Explore Bristol’s historic ships with us!

04 June 2021


04 June 2021


Discover more about Bristol's historic ships from the John King to the Thekla to Brunel's SS Great Britain.

Follow our live blog throughout the day as our curators showcase Bristol’s incredible maritime heritage to celebrate the launch of the Shipshape South West Hub with National Historic Ships.

We’ll be taking a look at the unique historic ships on Bristol’s Floating Harbour and going behind the scenes at the Albion Dock to check in on historic tall ship, Pelican of London.


First up, Joanna tells us about the John King, which 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. However, 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 the Great Western Dockyard on 19 July 1970.



Here’s Tim with the John Sebastian. She was built in 1885 as a Light Vessel for Trinity House. She has a wooden hull with iron beams and remained in service until 1964. She was moored in the Bristol Channel, about 12 miles out from Avonmouth.

Today she is used as a clubhouse by the Cabot Cruising Club and remains in Bathurst Basin in Bristol. Lightships were created to moor over and mark shoals or sand banks close to the coast where it was impracticable to build a lighthouse.



Thekla was built in 1958 in Germany as a coastal cargo vessel. It carried various cargoes between ports in northern and western Europe, but most regularly transported timber from ports in the Baltic Sea to Germany.

She ran aground in 1975 off the coast of Northern England and was left half submerged in an abandoned dock in Sunderland for 7 years. An intrepid couple bought the ship and sailed her to Bristol in 1983.

Here in the Floating Harbour she became the Old Profanity Showboat and hosted hundreds of theatre, cabaret, comedy and live music shows for the next 2 years. A plan to sail her to New York and put on some shows there never came to fruition.

Thekla remains in Bristol as a music venue and has hosted numerous live shows and up and coming musicians and bands, as well as being used as a nightclub.



Tower Belle was built in 1920 in Newcastle by Armstrong Whitworth & Co. The illustrious ship builder was experiencing a boom period with orders for ships to replace those lost in the First World War.

Between the huge Battleships and Cargo vessels this small passenger ship was completed and launched into the Tyne for the shipyard’s own use. She was a 100-seat passenger launch and could have been used to carry dignitaries or to link the Elswick and Walker shipyards, or to ferry the foreign navy crews to and from their ships during handover.

She was later used on the Thames in London as a ferry before coming to Bristol in 1977 and has been used since then for harbour and river cruises.



The Pelican is a 3-masted barquentine and was built in 1946 in Le Havre, France. She was originally an Arctic fishing trawler for a Norwegian firm, a job she did for 19 years.

In 1968 she was converted from a trawler to a coaster, and she was re-named Kadett, a name she kept until 1995. She was then bought by ex-Navy Commander Graham Neilson who transformed her into a tall ship and renamed her Pelican of London.

She is now operated as a sail training vessel for young people.



Brunel’s SS Great Britain is one of the most important historic ships in the world. When she was launched in 1843 she was called ‘the greatest experiment since the Creation’.

By combining size, power and innovative technology, Brunel created a ship that changed history. His vision for the SS Great Britain made her the great-great-grandmother for all modern ships.

Thank you for exploring the historic ships of Bristol with us!

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