Please help save H.M.S. President – Fundraising page here
Since my blog on British Naval History started, I’ve covered visits to two of the three surviving WW1 Royal Navy Warships. It would only be right for me to cover the third as well, but at the moment I can’t and might never be able to. Although this blog will look at the third of the trio, H.M.S. President (1918), it won’t feature the same detail on the visitor experience as the blogs on H.M.S. M33 and Caroline, or the same grainy attempts at moody period photography from one of my vintage rangefinder cameras.
I would leave the link to funding until the end, but it’s too important not to. I should probably add that all the views expressed here are mine and mine alone, and do not reflect British Naval History etc. Here it is again – https://www.justgiving.com/hms-president. Please give generously.
The long and the short is that there isn’t much time to save H.M.S. President from scrapping, which would be a travesty at the best of times but in its 100th year would be a rare kind of poetic injustice. Several applications for funding have been turned down or are contingent on other funds being secured, and time is now running out. President has lost its regular berth on the Thames in London due to the Thames Tidal Gateway and is currently ‘out of sight and out of mind’ at Chatham. It will cost £1.5 million to carry out necessary restoration to stabilise the hull (the plating is dangerously thin in some places) and a further £1.5 million for a mooring in the ship’s spiritual home of London. The insurance is due, and the work to the hull must be completed before it can be renewed. If the work isn’t carried out, the likely fate is the scrapman’s torch.
Having set all that out, why does H.M.S. President deserve to be saved? Broadly, I believe, for two reasons – what she is, and what she represents. President is an historical vessel in her own right. She was created in 1918 as part of an emergency programme of construction that saw 112 Flower-Class sloops like her built to sweep mines, and later escort convoys and act as ‘hunter-killer’ anti-submarine units. President herself was built as HMS Saxifrage, part of a sub-set of the Flower class to act as a ‘Q-ship,’ the product of ingenuity and desperation triggered by unrestricted U-boat warfare. Saxifrage’s silhouette was altered from the standard sloop outline to help her resemble a merchant ship, and her armament hidden behind false bulwarks, to lure U-boats in close to destroy them. In the course of her wartime career, Saxifrage engaged nine U-boats and survived. As such she is a unique survivor of the struggle against the U-boats in WW1, with a combat history in her own right.
Saxifrage became a Royal Navy Reserve drill ship between the wars, when she was moored on the Thames (at Blackfriars) and was redubbed HMS President, having inherited the name from the second HMS President, which had ended its days on the Thames as a training ship. This was the beginning of the vessel’s long association with the Thames and London, during which she became part of the fabric of the land- and river-scape. In doing so, she followed her forebear and absorbed the prestige of a name with its own illustrious history. The first H.M.S. President had, before her capture, been the pride of the United States Navy, one of the big frigates that threatened to end at a stroke the Royal Navy’s strength in single-ship actions. However, in 1815, H.M.S. Endymion battled President and forced her to strike her colours. The original President was found to be rotting badly a few years after her capture and this, with the damage inflicted by Endymion’s guns, led to her scrapping, but she was replaced with an almost exact replica, built and named to remind the world that even the most powerful enemies should fear the Royal Navy. (The name has been retained within the RN, but only as a shore station, making the sloop President the last vessel to carry the famous name.)
President’s history doesn’t end there. She also acted as a floating HQ for the French resistance and the Special Operations Executive in WW2, and on top of that helped protect St. Paul’s cathedral during the Blitz as a designated gun emplacement. She was also equipped to train gunners on armed merchantmen. These employments give President a direct connection to the actions to disrupt the Nazi occupation of Europe and prepare for the D-Day landings, the German bombing of British cities, and the Atlantic and Arctic convoys. After the war, President continued her service as a training ship, a role which lasted until 1988, by which time she was 70 years old. She was taken into civilian ownership as a base for various social enterprises, further adding to her already significant contribution to London – where she was also by then a landmark, featured on maps, and very much part of the scenery. The Imperial War Museum selected HMS President in 2014 to gain a new ‘Dazzle’ colour scheme by artist Tobias Rehberger, to commemorate the work of the artists who created the naval dazzle camouflage of WW1. The result was striking and turned President into a work of art as well as an historic artifact.
So that’s President’s individual significance. I am aware that representative significance is not universally held to be a reason for preservation (though I believe it is valid), but there are important campaigns and vessel types of which President also represents the only surviving connection. I believe these contribute to her historic status. The vessel types include WW1 escort vessels, Q-ships and minesweepers, an unglamorous but utterly vital series of roles that helped keep Britain from being starved out of the war. The campaigns include the war against unrestricted and prize-rule submarine warfare, and convoy protection. In fact, with few surviving escort vessels from WW2 in the UK (the chances of bringing H.M.S. Whimbrel back from Egypt currently seem remote), President becomes one of the only 20th century RN convoy escort in the country. The brackish water of the Medway has already done for President’s last surviving sister, H.M.S. Chrysanthemum (which was scrapped in the 90s) so if a berth is not arranged before long, it may be too late – even if repairs can be carried out to renew the insurance, time is not on President‘s side. Without funding, President may not even last long enough to celebrate her centenary in 2018.