Category Archives: Water transport

Going for broker

Many seventeen-year-olds become very familiar with the world of insurance as they pick up the keys for their first hot hatch…

VW Golf, 1975 (David Rooney)

Few of us think about the system that sits behind our insurance policies, but everything in the transport world plays its part in a network of brokers, underwriters, syndicates and financiers – from passenger jets to fleets of reps, container ships to communication satellites.

Intelsat 6 communication satellite, 1989 (NASA / Science & Society)

Transport pioneers have long needed the services of insurers. One item in our archive is a 1907 insurance policy from Lloyd’s, ‘on the life of Charles C. Turner from the time of leaving earth at Crystal Palace in a balloon’.

Turner made it to Sweden and survived, which must have been a relief back in the Lloyd’s underwriting room at the Royal Exchange, London

Royal Exchange, London, c.1905 (NMeM / RPS / Science & Society)

A few days ago, our space curator Doug Millard organised a staff trip to meet a group of space technology insurers at Lloyd’s. Part of the visit included a tour of the remarkable building itself, designed by Richard Rogers and opened in 1986.

Lloyd's building, 2010 (David Rooney)

The building is amazing! The services hang on the outside, leaving the interior a vast volume uninterrupted by service ducts and lift-shafts.

Lloyd's underwriting room, 2010 (David Rooney)

The building’s scale befits the world of global risk-taking. But the work itself – brokers seeking insurance for their clients, meeting underwriters who’ll back the risk – is carried out face-to-face, as in the seventeenth-century coffee shop of Edward Lloyd, where the business started.

Back in 1907, Charles Turner’s broker sat with a Lloyd’s underwriter at a desk just like these in a building not far away…

Taking the Night Ferry

Well, it’s Wednesday morning and it looks like we might soon be able to stop sheltering from the sky.

With air travel still a problem as airlines attempt to return to schedule, fresh attention has been turning to the sea. The Royal Navy brought home some travellers on a warship, and demand for ferries has been high.

For passengers between the UK and France or Belgium, the Eurostar rail service has been a possibility (if you can get a ticket). Back in 1936, when the Channel Tunnel was a distant dream, a new train ferry service linking London and Paris was considered state of the art:

'The New Train Ferry Boats' poster, 1936 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

Passengers boarded trains at London Victoria and disembarked at Paris Gare du Nord, fresh from a night’s sleep (give or take a carriage swap or two at Dover and Dunkirk, depending on the depth of their pockets).

The ‘Night Ferry’, as it was known, continued until 1980, when competition from airlines had got too great. Thirty years on, though, is it time to reconsider this slower, but perhaps surer, form of travel?

'Night Ferry' poster, 1959 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

Air travel is a wonderful invention, in my view, but it’s not without challenges, and one big problem comes from relying on it to the exclusion of other forms of transport.

This week’s been a bit of a wake-up call. It’s forced us to remember that we’re a maritime nation, and whatever happens in the air, the ferries keep on sailing. We shouldn’t forget that fact once the ash cloud disperses, because who knows what might happen next?

Flying boats at Southampton

I talked last time about my recent trip to Southampton. While in town, I popped into the wonderful Solent Sky aviation museum.

Solent Sky aviation museum, Southampton (David Rooney)

Whilst much of our aircraft collection is on show in London, and our Wroughton site houses some of the bigger craft, we also have a number of aeroplanes (and other transport artefacts) on loan to other museums.

Solent Sky is home to our Short flying boat. Built in 1943 as a military-specification ‘Sunderland’, it was later converted to the civilian ‘Sandringham’ version, which involved new engines, removal of guns, bigger windows and the installation of seats and galley.

Short 'Sandringham' flying boat, 1943 (David Rooney)

Things have changed somewhat in passenger air travel since then – I wouldn’t like to see this sign under the window of a Jumbo Jet!

Sign under passenger windows in Short 'Sandringham' (David Rooney)

It had a long and fruitful career, under a variety of names including ’Beachcomber’ and ‘Southern Cross’, until its last flight in 1981. It had flown a total of 19,500 hours – a record for its type.

'Beachcomber' (David Rooney)

Soon after, with the help of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Science Museum purchased it and plans were made for a new aviation museum in Southampton to house it. In 1984, Solent Sky opened its doors.

It’s a terrific place. Visitors can enter the passenger cabins and flight deck of the Sandringham and, as someone who’s only flown in modern passenger jets, it was a real eye-opener to imagine flying in this 1940s airliner.

There’s tons to see at Solent Sky. The volunteer guides were really welcoming, the exhibits are superb and they’ve a substantial library and archive for those wanting to delve deeper.

Under Azura skies

I was in Southampton last week to give a talk, and while I was there, I dropped by the Southampton Maritime Museum to find out all about the area’s history as a passenger port.

Outside, I was faced with a view that brought Southampton’s maritime past right up to the present. A couple of hours earlier, P&O’s latest cruise ship, Azura, had docked nearby, ready for its inaugural cruise.

