Some of our biggest exhibits are outside M Shed and can be seen even when the museum is closed. On most weekends, they’re brought to life for trips and visits by our fantastic team of volunteers. Head over to the what’s on section to find out when the next dates are.
Read about the iconic working exhibits below – if you’d like to know even more you can contact us or visit M Shed on a crane, boat or train day, where you can chat to staff and volunteers and experience the working dockside for yourself. And if you fancy joining our team, just ask – you’d be very welcome to! Head over to the volunteering section to see how you can get involved.
A landmark on Bristol’s docks, these cargo cranes are a link to the city’s 1950s trading heyday.
Built by Stothert & Pitt in Bath, these four cranes – the biggest objects in the whole of our collections – are the last survivors of over 40 here in the City Docks during the 1950s. Cranes like these were developed to load and unload ships as quickly as possible in port.
After the closure of the City Docks to commercial traffic in 1975, the remaining cranes were sold for scrap. The pressure group City Docks Ventures was formed to buy back two of the cranes, and Bristol City Council bought the remaining two.
All four cranes passed into our care in 1989. Our volunteers started to restore the cranes in 2001, and they’re now able to move under their own power.
Fairbairn Steam crane
The striking banana-shaped crane is the Fairbairn Steam crane, now the oldest surviving exhibit of its type in Britain and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
This steam crane was built in 1878 by Stothert & Pitt to a design by Victorian engineer William Fairbairn, to lift heavy loads from the deep holds of ships more efficiently than other cranes of the day. It could lift up to 35 tons (35.56 tonnes) and was provided for the very heavy loads that passed through the port.
Through most of its working life it had only occasional use, except for a busy period in World War 2 when it worked day and night handling assault landing craft. When the City Docks were closed the crane passed into our care.
The steam crane has now been restored to full working order.
Visit the cranes and get a unique view of the harbour – find out when the next crane trips are.
Henbury and Portbury
Locomotive engineering was a vital industry in Bristol from the late 1830s to the 1950s and we have engines from each of the builders. Two of them provide the power for Bristol Harbour Railway.
Built in the Fishponds area of Bristol in 1917 by the Avonside Engine Co and painted battleship grey, Portbury was taken to work on the construction of the new Portbury shipyard towards the end of World War 1. In 1920 she was moved to Avonmouth Docks where she worked on the internal railway system.
Portbury had a reputation for great strength and in her hey-day it was said that she could ‘pull a town down’. She also had a tendency to move off when unattended – a common problem with steam locomotives with worn parts. Thus she was usually parked between other engines in the Avonmouth shed.
She was joined by Henbury, built at Bristol company Peckett & Sons in 1937. A more powerful engine, Henbury augmented a growing fleet of 40 engines at work in the docks.
When diesel engines took over in the 1960s both engines were selected for the museum. After some years in storage Henbury was overhauled and took part in the opening ceremony of Bristol Industrial Museum in 1978. In 1981, Henbury made railway history as the first preserved steam locomotive to pull scheduled freight on main line rail.
Henbury has pulled hundreds of thousands of visitors on trips on Bristol Harbour Railway since 1978, joined in 1988 by Portbury. Henbury starts a period of rest and overhaul after July 2014, but train rides will continue with Portbury in charge.
When they’re not working, you can see the locomotives and find out more about them in the West End Foyer of M Shed. You can also see our fleet of historic wagons in the sidings on Wapping Wharf.
Take a trip on the Bristol Harbour Railway – find out when the next train rides are.
Pyronaut was a crucial part of the docks’ fire-fighting service for about 40 years.
Built in Bristol in 1934, Pyronaut (originally named Phoenix II) worked from the Prince Street Bridge river police station. She had a crew of three firemen, including an engineer who was based in the engine room.
In 1940, Pyronaut was faced with her most challenging fire-fighting period, as the air raids of the Bristol Blitz damaged and destroyed countless warehouses, factories, shops and homes around the Floating Harbour.
By the late 1960s, Pyronaut’s equipment had become worn out and obsolete and in 1973 she was put up for sale. She eventually came into our care and was completely restored. You can now see her on Princes Wharf in front of M Shed and in full water-spraying action at events in the Harbour.
Pyronaut is part of the National Historic Ships core collection register.
Take a boat trip with a difference! Find out when the next Pyronaut trips are.
John King was built in 1935 to tow cargo ships from Bristol City Docks to the mouth of the River Avon. The cargo ships – carrying goods ranging from paper pulp to sherry – needed the tug boat to steer them around the dangerous bends in the river.
During the Blitz, John King spent 17 action-packed days in Pembroke Dock fighting fires in the oil installations. On her way back to Bristol she was attacked by a German aircraft.
But as trade to the Bristol docks declined and motor ships became less reliant on tugs, John King’s workload gradually disappeared. Her last big job for the towage company was watched by thousands of spectators, when on 6 July 1970 she acted as escort to the ss Great Britain as the ship was towed from Avonmouth, on the last leg of her voyage from the Falkland Islands. John King towed the ss Great Britain through the harbour to her dry dock in the Floating Harbour.
Take a trip on the harbour – find out when the next John King trips are.
Mayflower is a steam tug built in Bristol in 1861 – she’s believed to be the oldest surviving tug in the world. She was built to work on the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal and in the River Severn, and was one of three tugs ordered after trials had shown how much more efficient than horses they were; altogether they cost £3000.
In the late 1890s Mayflower was altered to make her suitable for work in the Bristol Channel. She went back to work outside Sharpness, towing sailing vessels through the dangerous stretches of the Severn Estuary to the mouth of the river Wye and back again. She would eventually work on every part of the navigation from Worcester to Chepstow.
When British Waterways took control of the canal in 1948 Mayflower was considered too old to modernize and escaped having a diesel engine installed. In 1962-1963, when the winter was so cold that the canal froze and the diesel tugs had difficulty in working, Mayflower once again took on ship-towing work in the canal.
Finally, British Waterways sold her for scrap in 1967. By chance, she survived a further 14 years, slowly deteriorating at her mooring in Gloucester as she was attacked by the weather and vandals. In 1981 she was bought by us and towed back to her birthplace. Over the next six years Mayflower was restored to working order by a team of volunteers – she steamed again in 1987.
Mayflower marked her 150th anniversary in 2011. She is part of the National Historic Ships core collection register.
Explore the harbour aboard the world’s oldest steam tug – find out when the next Mayflower trips are.