From ship to shore
The extraordinary role of a Hampshire water mill in preserving evidence about the construction of a late 18th century American warship has been revealed by a Univeristy of St Andrews maritime archaeologist.
Dr Robert Prescott, Director of the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies and Caird Senior Fellow at the National Maritime Museum, was one of five researchers from across the UK shortlisted for the first ever “Award for the Presentation of Heritage Research”.
The competition, run jointly by English Heritage and the Royal Archaeological Institute, is designed to encourage presentation of new research on British archaeology, historic buildings and heritage conservation to the general public.
Dr Prescott delivered a talk about his research on the mill in Wickham to a packed audience at this year’s British Association Festival of Science at the University of Leicester. He showed how analysis of the timbers has revealed fascinating details about the USS Chesapeake’s past, including her construction in 1799 using slave labour from the plantations.
Dr Prescott described how the British Navy dramatically captured the USS Chesapeake in 1813 during the last occasion the United Kingdom and the United States were at war with each other. Taken into the Royal Navy for the purpose of discovering the secrets of her construction and performance, the ship was eventually dismantled and, in 1820, her timbers were built into the water mill which lies in the beautiful Meon Valley. The defeated Americans could never have foreseen the last resting place of one of their previously invincible heavy frigates.
The capture of the Chesapeake by HMS Shannon in the coastal waters off Boston was a bloody affair. The American commander, Captain James Lawrence, was mortally wounded and his last words were: “Don’t give up the ship!” – now one of the US Navy’s most cherished traditions. His ship surrendered to the British boarding party with great loss of life on both sides – 70 of the Chesapeake’s crew were killed and 100 wounded. On the Shannon, 23 died and 56 were wounded. A letter from the Shannon’s commander, Captain Philip Vere Broke RN who himself received several wounds in the action, describes how the ships became locked together after an exchange of broadsides. His “gallant hands” rushed in upon the enemy’s decks “driving everything before them with irresistible fury.” The whole action took a mere 15 minutes.
Captain Broke added of his prize, “The Chesapeake is a fine frigate, and mounts 49 guns¿Both ships came out of the action in the most beautiful order, their rigging appearing as perfect as if they had only been exchanging a salute”.
The capture of the Chesapeake was of major importance to British naval intelligence. The Americans had developed heavy frigates in the late 18th century as the only effective challenge to British naval power. In order to build ships capable of defeating them, the British needed to study their performance and understand their construction. The Chesapeake gave them the opportunity.
After she had been thoroughly tried out and examined by the Royal Navy, the Chesapeake was sold in 1819 for breaking up. In 1820 John Prior, a builder, bought some of her timber for £3,450 to build the water mill.
The timbers in Wickham Mill are in such fine condition that they show detailed evidence of the Chesapeake’s battle damage and also of her original construction and refit. Scientific analysis of the timbers has been compared with inventories of the timber species used in the navy yard at Gosport, Virginia when the Chesapeake was built. Marks made by individual workmen who were employed on the ship can clearly be seen. Documentary sources show that some of these workers were slaves who had been hired from the tobacco plantations to build the ship.
Wickham Mill’s dimensions largely reflect those of the ship, which was dismantled carefully so that every last inch of the long timbers such as deck beams could be used. The archaeologists were able to reconstruct what missing parts of the ship would have looked like from ghost markings round joints where pieces of the ship were joined together.
Dr Robert Prescott said, “By combining historical studies and picture research with our archaeological survey of the mill and its ship timbers, we have greatly enriched our understanding of this remarkable ship and building. We have also shown how material from a variety of sources and disciplines can enhance the study of maritime archaeology. We very much hope the study will be of use to those managing our heritage of rural and industrial buildings.”
Wickham Mill ceased to operate commercially in the 1970s and lies empty and semi-derelict. It is now owned by Hampshire County Council which bought it in 1998 in order to help save it as an important part of Hampshire’s heritage.
Dr Prescott said, “It is essential that an appropriate and sympathetic new use should be found for this internationally significant historic mill if it is to survive. Although previous proposals to develop the mill for accommodation or for commercial use have come to nought, there is great potential for a multiple-use plan incorporating community facilities, exhibition galleries, private housing and a maritime research centre. The future of the mill will be closely watched by supporters of maritime heritage both here and in North America”.
The panel of judges for the “Award for the Presentation of Heritage Research¿ was chaired by Julian Richards, presenter of BBC TV’s “Meet the Ancestors”. The audience took part in the judging process.
NOTE TO EDITORS
Images are available on the Press Association’s Picselect site on www.papicselect.com in the English Heritage folder under BA Festival of Science 2002.
Images are also available from the National Maritime Museum on 0208 312 6545.
For further information, please contact Catherine Eady, English Heritage Public Affairs on 020 7973 3855 or Claire Grainger, University of St Andrews Press Office on 01334 462530.
The 1812 War) arose mainly out of US resentment at Britain’s maritime practices. Britain insisted that neutral ships bound for ports blockaded during the Napoleonic Wars should first pay duties in British ports. British ships were also in the habit of stopping American ships and removing sailors accused of deserting from the Royal Navy. The war was inconclusive, though the British managed to burn down the White House. The US was ill- prepared and numerous naval skirmishes failed to disturb Britain’s control of the sea. Eventually both sides wearied and in 1814 signed the Treaty of Ghent, restoring pre-war conditions. US military successes towards the end of the war, however, stimulated a sense of nationality in the US.
Requests to visit the water mill should be made through Hampshire County Council.
Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information please contact: Claire Grainger on 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or email cg24@st- andrews.ac.uk View University press releases on- line at http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk Ref: prescott.uni/standrews/chg/12sep200 2Research