Bideford volunteers work to restore historic SS Freshspring
- Credit: Archant
A unique steamship is being restored at Bideford for a new educational role, writes Owen Jones
She once steamed around the Mediterranean, supplying British warships with fresh water for their boilers. Now the Steamship Freshspring – saved from being cut up for scrap – is being prepared for a new role.
For two days every week volunteers turn up at the SS Freshspring, moored alongside Bideford Quay, to chip, scrape and paint the 70-year-old riveted steel superstructure – slowly restoring this historic vessel.
The aim is to turn her into an inspirational educational facility which will encourage young people to consider a career in the maritime sector and engineering.
Ultimately the dream is to win £3 million in National Lottery funding and restore the steamship to operational use, capable of taking passengers to sea.
At the helm of this ambitious challenge is 70-year-old John Puddy, who bought Freshspring for £1 after spotting a small article in a magazine saying she needed a new owner.
John is now chairman of the Steamship Freshspring Society, a registered charity dedicated to the restoration of what is a unique example of steamships from the first half of the 20th century. After a varied career – which included running Lundy island for 15 years and working for the Amber Foundation and Greenpower Education Trust – John is now excited about the possibilities Freshspring offers.
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Big steps have already been taken. The trust was awarded £155,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund to bring the ship from Newnham on Severn to her Bideford berth.
This was followed by a £61,000 National Lottery grant, which will enable the ship to be opened to the public as a heritage attraction later this year. The grant includes funding to employ an education officer.
John says: “It has taken off beyond my wildest dreams. We have achieved so much in such a short time. The ship seems to be magnetic – we seem to have no trouble getting people to come and join us.”
Despite its age Freshspring is in remarkably good shape, particularly the triple expansion steam engine which has been cared for over the years and is in outstanding condition. The mahogany wheelhouse has not survived and a new one is being built from iroko wood by traditional boat restorers Butler & Co of Truro. Sadly the wheelhouse was broken into several years ago and the ship’s binnacle and telegraph were stolen.
John hopes one day to be able to find suitable replacements.
He’d also love to hear from anyone who remembers working on Freshspring in the years she was in service, or who worked on one of her 13 sister ships.
The immediate target for the trust is to get the ship ready to be opened to the public on June 30, the annual Bideford Heritage Day.
John Puddy envisages Freshspring one day being moved along the quayside to be near Bideford’s Burton art gallery and museum and becoming an associated maritime exhibition space.
But over the horizon there are bigger plans.
The idea is for the cargo tanks, in which Freshspring used to carry 236 tons of fresh water, to be converted into cabin accommodation. If the ship can be restored to steaming condition she could then be used for short river excursions, carrying around 100 passengers, and for sea-going cruises for sea cadets, navy cadets and people interested in experiencing life at sea aboard a steamship.
The ship’s steam engines – similar (but smaller) to those that powered the Titanic and almost all 20th century steamships – originally ran on coal and later were converted to run on diesel. But John believes the future could see the steam engines being powered by more environmentally-friendly natural gas.
Restoring the ship to operational condition won’t be cheap though, and a major lottery bid for around £3 million will be required.
For John Puddy though, it will be money well spent – particularly if it leads to more young people developing an interest in engineering or a career in the maritime industry.
Freshspring is such a unique example of the small steamships that were once the workhorse of the merchant fleet that it can be compared with bigger and better-known heritage ships like Cutty Sark or SS Great Britain, he says.
“It is our Great Britain. I know it is a small ship but it represents a period of time in maritime history.”
Learn more about the project and how to get involved at ssfreshspring.co.uk
SS Freshspring is the last surviving example of the 14 Fresh class water carriers built by Lytham Shipbuilding and Engineering Co for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
She was launched on 15 August 1946 and after trials in February 1947 sailed to her long term base in Malta. Initially coal fired she was converted to run on heavy fuel oil in 1956.
She returned to the UK in 1967 to replace sister ship, Freshpond, at Devonport. Prior to being put into reserve in 1976 at Gareloch, she also worked in and around the Clyde and Pembroke docks and she was surveyed and refitted at Ardrossan in 1969.
She was offered for sale in 1977 and sold two years later to Oswald Burgess, who towed her to Bristol, which is where she was last steamed.
‘The ship seems to be magnetic – we seem to have no trouble getting people to come and join us’