The Cargo Cranes

While they may not be the oldest objects in the Bristol Museums collection, the four electric cranes standing outside M Shed do hold the title of being the largest!

Built in the 1950s, the cranes have borne witness to over a half century of change to the area and offer a tangible link to Bristol’s industrial and maritime history.

Bristol city docks

Far from the cultural and leisure destination it is today, the Harbourside of the 1950s was a bustling port trading with the world. At its peak, the floating harbour was home to almost 40 cranes.

The M Shed cargo cranes were built in 1951 as part of a group of eight (numbered 25 to 32) to serve ‘L’ and ‘M’ transit sheds, now the home of the Museum. During the Second World War the old corporation granary on the site was blitzed, making space for a brand new general cargo wharf, built to the most up to date standards of the 1950s.

© Chris Bahn

Ships’ cargo could be swiftly unloaded and loaded and stored in the transit sheds, or put directly onto railway wagons or road transport, very evident in this photo of M Shed and Princes Wharf in 1953. Typical cargoes on this quayside were boxes of butter, barrels and tanks of Guinness and Harp lager, tractors, rolls of newsprint, paper pulp and timber.

The cranes were built by Stothert & Pitt of Bath, internationally known for their dockside cranes. They built the first electric dockside crane in Britain in 1893, for Southampton, and continued to make thousands for ports all over the world until closure in 1989. At one time, almost every port in the world had Stothert & Pitt cranes.

black and white photo of 4 cargo cranes

Our cranes unloaded their first cargo in April 1952. Seven of the cranes could lift 2 tons (later upgraded to 3) but No 32, which can be seen on the right of this photo could cope with ten tons.

On any day, up to 2000 men were employed on a casual basis, unloading the ships in the city and at Avonmouth. The availability of that huge, flexible pool of dockers was a vital element of the system that operated in ports throughout the country until the advent of containers in the 1970. They moved cargo that had been stowed by hand at the port of departure in packages small enough to be manhandled.

This also influenced the design of the cranes – they lift a relatively small maximum load, because that’s as much as a gang of men can move in the time it takes for the crane to deliver a load and return for the next – no need for them to be able to carry more. Speed was of the essence and that was where the driver came in.

The life of a crane driver

Crane drivers worked an eight hour day with breaks every hour and a half. After seven weeks training, crane drivers were left to hone their skills at operating the hoist, luffing and slewing of the crane with real cargoes. The best ones would become almost balletic at the way they could move the cranes around. They served three gangs of six dockers working in the ship’s hold. Speed was important, as the dockers were often paid according to how much they moved, and a slow driver meant less money at the end of the day.

There were perks to the job – the driver was always sent to the front of queues at dinner time, to ensure they were back in the cab when the dockers were ready to start again. But it meant standing at the controls for eight hours, concentrating on the swing of the hook and the position of the jib to ensure you didn’t hit a neighbouring crane or injure the men toiling in the hold below.

Saving the cranes

By the 1960s most of Bristol’s cargo was going through the port down the river at Avonmouth and the city docks were in decline. In 1969, Bristol city council announced plans to close the docks. M Shed’s cranes were the last to work with regular cargo before the closure of the city docks to commercial traffic. They helped to offload the very last Baltic trader which visited the port in November 1974. Shortly after, the power to them was cut and they became industrial relics.

Many of the remaining cranes were sold for scrap, including four of the eight that served M Shed. A group of local people recognised that the cranes were an important link to Bristol’s past and set up the pressure group City Docks Ventures in order to save those that remained. It was a very close thing, but City Docks Ventures managed to buy back two of the cranes from the scrap merchant they had been sold to, and Bristol City Council bought the remaining two.

John Grimshaw, City Docks Ventures shareholder, remembers the day he had to head to the scrap dealers with pockets full of cash in order to save two of the cranes which had already been sold:

“suddenly 4 of these 8 cranes went, just suddenly over night and, you know, there was never any discussion about it. […] So we made a decision then, just a few of us […] we’d really watch the next ones. And when we heard that the next two had gone for auction, we just said that’s enough and we, that weekend Jean [a fellow shareholder] rang round everybody she could think of and we assembled enough cash to um to go to Cashmore’s, the scrap dealers in Bath, in Newport and offer him £500 more than he’d paid for them, and bought them back again before they’d been demolished of course.”

