On The SS Robin
Sitting on a pontoon before the Millennium Mills in Royal Victoria Dock, with her proud crimson breast evoking the bird that is her namesake, SS Robin is the oldest complete steam coaster in the world. Constructed just a few miles away by Mackenzie, MacAlpine & Co at Orchard Yard, Bow, in 1890 alongside her sister ship SS Rook, she was fitted out in East India Dock and equipped with an engine in Dundee. There were once fifteen hundred of these vessels chugging up and down the coastline of the British Isles, competing with the railway to deliver bulk cargoes such as grain, coal, iron ore and china clay – but today only SS Robin survives to tell the story of this lost maritime endeavour.
Beneath an occluded sky with rain blowing in the wind, I visited SS Robin yesterday within the shadow of Spiler’s derelict Millennium Mills, like some great cliff looming overhead. Repair to the hull of the steam coaster reveals the damage that time has wrought, yet lines of sturdy nineteenth century rivets, once heated and thrown by children, remain visible alongside modern repairs. Of squat design and robust workmanship, these ships were only designed to withstand ten years of use, and SS Robin was sold off to a Spanish owner in 1900 but continued to work the Altantic coastal route from Bilbao for a further seventy-four years, under the guise of ‘Maria.’
“She is as significant a vessel as Cutty Sark,” Matt Friday, who works for the trust set up to care for SS Robin, assured me, “She is just twenty years younger and the last of her class.” SS Robin was due to be broken up in September 1974 but instead, once her final cargo was unloaded in Bilbao in May of that year, she was purchased by the Maritime Trust and steamed back up the English Channel and the Thames to London in June, where she was moored at St Katharine Dock.
In spite of major restoration, SS Robin fell into neglect and, by 1991, had been moved down river to East India Dock. Sold for the sum of just one pound, she was used as a floating gallery for several years until, as this century dawned, it became clear more restoration work was required and the old vessel was no longer seaworthy. 80% of her steelwork would need to be replaced to make her shipshape again and so SS Robin was transferred permanently to a pontoon which permits retention of the original fabric.
When I visited yesterday, a thick layer of asphalt was being removed from the deck – formerly installed as a waterproofing agent, it had become a medium for water to enter the structure. Walking around the pontoon, the elegant sculptural form of the hull was magnificent to behold, while down below, the original cylinders and pistons of the triple expansion engine remain. In spite of its modest origin, this is a vessel of distinguished design and sitting in the vast emptiness of Royal Victoria Dock, once the largest working dock in the world, SS Robin – the last of the ‘dirty British coasters’ – provides the necessary catalyst to evoke the history and meaning of this extraordinary place.
SS Robin in Lerwick (Courtesy of SS Robin Trust)
SS Robin in River Douro, Porto, under the guise of ‘Maria’ (Courtesy of SS Robin Trust)
Undergoing restoration in the seventies (Courtesy of SS Robin Trust)
At St Katharine Docks in the eighties (Courtesy of Ambrose Greenway)
SS Robin’s neighbour in Royal Victoria Dock is a lightship
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
from Cargoes by John Masefield
Learn more from SS Robin Trust
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