The Warship

and theWater Mill

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Chesapeake Mill

Bridge Street Wickham Hampshire PO17 5JH

T: 01329 834078 F: 01329 834888


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Welcome to the Chesapeake Mill
The historical significance of this fine building arises first of all from the timbers used in its construction. These timbers come from the United States frigate
Chesapeake, which was captured by the Royal Navy during the War of 1812. Architecturally, the mill is the finest example of re-used ship timbers within an industrial building outside the confines of the Royal Dockyards. In addition to this maritime heritage, the mill has been a prominent feature of the landscape in the Meon Valley, performing a vital function in the rural economy, from its construction in 1820 up to 1976, when it ceased commercial operation.

The War of 1812
In June 1812 the United States Congress declared war on the United Kingdom, the last occasion on which the two countries were engaged in mutual hostilities. The war was primarily about naval and trade issues and occurred at an awkward time for Britain, which was deeply engaged in the struggle against Napoleon's France. A seaman who fought on both sides during the war, having served in the frigate
HMS Macedonian and subsequently in her captor the USS United States, summarised the causes of the War of 1812 as follows:

Above: Engagement between the American frigate United States and the English
frigate Macedonian, etching by Jazet after an original by Baugean.
(Click image for larger view).

The course of the naval war caused great concern in Britain because of the successes gained by the new-style American heavy frigates. In a series of single-ship actions the American frigates Constitution and United States, captured the British frigates Guerriere, Macedonian and Java. At a time when a series of victories in the naval wars with France had led the British public to assume their navy was invincible these events were a serious challenge to British prestige and self-confidence. Something had to be done!

"[Britain], at war with France, had denied the Americans the right to trade thither. She had impressed American seamen, and forcibly compelled their service in her navy; she had violated the American flag by insolently searching their vessels for her runaway seamen. Free Trade and Sailors' Rights, therefore, were the objects contended for by the Americans"

(A Voice from the Main Deck, being a record of the thirty years adventures of Samuel Leech)

The USS Chesapeake and HMS Shannon
The frigate actions of the War of 1812 were gladiatorial contests in which dashing, handsome captains commanded elegant, fast and handy ships. The captains were lionised by the public of both nations and fought each other with great courage and chivalry. However, after twelve months at war the Royal Navy had still not gained a victory in a single-ship frigate action. There was growing concern about the war among both the Admiralty and the British public. A British victory was desperately needed to redress the balance of American successes at sea.

Among the Royal Navy's captains assigned to the North American station during the War of 1812 was Captain Sir Philip Bowes Vere Broke who commanded HMS Shannon, a 38 gun frigate built at Chatham in 1806. Broke, aged 36, was a great gunnery enthusiast who had trained his crew to a high pitch of efficiency during the years they had served together. He was keen to put these meticulous preparations to the test by engaging an American frigate in a single-ship action.

In the Spring of 1813 Captain James Lawrence was appointed to command the USS Chesapeake, a 44 gun frigate built at Gosport, Virginia, in 1799. Aged 31, the commander of the Chesapeake had already achieved fame for his capture of the British sloop of war Peacock. Lawrence joined his new ship at Boston, where she was undergoing a refit.

Arriving off the coast of Boston in the summer of 1813, Broke observed the Chesapeake in harbour, preparing to put to sea. Fearful that she might not sail before a shortage of food and water necessitated the Shannon's return to the dockyard at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Broke composed a letter to Lawrence in the following terms and sent it in to Boston Harbour aboard a captured prize:

Sir, As the Chesapeake appears now ready for sea, I request that you will do me the favour to meet the Shannon with her, ship to ship, to try the fortunes of our respective flags…… I entreat you sir, not to imagine that I am urged by mere personal vanity to the wish of meeting the Chesapeake, or that I depend upon your personal ambition for your acceding to this invitation; we both have nobler motives..…. Favour me with a speedy reply. We are short of provisions and water, and cannot stay long here.