P&O cruise ship 'Azura' at Southampton, 7 April 2010 (David Rooney)

P&O was founded in 1840 as the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, operating freight and mail services to Europe and Egypt. They later expanded to passengers. This print from our pictorial collection shows P&O’s 1880s chairman, Sir Thomas Sutherland:

Sir Thomas Sutherland, P&O chairman, c.1887 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

By the twentieth century, travel on grand liners was an established luxury, with shipping lines competing to be biggest, fastest, or both.

Cunard‘s 1938 Queen Elizabeth, for instance, was the largest passenger ship ever built at the time. We’ve a large model in our Shipping gallery, and this archive photo shows the launch:

Launch of the 'Queen Elizabeth', 1938 (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

The development of civil aviation posed a great challenge to maritime travel and, as I mentioned in a previous post, once pressurised airliners after 1945 made long-distance flying comfortable, days were numbered for regular liner services.

But the market for cruising seems more buoyant than ever, with new ships like Azura offering ever more luxury, facilities and destinations. When visiting maritime towns, it’s clear that Britain is still in love with the sea!

'Azura' looms over Southampton port, 7 April 2010 (David Rooney)

More on my Southampton excursion next time…

Modelling for the Science Museum

I recently mentioned our Stephenson’s Rocket reproduction steam train rides in Hyde Park this Easter. Have you had a go yet, if you’re close by? I can tell you first-hand that it’s great fun!

Once you’ve experienced the live reproduction, you’ll naturally want to see the real thing in our Making the Modern World gallery. We’ve had Stephenson’s Rocket on show here in the Science Museum non-stop since 1862, apart from a couple of excursions to York and Japan. It’s fascinating to compare it with the reproduction.

As well as the other historic railway items in our gallery which I listed last time, you may want to spend some time in our absorbing walkway of models – a rich panorama of technology in miniature, with over 100 models on show - from fire engines to space rockets, boilers to babies.

This model of a French express locomotive is generally considered to be one of the finest loco models of its period in existence:

Model railway locomotive, 1855 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This model Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, made for us in 1911, was described by The Auto magazine as ‘one of the most beautiful models ever produced … well worthy of a place amongst the best work in our National Museum’:

Model of a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, 1911 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

And if paddle-steamers float your boat, here’s a very rare contemporary model of the 1830 steamship Albion:

Model of a coastal paddle-steamer, c.1830 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This is just the tip of a quite exquisite iceberg. Do call by if you can – the museum’s free to enter and we’re open 10 to 6 every day. It’s a modeller’s paradise!

World progress at Chittagong

I was inspecting the Science Museum’s shipping collections at our Blythe House store a few months ago, and came across this model of the oil tanker World Progress, built in 1973.

Model of 'World Progress' oil tanker (Science Museum / Science & Society)

She was classed a ‘Very Large Crude Carrier’, and with a carrying capacity of nearly quarter of a million tonnes, she was certainly well described. But she carries oil no more. According to the website of supertanker enthusiast Auke Visser, she was scrapped on the beaches of Chittagong back in 1996.

Chittagong has been in the news recently as the venue for the Bangladesh-England first test in the cricket. But in the transport world, Chittagong is well-known for its coastline of very shallow, muddy beaches which has become a worldwide centre for shipbreaking (as is Alang in the Gujarat state of neighbouring India).

This isn’t high-tech shipbreaking. That takes place elsewhere in the world, and costs far more. On the beaches of Bangladesh, huge oil tankers are torn apart by hand, using hammers, chisels, cutting torches, rudimentary diesel winches and a great deal of brute force and ingenuity.

One absorbing book I’ve read recently, Breaking Ships by BBC South Asia correspondent Roland Buerk, highlights some of the stark realities of the Chittagong industry, and what the alternatives might be. I certainly don’t know enough about this complex matter to pass any judgement myself.

Google Maps gives us the fascinating opportunity to look down on the beaches of Chittagong. The scale of the industry can be clearly seen. Zoom right in - the detail’s remarkable…

Getting a Leviathan off

A few days ago, I told you about riverfront industry in Greenwich. I recently made another Thames-side discovery.

Just by Masthouse Terrace pier on the Isle of Dogs, you can see the original launching slip for the record-breaking ship, the Great Eastern.

Great Eastern launching slip, Isle of Dogs (David Rooney)

Close by is the frontage of its manufacturer, John Scott Russell.

John Scott Russell building, Isle of Dogs (David Rooney)

The Great Eastern was huge. Designed by Brunel and built by Russell, when launched in 1858 she was by far the largest ship ever built. In fact, she was called Leviathan (huge or powerful thing) during construction.

'The Great Eastern on the Stocks', 1850s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Despite several launch attempts, she refused to budge, and had to be pushed into the Thames using hydraulic jacks built by the Tangye company.

