The end of one year and the welcoming in of a new year is almost always a trigger for reminiscence and often some melancholy about the passage of time and the passing of colleagues and friends no longer with us.
I started reading an obituary for Martyn Heighton in one of the Sunday newspapers in December. To my shame, it was only when reading the piece that I realised just how key he had been to the maritime heritage scene and, who as Chairman of National Historic Ships, had done so much to raise the awareness of the need to identify, recognise and make the case for the proper preservation of historic vessels in Britain.
Heighton, who had built up a treasure chest of knowledge and experience in maritime museums, became the Director of Historic Ships in 2007. With his strong leadership, it grew from strength to strength; partly down to his skill at seeking and gaining Heritage Lottery funds to aid preservation of these historic vessels. Through the creation of Shipshape Network, he pulled together; craftsmen, businesses, owners, heritage organisations and training bodies who all shared a keen interest in ship preservation.
As a young boy, a visit by Heighton to Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory is said to have instilled in him a love of ships, but after university, his initial career was teaching at Harrogate Grammar School before switching to a career in Museums. His ability was soon noted by Sir Richard Foster, who when he moved to head Liverpool Museum, invited Heighton to help establish a maritime museum on the Mersey. In the early 1980s, Foster’s wonderful vision allied to Heighton’s hard work, led to the foundation of the now famous Mersey Maritime Museum and helped the wonderful regeneration of the Albert Dock. When the Museum opened in 1986, it displayed Britain’s first gallery on slavery - tackling the issue head on.
Following a move to Bristol, Heighton became Director of Arts and Leisure and is credited with being key to providing much of the inspiration in raising funds to build the replica of the ship Matthew. He was also pivotal in organising the first International Festival of the Sea in 1996. In 1997, the Matthew left Bristol for Newfoundland to mark the 500th anniversary of John Cabot’s crossing of the Atlantic.
In the following years, Heighton began his association with the SS Great Britain as director, then trustee and, again, his wealth of experience and expertise at fund raising, helped sustain the funds necessary to preserve the historic ship. He then became chief executive officer of the Mary Rose. In 2005, he chaired a national programme to celebrate ‘Sea Britain’ and helped drive events commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Brunel. He was also trustee and later Chairman of the technical committee which advised on the preservation of HMS Victory; trustee of HMS Caroline in Belfast and a member of the Cutty Sark Advisory Committee.
I am so glad that I paused to read the obituary of this man. What a career and such great achievements. We, who are interested in our maritime heritage, owe him a great deal. As a regular visitor to the Merseyside Maritime Museum in the Albert Dock, on my next visit I will ensure that, in a quiet moment, I will remember Martyn Heighton with much gratitude.
We send our very best wishes for the new year to all our readers.
HAMISH ROSS, EDITOR