anything like it,” said David.

“That’s the reaction we want – people clap and cheer because it’s such a great thing to see. We’re hoping to hold another open day to raise greater awareness of what we’re doing on August 14 and we’re very keen to attract new visitors.

“Beyond that we’re working to get Massey Shaw ready for Dunkirk in 2025 and we have an Arts Council application in to become an independent museum.

“Then we want to find somewhere we can have a link to the shore so we can display our archive.

“We’re also looking to partner with other local organisations and companies so we can expand and move forward from here.”

The Massey Shaw Education Trust is actively seeking new volunteers, partnerships and funding for its activities.

One of Massey's two main engines
One of Massey’s two main engines – image Matt Grayson

Read more: How Terrible Thames takes Horrible Histories onto the river

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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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Tower Bridge: How Terrible Thames floats Horrible Histories down the river

Woods Silver Fleet operates the boat hosting the shows from its Tower Quay Pier in east London

Terrible Thames co-writer and director Neal Foster and Kate Woods of Woods Silver Fleet
Terrible Thames co-writer and director Neal Foster and Kate Woods of Woods Silver Fleet – image Matt Grayson

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It’s fair to say the Woods family have some history with the river.

Thames Watermen since 1866, Lillian and Alfred Woods launched sightseeing tours of the capital from the Tower Of London in the early part of the 20th century – an enterprise that boomed in the 1950s around the Festival Of Britain. 

Lillian then encouraged her son Alan with his idea to gradually build the Silver Fleet – a series of vessels built for the Thames in Kent and Suffolk shipyards. 

While Alan remains chair of the company, today its course is steered by the next generation – siblings Thomas, William and Kate – who have spent the last two decades overseeing its growth as a provider of luxury river cruise ships for events and private charters. 

Over the years the Silver Fleet has welcomed film stars, politicians and members of the royal family on board – and that remains its core business.

But history also has a funny way of coming full circle and, in possession of refurbished 1980s vessel Silver Sockeye and, having acquired Tower Quay Pier, the family has made a move back to sightseeing, albeit with a fairly big difference. 

“We had this boat, which was built by my father with a lot of love – it was looking fantastic after its refurbishment, with all the lovely woodwork inside – and we thought it would make the best sightseeing cruise in London,” said Kate Woods, who works as design and development director at Woods’ Silver Fleet.

“We also thought there was nothing on the river to entertain children, so we looked and looked and, without really understanding how Horrible Histories worked, we approached Neal with the idea that we were Thames Watermen with a nice history and that it would be an interesting idea to bring the brand to the Thames.

“We’d also bought the pier by Tower Bridge, which is a great location, so we were absolutely delighted when it fired him up.”

Silver Sockeye in here Terrible Thames livery
Silver Sockeye in here Terrible Thames livery

Neal, by the way, is Neal Foster – actor manager of the Birmingham Stage Company, resident at The Old Rep Theatre and the man responsible for bringing Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories to the stage worldwide as well as conceiving performances under its irreverent cartoon umbrella for the likes of Warwick Castle.

Woods’ approach resulted in Terrible Thames, a tour unlike any other on the river in that it’s a full blown theatrical performance complete with sound engineer, soundtrack and an ever-changing backdrop as the boat makes its way to Parliament and circles back to Tower Quay Pier via Execution Dock at Wapping. 

Co-written by Neal and Terry, one of the biggest challenges for the team was adapting the content to the speed of the boat – something that constantly changes and is dictated largely by the ebb and flow of the tide.

“We’ve been doing Horrible Histories since 2005 and in the West End for 10 years, but we’d never done it on a boat,” said Neal.

“I was instantly attracted to the idea – I’ve always loved rivers. If I’m visiting a city, I’ll always head for a trip on a boat, so being on a boat for long periods suits me very well.

“It was also clear there was an awful lot of history in the section of the Thames we’d chosen to work with, so wherever possible we decided we wanted to attach it to whatever you could actually see from the boat. 

“When we were writing the show, the two biggest problems were that firstly I didn’t know where the audience’s attention would be – whether they would be looking at the actors or at London going past.

“It turns out they were looking at the actors a lot more than expected so we had to make sure the characters really pointed to the things they were talking about. 

“The second issue was the change in speed – you could almost say no two trips are ever the same – so the script had to be adaptable to cope with that while still being manageable for the actors, all while performing for the audience. 

“That’s why we’ve had to rehearse thoroughly – you need actors who can think on their feet and react quickly.

“It’s a bit like doing Hamlet, but the ghost might appear at the end of the play instead and you have to kill Claudius three acts early.

“It’s why you need the sound engineer – to make sure everything happens at the right time.”

The show features a student and a teacher on a trip down the Thames
The show features a student and a teacher on a trip down the Thames

Terrible Thames cruises run regularly at weekends and during school holidays – with a full complement of half term sailings from May 30 to June 3.

“With stories constantly updated and added, it’s a 45-minute ride designed to impart knowledge with plenty of humour and the brand’s customary gore.

“The whole thing that Terry is doing with Horrible Histories is to tell you the history you don’t know or that the stories you think you know are actually completely different,” said Neal. 

“One of the captains working on the boats said that he had been on the river for 20 years and he hadn’t ever known any of the stories, and that’s a chap who has lived and breathed the river.

“It really is something for Londoners as well as visitors to the capital.

“When we were writing it, Terry came up with the great idea of it being hosted by a teacher and a student who has won their school history prize and is being taken on the trip as a treat.

“The student and their family have been on the river all their lives so they are quite confident they know more about its history than the reluctant teacher. So it then becomes a battle about who knows more. 

“There are 40 or 50 stories in the show, which takes in Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast, Cleopatra’s Needle, Parliament and the Gunpowder Plot – which was really on November 4 – Boadicea destroying London, the Golden Hind and even people fleeing the Great Plague by hiding on boats on the river, who died because that’s where the rats all were.”

Kate added: “I’ve been really touched by people’s reactions to it.

“With all the trained Thames watermen, there’s a real London feel to the whole experience and it’s been put together with so much love, from the actors to the illustrations on the boat that were hand-drawn especially for us.

“There’s something about the two brands going together that works so well.

“It’s been really well received, and we were sold out at Easter, but we do sometimes have walk-in spaces so if you’re in the area, it’s always worth checking the timetable.”

Terrible Thames cruises take place at weekends, daily in school holidays and on occasional days during term time to accommodate tourists and school visits.

  • Adult tickets cost £22 off peak and £25 on peak, with kids costing £14-£15 respectively. Under-3s go free and family tickets cost £65-£72 for two adults and two kids.

Bookings can be made here

The Terrible Thames cruises leave from Tower Quay Pier
The Terrible Thames cruises leave from Tower Quay Pier

Read more: Discover the Massey Shaw historic fireboat and get involved

Read Wharf Life’s e-edition here

Subscribe to Wharf Life’s weekly newsletter here

- 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
Subscribe To Wharf Life