(Letter to Capt. James Lawrence, from Capt. Sir Philip Bowes Vere Broke).

Lawrence never received this challenge. Before it could be delivered to him the sight of a British frigate in the offing had proved an irresistible spur to action and the Chesapeake sailed out to meet the Shannon off the coast near Cape Ann.

Above: Portrait of Captain Sir Philip B Vere Broke, KCB of HMS Shannon.
Below: Portrait of Captain James Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake.
(Click images for larger view).

The Action off Cape Ann, 1st June 1813
The battle between the
Chesapeake and the Shannon was fiercely fought by both sides. The action lasted less than 12 minutes before the superior gunnery of the Shannon's crew had disabled their adversary. The Chesapeake was finally captured by a boarding party from the Shannon, led by Captain Broke.

Both vessels suffered heavy casualties during the battle. Captain Lawrence of the Chesapeake received a mortal wound. As he was carried from the deck he issued his final rallying cry to his crew, "Don't give up the ship", a phrase which has become a cherished part of Unites States naval lore. Captain Broke of the Shannon was also severely wounded during the boarding action. The First Lieutenants of both vessels were killed.

Despite the short time for which the two ships were engaged this battle resulted in more casualties than in any other single-ship action in the history of both navies. The total number of casualties on the two frigates was:

Chesapeake Initial complement 395
Killed in action and died of wounds 69
Wounded and recovered 77

Shannon Initial complement 345
Killed in action and died of wounds 34
Wounded and recovered 50

Above: The battle opens as the Chesapeake draws abreast of the Shannon (after J C Schetky)
Below: The Chesapeake's port quarter becomes entangled with the Shannon's anchor
and she is boarded by the Shannons (after J C Schetky. Click images for larger view).

After the Battle
Having attended to essential repairs to both ships, the
Shannon sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, with her prize. She made her triumphal entry to the port under the command of Lieutenant Provo Wallis, a native of Halifax and the most senior of the Shannon's officers to have escaped death or injury during the action. The body of Captain Lawrence was taken ashore for burial, accompanied by a naval guard of honour drawn from the Captains of the Royal Navy ships in the harbour. Captain Broke, severely wounded, was taken to the Governor's Residence, where careful nursing set him upon the road to a partial recovery.

News of the Shannon's victory was sent to England as swiftly as possible where it was received with jubilation by the public and relief by the Admiralty. The battle damage to the Chesapeake was repaired in the dockyard at Halifax after which she was sailed to England. The Admiralty was pleased at last to have captured an American frigate and she was taken into the Royal Navy so that the characteristics of the hitherto successful American frigates could be assessed by serving naval officers. The dockyard staff lifted her lines and studied her construction. She then sailed on convoy escort duties to the Cape of Good Hope and back. Once all the required information about her performance had been obtained she was relegated to harbour service as a stores ship. Finally, in 1819, she was sold out of the Service and was broken up at a commercial shipyard in Portsmouth. Many of her timbers were still serviceable and they were advertised for sale in the Sussex & Hampshire Gazette. The successful purchaser was a local miller, Mr John Prior, who transported the timbers to Wickham where they were incorporated into the watermill that he built to replace an earlier mill on the same site. Prior's name, and the date of construction, 1820, can still be seen on the façade of the present mill building.

Lawrence was mourned in America as a tragic hero, whose dying words Don't give up the ship, became a continuing inspiration to the United States Navy. His remains were later disinterred and transported to the United States for reburial. His tomb is today a prominent feature of Trinity Churchyard in New York.

Broke was given a hero's welcome upon his eventual return to England and was copiously rewarded with gifts from a grateful nation. Ill health, the consequences of the wound received during the battle, prevented him from taking command of another ship and he retired to his country seat near Ipswich in Suffolk. His reputation in the Royal Navy was assured and his views on naval gunnery were much debated throughout the Service in the coming years. He was frequently remembered at naval dinners, when the toast would be An Irish River and an English Broke.

