It was 30 years ago on July 28, 1988, that Southern Water passed ownership of an unheralded vessel that had been in service between 1980-85, to a recently formed charity. That charity was the Solent Steam Packet, and the vessel Steamship Shieldhall.

Performing a very perfunctory role for Southern Water – taking treated sludge to the ‘dumping grounds’ to the east of the Isle of Wight – Shieldhall was destined for a more glamorous future role as a passenger vessel and as a flagship for the National Historic Fleet, which she continues to perform to this day.

Shieldhall had been constructed in 1955 by the Lobnitz Shipyard in Renfrew, Glasgow, on the banks of the Clyde, where she was to perform a sludge disposal role for the Glasgow Corporation.

Daily trips past Garroch Head on the Isle of Bute to the ‘dumping grounds’ where the water was ’70 fathoms deep’ lasted some 8 hours. During the summer months Shieldhall would welcome groups identified by the Corporation who could enjoy trips ‘Doon the Watter’ – doubtless enjoying the sea air before retiring to the Shieldhall saloon shortly before her tanks were emptied.

Replacing an earlier vessel of the same name, Shieldhall was built with twin powered triple expansion steam engines and scotch boilers – rather than diesel engines which were fast becoming the norm.

Some 30 years later this was to be her saving grace, for when Southern Water announced she was to be scrapped, a number of heritage enthusiasts recognised the rarity of what was to be found on Shieldhall ‘below decks.’ There was still the matter of saving Shieldhall, for Southern Water needed to be paid the sum of £20,000, which represented Shieldhall’s scrap value.

The Southampton University Industrial Archaeology Group (SUIAG) and the Council’s Museum Service, led by Nigel Overton, were leading lights in Shieldhall’s preservation, together with a team of dedicated watchkeepers who undertook duties on board Shieldhall. These lasted 24hrs a day for 3 years – with tours of the ship undertaken hourly day and night - whilst funds for Shieldhall’s purchase were raised.

During this period Shieldhall remained under the ownership of Southern Water, with the understanding that she could be brought back into service at any time if required.

Such dedication was rewarded and after her purchase in 1988 the volunteers proudly saw Shieldhall make her maiden voyage for the Solent Steam Packet on 9th June 1991.

Today Shieldhall’s fine lines, her original engine room, boiler room and bridge are in high demand for film producers and documentary makers, and she has been the star of movies including Angela’s Ashes and Grimsby, and many documentaries about the Titanic, where many of her features are similar, albeit on a smaller scale. A far cry from her origins as a humble sludge boat!

Following completion of a Heritage Lottery Fund project Saving Shieldhall: Conservation in Action in 2017, the Solent Steam Packet charity can look forward to more years of summer sailings in the Solent.

Shieldhall continues to be run by a number of volunteers, a mixture of men and women, young and old, all with an interest in keeping Britain’s maritime history afloat.

Shieldhall will be marking the 30th anniversary of charitable ownership with a ‘Return to the Nab Tower’ cruise on July 28.