Although these actions saved the cranes, little thought had been given to what would happen next. The future development of the harbour was very much undecided at this time and there were many conflicting opinions.

In 1978 City Council officers again questioned whether all four cranes should be kept, as they obscured views of the new Industrial Museum and were looking scruffy. They proposed scrapping three and using the proceeds to pay for painting the survivor. City Docks Ventures, the action group that had saved the cranes, vehemently opposed this and leapt back into action. They drew up a design to show how the cranes might have a useful future as an architects studios, a TV camera platform and an extension of the museum – all in reality completely unfeasible but enough to divert attention at the time.

Restoration of the cranes

The cranes were painted shortly after this but little else happened to them for over 20 years. All four cranes passed into the care of Bristol Museums in 1989. The team of volunteers working at the Industrial Museum already had their work cut out restoring and maintaining the railway, steam crane and three boats, so little was done to the cranes during this time.

Up the Feeder, Down the Mouth

Two things happened in the late 1990s to change that. Firstly, an influx of volunteers who had newly retired from the electrical and telecoms world, brought new skills to the workforce that enabled us to consider doing something with the cranes. The acquisition of a second-hand scissor lift (it’s still at work 25 years later!) facilitated a condition assessment and some basic cleaning work – 20 years of pigeon residence had created quite a build-up of guano, which did the museum workers’ gardens the world of good!

The second catalyst was a visit from Andy Hay, then director of the Bristol Old Vic theatre. The play Up The Feeder, Down The Mouth, written entirely from reminiscences of dockers and mariners by ACH Smith had been staged at the theatre in 1996. Andy wanted to repeat the production on Princes Wharf, making use of many of the museum’s exhibits as props. We readily agreed and committed to having one crane ready to play a part in the production. We just managed it, jury-rigging a power supply, overhauling only the most essential elements and learning how to drive it. The crane played a supporting role in each performance.

After this, work proceeded steadily, with major components being lifted out of the motor rooms for overhaul in the workshop and the rotten woodwork of the walkways and the cab floors being repaired and renewed.

By the time the Industrial Museum closed in 2006, two cranes had been fully certified. The cranes played a crucial role in the removal of objects from the museum prior to building work to create M Shed, such as a wooden hand loom on its way to an off-site store – we filled 28 articulated lorry loads like this.

The Friends of Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives kindly supported this restoration of the cranes, both financially and in volunteer hours, including a substantial donation to restore the electricity supply that enables them to operate. On each of the cranes the entire cab was rebuilt, window frames were replaced and the machinery underwent major refurbishment.

When M Shed opened in 2011, the cranes were central to the opening ceremony, lifting the performers who heralded the new museum. The cranes are part of M Shed’s ‘working exhibits’, along with the fairbairn steam crane, three boats and two steam trains. Across the summer months visitors can take a ride in an electric crane.

People power

From the start, the survival and rebirth of these iconic machines has been the work of the city’s people. They were saved by the actions of a small group of individuals in 1975. Their restoration has only been possible by dozens of volunteers contributing an estimated 55,000 hours to the work.

Their operation and maintenance is similarly achieved by volunteer effort. What we have done with our cranes is unique in the world. There are other preserved cranes but very few that still operate and none that you can visit like ours. M Shed’s team of dedicated volunteers put in thousands of hours each year keeping the cranes in working order, and sharing their enthusiasm with members of the public both in the cab on visiting days, and on the ground below. Because of them our visitors can learn more about the vital part the cranes played in the working life of the dockside.

We are currently running a fundraising campaign to support the conservation of the cranes. Sadly, the years have taken their toll and the cranes are showing significant signs of deterioration. They need urgent care, including a full repaint. Learn more, or make a donation.

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Our contributors

Written by Andy King – Senior Curator of Social, Industrial & Maritime History and Beth Cutter – Individual Giving Officer.