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BBC: Rescue for London's Dunkirk fireboat

A historic London fireboat that rescued hundreds of soldiers at Dunkirk, saved St Paul's during the Blitz and which even played a secret part in the founding of the National Health Service is to be restored to its former glory.

In the early 1900s, the River Thames was served by a fleet of approximately 40 steam fireboats, which were able to pump water directly from the river to fight a blaze.

Fireboats were particularly useful for the large fires that broke out in the warehouses and factories along the Thames.

The Massey Shaw was built in 1935 with a special design that would allow her to navigate all of the bridges along the Thames at any state of the tide.

In addition, her powerful pumps allowed her to pump 11 tonnes of water per hour straight from the river. She is said to be the only surviving fireboat of her type in Europe.

David Rogers is the director of the Massey Shaw & Marine Preservation Society, a group of enthusiasts who now own and look after the vessel where it is currently moored at Deptford Creek in south east London.

"The Heritage Lottery Fund have kindly given us a large grant which will allow us to complete the restoration of the vessel but the primary target is to look at education," David tells BBC London during a tour of the Massey Shaw. We believe this boat has a number of avenues that fits in nicely with the school curriculum and we're going to be employing an education outreach worker who is going to go into schools and colleges."

The £425,500 of lottery money will also pay for a full restoration of the boat, including a rebuild of one its engines, and return the Massey Shaw to its original 1935 condition.

Dunkirk & The Blitz

The Massey Shaw played an important role during the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk, the legendary rescue operation that saved hundreds and thousands of British and French troops. She was chosen for Dunkirk because, at five years old, it was the newest boat that the Fire Service had at the time.

Dunkirk

In the event, she would save over 500 troops, by ferrying men from the beaches to larger vessels. Even its flag was used to bandage a soldier's injured arm.

Several of the founders of the Massey Shaw & Marine Preservation Society trace their involvement with the boat back to Dunkirk.

The boat's wartime heroics did not stop there. Fireboats played a crucial role during the Blitz, particularly after London's water mains had been destroyed by enemy bombs. On one occasion, the Massey Shaw was part of a firefighting operation that saved St Paul's Cathedral from imminent destruction.

The NHS

There was time for the Massey Shaw to take part in one more historic episode before she was retired in 1971. David Rogers takes up the story:

"The crew were sworn to secrecy. Onboard came various officials who then disappeared into the cabin and the crew were tasked to head towards Southend. During that period of time we understand that they were talking through the final parts of the formulation of the health service."

In fact, the officials who came onboard were the Labour politicians Herbert Morrison and Aneurin Bevin. It happened in 1947, and one year later the NHS was created.

David Rogers, a retired fire fighter who has been fundraising for the Massey Shaw since the early 80s, calls it 'another unique piece of history.'

Calmer waters

It has not all been plain sailing. Before she was saved in 1980 by the preservation society, the Massey Shaw had been abandoned in St Katherine's Dock, near London Bridge, and was used as a public walkway while construction work took place around her.

Although the lottery grant is a 'massive boost' there is still a lot of work to be done. This includes digitising their historical archive and working with the local community to get them involved and to pass on relevant marine skills.

Another priority is finding a permanent home for her, although it is hoped that talks with Lewisham and Greenwich Councils will prove fruitful.

The intention is that she will stay in London's south east.

"It's always had its history on the Thames and we'd like it to stay here for the people of London to benefit from it," says David.

But after some difficult times, it appears that the future of the Massey Shaw will be in keeping with its glorious history.

"There have been a number of years when the boat has sunk; we've had vandalism and all sorts of difficulties to get through," says David. "We believe that we now have the opportunity to give the boat what it deserves."

Article by BBC London - Read original article