Shake-up on cards for National Historic Fleet - Museums Association

Shake-up on cards for National Historic Fleet

National Historic Ships' consultation on the future of the 200-strong National Historic Fleet could reduce the number of ships on the register. Patrick Steel reports
Patrick Steel
National Historic Ships (NHS), the government-funded but independently run organisation charged with advising the government and funding bodies on matters relating to historic vessels in the UK, is consulting on the way in which it assesses the National Historic Fleet.

Created in 2010, the National Historic Fleet comprises just over 200 ships from a register of more than 2,000 vessels.

The consultation proposes a comparative analysis of different types of ship in the fleet to establish, for example, which are the most significant lifeboats or luxury steam vessels.

NHS director Martyn Heighton says the aim of the proposal is not to decrease the number, but that there may be better examples of a small number of historic vessels, in which case the NHS would consult a vessel’s owner over its status.

But Matthew Tanner, chief executive of the ss Great Britain Trust, thinks the number should be reduced, because supporting them all equally means the best results cannot be achieved for the most important ships.


Historic ships are difficult to preserve, says Tanner, and the important ones probably need more support from the state. Although NHS is delivering way beyond its resources, he says it is still “ridiculously under-resourced”.

NHS’s grant-in-aid from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has been cut by nearly £40,000 over the past five years. Its settlement of about £218,000 for 2013-14 has to support four staff and fund a scheme for grants of up to £1,000 to give initial help to historic vessel owners seeking funding.

The main funders of historic ships are the Heritage Lottery Fund, which awarded about £14.6m to 24 historic vessels between 2010 and 2013, and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, even though it had its grant-in-aid cut from about £10m to £5m in 2008-09.

But these figures need to be put into context against the costs of preserving historic ships: the restoration of the Cutty Sark cost £50m and the ss Great Britain cost £11.3m.

Heighton makes a virtue of NHS’s lack of bureaucracy, but admits that he would like to have more resources to review the whole register and create a database of historic vessels.

Meanwhile, a more pressing issue is a backlog of more than 50 applications to the National Historic Fleet, entry to which has been frozen since 2012 to allow for the consultation.

The consultation is useful and important, says Tanner, as historic ships are vital to our national heritage, but more resources are needed to “beef up” the NHS’s work.

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