The state of warship preservation in the UK is a very mixed. Established naval museums are thriving, benefitting from significant investment while more recent attempts to save naval vessels have failed miserably. Preserving our naval heritage is important as a ‘living history’ to remind us of past sacrifice, endeavour and achievements. Many lessons from Britain’s extraordinary naval history remain applicable to the Royal Navy and the exercise of sea power today.
Established maritime heritage goes from strength to strength
British naval preservation work has received a huge shot in the arm with several multi-million pound grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund given to the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) which manages many preserved naval vessels. The NMRM is a public body whose reach has expanded over the years and now has responsibility for 5 naval museums, 11 major historic vessels and around 100 aircraft. Portsmouth in particular has benefited from new facilities for the Mary Rose exhibit as well as major conservation and restoration projects for HMS Victory, HMS Alliance, the monitor HMS M33 and LCT 7074. The NMRN site in Portsmouth alone attracted over 1 million visitors in 2015.
The main image above shows light cruiser HMS Caroline in Belfast, the last survivor of the WWI battle of Jutland and only officially decommissioned in 2011. She is undergoing a major refurbishment and will re-open as a museum ship to be managed by the NMRN in time for the Jutland centenary commemorations in June 2016.
WWII cruiser HMS Belfast has been on public display since 1971 and remains in the top 100 visitor attractions in the UK, with over 300,000 visitors in 2015. Together with HMS Victory, she is the most recognised preserved ship in Britain and a great success story.
Since Chatham Naval Base closed in 1984 it has been divided into a commercial port, housing development and the Chatham Historic Dockyard which now gets around 160,000 visitors per year. Steeped in maritime heritage, there are many historic buildings and the Trust that runs the dockyard is applying to become a World Heritage Site. HMS Cavalier and HMS Ocelot are both well presented with good access for the public to explore a WWII era destroyer and Cold war conventional submarine.
The HMS Illustrious saga
Stung by the outcry at the scrapping of HMS Ark Royal and HMS invincible, the MoD promised HMS Illustrious would be preserved when she decommissioned in 2014. Although a fine ship that served us well, she was always an odd choice for preservation. Lacking the Ark Royal’s iconic name she did not have an exceptional operational history or particular place in the public consciousness.
The MoD cannot quite admit it yet, but HMS Illustrious is very likely to be scrapped as no realistic bids for her preservation have been submitted. The last remaining option of a home in Gibraltar collapsed in March 2016. Put simply, a ship the size of Illustrious needs a suitable large berth with good access and most crucially, would need to generate a considerable sustained revenue stream to cover hefty maintenance and running costs. Hull City Council spent £500k on examining options and a bid to host the ship but ultimately concluded it was not economically viable. The MoD was rather unwise to offer Illustrious for preservation in the first place and scrapping her is now the most dignified remaining option.
With hindsight perhaps HMS Illustrious should have been scrapped in 2014 and the money invested in properly preserving HMS Plymouth. HMS Ark Royal was sold for £2.8 million in 2013 but scrap prices have since fallen (thanks to the Chinese flooding the market with cheap steel) so Illustrious will be worth considerably less. It is too late for HMS Plymouth but any money raised from scrapping Lusty should be donated to other warship preservation projects.
Looking back – the HMS Plymouth debacle
HMS Plymouth gallant actions in the Falklands War made her a good candidate for saving. A frigate is an ideal size warship for public preservation. Large enough to be iconic if the right berth is found and able to cope with peaks in visitor numbers, but not so large that the financial overheads are unsupportable. Her namesake city was the obvious home for HMS Plymouth but both the City Council and the MoD utterly failed to make the most of what would have been an excellent visitor attraction. After decommissioning in 1988 she was opened to the public in Plymouth’s Millbay Docks which was something of backwater at the time but a better home should have been found for her in the increasingly under-utilised Devonport South Yard. Plymouth would have had a great tourist attraction and the MoD would have helped preserve a good example of 1950-60s frigate design. The ship also served as a kind of living memorial to the navy’s decisive contribution to the Falklands campaign.
In 1990 she was moved to Glasgow and subsequently to Birkenhead where the Warship Preservation trust put her on display together with submarine HMS Onyx, minesweeper HMS Bronington and a WWII U-boat. The venue was never ideal or the dock owners not very supportive but the attraction was modestly successful until the WPT closed in 2006. By default the ship became property of the Mersey Docks Company and subsequently Peel Ports. There was a plan to return her to Plymouth but in 2007 Associated British Ports reneged on their offer of a berth which did not fit with their vision to redevelop Millbay. Developing old docksides into luxury flats is apparently far more lucrative than preserving maritime heritage, although with imagination the two need not be incompatible. There were numerous abortive plans to save the ship but all floundered for lack of money and she decayed slowly in Birkenhead until Peel Ports sold her for scrap in August 2014.
Plymouth is very much the poor relation when compared with the world-class attractions in Portsmouth. The Devonport Heritage Centre is staffed by volunteers and opens periodically deserves an honourable mention. They have a collection of models, images and artefacts, offer visits to the decommissioned nuclear submarine Courageous and guided tours of the naval base.
Around the UK there are now many fine historic naval vessels on display to the public, in many cases presented in superb condition and with great imagination as visitor attractions. However there seems to be a more limited public appetite and finance available for adding new vessels their number. In contrast, aviation heritage is booming with projects to restore historic aircraft increasing every year. It is interesting to note the grounding of the Avro Vulcan display aircraft was cause for national mourning while the scrapping of HMS Plymouth was largely ignored.
There is understandable sadness at the passing of long-serving warships but we cannot keep them all and must select very carefully. As well as HMS Plymouth, recent attempts to preserve Type 42 destroyers HMS Liverpool and HMS Edinburgh in their namesake cities failed early on due to lack of funds and sufficient sustainable income. There is even a campaign to save HMS Monmouth as a tourist attraction in Newport, although she is not due to decommission until at least 2026. There are now few obvious vessels that will be candidates for preservation coming available in the near future so perhaps it is time to concentrate on making the most of the excellent collection Britain’s already has.
*This article focuses mainly on the major preserved naval vessels of the 20th and 21st Century. There is also a variety of older ships not least, HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, HMS Gannet & HMS Trincomalee as well as many minor war vessels and small craft that are officially listed in the National Historic Fleet.
Main image: Gareth Jones, via Geograph
- Farewell HMS Illustrious good and faithful servant (Save the Royal Navy)
- HMS Bronington Sinks (Phil Owen)
- HMS Bronington website
- National Museum of the Royal Navy
- Devonport Naval Heritage Centre
- The Historic Dockyard Chatham
- HMS Alliance to be re-commissioned into active service Save the Royal Navy 🙂