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THE AMERICAN WARSHIP AT WICKHAM

            

The River Meon rises at South Farm in the shadow of Butser Hill, flowing over 20 miles before entering the Solent.   After East and West Meon, it turns south past Warnford, Exton, Corhampton and Droxford to Wickham, then through Titchfield into the sea.

 

Chesapeake Mill is on the west bank of the Meon in Wickham, a few miles north of Fareham, about 300 yards north of the church and near the disused railway bridge.     Below the mill, on the opposite side of the road, there was a brewery, also a foundry manufacturing edge tools, but both have long since closed.

 

One may wonder what this quiet market town in Hampshire has to do with Britain’s war with the United States.     Nothing really, but the mill does contain timbers from an American warship.

 

In 1782, Thomas Prior insured his corn mill and dwelling house at Wickham for £800, it being brick built & tiled, and his stock for £500, but nine years later he was insuring the mill and machinery alone for £1,000.    In 1801, the Royal Exchange Insurance Company were still insuring the mill and the machinery for the same amount, but the dwelling house, now leased to a miller called Parkin. Obviously a very profitable business and Thomas himself was living in Bishops Waltham.
 

 

 

 

As a result of the Naval encounter in 1813 between U.S.S. Chesapeake and HMS Shannon outside Boston harbour,   the American frigate was captured and sent first to Halifax and thence to England where it, the prize of H.M.S. Shannon, was added to the Royal Navy by an Admiralty order of 10 November 1814.

 

She was sold out of service on 18 August 1819 to Mr Joshua Holmes for £3,450 and he advertised the sale of timbers from the ship and it was in 1820 that Thomas Prior’s son John demolished the old mill at Wickham and purchased some of the Chesapeake’s timbers which he used to erect the present building.   A stone plaque on the front of the mill records this - “Erected AD 1820 I Prior”. The Mill House, built at the same time, is on the west side of the main building, on the opposite side of the river and is connected by a foot bridge.

 

By 1826 the mill was being advertised for sale with a pair of breast shot water wheels on the west side, driving five pairs of stones, two flour machines, and a bolting mill, together with smutt and winnowing machines, capable of cleaning and grinding forty loads of wheat a week.   

The Clark family purchased the mill from John Prior in 1831, selling it to Goodrichs nine years later.  They milled there until 1866 when Garniers purchased it.  It seems they then leased the mill out, for in 1877, the Hampshire Chronicle reported that Phillip Bell, a miller & biscuit manufacturer of  Wickham and Hurst Mills was bankrupt.    

Edward Edney became the miller in 1878 and in 1919, T. E. & J. H. Edney purchased the mill from Garniers, who had been the owners for the past 53 years.  It remained in the Edney family through marriage until it closed in 1991.

During the 20th century flour milling at the smaller mills stopped due to the import of cheap American and Canadian wheat and the dominance of the large steam mills at the ports.  Like so many other mills, Chesapeake changed to milling animal feed, but with the supply of electricity  reaching farms, farmers began to do their milling themselves, reducing the profitability of the mill.  

 

The last of the mill stones was removed in 1948, and by the 1970s, the mill was only used to produce animal feedstuffs, using electricity to power the roller and crusher plant and the turbine to power the mixer and hoist.

Later the mill was only used for storage and as the distribution centre for seed grain and fertilisers.

 

In 1986 Bruce Tappenden, the last miller, issued an invitation to friends, including one to the American Ambassador,

        "You are hereby invited to attend celebration to commemorate the One hundred and Seventy Third anniversary of the taking in battle of the American frigate `Chesapeake’ by His Britannic Majesty King George the Third's ship `Shannon' on the first day of June in the Fifty Third year of his reign anno domini  One Thousand Eight Hundred and Thirteen.

        The aforementioned celebration to be held in those premises now known as - The Chesapeake Mill- situate in the Parish of Wickham and now in the tenure of Sylvia and Bruce Tappenden of the said Parish.   Commencing at twelve noon.  The herin-referedto-abovementioned event will take place on the First day of June in the year One Thousand Nine Hundred and Eighty Six. Long live the Queen".       

                                               

In 1989, Bruce sent a sample of the timber to the United States Forestry Service laboratory and they confirmed that this was southern long leaf yellow pine, as used in the construction of the Chesapeake.  The mill timbers form one of the largest and most significant groups of an 18th century ship timbers surviving in Britain today.

 

Two years later, the mill closed, Bruce Tappenden retired and the RCHM completed a survey of the building which was published the following year.

 

A local charity was formed in 1996 to apply for a Lottery grant to purchase Chesapeake mill for a Heritage Centre, but in 1998 the Hampshire County Council completed arrangements to buy the Chesapeake Mill for £115,000 and place it on the buildings-at-risk register.   It had been hoped that it would be restored and available as an interpretation centre for the Meon valley, but this was not to be.      

 

Bruce died on 18th March 2002.   He was related to the Edneys who started milling here in 1889 and was also a founder member of the Hampshire Mills Group in 1975.

