Steam tug Kerne appeal

Posted by Chris Graham on 17th April 2021

The 1913 steam tug Kerne is celebrating 50 years of continuous ownership, thanks to the efforts of The Steam Tug Kerne Preservation Society.

Steam tug Kerne

It’s hard to believe that Kerne is over a 100 years old! She’s seen here in 2007. (Pic: John Eyres)

In 1971, a group of like-minded friends in their early 20s, feeling a little disillusioned with the early railway steam preservation projects locally, hatched the idea of preserving something steam-powered that wouldn’t be confined by the regulations of the railways. Their searches drew them to the then recently-retired steam tug Kerne.

The vessel was originally called Viking, and was built in Montrose, Scotland, in 1913. She was renamed Terrier, and went immediately into Admiralty service at Chatham dockyard, serving there during both world wars, and throughout the interwar period. Indeed, it’s believed she’s the only First World War Royal Naval vessel to survive and still be in operation. Peacetime saw her renamed for the third time, when she was given her current name, Kerne, upon being sold in the late 1940s for commercial service, initially on the River Medway and then, from 1948, on the River Mersey.

By 1971, Kerne had been retired, and was quietly waiting for the breaker’s torch when, at the eleventh hour, she met the group that was to become her salvation.The friends formed themselves into the North Western Steamship Company. Mostly from shipping and engineering backgrounds, the members of the group were aware of the pitfalls of trying to look after an aged, sea-going vessel, but set about the task with pragmatism and optimism.

Over the years, Kerne and her owners have had their fair share of ups and downs. High points have included being present in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Review of Shipping on the Mersey, in 1977, and being awarded the Queen’s Award for Volunteer Service, in 2018.

An evocative image of Kerne as she steams past the Royal Liver building in Liverpool, back in 2014. (Pic: Paul Kirkbride)

The group formed a charity, The Steam Tug Kerne Preservation Society, in 2008, and it’s through that organisation that the same group of people continue to maintain and operate Kerne on the coastal and inland waterways in the north-west of England.

The cost of heritage preservation, however, is considerable, and is ever-increasing. The group is faced with many expenses that have grown considerably over the time of its ownership, and some that weren’t even a consideration when the group was originally formed.

As is to be expected with a vessel that’s 108 years old, there’s a constant battle with wear and tear, especially from corrosion caused by the salt-water environment in which she spends most of her time. Over the years of ownership, as well as keeping pace with the requirements of regular, regulatory inspections and repairs, much has been done to improve the vessel. Most of the deck and a large proportion of the hull have been replaced, as have internal supports and frames that had reached the end of their life.

The engine, a three-cylinder, triple-expansion steam engine, has been thoroughly overhauled, while the coal-fired boiler – built by the Admiralty in 1935 – is currently undergoing a heavy maintenance programme, a large part of which entails replacement of all the stay tubes; heavy work that’s being carried out by a small band of dedicated volunteers.

The forward cabin, a beautiful example lined in English oak with period fittings, has been restored to original condition, and the wheelhouse has been replaced with a brand new, hand-crafted hardwood example. The vessel has been regularly dry-docked, and is now in better condition than at any time since her purchase, 50 years ago.

Steam tug Kerne

A true survivor! Here’s Kerne photographed just a couple of years ago. (Pic: Robert Bregazzi)

These projects alone, while contributing considerably towards ensuring the long-term survival of the vessel, have not been cheap; this year’s endeavours have already cost about £40,000. A considerable sum for a small organisation to find. Combined with this, the current Covid-19 pandemic has deprived the charity of its usual exposure at festivals, museums and events, that would normally have generated essential donations. Also, the pandemic also caused the loss of a lucrative filming contract.

This year will see a continuous 50 years of owing, running and maintaining Kerne and to celebrate that landmark, the Preservation Society is launching its Golden Jubilee Appeal.

The aim is to raise £10,000 over the year, to help with the completion of the current projects, and provide a financial foundation to help Kerne continue to give great pleasure to many as she steams around the North West, presenting both an elegant and rare example from a bygone age.

Any donations will be gratefully received via the appeal pages on the society’s website – tugkerne.co.uk – by Facebook, by cheque (made payable to The Steam Tug Kerne Preservation Society and posted to STKPS Treasurer, Bankside House, Haugh Road, Todmorden, Lancs. OL14 6BU) or by arrangement with the treasurer, who can be reached by email to: treasurer@tugkerne.co.uk.

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