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The mill that was once a warship

As I was starting this week’s blog entry I was reminded of all the drawings in the John Munnings’ Collection that I looked through when I first started my internship. One in particular caught my eye because of the mill’s connection to a single ship battle between the Americans and British, which apparently was won in just 15 minutes! The battle was part of the War of 1812, fought against Britain’s growing control over the US and their attempts to restrict American trade with Napoleon’s France. The mill in question was Chesapeake mill in Wickham, Hampshire, and I decided to take some time out from working on my gems to learn a little more about this mill’s history. How does a bloody battle relate to an English mill? Read on to find out…

Poster Image

In 1813 the war was in full swing, but Britain was desperately struggling to prove its renowned naval prowess, and was in need of a morale boosting victory. In June 1818, the HMS Shannon had been blockading the USS Chesapeake off the Boston coast, which remained anchored in the harbour. Captain Broke, commanding the Shannon, grew concerned that the Chesapeake would not engage in battle before they had to return due to dwindling food supplies. To resolve this, Broke wrote a letter to the Chesapeake’s Captain James Lawrence, effectively requesting they hurry up and start fighting before they have to leave! Believing it to be an easy win and confident in his ship’s superiority, Lawrence sailed the Chesapeake into battle. The American ship was in fact superior, however her crew were largely made up of newly enlisted seamen, who did not have the discipline equal to the British nor the understanding of combat at sea.  It was because of this that Broke was able to immediately take the upper hand, quickly boarding the Chesapeake and bringing it under British control.

So the battle was won after just 15 minutes, using Lawrence’s arrogance and British skills in combat to their advantage. In the end, the Americans lost around 60 men and the ship had been hit around 362 times. Compared with losses on the Shannon, approx. 30 crew dead and 158 strikes to the ship, it is clear this provided the needed morale boost, and re-established the British as a valid threat. Both captains were severely wounded in the fighting, with Lawrence dying a few days later and receiving a burial with full military honours. Broke however, although hailed a war hero in England, never fully recovered from his injuries and was forced to retire shortly after. Captain Lawrence has since been immortalised after famously shouting “Don’t give up the ship!” upon being carried out of the fighting, a phrase that is still used to today in the US Navy.

However the Chesapeake’s journey did not end there, after being captured it was taken to Halifax where it was repaired and subsequently brought back to England. There it joined the Royal Navy, becoming HMS Chesapeake, and continued use under the British until 1819 when it was sold and broken up. It was then in 1820 that Thomas Prior, after demolishing the mill at Wickham, purchased the timbers from the Chesapeake to build the present structure. The current building has frequently changed hands and purposes over the years, but the timbers from the ship have remained steadfast. Eventually closing in 1976, it is now a museum where visitors can see the remains of the Chesapeake, which still displays marks from the battle, such as shrapnel dents and supposedly even bloodstains! The fact that over 200 years later the timber remains strong and serves a purpose is a tribute to the quality of the Chesapeake’s construction and materials. It is fascinating that a piece of American timber made history in battle, and then ended its journey in an ordinary English mill. It just goes to show how the milling industry can hold significance all over the world and from any period of history. I think it can act as a reminder of just how important it is to preserve our milling heritage, after all, it could be part of something even bigger!