Iconic Windrush ship brought back to life on Welsh coast for Lenny Henry drama

A 1950s cruise ship built by the makers of the Titanic will be reincarnated as HMT Empire Windrush in a new drama by Sir Lenny Henry.

Three Little Birds is based loosely on the comedy legend's mother's move from Jamaica to begin a new life in 1950s England, and was commissioned by ITV. The TSS Duke of Lancaster has been reimagined as Windrush – best remembered today for bringing one of the first large groups of post-war West Indian immigrants to the United Kingdom.

It carried 1,027 passengers and two stowaways on a voyage from Jamaica to London in 1948. Of them, more than 800 passengers gave their last country of residence as somewhere in the Caribbean.

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The Duke of Lancaster, which has loomed over the North Wales coastline for over 40 years, was chosen for the six-part drama. It'll be the first time a major production has been filmed at the site in Llanerch-y-Mor in Flintshire.

It comes after owner, Antony Rowley was forced to turn down a string of other film offers – including the Brad Pitt zombie film, World War Z – after a council dispute over the weight limit on the access bridge.

Antony told the Daily Star: "ITV approached us and asked if they could film for Lenny Henry's six-part series, Three Little Birds – it's hard to find many 1950s ship knocking about.

"It was a massive production with a huge film crew who built a village on our car park and were there for a few weeks. They filmed on the quayside and on the top decks, it was quite exciting to see the ship brought back to life."

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The Duke of Lancaster began her life as a passenger ferry and cruise liner in 1956, with its passengers treated to silver service as they travelled the seas from Ireland, Scotland and Europe. Its first-class quarters were branded "the best around."

Made by Belfast-company Harland & Wolff – the same builders as the Titanic, she is listed on the register of National Historic Ships.

However, when the ship took its final trip in 1978 it was sold to a Liverpool-based company who wanted to re-use it as a dry docked attraction.

In 1979 the Duke of Lancaster was beached at Llanerch-y-Mor and turned into a floating leisure and retail complex called The Fun Ship and was the third busiest attraction in Wales when it was open.

But the dream was short lived and never came into full fruition following long-standing legal disputes with the council. By the mid-1980s, the ship had closed.

One of the plans for The Fun Ship was an amusement arcade covering an entire deck and for years, a treasure trove of arcade machines from the "golden area" were locked inside.

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The ship's original owner, John Rowley, spent around 30 years trying to start a project that could restore the ship to serve the community and attract tourists.

Sadly, it never happened and he documented his plight in a book The Duke of Lancaster: Trapped in a Pirate Republic?

The baton has now been taken over by John's son, Antony Rowley, who finally got an events project off the ground after decades of trying.

The aim is to raise money that will go towards renovating the ship for it to fully reopen to the public, thanks to the help of The Duke of Lancaster Appreciation Society who continue to fight to see the grand ship restored to its former glory.

Antony, who grew up on the ship said: "Restoration work is still continuing but it's a big job. The ship and the quayside has got planning permission for a 270-bedroomed hotel but we'll have to see what happens."

He hinted at another big project in the pipeline in the meantime and said it is hoped that further film offers will help see the Fun Ship brought back to life.

* Three Little Birds starts on Sunday October 22, on ITV1 at 8pm and ITVX.

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