Richard Tangye with the 'Great Eastern', Millwall, 1850s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This commission was the making of Tangye, who later advertised, ‘we launched the Great Eastern, the Great Eastern launched us.’ We’ve quite a few Tangye items in our collections – browse here. (PS. Tangye’s great-great-granddaughter, Charlotte, is a friend of mine!)

By this time, satirists were questioning the use of this monster. This cartoon from our archives suggests ‘what to do with her now you’ve got her off’…

'A Suggestion: The Leviathan, what to do with her now you've got her off', 1858 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The ship, scrapped in the 1880s, may seem like a distant memory, but it’s surprising what can still be found on the streets, by the river, and tucked away in museums…


If you’re planning to have a look at Richard Wilson’s Slice of Reality sculpture on the Greenwich peninsula, following my last post, you’ll find plenty else of interest along the Thames path while you’re there.

The area was once a hot-bed of industry, and there’s still plenty going on, though there’s been a spate of demolitions recently that are rather depressing for those interested in our industrial heritage.

One aspect of Greenwich’s industrial story is little-known, and even the best local historians are having trouble piecing together the details. But it seems certain that Henry Bessemer, indelibly associated with the Sheffield steel industry, built a factory on the Greenwich peninsula in the 1860s, near the site of the what became the Victoria Deep Water Terminal, just along from Wilson’s sculpture.

Greenwich peninsula, near old Victoria Deep Water Terminal (David Rooney)

I wrote about Bessemer in a recent post. His eponymous converter, one of which we’ve got on show, revolutionised the steel-making industry in Sheffield, but Bessemer was a south-London chap, and lived and died in Denmark Hill, near Peckham.

Bessemer converter on show at the Science Museum (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Bessemer’s Greenwich factory is long gone. But if it had succeeded, perhaps Greenwich would have become known for steel as much as for ships and timekeeping. More on the waterfront industry of east London in future posts…

Dredging up memories

I was walking up Kingsway at the weekend, and was stopped in my tracks by the most striking sculpture I’ve seen in a long time:

'Square the Block', Richard Wilson, Kingsway (David Rooney)

Square the Block, by internationally-renowned sculptor Richard Wilson RA, is a five-storey addition to a chamfered corner of a London School of Economics building.

I must admit to being a huge fan of Wilson’s work. I first encountered it in 2004, when I visited the Saatchi collection at London’s County Hall. One exhibit was Wilson’s 20:50, a room full of sump oil, which I found enchanting.

Wilson is also responsible for an artwork that’s closer to (my) home. Slice of Reality is a section of ship planted on the beach off the Greenwich peninsula, near the O2 (what used to be the Millennium Dome).

'Slice of Reality', Richard Wilson, Greenwich (David Rooney)

To make the sculpture, Wilson bought an old sand-dredger called Arco Trent, built in Devon in 1971, and had it chopped up in a shipyard on the River Tees before fixing it to the Greenwich beach.

I met Wilson on board the ship a couple of years ago, when he opened it for London Open House (a weekend when buildings that are normally off-limits throw open their doors to the public). He told me it is a perfect site for drawing and thinking, and I must say the views from its sun-drenched superstructure were magnificent.

We’ve got a handful of dredger models on show at the Science Museum, including Prins der Nederlanden, built three years before Arco Trent:

Model of 'Prins der Nederlanden', 1968 (detail, David Rooney, March 2010)

Extra points for anyone who can find the other two (much older) model dredgers in the gallery…

A bicycle made for four

I was in Cambridge last week for a couple of meetings. It’s a glorious city. The buildings reek of history and tradition, the streets are filled with bright folk lost in dreamy thought and the river carries its languorous cargo of students and tourists in pole-driven punts, as depicted in this poster from the NRM collection:

'St John's, Cambridge' railway poster (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

And then there’s the bicycles. Cambridge is teeming with them, and whilst I’m all for cycle-friendly streets, I need eyes in the back of my head when I want to cross the road…

Most Cambridge bikes are pretty ordinary, but occasionally something special appears. Here’s a great picture of the ‘Cambridge Duad’ in 1895:

'The Cambridge Duad', Cambridge University, 1895 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Look closely at the eighteen-year-old at the front. He’s Charles Rolls, keen cyclist and founder (with Henry Royce) of Rolls-Royce.

Here he is again that year, this time on a more conventional two-seat tandem:

Rolls and Legard riding a tandem, Cambridge University, 1895 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These wonderful pictures are from an album put together by Rolls that’s now in our Library and Archives collection, available to view by appointment at our Swindon site.

Half a century on, the technology seems barely to have changed. We’ve a handful of tandems in our historic bikes collection, including this lightweight touring model by Rensch from 1948:

Tandem bicycle, 1948 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

For Charles Rolls, though, history was to be cut tragically short. Besides his cycling and motoring, he was also a pioneering aviator. In 1910, at an air tournament at Bournemouth, Rolls was killed performing a complex aerial manoeuvre. He was just 32.