Following its successful spell as City of Culture in 2017, the port city of Hull has been looking to its maritime heritage to continue the regeneration effort. Phil Ascough reports from a meeting where the local maritime community came together to support the return of a very special vessel to the Humber
It's safe to say that the relaunch of the Nautical Institute's Humber Branch on 5 September 2019 was a huge success. We were regaled with tales of the Viola – a trawler which caught fish, whales, seals and even enemy U-boats in a career spanning more than 100 years, and tempted by a special gin and a nautical calendar produced to commemorate the vessel.
The event attracted a near-full house to Hull Guildhall, a city centre landmark which offers a sight and sound to behold as the carillon bells chime to the rise and fall of the Greenwich Meantime Ball.
Kicking off the proceedings, Nautical Institute vice-president Captain Duncan McKelvie told how the Humber Branch was founded in 1973 as the fifth in what has become a global network. Then he took his seat to hear from three guest speakers who are all renowned experts in their field.
Simon Green, director of cultural services at Hull Culture and Leisure Ltd, told how he is driving Hull City Council's campaign to deliver the Yorkshire's Maritime City project at a cost of £28m.
Dr Robb Robinson, a maritime historian based at Blaydes Maritime Centre and honorary research fellow of the University of Hull, spoke about the history of the Viola, from construction at the Cook, Welton and Gemmell shipyard in Beverley in 1906 to its current location, wedged into the beach at Grytviken in South Georgia.
Captain John Simpson, senior partner of Solis Marine, addressed the practicalities of bringing the Viola back to Hull – surveys which show the quality of the build is still holding up, and heavy-lift ships which are available to carry the vessel the 8,000 miles to the Humber. Cradle or slings is one of the big questions. The biggest is cash.
The Viola Trust is ticking over, generating working capital from innovative fund-raising projects as it pursues the big fish who could make a significant contribution to the £3m-plus target for repatriation and restoration.
Lottery money is not an option until the Viola is back in British waters. Viola gin, produced by the enterprising Hotham's Distillery, is generating income. A nautical calendar with 12 ships painted by East Yorkshire artist Larry Malkin will contribute cash from sales and from an auction of the originals. But these are ripples when the campaign needs a big wave.
With former home secretary Alan Johnson as patron – a man whose Hull West and Hessle constituency included the famous Hessle Road fishing community – and trustees led by Paul Escreet, chairman of SMS Towage, it's a charity with strong connections in the maritime sector, the corridors of power and the people and businesses of the local area.
The trustees are nothing if not thorough, and one of their first moves was to secure the permission of the Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands to salvage the Viola and take it back to Hull for display.
Mr Johnson has a film production company ready and waiting to tell the Viola's story and his position is straightforward: 'We have the permissions we need, and she could be brought back – everything is in place except the money.'
Mr Green told the Institute's audience that Hull City Council found £10m to launch its Yorkshire’s Maritime City scheme and is in the process of raising the balance.
Key elements of the project are a major facelift for Hull's Maritime Museum and the transformation of the North End shipyard, with a former dry dock being renovated to accommodate the Arctic Corsair trawler, which recently moved from the River Hull to the Associated British Ports estate to undergo renovation. A second dry dock is waiting for the Viola.
You could say the Viola is the only vessel to have seen action in the Great War and the Falklands War!