Amos Saved from a Watery Grave

The 'GPS Atlas' lifts the historic steam tug 'John H Amos' onto a pontoon barge.

After 32 years lying on the Medway next to Chatham Historic Dockyard, the UK’ s last surviving steam paddle tug, ' John H Amos' , has been moved to a more suitable location for work on the vessel’ s restoration.

On March 27, the 'GPS Atlas' floating sheerlegs lifted the tug from its berth on Number 7 slipway onto a pontoon barge on which it was moved down river. The following day it was transferred to a larger pontoon, the 'Portal Narvik', which will be its base during extensive rebuilding works.

The John H Amos was built in 1931 by Bow McLachlan of Paisley, Glasgow, for the Tees Conservancy Commissioners. The 110ft long vessel has a 22.6ft beam, and weighs 202 gross tonnes (300 displacement tons). The tug was powered by two compound diagonal steam engines which gave it a working speed of 11 knots. Although used primarily for towing waste barges and dredgers on the River Tees, the tug had a certificate to carry 130 passengers and was often used for council workers’ outings. In the late 1960s the vessel was retired and was donated to Middlesborough Museum in 1968. It was berthed at Stockton for some years and in 1976 Martin Stevens purchased the vessel for the Medway Maritime Museum. It was briefly renamed 'Hero' and towed to Chatham by the steam tug 'Cervia'.

For years it sat alongside the river wall. Its promised berth at the Historic Dockyard did not materialise and it was beached on the slipway no longer afloat. In order to qualify for lottery funding, its owner Martin Stevens formed the Medway Maritime Trust, which received a planning grant of £50,000. The eventual programme required the purchase of a large pontoon barge (Portal Narvik) to use as a working platform. A ‘non-commercial’ arrangement was made with the local marine contractors GPS to lift the vessel with their 400 ton sheerlegs GPS Atlas, whenever it was available and close enough at hand. Meanwhile the Portal Narvik was put to work to help pay its way. Timber was sourced to reinforce the pontoon’s deck and dock blocks were borrowed. A suitable mud berth was found in the Medway.


The funnel, ventilators and other fittings  of John H Amos were removed some time ago and the hull was strengthened with rail tracks to stop the steel strops cutting through it during the lift. Steel girders were used to reinforce the deck.
Due to demands on the GPS Atlas, the proposed date for the lift changed 10 times between February and mid-March. On the morning of 26 March, steam engineer Martin Staniforth was still welding steel re-enforcements to the lifting spreader beams  and at high tide the GPS Atlas arrived. The first lift raised the bow of the tug so that two wire lifting strops could be placed under the hull along with others that had been positioned two years previously. The following day the GPS Atlas returned to raise the vessel from its watery grave.
Holes had been cut in the hull to allow the water to drain as the tug was lifted. The crane operator said the weight on the crane was 330 tons when the lift started and 225 tons after the water had drained. When the tug was turned 90 degrees to come parallel to the river, it was lowered onto the transport barge 'Snow White', although some 80% of the weight was still supported by the crane. The GPS Atlas, Snow White and John H Amos were assisted down river by the tugs 'Nore Commodore' and 'Napia'.
On 28 March the third lift took place. Director of operations Jaco Sluijmers decided to bring the Portal Narvik across the river to the Snow White as there would be more time for the transfer without the restriction of a falling tide. This was a well judged decision as it proved difficult to free the strops.

Once settled in its new berth, the first jobs will be to add extra supports to secure the hull, clean the vessel and begin a comprehensive recording programme. Despite have a complete set of original drawings, the detail changes made in the shipyard must be recorded to ensure that the restored vessel will have all the authenticity of the 1931 vessel. The total cost of restoration is likley to exceed £5m.
The work so far has been done with minimal funding and with the help of friendly companies and organisations such as GPS Marine; Peel Ports, which controls Medway Ports; National Historic Ships; Rochester Bridge Trust; Museums, Libraries and Archives Council; G.G.Stevens & Son of Sittingbourne, sellers of woodstoves and garden machinery who have generally supported the project; Nuttalls, which donated the timber decking; and Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, which lent their dock blocks.

By Graeme Ewens

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