World’s only Victorian steam ship returns home to River Lea

SS Robin on its journey home to the East End. Photograph: Harry Dwyer

The only complete steam ship in existence moved back home last week – to a spot on the River Lea just 150 metres from where she was built in 1890.

SS Robin made the journey on 10 December from the Royal Docks to Trinity Buoy Wharf, where she will become part of a free, open-air museum that celebrates maritime history.

Eric Reynolds, chairman of the SS Robin Trust and founding director of Urban Space Management, which manages the Wharf, said: “The SS Robin is an outstanding ship which epitomises the important history of the East End.

“I am looking forward to the new future for the Robin.”

The ship now sits on its own purpose-built lagoon, three metres above the river, where it will be protected for the long term.

Over the next few months, archive material will be examined by experts and practical access to the ship will be created in preparation for tours by members of the public.

Robin and her sister ship Rook were launched into the River Lea 133 years ago from Orchard House Yard at Bow Creek.

The ship on its purpose-built lagoon at Trinity Buoy Wharf. Photograph: Harry Dwyer

The banks of the Thames have long been considered the world centre for shipbuilding, with a tradition going back hundreds of years.

The industry supported London’s status as a global trading hub, and many of the ships used in the Royal and Merchant Navies were supplied in bulk after being crafted on the waterways of the East End.

The Thames Iron Works was one of the largest yards in the country, building the biggest ships either side of the River Lea at Bow Creek.

By 1890, shipbuilders in Scotland and on the north-east coast had taken over the market, helped by lower overheads, and Thames Iron Works finally closed in 1912.

This brought large shipbuilding to an end in London, and a few smaller yards went into a steady decline from which they never recovered.

Later, bombing in the Second World War and urban regeneration saw the area largely scrubbed of its maritime history.

SS Robin is one of the very few surviving London-built ships of its era.

It is internationally recognised as being the world’s only complete Victorian steam ship, and the only one left that is fitted with its original steam engine and boiler.

She is also the last large coastal cargo steam ship of several thousand built globally between 1850 and 1950.

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