Boats which had been lying underwater for decades were hauled onto dry land as a major conservation project got under way.

Eleven historic vessels were skilfully pulled out from the canal basin of the National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port by a giant crane on Tuesday.

The boats and barges – some of which date back to the late 1800s – had been hidden under the water since the 1980s.

They will now be taken to a dry store for assessment, and some will be restored to their former glories.

Graham Boxer, of the Canal and River Trust which runs the museum at Ellesmere Port, said: “Every one of these vessels has its own story to tell. It’s our aim to ensure that these stories are told in the best and most appropriate way so that we can preserve this important history of the waterways.”

The boats came to the museum (formerly run by the Boat Museum Trust) over the years since it opened in 1976.

Some were former working boats owned by British Waterways, while others were acquired by the museum from private owners.

Due to a lack of money available for conservation in the 1980s, the boats were either intentionally sunk or were leaking and slipped underwater of their own accord.

But thanks to an Arts Council England grant of more than £300,000, the Canal and River Trust is now able to give each boat the attention it deserves.

Mr Boxer added: “We now know the best way to conserve them is to remove them from the water.

“There’s no denying they are deteriorating and unfortunately they will not all be in a condition to be conserved.

“Our priority is to get them into the stable environment of our new dry store.

“Each one will be treated according to its construction and materials.”

The boats date back to the days of freight carrying on the nation’s waterways and include former horse-drawn barges, narrowboats and an icebreaker.

The majority are on the National Historic Ships Register, making Tuesday's exercise the UK’s largest ever movement of historic vessels.