Houses in Castle Street, Thornbury

Visit to M Shed

Society summer outing, 27 June 2024

Report by Stan Morrissey

Every summer we arrange an outing. This year we visited Bristol Museums’ M Shed engineering section, with a trip around the harbour on a preserved tugboat, a climb up a dockside crane and a peer into a mock-up Concorde flight deck.

We were first ushered aboard the John King, a diesel tug built in Bristol in 1935 to tow cargo ships up the river to the docks. After containerisation took over she became redundant in 1976 and was put to work in Southampton and other ports until finally pensioned off and returned to Bristol as part of the museum’s little fleet. The main impression of the boat was of power with its enormous engine throbbing below us.

The John King on its harbour tour.

We made a circuit of the harbour, on the way having good views of the Great Britain and of Underfall Yard which we visited two years ago. Also sighted were the Balmoral and the Pyronaut (the fireboat that was the subject of a talk a year ago Link icon), both being refurbished, and the Matthew under way, a good showing of Bristol’s old ships.

Back from our little trip we gathered below one of the cranes. When Bristol was a destination for cargo vessels, the area now occupied by M Shed was a nine-storey grain warehouse. The area in front was laid out to allow for multiple rail tracks (still in place). Ships would moor alongside, sometimes two deep, and be unloaded. There were originally nine cranes, eight able to lift three tons and one 10 tons. Their reach was such that they could unload not just the ship alongside but another beyond it, so many ships could be dealt with at once. The loads were transferred to rail wagons, motor lorries or directly to the warehouse. The cranes could be driven laterally on rails, rotate and of course elevate the jib. When they became redundant they were scrapped, but luckily a benefactor stepped in, bought two of them and donated them to the museum. Since then they have been restored to full working order.

One of the M Shed cranes being inspected by members of the party.

So, having learned all this, we were ready to go skyward. Luckily we didn’t have to climb as there was an elevating platform to the operating room. We were advised where not to grip and to avoid the anti-climb paint (yes, people sneak in at night and try to climb the structure, but are thwarted by the tacky paint – doesn’t deter the seagulls though). After a demonstration of the control levers, the brake being the most important, we were allowed to lay our own hands on them and move the jib for ourselves. The movement was surprisingly smooth and quiet, a tribute to the restorers, and it was a revelation how precisely the hook could be manipulated. We also learned how to avoid swiping the M Shed roof!

Next we moved inside the main building to the workshops where they make all things possible. Here we could see the real oily-rag side of conservation, an area full of large machinery, including an entire large lorry, a very ornate printing press and other fascinating gadgets including our destination, a Concorde simulated flight deck.

Constructed of wood and originally attached to a mock-up of the entire fuselage, it was one of several built by BAC in the mid-1960s to test the design and layout of instrumentation for the new plane. The deck was mounted on hydraulic rams so the pilot could experience landing, taxiing and take-off with realistic movement and indicators. It was impressive in the number of dials and switches they managed to jam in to a tiny space, given that the poor pilots had to know and operate every one.

After a great day out with many new experiences we departed to our final destinations, which inevitably included (at least) a cup of tea and a piece of cake.

Many thanks to Clive Brain of M Shed who set this up for us and to Gill Cox for handling the arrangements.

This site © Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society 2024. Site design by Michael Quinion.