Dr Dominic Tweedle, Director-General of the National Museum of the Royal Navy explains why our nautical heritage must be preserved.
Strange isn’t it? If you want a good historical day out, you can see innumerable abbeys, castles, cathedrals, and charming Medieval towns and villages.
The country is littered with stately homes, and there are more museums and galleries than you can shake a stick at. Megaliths, barrows, hillforts, henges, and goodness knows what else lurk behind every hedgerow.
But historic warships? Forget it.
Unless, that is, you live within range of Dundee, Leith, Hartlepool, London, Chatham, or Portsmouth. Of all the thousands of warships that protected our shores, convoyed our wealth, projected our power, and imposed the Pax Britannica, almost nothing survives for the public to see and experience. A meagre total of 13 major ships represent five centuries of British sea-power. Moreover, no grand plan has gone into their choice: it is as if 13 buildings had been chosen randomly to represent all of the country’s built heritage.
How has this bizarre situation come about? Perhaps the lack of anything closely resembling a public policy for the heritage in Britain combined with a kind of snobbish elitism that unerringly values a Titian above a Dreadnought. How many ships does English Heritage care for? None. CADW? None. Historic Scotland? None. I could go on. They all equate heritage with buildings, collections, and archaeological sites.
That anything survives at all is down to the enthusiasm, drive, energy, and, sometimes, sheer dottiness of dedicated individuals who have tried to save something from the wreck. And wreck it has been. We were still blowing up 18th century warships as late as 1947.
These people have taken chances. Without them, only HMS Victory and HMY Britannia would have survived – there was even a plan to break up HMS Victory shortly after the celebration of the centenary of Trafalgar! Then, just when you think that the loss of a great historic warship could not happen again, you discover that it is about to.
HMS Caroline is a light cruiser, a greyhound of the seas. Built in 1914, she served throughout the First and Second World Wars. She is the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland, and the last major ship to survive from the Grand Fleet. To stand on her bridge, with her tripod mast towering above you, is an unforgettable experience; and it is equally extraordinary to explore her galley, fitted out in 1914, or to sit in the doctor’s surgery, or to walk into her steering flat. She has the only in situ First World War turbines in the world, indeed, 80 percent of HMS Caroline is original. Not only is she the most important warship still unprotected in Britain, she comes close to the top of the list of the world’s ten warships that should be protected at all costs.
So, a cosy retirement for HMS Caroline as a visitor attraction, then? Not so. In the run up to the to the commemoration of the centenary of the First World War, the Navy has decided to decommission HMS Caroline as of 31 March 2011 – and turn her into razor blades. HMS Caroline is the last of her kind, all other venerable ships of her significance are long gone.
Built like a tank and in good condition for a ship of her age, all that is needed is a stay of execution long enough to complete arrangements already in hand to find her a safe harbour – whether in Belfast, where she is currently berthed, or elsewhere around the British Isles.
But time is running out, and fast. Certainly, historic ships are expensive to maintain. But we have so few. We must find a way to preserve our nautical heritage for future generations. So, let’s save HMS Caroline from the scrap-heap, for this is our last chance to gaze upon the like of her.
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