Dock Tales: Eric Reynolds

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Dock Tales: Eric Reynolds

As the Founding Director of Urban Space Management, Eric Reynolds has over-seen the regeneration of some of the most impressive projects in London, from the creation of Camden Lock Market to the development of Trinity Buoy Wharf. He’s a Trustee of The Royal Museum Greenwich and Chairman of The SS Robin Trust. The steamship is an iconic feature of the Royal Docks landscape. Here’s Eric with his Dock Tale…

The Royal Docks are unusual because of their shape, there’s nowhere else like it in London. It’s a very linear world, but if you look at London, it isn’t linear at all. The Thames wiggles around like crazy. Really the only linear thing in London are the Royal Docks, and within you have two more linear things – the DLR and the airport runway which are a series of East to West lines, so yes, very unusual!

SS Robin in the Royal Docks with a rainbow in the sky

Somewhere over the rainbow, you’ll find SS Robin
Image: Maxine Webster

As the Chairman of SS Robin Trust, I also have an unusual connection with the docks, but while that’s a relatively new addition arriving in 2011, I’ve been involved in the area since 1978, but more on that later.

The SS Robin is the equivalent of a Grade I listed building so needs protecting.

The SS Robin is the only complete Victorian steamship in existence and it’s the only one left that’s fitted with the original steam engine and boiler. It’s had an interesting life, built in 1890 just around the corner in Blackwall. It was in service for 80 years and travelled around Europe. It settled recently at Canary Wharf for a period but because of Crossrail it had to find a new home. The ship was in front of the Museum of London, Docklands for a while but due to another construction project had to relocate yet again. There were talks of turning it into a pub, but SS Robin is the equivalent of a Grade I listed building on the same scale as The Tower of London so it needs respectful conservation protection with an active access and educational programme. I was brought in as the Chairman because of my experience and track record in heritage and regeneration. The most recent example being the saving of the West Smithfield Market site which is to soon become the new home of Museum of London.

SS Robin in the Royal Docks

What’s up dock? The SS Robin settled in the Royal Docks in 2011

A royal welcome

SS Robin had a grand arrival celebration at the Royal Docks attended by the ship’s patron Prince Phillip. Politicians and school children came and it was lovely but that was the last proper public recognition it’s had. We planned to keep it open every day of the year apart from Christmas Day, allowing people to visit it as an attraction. However, at that time of the ships arrival the the Crystal had not been finished so it was impossible to moor SS Robin in its intended location.

In the past SS Robin Trust had been granted two planning permissions to be moored by The Crystal in the Royal Docks at East India basin, but those permissions expired during the over run period of the Crystals building. Planning permission is an extremely expensive process to re-start. Now the ship is still moored in front of Millenium Mills on a private pier which is only accessible through a locked security fence on private land.

But the problem is that we’re behind a locked gate. It’s a perception thing, people see a security fence and it appears to be a private boat when really we want the public to be able to use it. At the moment you can only visit the ship by appointment.

In September, the ship’s 130th birthday, 460 people visited it as part of Open Houses even though we did that under Covid-19 regulations, so many people are interested in the Trust and what we’re doing. We recently had a special interest group visit and then a group of architects. We also had a sea shanty day organised for local school children, and the ship is regularly used by the students from the Royal Drawing School, as an object they can get close to.

I would still like to see the SS Robin move outside The Crystal so that everyone can enjoy it. The ship could make a huge contribution to the community if it was allowed to locate to its original planned position. That’s what we've been trying to achieve for years. Or, at the very least we’d like to move it away from where it is a bit more west, in front of the red Lightship boat so that we can have public access allowing people to walk on to without it being fenced off. But we can’t at the moment as we’re waiting to hear where the new bridge that’s planned will be built as part of the Lendlease construction programme and at the moment no one knows where that’s going to be.

Opportunity Knocks

For me, when I think of the Royal Docks it’s an area of desolation. I’ve been involved in the area since 1978 and during that time I’ve seen many masterplans from the GLA and also The People’s Plan and since then lots of new plans. If the original plans had happened we’d have seen a lot more development by now but because everything hinges on economics, these plans tend to disappear.

It’s a huge disappointment that more isn’t done with the water here. St Katherine’s Docks closed around the same time plan and I was involved in a lot of work there. Initially, it was squatted by artists and I have some marvelous photos of the water spaces covered by so much floating rubbish that it looked like you could walk on it, but it quickly turned around into a rather expensive place where the water is celebrated and used as a marina.

A tugboat in the Royal Docks

It’s a-boat time! After 80 years of service the SS Robin enjoys a break, being tugged along the Thames

When the Royal Docks closed it could have become a boatyard. Most of the sailors in the UK live in London and their boats are parked on the coast, 100s if not 1000s of them could have been parked here. It’s such a huge expanse of water that’s not used as much as it could be. If you look at ExCel London, it faces away from the water, it should have been built to incorporate the water so that it became part of the attraction. There’s a lot of hotels here too and they could have made more of the water too. Years ago there was a really vibrant East London market here but it was closed. There hasn’t been anything else like that since which is a shame. There’s so much potential.

I used to use London City Airport regularly and could see the value in it. In some ways, it has significantly blighted one end of the water restricting what you can do, but it’s also created an opportunity to put other noisy activities there. For example, if you’re rowing you don’t mind the noise, or other noisy water sports could also take place there.

You don’t need to go into central London to enjoy the Thames when it’s on your doorstep

I’d like to see a more thriving Royal Docks that can be properly enjoyed with activities. After all, people want to be where there are other people. There was a report that said 80% of Newham residents had never been down to the river yet it’s probably the closest water they have, you don’t need to go into central London to enjoy the Thames when it’s on your doorstep. Part of the problem is getting here, but a series of small changes are all that’s needed to improve the transport links.

SS Robin in the Royal Docks

How a-boat it? Visits on board SS Robin can be arranged by appointment

I hope that the SS Robin will become more accessible and we’ll remove the barrier around it because what’s the point if people can’t get on it? It’s nice to sit and look at the water but even better to be on it. We were due to have a major exhibition aboard this year by Artist Dominique Pinchi who has created a seven-metre sculpture The Shield of Achilles inside our new cargo gallery space but that’s been postponed to 2021 because of Covid restrictions. Local schools had already participated in the educational programme of The Shield of Achilles. The children’s work was due to hang alongside the main exhibit.

School Children at SS Robin

Local school children will see their work displayed inside the SS Robin’s new Cargo gallery space when it opens in 2021

The fact we are on our renovated pontoon, we don’t cost anyone any money, and that we’re completely self-sufficient means we can look after ourselves economically, we’d just like the chance to be seen and be used. It’s one thing to see the ship in photographs or in the distance, but you don’t fully understand the scale until you’re on it.

Fancy exploring the SS Robin? Sign up to their mailing list to find out when the next opportunity is. You can also hear from Eric or ask him a question at our Dock Tales online event on November 30th.

Book your free ticket.

Read more interviews from the Dock Tales project

Interview by Momtaz Begum-Hossain
Images: Eric’s profile photo by Laurence Burns.
All other images supplied by SS Robin Trust and James Spellane.