Above Captain Broke assailed by three Americans on the deck of the Chesapeake. Below: The triumphant
entry of the Shannon into Halifax Harbour, with the Chesapeake following astern
(after J C Schetky. Click images for larger view).

The Chesapeake Mill
The mill at Wickham was for several generations owned and operated by the Prior family. The present building replaced an earlier watermill on the site. At the time of its construction in 1820 it was regarded as very modern in design. It contained two water wheels which drove five pairs of millstones and provided employment for eight to ten people when at peak production. The mill continued to work for around 150 years, the original water wheels being replaced by a water turbine in the twentieth century. The last miller, Bruce Tappenden, operated the mill into the 1970’s when the mill finally closed down. Mr Tappenden, who was also a distinguished local historian and author of a history of Wickham, continued to live in the Mill House until his death in 2002.

Right: The interior of the Chesapeake Mill in the 19th century (from the work of the Rev. J G Brighton, 1866. Click image for larger view).

The Chesapeake Mill is architecturally important as an example of the re-use of salvaged ship timber in its construction. Though the shell of the building is brick all the structural members within are of timber, most of which is from the frigate Chesapeake. The mill was designed around the ship, the overall dimensions of the building being governed by the maximum length of the available deck beams from the frigate. The most obvious ship features to be seen are the massive deck beams that support each floor in the mill. However, closer inspection reveals that more subtle features, such as the lintels above door and window openings, are also timber from the Chesapeake. This extensive use of salvaged timber holds an important lesson for our present age when so much that could be conserved and re-used is thrown away by our wasteful society.

Visiting the mill, one is struck by the contrast between the din of battle off Cape Ann and the peaceful nature of the rural landscape of the Meon Valley. That the timbers of a warship should later see service in a life-enhancing grain mill made a strong impression upon the biographer of Sir Philip Broke and Admiral Provo Wallis when he visited Chesapeake Mill in the 1860's:

On every floor the blithe and mealy men were urging their life-sustaining toil. But, my reader, on one of these floors, beyond all reasonable doubt, Lawrence fell, in the writhing anguish of his mortal wound; …. And on another Broke lay ensanguined, and his assailants dead! Thus pondering I stood, and still the busy hum went on - corn passed beneath the stones, flour poured forth, a warm sustaining agent of mortal life, and merry millers passed around their kindly smile and blithesome jest. (Admiral Sir P B V Broke, Bart., a Memoir, compiled by Rev J G Brighton, 1866)

The ship timbers in the mill
The timbers from the Frigate Chesapeake form one of the largest and most significant groups of 18th century ship timbers surviving in Britain today. In part, their significance derives from their sheltered position inside a building, which has protected the timbers from the harmful effects of exposure to weather. As you inspect the ship timbers, marvel at the skill of the shipwrights who built the Chesapeake and at the wonderful condition of the timbers after such a long and complex history.

Much of the timber in the mill is softwood rather than oak. The quality of this Southern Pine was excellent, particularly for deck beams where the long, straight grain was an advantage. The building contains many examples of the deck beams that supported the gun deck and the berthing deck of the ship. Also present are examples of the planks that covered the ship's frames or ribs, both outside the hull and inside, where the ceiling planks lined the berthing deck and the hold. Other parts of the ship's structure, though not present in the mill, can be "observed" and measured because of their ghost outlines that survive as discoloured marks where they originally joined the existing timbers. In this way we can obtain the dimensions of the carlings, that span the spaces between deck beams, the mast partners, that provide the strength necessary to support the masts, and the frames or ribs which provide the strength and control the shape of the ship's hull.

