A FIRE which broke out on an iconic party ship may have been started deliberately, it has been confirmed.

Firefighters from Middlesbrough, Stockton, Redcar and Thornaby have battled to bring the fire on the deck of River Tees party ship, Tuxedo Royale, under control after being alerted to the blaze at 7.10pm on Wednesday.

Hours after arriving at the blaze, fire crews continued to fight flames and smoke from the 369ft vessel, which was known for its revolving dancefloor and has been docked in Able UK’s port at Middlehaven, Middlesbrough, could be seen rising into the sky from miles around.

On Thursday, Cleveland Police said they are treating a fire as suspicious and that an investigation has been launched.

The ship, which was launched as the steamship TSS Dover in 1965 and operated for numerous years as a car ferry, transporting thousands of people from Dover to Calais, became listed as a historic vessel of world importance with the Historic Ship Society last year.

From the late 1980s, the vessel served as a popular Newcastle nightspot, featuring two club areas, under the Tyne Bridge, where it attracted numerous celebrities before moving to Middlesbrough, where it also attracted crowds from 2000.

It lasted for six years before Tees Valley Regeneration negotiated for it to be moved to allow the continued development of the Middlehaven site.

The ship was taken to Hartlepool for temporary storage, but later returned to Middlesbrough.

The Northern Echo:

John Coates, from Redcar, who started the Float Our Boat campaign to turn Tuxedo Royale into a training facility for students and unemployed people

Lisa-Marie Turner, director of a campaign to save the ship from being dismantled, the Tuxedo Royale Project, said she understood the fire had broken out in the ship's wheelhouse.

She said those connected with the campaign believed the blaze had been sparked by arsonists.

She added: “It’s heartbreaking, devastating. Tuxedo Royale is more than just a ship, it has great sentimental value.

The Northern Echo:

Tuxedo Royale docked on the River Tyne

“Ships just don’t go on fire, and the Tuxedo Royale has damp everywhere, there’s not even electrics or flammable liquids on board it. There has definitely been an attack on the ship.”

The campaigner said there had been planned meetings in the coming weeks to discuss the future of the ship, which in recent years has suffered from rust and listed.

Residents living near the River Tees said they had been forced to close all their windows due to the amount of smoke being blown from the vessel, which has been docked at the site since 2009.

In recent years, the ship has suffered damage from vandal and thieves, who have stolen copper, brass and stainless steel, and hacksawed through bars on about 100 portholes, before returning to remove nearly all the potholes as well.

The Northern Echo:

The inside of Tuxedo Royale in 2012

John Coates, from Redcar, has spent years pressing for the vessel to be converted into a training facility for students and unemployed people wanting to learn IT, welding, plumbing and associated skills.

Mr Coates, who carried out a series of roles including electrician on the Tuxedo Royale, said: “We would like to use the boat for training as I believe there is a big gap between education and the workplace. We want  to give people the chance to get out and do something exciting and to be a part of something in the real world where you can see it, touch it and feel it to give people a sense of achievement.”

Mr Coates had said he hoped restoring the ship would bring tourists to the area and make visitors more aware of the history and culture of the North-East.

But earlier this year, Middlesbrough Council in partnership with Able UK, announced it was moving forward with plans to remove the vessel from its berth at Middlehaven.

The council said the proposal to dismantle the Tuxedo Royale was part of the ongoing redevelopment and regeneration of the "strategically important" Middlehaven area.

In March, Councillor Charlie Rooney, Deputy Mayor of Middlesbrough, said no viable proposals had been put forward that would enable the restoration of the vessel.

He said: "As things stand - and have done for many years - the vessel is an eyesore that has no owner and has effectively been abandoned.

"Not only is it potentially dangerous, but it continues to detract from the ambitious plansIn we have for Middlehaven including a snow centre on nearby land.

"This proposal is the only viable answer to a problem which, through no fault of ours or [demolition firm] Able UK's, has been left to us both to deal with."