Discover how Scarborough’s Regal Lady has transformed as she prepares for new life as Dunkirk museum

After almost a century at sea, the beloved Dunkirk little ship is entering a new era

By Corinne Macdonald
Wednesday, 19th February 2020, 2:05 pm
Updated Wednesday, 19th February 2020, 2:34 pm

To say the renovation of the Regal Lady is a labour of love would be an understatement.

But for Heath Samples, who took over the famous Scarborough ship in September last year, the idea of owning her has been at the back of his mind since the early 1990s.

“When I was at uni I worked on South Bay beach lifeguarding and got to know Tom Machin, the former captain,” said Heath. “I fell in love with the boat because of its history.

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Heath at work on the ship. Picture: JPI Media/ Richard Ponter

“I’d always loved her.”

After selling his software business in 2016, he was put in the financial position to buy and renovate the Regal.

When the renovation is complete she will be permanently moored on Vincent Pier, no longer taking visitors out on trips. Instead Heath will launch a floating museum – the Regal Lady Dunkirk Experience.

Heath and his team of three permanent staff and up to nine volunteers have been working since September to get the project finished in time for Easter.

Heath on deck. Picture: JPI Media/ Richard Ponter

The design will keep as many original fittings as possible and incorporate a new cinema room, shop, bar and museum.

Her new fixed position means the team have been able to run in fixed water and electricity lines to make the amenities for visitors better.

Heath said: “I want people to feel like they’re on a boat when they’re onboard.

“This year she is 90 years old and we want to make her look like a very well presented and smart old lady.

Work taking place on the windows. Picture from Regal Lady Dunkirk Experience

“It’s about looking at what it should be like and what it used to look like and restoring it back to that.”

The project has uncovered many of the ship’s original fittings such as the fire pump and steam outlets, a whale pump brass fitting and four coal bunker lids that fed coal down to the steam engine when she was first built.

Finding the bunkers was a particularly exciting moment for the crew as it meant they were standing on the original deck that the soldiers rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk also would have stood on.

Heath, who also served in the RAF, said the privilege to own a Dunkirk ‘Little Ship’ was not lost on him. In fact, there are only around 120 of the ships that made up that fleet left.

The Regal before the windows were replaced, above, and after, below.

The renovation project has not been without its surprises, which have altered the design and the schedule.

One of the biggest jobs to date has been replacing the 26 windows as they were scratched and discoloured, which involved cutting out and replacing more than 60m of steel.

The top deck has also been replanked and made watertight, and will be left open.

Heath has conducted a great deal of research into the Regal’s history and has bought several artefacts from Dunkirk to be displayed alongside her original features.

He has worked with the Dunkirk Museum on the films which will show in the new cinema room, which will focus on the history of the Dunkirk evacuation, the role of the Regal Lady and the renovation.

Even the paybox at the end of the pier has been brought up to modern standards with a new exterior and LCD screens, and brings with it its own story.

The Regal Lady giving trips to tourists off the coast of Scarborough. Picture: JPI Media

It was made in 1987, and Heath’s wife worked in it; he would sit there and have his lunch when lifeguarding in the ’90s.

Alongside the museum will be a small 12-seater boat which will run trips round the bay with an audio soundtrack recreating the experience of being in the Dunkirk evacuation.

“It’s nice for visitors to be able to get the whole experience from the two boats,” Heath added.

As the work has been progressing, many passers-by have told him their stories of the Regal, which has been a part of the town for decades.

“There’s a lot of people who love the boat,” he said. “It’s good we’re not losing her.

“It was too big a challenge for me not to do and it will be a great visitor attraction.

“Coming on board will be free because everyone should be able to stand on this original deck and feel the history.”

The history of the Regal Lady

Built in 1930, the Regal Lady is a National Historic Ship.

Christened Oulton Belle at her launch, she was built as an addition to a fleet of pleasure steamers in Great Yarmouth.

In 1940, she assisted in the evacuation of Dunkirk before being compulsorily acquired by the Ministry of Defence for work as a fleet tender based on the River Clyde.

The ship was then resold to her original owners at the end of the war.

In 1954 she was re-registered as the Regal Lady and arrived in Scarborough.

Over that summer season, it became clear that her steam engine could not cope and a conversion to diesel was necessary.

Work was completed just in time to begin the 1955 season as a motor vessel.

She left Scarborough in 1970 after being sold to operate river trips from Norwich, which she did until 1984.

News of her demise reached Tom Machin in Scarborough in late 1986 and plans were made to negotiate a sale and bring the Regal back to Scarborough, where she arrived on January 8 1987 and was almost totally rebuilt.

The Regal Lady is a member of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships.

As a result of the operation of the Little Ships and the fleet of Naval and Merchant marine vessels which operated off the Dunkirk beaches, no less than 338,000 British and French troops were evacuated.