Chris Dickon

The Enduring Journey of the USS Chesapeake

Pages 80 - 84 with pictures

When the battle of Waterloo brought a conclusion in Britain’s favor to the Napoleonic Wars in June 1815, the wind was turned to a gentle breeze against the sails of the Royal Navy. All of that wood, acquired from all over the world through harvesting or prize-taking, could now be recycled into other purposes. It formed new piers and jetties, or was saved for future construction. Much of it went into the postwar building of homes and businesses. Oak that had traveled the seas became tables and desks. Damaged wood became firewood. The thickest and longest of beams became parts of churches and farm buildings. But the only large portion of one ship’s wood that would be traced into the 21st century would be the portion of the USS Chesapeake purchased by John Prior, taken by water to Fareham and carted overland to the mill site in Wickham.

George Brighton’s biography of P.B.V. Broke contains a letter from the Vicar of Fareham, dated April 9, 1864, excerpted here:

Mr. Prior pulled down his own mill at Wickham, and constructed a new one with this timber, which he found admirably adapted for the purpose. The deck timbers were thirty-two feet long and eighteen inches square, and were placed, unaltered, horizontally in the mill. The purloins of the deck were about twelve feet long, and served, without alteration, for joists. The mill, still in existence and in active operation (the property of Mr. Goderick) stands just as Mr. Prior erected it in 1820, and is likely to last yet hundreds of years. Mr. Prior is now living in Farnham, and I have just taken the foregoing information from his lips.

I remain, dear Sir,
Very faithfully' yours,

W.S. Dumergue

What is most important in the Vicar’s reporting is that the timbers and purloins (now purlins, support beams) and other wood not mentioned were used in the new mill as they were taken from the ship. Thus the ship gave shape and dimension to the mill. Then the ship’s wood was given the protection of brick walls and a roof that would make it “likely to last yet hundreds of years.” The building erected in 1820 remained barely changed in the first two of those hundreds of years.

Hampshire County and Wickham historian Bruce Tappenden was the last of the millers to own the structure in the late 20th century. He wrote an extensive dissertation on its history while studying at the University of Portsmouth, and described “a substantial rectangular building in brick, of three stories with a tiled, half mansared roof . . . built on very deep and substantial brick foundation that goes down into the gravel of the old river bed . . . the beams and trusses to the roof are less substantial than the beams lower down the mill, only having to support the roof and are therefore not load bearing. . . in former days it was quite common practice in mills not to carry the floor boarding to the walls but to leave a space around the walls. This served two useful functions, it improved ventilation and also facilitated the emptying of sacks into the storage bins on the floor below.”

At its construction in 1820 it was named the Chesapeake Mill, and considered to be very modern in design. Its power was derived from two breast-shot waterwheels to drive five pair of millstones and assorted hauling mechanisms. It used cast iron rather than wooden gearing, and a drying kiln to prepare the grain for easier milling. It employed up to ten people at times of peak production. At the river it used a bypass sluice for the heavy rains of winter, and a fish router to allow salmon to go to sea.

But, if the mill was likely to last hundreds of years, its function was not. In retrospect the considerable investment in its rebuilding with the strong American pine taken from the Chesapeake, may have been badly timed. Just as the end of the wars had left a surplus of wooden navy ships, including the Chesapeake, it had left a surplus of milling capacity in Hampshire County. The mill would be sold out of the Prior family in 1826, the first of many changes in ownership over the next 150 years.

It was not until 1864 that it came to the attention of the Reverend George Brighton, occasioning the letter returned to him from the Vicar of Fareham.

“The receipt of this letter,” he wrote, “set me again on historical pilgrimage. The longing was irresistible to see for oneself this strange metamorphose of a sanguinary man-of-war into a peaceful, life-sustaining cornmill. I had pictured it all to myself, most exactly; but, like all other imaginary realizations of persons and places, nothing could be more dissimilar than the reality.”

On a wet July day, Brighton traveled by train from London’s Warerloo station to Fareham. “At this latter place a change of vehicle conveyed me, more slowly, through an undulating, picturesque, and well-wooded district. Bye and bye a valley opened, through which a stream might be conjectured to flow; and after a few turns more the “fly,” with a grating check, drew up before a comely house of three stories and a range of dormer windows in the roof. Nothing shiplike or of the sea was discernible from without.”

But, once inside, the biographer of P.B.V. Broke found himself transported back to what seemed to him to have been an exquisite moment in a ship at sea. “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, while nearby Ludlow must have poured out his life’s blood.”

He continued, perhaps offering the first turn of a phrase that would be uttered by like-minded people through the following ages. “Perhaps, thought I, at last, it is better this should be the end of the proud Chesapeake. The dream of glory (and never was one more lofty) lives and long shall live upon the page of history; but one day of this tranquil toil in God’s holy name and love would, I think, be infinitely more valued by Philip Broke now than would the capture of a thousand Chesapeakes; for he is hard on the confines of that glorious land, where in the sublime language of the sacred prophet “Shall go no galley without oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby; and where nations shall make war no more,” the last phrase appearing to be the Reverend’s personal addition to Isaiah 33:21.

Some years later, author Edgar Stanton MacLay, in A History of the United States Navy, from 1775 to 1893, would refer to Brighton in offering his own biblical conclusion that “The metamorphosis of a sanguinary man-of-war into a peaceful flour mill is perhaps as near an approach to the Scriptural prophecy that spears and swords shall be beaten into plows and pruning-hooks as the conditions of modern civilization will allow.”

Selected Works

In “Rendezvous With Death,” Dickon, a veteran public television and radio producer, has written a worthwhile and important biography of Seeger that is meticulously researched, amply illustrated . . . a masterful job of enabling the reader to view Seeger in his place and time and to evaluate his contribution to World War I and the poetry it produced. - - The Virginian-Pilot
"A full accounting for our soldier dead who remain on foreign shores. A wonderful and very caring read which covers our boys in France AND the North Russia Expeditionary Force." - World War I Centennial Commission "An insightful and historically significant book. " - Google Books
A sailing USN frigate, now a watermill in England: . . . a gem of a book. Virginian Pilot, Norfolk.
"Readers seeking untold tales of dedicated Americans serving under foreign flags during the world wars will read this book avidly, wondering perhaps why they’re learning about these adventures for the first time." - Charles Krohn "No other book covers this topic. Consequently, it will find a place in all graduate university libraries and colleges with strong history and political science programs. Community colleges will find this a desirable but not essential work. Summing Up: Highly recommended." - ALA Choice Select
At the end of the 19th century an audacious railroad sets sail across the Chesapeake Bay.