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Tony Hirst

Tony Hirst, IWA Vice President since 2000, and Director of what was then known as The Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port from 1981 until his retirement in September 1999, died at the beginning of July.

Tony was born in Manchester in August 1937. In the late 1950s he served for 3 years in the RAF where he was involved in the maintenance of the radar and defence system at the Changi air base in Singapore. Straight after his stint in the Far East, Tony joined Ferranti in Manchester as Head of Display and Test. Tony and Dia married in 1961 and they were inseparable; Dia supported him and was with him, side by side in all his exploits.

He became involved with the museum proposed by the North Western Museum of Navigation (NWMIN) after attending Dr David Owen’s night school talks on Industrial Archaeology and Inland Waterways in Manchester in 1972. David told Ray Woodland, who needed help with the restoration of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal tunnel tug Worcester, that he had a couple of ‘likely lads’ who were willing to help. Tony was one of these. From then on, he was completely involved in NWMIN’s activities. He became working Party organiser in 1974 when work started at the derelict docks at Ellesmere Port.

[The photo, left, shows Tony Hirst, far right, along with other founding Museum member, (from the left) Tony Lewery, Peter Froud, David Owen and Harry Arnold at the unveiling of a milepost on the Shropshire Union Canal at Ellesmere Port – the museum’s other co-founder, Edward Paget-Tomlinson was unable to be present for the occasion].

The Island Warehouse was secured from vandals, the top basin cleared and the restoration of the Toll House was begun. The Boat Museum opened with an exhibition designed by Tony Lewery in the ground floor of the Toll House in June 1976. It was staffed by volunteers and open only at weekends. At the end of the summer, the museum closed for the season, but the restoration of the Toll House, and care for the collection of boats which had been brought to Ellesmere Port, continued. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited in November 1979.

In January 1981, the Boat Museum Trust, a partnership between NWMIN, the very supportive Ellesmere and Neston Borough Council and Cheshire County Council, was established to administer the Museum and Tony was appointed Director. This relationship between the Museum and the two local authorities was crucial in ensuring that the Museum became firmly recognised as an asset to the local community.

New exhibitions were opened and The Boat Museum won a number of prestigious awards, including the Council of Europe’s Museum of Europe award jointly with the Museum du Vivant du Canal du Centre in Belgium for 1984.

[The photo, right, shows the presentation of that Award at The Boat Museum – Tony is second from the left]

Life was not always plain sailing however and the museum’s survival became more challenging in the late 1980s and 1990s, when competition for people’s leisure time meant less income for running and developing. It was Tony’s dogged determination, enthusiasm, administrative capability, contacts and total commitment which saw the museum through these difficult times.

He was chairman of the Association of Independent Museums between 1990 and 1994 and held posts in many other waterways organisations.

Tony was awarded the OBE in 1995 for Services to Museums. He was honoured but he never ever pushed or promoted the fact and never used the letters after his name. He always said the award belonged to every single volunteer as much as him.

In the late 1990s much of his effort was concentrated on the formation of The Waterways Trust (TWT) in 1999. Fiercely protective of the Boat Museum, Tony was part of the team shaping the merger of the Boat Museum, the National Waterways Museum at Gloucester and the British Waterways Archive under the management of TWT, as a charitable offshoot of British Waterways. This ensured the museum’s long term financial survival.

Tony retired as Director of the Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port at the end of 1999.

In 2004, the Daniel Adamson, the last remaining Manchester Ship Canal tug which had been moored in the lower basin at Ellesmere Port for some years, was under threat of being broken up. The Daniel Adamson Preservation Society was formed by a group of enthusiasts and Tony became its founding chairman until 2009. He then became its life president.

During his retirement, Tony continued as a great supporter of many waterways organisations, including being a member of the Government’s Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council and IWA’s Awards Panel.

[Photo left by Elizabeth Fowler / Waterways World]

[Obituary prepared by Cath Turpin]