When the frigate USS Chesapeake was launched in 1799 in Portsmouth, Virginia it was expected that she would help to fight the pirates of the Mediterranean immediately, and to do whatever might be required as one of the original six frigates of the U.S. Navy in the following years. It was not envisioned that, at the end of the 20th century, she would present a dilemma to historians, preservationists and other interested parties of three nations that might be considered unique in the annals of historic preservation.
From the outset, the Chesapeake was considered an “unlucky ship” because of a fatality at her launching, and subsequent events only promoted the idea, suggested by one 20th century historian as a ship that traveled beneath a malevolent star.
In 1807 she was severely damaged and four of her crew killed in an unprovoked attack by a British frigate just off the coast of Virginia. The attack led to a reawakening of American citizens after the Revolutionary War that theirs was a sovereign nation that needed to defend itself. The event was one of the precursors to the War of 1812 between the US and England, and in that war the Chesapeake was taken prize by the British in one of the most studied of naval battles in history. The event occasioned the first uttering of the U.S. Navy slogan “Don’t give up the ship!” by the American captain James Lawrence, mortally wounded in the attack by Captain P.B.V. Broke of the HMS Shannon. Soon thereafter the ship was taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and seemed thereafter to disappear into history.
But England was a recycling nation, and after the conclusion of both the War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, it began to break down its many wooden fighting ships into wood and timbers for use in the construction of homes, large buildings, furniture and other projects. In 1819, 20 years after her launch in Portsmouth, Virginia, the Chesapeake was broken up in Portsmouth, England, and ad was placed in the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle of April 17, 1820 offering her timbers and other assorted parts for sale. It was read by the miller John Pryor of Wickham, Hampshire who determined that he would tear down his old watermill and build a new one of the Chesapeake’s timbers. A large, but unknown portion, of that wood was used uncut and unaltered in the construction of the grain mill. It was preserved within a roof and walls, and stands today just as it was then.
The questions about the mill in Wickham have always been under the category of: what is it, exactly? Is it an historic old American sailing frigate? Is it an old English watermill? Who does it belong to in the historic sense? Who is responsible for it, and in what way?
The ambiguity of the old building was first, and very eloquently, remarked upon by the British writer Rev. J.G Brighton after a visit in 1864. “On every floor,” he wrote, “the blithe and mealy men were urging their life-sustaining toil. But, my reader, on one of those planks, on one of these floors, beyond all reasonable doubt, Lawrence fell, in the writhing anguish of his mortal wound…and on others Broke lay ensanguined, and his assailants dead . . .”
More than a century later, the Chesapeake Mill in Wickham sat as a derelict building on the River Meon. The milling of grain in village watermills had long since become a lost commerce. The mill had produced livestock and pet food in its last years, but by the 1980s there was nothing left for it to do.
Except, perhaps, to be torn down, or turned into a trendy restaurant, or a condominium project. Those ideas, and others, might have offered a logical future for a distinguished industrial building that had long since become obsolete. But it didn’t take long for various interested parties to regain a knowledge of the history of the building. Within this old English watermill there sat an historic U.S. Navy frigate. Its timbers were unaltered since they had first been interlocked together in 1799. Naval historians described, and this writer experienced, entrance to the mill as walking into the soul of a ship.
“What is it, exactly?” questions became “What to do with it?” questions. They were asked in sometimes tense exchanges between maritime historians, county government officials, preservationists and representatives of those interests from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. They presented an outline for perhaps profound deliberations of historic preservation:
- Do pieces of structural wood lose their identity if they are repurposed into something else?
- Can they have the power of recreating the soul of what they were?
- Are these pieces of wood, in particular, more graced because they were first an historic navy frigate and second a provider of commerce and the sustaining of life?
- If we deem them still connected to the drama of history, what is our responsibility to them, and on whose part?
- Given financial considerations, is government or commercial enterprise their best conservator?
The deliberations took place over a period of four years, and finally came to a conclusion acceptable to all, though not with great enthusiasm. Purchased by the County of Hampshire, the mill was given in a 125 year leasehold to a commercial enterprise that would honor the rules of additional British Heritage protection, maintain the building and preserve the integrity of its timbers.
The USS Chesapeake, a sister ship to the Constitution, Constellation, United States and two others was now an antique mall in the British village of Wickham. Or it was just a construction of wood, repurposed from one form of commerce to another. It depended on how one understood the force of history, and its preservation.
The Chesapeake Mill sits on the River Meon off Market Square in Wickham, England just 15 miles north of Portsmouth, and approximately 80 miles west of London, reachable by train to Fareham and bus to Wickham.
For more information go to http://www.theusschesapeake.com or contact Chris Dickon at firstname.lastname@example.org.