A deck beam from the ship showing the rebates for mast partners
and a centre-line pillar (photograph copyright R G W Prescott.
Click image for larger view)

Many of the finer details of ship-building can also be seen, for example the rebates cut by the shipwrights on the deck beams to receive the carlings; the places where pillars supported the beams or where bulkheads were inserted to partition off parts of the ship's interior spaces. You may also see examples of the wooden trenails and metal bolts that held the ship together. In a number of locations throughout the mill the ship timbers bear race marks scored into the timbers using a race knife. These marks indicate the position of the timber in the ship and also on occasion reveal initials of people involved in the building of the ship and her subsequent refit history. In a few places one can find evidence of the repairs made to battle-damage sustained by the ship.

Left: A diagram illustrating the origin of the mill's timbers in the ship: those elements shown in red occur as timbers in the mill; those elements shown in green are known only from their ghost outlines on other timbers in the mill. (Click image for larger view).

This history has been reproduced with the kind courtesy of Dr Robert Prescott of the University of St. Andrews, Dr Angus Goldberg, Ms A.V. Gunn and Mr D.C. Attkinson.

Broke Memoirs

Click here to see the Broke Memoirs.

The Navy and Army Illustrated

Pages 122 - 123

April 30th 1898


A singular fate befel the “Chesapeake”, which from having been the pride of the American Navy, was in a very short space of time transformed into a flour mill, which for the past seventy-six years has ground corn for the inhabitants of a peaceful little English hamlet.  When the Americans built this fine frigate and sent her out of Boston Harbour to take part in one of the most famous sea duels in Naval history – and, as they unmistakably thought, to win an easy victory – they little thought what a fate was in store for her.  On June 16th, 1813, just five days after her defeat by the “Shannon”, the “Chesapeake” was taken into Halifax (U.S.) Harbour in company with her victorious rival.  On the previous day her commander Captain Lawrence, the American Nelson, as he was called by his countrymen died of his wounds.  Mr Ludlow the 1st lieutenant of the “Chesapeake”, shortly afterwards succumbed to the injuries he had sustained in the action.  Both he and his captain were buried at Halifax with Service honours, though their remains were shortly afterwards handed over to the American Government.  When the “Chesapeake” reached Halifax says a writer who went on board her, her decks were like a slaughter-house, and on the quarter-deck lay the dead body of her captain, wrapped in the American flag.  For several years after her return to England the “Shannon” was a “show ship”.  But she saw little active service after her famous victory, and after having had her name changed to the “St Lawrence”, she was broken up.  The “Chesapeake” had found her way into the hand of the ship-breakers some time before.  In 1815 she was bought to England, and five years later was sold by the Government to a Mr Holmes, of Portsmouth.  She had cost the American Government £60,000 to build, but the British Government sold her for £500; and her purchaser made a clear profit of £1,000 upon his speculation.  She was broken up, and some of her timbers were built into houses at Portsmouth.  But by far the greater portion of them were worked into a flour mill at Wickham, a pretty village situate in the Meon valley, Hampshire, and which, by the way, is the birthplace of the famous William of Wykeham.  Her decks were placed, practically unaltered, in the mill.  The outside of the mill, which was built in 1820 is of brick, but the beams, joists, and floors are all constructed of timbers from the “Chesapeake”.

All the floors of the mill are laid with the blood-stained timbers from the “Chesapeake’s” deck, and the stains are as visible now as they were when the floors were first put in.  Moreover, the joists are also covered with the blood of the men who were killed and wounded in action, and many bullets are embedded in them; in fact a good many of the timbers seem quite soaked with blood.  Although “Chesapeake” Mill is unknown to the average tourist, it is frequently visited by Americans.  Looking down at the floors as one walks across them one sees big dark patches, as though pools of blood had stagnated there, and the huge joists over-head bear the same sanguinary evidences.  Piled upon this gore-stained planking lie big heaps of snow-white flour, and it is doubtful whether one out of every hundred of the country people who consume this know that nearly one hundred men were killed, and over that number wounded on those very timbers on which the flour for the bread they eat daily was ground.  The nearest railway station to Wickham is at Fareham, some four miles away, and the village is nine miles from Portsmouth over undulating country.

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