Conserving M Shed’s cargo cranes

Posted on by Lauren MacCarthy.

by Andy King, senior curator of history

We are launching a public fundraising appeal to support the conservation of the four cargo cranes outside M Shed. Unfortunately time is taking its toll and they are showing significant signs of deterioration. They need urgent conservation, including a full repaint.

While they may not be the oldest objects in the 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. They nearly became scrap metal when the City Docks closed in 1975 but were saved by community action.

A black and white image taken in 1952 showing dockers receiving a tray of condensed milk into L Shed

Dockers receiving a tray of condensed milk from the Bristol Steam Navigation ship Pluto into L Shed first floor in 1952. © Bristol Culture

These four cranes are the last survivors of a group of eight on Princes Wharf, and of over 30 when the City Docks were at their busiest.

They passed into the care of Bristol Museums in 1989. Since then our Industrial Curators, supported by a dedicated team of volunteers, have cared for them. When M Shed opened in 2011, electrical power was restored to all the cranes for the first time in 35 years. On each of the cranes the entire cab was rebuilt, window frames were replaced and the machinery underwent major refurbishment.

These cranes are a significant part of our industrial heritage, there are very few left in the country like them and almost none in public ownership. Our cranes are unique in that they still work and are frequently open to visitors to explore. Ordinarily they would be running throughout weekends across the summer, giving visitors the opportunity to discover the vital part they played in the working life of the dockside.

A child enjoys a trip in the cab of one of the cranes.

A child enjoys a trip in the cab of one of the cranes. © Bristol Culture

Our team of volunteers put in thousands of hours each year keeping the cranes in working order. They share their enthusiasm with members of the public both in the cab on visiting days, and on the ground below.

But, there are some jobs they cannot undertake and it is now clear that the cranes are in need of urgent repair in order for them to remain operational.

Frances Coles, our Conservation & Documentation Manager, has recently undertaken an inspection of the cranes. Her report confirms that the cranes are showing significant signs of deterioration that requires urgent conservation.

Riveted steel structures such as these depend upon a well-applied, protective paint scheme to prevent corrosion. If rust is able to form and build up between the riveted surfaces, it could blow the joint apart.

In order to prevent this all four cranes need a full repaint with specialist primer and paint. An experienced team will need to complete the work as they’ll need to use specialist cherry pickers to reach the highest points.

Please help secure a future for the cranes on Bristol’s harbourside. They offer a tangible link to the city’s past and are an enduring landmark of Bristol. They inspire artists, photographers and even tattooists. Could you imagine Bristol’s skyline without them?

Please make a donation today. All monies raised will go towards this vital conservation and the future care of the cranes. Thank you.

Sadly we are currently unable to accept cheques as our offices remain closed due to Covid-19, but you are able to donate online.

Donate now

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