 

The mill was upgraded from two to two star rating, thus giving it extra protection and a new 125 year lease was granted to Tony Taylor of the Chesapeake Mill Ltd.  This company began to trade in retail and wholesale antique furniture from the property in November 2004.   Major repairs to the roof have been carried out and the property is wind and water tight.  

 

The whole Mill is its own museum, available for public access, with the Chesapeake beams fully visible, along with the remaining milling equipment which will be restored by the Hampshire Mills Group.

The lease includes a 'museum' area' which will be an interpretation and meeting area which can tell the story of the ship, the battle, the subsequent construction of the mill, its history and the village history.

 

 The members of the Hampshire Mills Group have been closely associated with the mill for many years, meetings have been held there as well as parties and lectures.   Now they have got the turbine working and have connected it to the lay shaft which transfers power to the floor above.   Among the items still present are an "Armfield Seed Separator", an "Armfield Oat Clippper and Separator" and a weighing machine by Locke Bros of Portsmouth

 

The timbers in the mill, from the Frigate Chesapeake, form one of the largest and most significant groups of an 18th century ship timbers surviving in Britain today.

 

This has been the story of the mill, but now follows more details of the naval encounter in 1813.


 

The War of 1812

 In 1812, while Britain was still fighting Napoleon’s France, the Americans objected to the blockading of the European ports which denied them the right to trade and the boarding of American merchants ships in the open seas: so they declared war on England.   

 

During the 1790s, the Americans had built some very large 44-gun frigates and when the war broke out, these ships won a series of single‑ship actions in which the American frigates Constitution and United States captured the British frigates Guerriere, Macedonian and Java. 

The British public, accustomed to naval victories regardless of the odds, was incensed, when, after twelve months at war, the Royal Navy had still not gained a victory in a single‑ship frigate action and a British victory was desperately needed to redress the balance of American successes at sea. The growing concern about the war among both the Admiralty and the British public led to an even closer blockade of American ports.  

 

Since the 1750s, the term frigate had described the smaller, faster types of warship used for commerce protection or raiding, or scouting for the main fleet. The Royal Navy’s largest type of frigate at this time was the Shannon, completed in 1806.  She was a Fifth Rate ‘Leda’ class, mounting thirty-eight 18-pounder guns on the upper one of its two decks, but the Admiralty decided that numbers of ships were more important than increasing the amount of firepower on them.

 

While patrolling the coast of the United States, HMS Shannon was commanded by Captain Philip Broke.   He was 36 and a great gunnery enthusiast, who during his seven years in charge had worked up his ship to a peak of fighting efficiency with the best gunnery drill of any vessel in the Royal Navy.  They had been trained to fire into the hull of the enemy ship to kill the crew instead of shooting down the masts.  Throughout his career, Broke had prepared for a single-ship action.  He even refused to capture American merchant ships, as this would require him to put crews on board and reduce the Shannon’s efficiency.  He was keen to put these meticulous preparations to the test by engaging an American frigate in a single‑ship action.

 

The US frigate Chesapeake was a 44gun frigate built at Gosport, Virginia, in 1799 and in the Spring of 1813, Captain James Lawrence was appointed to command her, joining his new ship at Boston, where she was undergoing a refit.   Aged 31, the new commander of the Chesapeake had already achieved fame for his capture of the British sloop of war, Peacock.   However, many of her officers had been replaced and a large percentage of her crew was newly enlisted.   Though the ship was a good one, with a well-seasoned Captain, time would be necessary to work her men into a capable and disciplined combat team.    .  

 

After a long patrol blockading off Boston in June 1818, Broke had seen the Chesapeake in harbour.  Worried that she might not go to sea 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 and sent it into Boston Harbour. 

 

          “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.

“I will send all other ships beyond the power of interfering with us, and meet you whenever it is most agreeable to you. I will warn you should any of my friends be too nigh, or I would sail with you, under a flag of truce, to any place you think safest from our cruisers, hauling it down when fair to begin hostilities. You will feel it as a compliment if I say that the result of our meeting may be the most grateful service I can render to my country; and I doubt not that you, equally confident of success, will feel convinced that it is only by repeated triumphs, in even combats, that your little navy can now hope to console your country for the loss of that trade it can no longer protect.

          Favour me with a speedy reply.  We are short of provisions and water, and cannot stay long here”.

 

This was certainly a cold-blooded challenge, but a most fair and gallant one.  It was unfortunate that Lawrence, whose previous experience with British warships had convinced him that they were not likely to be formidable opponents, never received the challenge as the Chesapeake had sailed the morning the letter was sent - the sight of a British frigate in the offing had proved an irresistible spur to action and she left her moorings in President Roads, Boston, and sailed out, intending to meet the Shannon off the coast between Cape Ann and Cape Cod.  .  The ships were of virtually identical strength, though the American ship's crew was rather larger, and a duel between the two was attractive to both captains.  

