The only free-to-visit historic ship in the UK may have to introduce admission charges to remain afloat.
Glenlee, the only one of last five Clyde-built steel-hulled cargo sailing ships in the UK, needs extra funding to cover its £400,000 annual running costs and prepare for its overdue ten-year overhaul in dry dock.
It comes as supporters of the 126-year-old tall ship prepare to celebrate the 30th anniversary next month of its rescue from dereliction.
The three-masted barque won a £1.8 million grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) but that will only cover the most urgent work and there are restrictions on what it can be used for.
Extra money is required to keep other decks watertight and help fund new interactive displays to attract more visitors, including a planned “smell trail”.
Visitor numbers remain down by 30-35 per cent from the 264,115 total in pre-pandemic 2019-20. They fell further to 160,214 in 2022-23 because the ship was closed from January to March to enable some of the NHMF-funded work to get under way.
Glenlee. which is owned by The Tall Ship Glenlee Trust, abolished admission charges in 2013 following its move to beside the free-to-enter Riverside Museum on the Clyde in Glasgow, but it may now have to reverse that.
Development director Fiona Greer said: “We are the only maritime heritage ship in the UK that’s free to enter. Eventually, we probably will have to introduce some level of charging – it’s going to come.
"It’s an option that we have discussed which we might need to look at further. If there’s a gap we cannot plug any other way, even £1 a head would make a big difference.
"It’s a difficult decision because it changes the accessibility and creates a financial barrier. We have done analysis of different charging levels but haven’t reached a concrete decision.
"If we’ve survived 30 years, we need to make sure we can survive another 30 years – at least.”
Greer said other museums had seen a similar reduction in visitors, but rising parking charges at the Riverside Museum had deterred those visiting the transport collection there from staying on to tour the ship, too.
However, she hoped there would be a new influx of visitors when a footbridge across the Clyde from Govan opens next year.
Greer said the NHMF grant covered work on only two of the exterior upper decks – the poop (rear) and foc's'le (forward) – but not the main weather deck between them.
She said: “It was for carrying out critical works that were required post-Covid – those decks were in the worst condition. The poop deck is in a really bad state because there is water seeping in to the chart room and even the deck below that, which is causing costly damage, including to some of the displays.”
The grant also covers some of the rigging on the masts and work in the cargo hold to ensure the hull is strong enough to be supported in dry dock in Greenock.
Greer said: “The idea is the two years of this funding would get us to a position where we could confidently take the ship to dry dock in 2025 [four years late]. We will need to fundraise additional amounts to get to dry dock.”
This could come from increasing the number of events held on board, such as weddings, which is the biggest current source of income, and finding new donors.
These could include families associated with the vessel, such as the relatives of those who helped bring it back from Spain after nearly 50 years as a naval sail training ship. They have been invited to the 30th anniversary celebration on June 9 which will be attended by a representative from the Consulate General of Spain.
Greer said: “It’s crucial for us to get that strong, emotional connection that makes people want to donate, so what we’re doing for the anniversary is inviting people back, and their children and grandchildren.”
Following completion of the cargo deck work, there are plans to make the area more interactive for visitors such as with ropes and pulleys, and science-based activities.
A “smell trail” is planned like those at the Yorvik Viking Centre in York and Brunel’s SS Great Britain in Bristol, which describes itself as the “world’s stinkiest ship”.
Lauren Henning, Glenlee’s learning and museum manager. said: “We have identified seven areas of the ship where a machine will puff out smells – in the captain’s cabin it might be a cigar and brandy, in the deckhouse it’s going to be sweaty socks and in the hospital there’s going to be old antiseptic – it’s really going to bring everything to life.
"We’re also considering soundscapes such as the sound of a really bad storm in the cargo hold – that could be so amazing.”
New displays will tell more about the ship’s role in the Spanish Civil War, when it was used to train sailors for General Franco’s Nationalist forces.
Henning said: "It’s what we would see as the wrong side of history, but it’s still there. With Black Lives Matter and more awareness of empire and slavery and colonialism, it’s made us feel that just because history is tricky, you can’t ignore it.”
Glenlee is not thought to have carried slaves but was involved with associated trades such as transporting sugar. Its cargoes also included wool, rice, coal and guano.
The ship spent its entire career away from Scotland after being launched in Port Glasgow in 1896, returning to the Clyde for the first time in 1993 after being saved from the breaker’s yard following being laid up for more than 30 years. Greer said: "The ship was a wreck in Spain – it was abandoned.”