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The William Simons Ship Plans Preservation Project

Ela Gorska-Wiklo, Preservation Manager and Paper Conservator, Glasgow University Archive Services

Anniversaries can often raise difficult questions about how we promote the value and potential use of archive collections, especially when dealing with war commemorations. In a period of historical revision, ongoing controversy over more recent conflicts and the increased awareness of the realities of war, attempts to mark such anniversaries can be problematic to say the least.

This year marks the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War’s fifth and final year, an anniversary which, for us here in the Preservation Unit at the University of Glasgow Archive Services, highlights a significant connection between our collections and these apparently more distant events.

Among our large Clydeside shipbuilding collections are plans for vessels built to beat the Union blockade of the Confederacy during the conflict. In conjunction with this anniversary, a conservation project in our Preservation Unit preserved the ship plans of William Simons & Co Ltd; including plans for the so-called blockade runners.

With their great speed and increased capacity to hold cargoes, blockade runners were usually side-wheel steamers designed to be much faster than union ships. Long and low, often nine times as long as they were wide, they normally entered port on moonless nights at high tide using the light alignment system to guide them in: the Confederates had darkened all their lighthouses to make navigation difficult for Union ships. Burning anthracite coal during runs because it produced low smoke and more revolutions than the bituminous supplies, most were painted grey as the best option for blending into the horizon. Lifeboats were mounted so as to hide the ships profile. Lights were masked for obvious reasons and only the binnacle was left uncovered but protected for navigation.

Though the plans were produced far from the events of the American Civil War, they illustrate the far-reaching implications of military-industrial connections. The drawings not only testify to the Clyde’s engineering and shipbuilding prowess - which resulted in world leading technology and the production of the fastest vessels of their time. Their heritage is much more complex and includes their significance as business records in a morally ambivalent enterprise which effectively provided tacit support to the slave owning Confederacy.

This complex history, combined with the myths and legends that have grown-up about blockade runners, made the Simons Plans Preservation project one of the most interesting conservation projects undertaken by us. With 85 per cent of the total collection pre-dating 1870, the collection is an invaluable resource of information on ship building on the nineteenth century Clydeside.

Beginning in 2014, it involved the preservation of 680 plans of 156 vessels. Co-ordinated with the help of archivists, conservators and volunteers, our intention was to preserve and enhance the accessibility of the plans whilst also highlighting the importance of the blockade runners.

Our project comprised a few stages: first plans were unpacked and old packaging discarded. Then plan details were recorded including the ship’s name and number, type of vessel (a brig, a screw steamer etc.), the year of construction, and the type of plan (lines plan, a deck plan or rigging plan). During repacking, plans were rolled around tubes and placed inside a protective Tyvek® sleeve before being stored in telescopic Cube Tubes, allowing the rolled plans to be adequately supported, whilst enabling easier access.

The historical significance of the four blockade runner plans, along with their condition, made their conservation a priority. In particular, plans for Will o’ Wisp and Julia all required a wide ranging treatment. In the process of removing the secondary linen, which then enabled the removal of the backing textile, it was found that the linen was sufficiently degraded to simply break up. Old paper repairs were also removed, which allowed for thorough washing. All the plans were fully relaxed and lining was carried out using Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste adhesive, providing the support with a secondary sympathetic layer.

The plans were then repaired using the controlled application of heat; this helped to infill damaged areas, a process completed with plans attached to the sintered glass wall in the conservation studio.  After repair some plan edges remained uneven despite the repairs being attached and flush to the object. However, it was decided that some small areas could be retouched in order to recreate a finished ‘square’ item. The conserved plans were repacked in polyester pockets and stored in plan chest drawers.

Another aspect of the project was to enhance the global reach and reputation of the Simons’ plans. Given their age, the comparative rarity of some of the material - including plans of blockade runners - and the fact that many of the plans were so well drawn, there was plenty of scope to promote this collection. In one successful instance of this, we used some of the plan images to compile a very popular Flickr set. Our archive also holds a number of other documents relating to the building of blockade runners by other Clydeside shipbuilders and we hope that visitors will continue to benefit from these rich primary sources.

Records relating to conflict can present the archive sector with difficult and often complex narratives. However, these collections form a vital part of Scottish – and international – history. Whether close to a battlefield, or thousands of miles away, war is often as an all-consuming, global event. In this case, the Simons records were created far from the field of battle, but nonetheless they have a story to tell and a role to play on the anniversary of this particular conflict.

We gratefully acknowledge the support of a grant from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust in making this project possible.