 

They sailed several miles offshore, where Shannon slowed to await her opponent, who approached flying a special flag proclaiming "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights" in recognition of America's pre-war grievances against British policies.  The “Chesapeake” bore away for the Britisher, and when within pistol-shot, swung into the wind and then ensued one of the bloodiest and most terrific combats between two ships-of-war.

 

As the Chesapeake approached, both ships opened fire, but the Shannon’s first devastating broadside at a range of about 35 metres (38yds) did more damage and produced crippling casualties on Chesapeake's quarterdeck.  Lawrence was wounded, but ordered the Chesapeake to slow down to enable her to return fire. This did not give the American gunners time to adjust their aim and as the carronades of the British ship swept the Chesapeake’s quarter and upper decks, two-thirds of the gun crews were already casualties. Then at a crucial moment, the Chesapeake’s wheel was destroyed by a 9-pounder gun which Broke had installed on Shannon’s quarterdeck for that purpose. 

 

 

 

 

The American ship became out of control and her vulnerable stern was exposed to raking British fire. In desperation, Lawrence ordered his men to board as the Chesapeake drifted stern first towards the Shannon.  Instead, it was Broke who seized the moment and led the boarding party in person onto the Chesapeake's quarterdeck, where terrific hand-to-hand fighting occurred.   Assisted by cannon and small arms fire from on board Shannon, they soon gained control above decks and many of the “Chesapeake’s” crew were finally driven into the hold.

 

Three American sailors, probably from the rigging, attacked Captain Broke.  He killed the first, but the second hit him with a musket and the third sliced open his skull before being overwhelmed; propped up against the gunwale, he watched the remainder of the fight.

 

The American commander, Captain James Lawrence, was mortally wounded.  His friend, Samuel Livermore of Boston, who accompanied him during this fight, attempted to avenge the wounding of his commander by shooting Captain Broke, but the shot just missed the mark.  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.

 

Some fifteen minutes after the battle began, it was effectively over and Chesapeake was in British hands.  Casualties were heavy: more than sixty killed on Chesapeake but only about half that many on Shannon.  The latter's cannon had made more than twice as many hits, and her boarding party had demonstrated the decisive superiority in hand-to-hand fighting.  The action, which greatly boosted British morale, provided another of the War of 1812's many convincing examples of the vital importance of superior training and discipline in combat at sea.

 

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.   In the short space of fifteen minutes the Yankee vessel had been hit 362 times and 148 of her crew had been killed or wounded, while the English vessel had been struck by 158 shot, and 83 of her seamen were dead or disabled.  The First Lieutenants of both vessels were killed.   All the Chesapeake’s officers were casualties and Lawrence died of his wounds three days later, in spite of the attentions of the surgeon Broke sent to take care of him. 

 

The Bostonians had been so sure of a victory that they had prepared a banquet, intending to include the defeated Broke and his officers.    Many people had assembled on the shores of Hull, Nahant and Marble-head on the ill-fated day, 11 June1813, to witness the conflict between the British “Shannon” and the American “Chesapeake”.  Instead they had to watch their ship being carried away within sight of Boston Light, with the English flag at the masthead, and those who had come out in their vessels had to steer their way sadly back to Boston.  

 

The two ships then started to return to Halifax, their decks strewn with the dead and dying - the commander of one unconscious and the other dying.  On arrival at Halifax Captain Broke, severely wounded, was taken to the Governor's Residence, where careful nursing set him upon the road to a partial recovery.  Broke returned to England where he received a hero’s welcome for restoring the pride of the Royal Navy and was knighted.  But ill health, the consequences of the wound received during the battle, prevented him from taking command of another ship and he retired to his countryseat near Ipswich in Suffolk where he died in 1841, having been under the care of a physician for the rest of his life.

 

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 action greatly boosted British morale.

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 under the same name and Captain Francis Newcombe commanded her at Plymouth during 1815.   This meant they were able to assess the characteristics and construction of the hitherto successful American frigates by serving naval officers.   She then sailed on convoy escort duties to the Cape of Good Hope and back and later was used as a stores ship.  Finally, in 1819, she was sold out of the Service and was broken up at a commercial shipyard in Portsmouth.

 

And so it was that in 1820, Thomas Prior son demolished the old mill at Wickham and purchased some of the Chesapeake’s timbers which he used to erect the present building.

 

HMS Shannon was placed in the reserve in 1831.   She was renamed the St Lawrence in 1844 and became a receiving ship at Sheerness, before finally being broken up in November 1859.  

 

                                                                                                           
Tony & Mary Yoward

 

 

SOURCES

 

Bruce Tappenden

Hampshire Record Office

Simmons Collection - Science Museum Library

Britannia Nautical Research Association

Local newspapers

Hampshire Magazine

Fire Insurances - Guildhall Library

Internet - various sources

Naval Historical centre, Washington

Water & Windmills of Hampshire - Monica Ellis - Suiag

SPAB

R.C.H.M.

Etc

   ________________________________________________________________________

 

ARMFIELD DRAWINGS  for CHESAPEAKE MILL   1892

 

 


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