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Dark End for HMS President Looms

Photo: HMS President positioned at her former home on the Thames, with St Paul's in the background. From this angle, it is easy to see how, more than 75 years ago, her guns added to the defence of arguably London's most important cultural landmark.

 

Trust Told to Source Scrappage Quotes: Fortnight Left to Save Historic Vessel.

“It is time we did our duty, just as HMS President did hers”, said Julian Lewis MP recently to the House of Commons as he concluded his speech regarding the ongoing attempts to preserve HMS President.

Britain at War has been covering the subject of HMS President for many months now, however, never before has the threat to her survival been so great. Director of the HMS President Trust, Paul Williams, tells us that he has been asked to source quotes for the scrappage of the vessel. Sadly, unless last-minute funding is found, it seems the 17 February 2017 cut-off date previously suggested to Britain at War, will indeed spell the end of the long-serving vessel.

HMS President was launched in 1918, originally as HMS Saxifrage, and is the last Great War submarine hunter to survive. Her heritage value to the UK, as one of only three remaining major British war ships from the Great War, is priceless.

The warship currently lies waiting, docked on the River Medway, near Chatham. Here, should urgently needed funding be found, the restoration process will begin. However, the problem faced by the HMS President Trust, is twofold. First, despite the generosity of the dock owners in waiving mooring fees, the ship lies dormant, costing money. Previously, when moored on the Thames, President was self-sufficient, earning her keep by functioning as an events and conference venue. This stream of income cannot be generated while the sloop rests in the River Medway.

Secondly, the longer HMS President lies in the river awaiting her works, the more the brackish waters of Kent’s largest river slowly eat away at her already thin hull, a fate which claimed President’s sister, Chrysanthemum, scrapped in 1995. Therefore, even if a stay of execution is granted President cannot moor in the Medway forever.

HMS Saxifrage, today HMS President, fitted with concealed weapons and painted with a ‘Dazzle’ camouflage scheme in her hazardous anti-submarine role.

HMS President has certainly earnt her preservation. Her service with the Royal Navy lasted for more than 70 years, during which the ship and her crew of 93 gallant sailors braved the harsh waters of the North Atlantic to protect the vital convoys to Britain from U-boats. Originally designed as minesweepers, ships such as President were hurriedly transferred into anti-submarine warfare vessels, a task which at the time, involved the ship becoming live bait – a temptation for submarine attack.

Fitted with concealed 4-inch and 12 pounder guns, as well as buoyancy aids, the hope was an aggressor U-boat would surface to finish off a ship they believed wounded by a torpedo hit only to be thwarted by the hidden firepower. The ruse was further enhanced with ‘panic parties’, a faux abandonment of the ship, before the White Ensign was raised and the guns fired as the target closed in. Such tactics could be effective, but were extremely hazardous and frequently met with disaster or the mutual destruction of both hunter and hunted.

HMS President’s role did not end with victory in the Great War, and re-designated as a drill ship for the Royal Naval Reserve, the ship arrived at her London home in 1922. She spent the interwar training naval personnel, but, during the Blitz against London President lent her guns to the defence of perhaps Britain’s most iconic building – St Paul’s Cathedral, as well as the centre of power, the Houses of Parliament. Bristling with a new suite of anti-aircraft guns, HMS President became a powerful addition to the defensive firepower of Britain’s capital.

Her Second World War service also included acting as a headquarters for elements of the French Resistance, and her hull became integral to the planning of sabotage and subversion missions in Occupied Europe, as the cabins beneath her decks became the venue of Special Operations Executive’s secret meetings.

President’s life with the Royal Navy finally came to an end in 1988, when she ceased to be the long-serving home to the London Division of the Royal Naval Reserve and was sold to a private owner. She became an educational tool, she awed Sea Cadets and members of the public alike, she functioned as an office space for new businesses, a venue for corporate and charity events, fully self-sustaining.

However, the launch of a major new infrastructure project, the Thames Tideway Tunnel, means that her mooring off Embankment, the warship’s home of more than 90 years, is to be demolished. Taken to Chatham, the age and condition of the ship became clear, President is in need of urgent restoration. Her hull barely a few millimetres thick, and her condition worsens at her temporary home. With her income stream halted, President must receive external help to survive.

HMS President, sporting a ‘Dazzle’ camouflage pattern instead of her typical Victorian livery. This paint scheme was adopted as part of commemorations of the Great War centenary, in 2014.

Efforts to save her have been well received, a parliamentary motion to save President garnered support from five political parties, while a petition to government acquired nearly 11,500 signatures. Admiral Lord Boyce was just one member of the House of Lords who spoke out in support of the ongoing attempts to save the historic vessel.

Yet, this volume of popular support, gallant history and long service life has unfortunately not been enough to sway either the Heritage Lottery Fund or those managing Libor Funds. While it is accepted the distribution of funding for historical and cultural projects is always challenging, the principal reason for the rejection, according to Julian Lewis MP and the HMS President Trust, was open to question. In the response to the failed bid, it was suggested the level of expert advice supporting the funding application was lacking and the modest size of the Trust could mean it would be unable to see the restoration to the end.

However, as clarified by the Trust and by the Right Hon. Mr Lewis, the secured support of top UK experts included a number prominents in the field of marine architecture and historical ships. In addition, quotes for the proposed work were sourced from stalwarts of the industry, such as Braemar and Beckett Rankine.

Great War sloop and Q-Ship HMS Chrysanthemum, sitting on the River Medway at Rochester, 1994. A year later, her hull had deteriorated so badly that she had to be scrapped. (Courtesy of Ron Hann)

The HMS President Trust applied for £3,000,000 in Libor Funds, and according to Julian Lewis MP, half was intended to fund the restoration of the warship. Her hull would be fixed, with a view of lasting for another 100 years. Original navigation equipment would be sourced and fitted, as would a deck gun.

The second half of this sum would have gone toward a new, more accessible, mooring, along the Thames, a permanent home for the hundred-year-old vessel, in time for her centenary in 2018. However, concerns about the size of the bid compared to the size of the project were also cited as a reason the funding bids failed. However, as the Right Hon. Mr Lewis explained to the House of Commons, the Trust has secured the support of the Imperial War Museum and National Historic Ships UK, and should these bodies oversee or, potentially, manage the restoration process – assistance the Trust is willing to accept – then this would be an adequate safeguard of public funds. What gives further confidence, is that the Trust explained they would prefer to have this supervisory assistance.

However, by the time a new bid is reconsidered, even if successful, it will almost certainly be too late. Heritage minister Tracey Crouch has agreed to explore further options with the Trust, and, in addition, Paul Williams, director of the HMS President Trust, told Britain at War efforts to raise the required funding have met some success, though they fall short.

The Trust’s Just Giving campaign has raised around £20,000, of a £100,000 target – a total which if raised would be enough to sustain HMS President for an extended period, giving the ship another chance as the Trust looks at alternative sources of financial support. In addition, the Trust states they have received pledges totalling around £250,000, but these will only be released if a substantial chunk of the total amount, potentially up to £2,000,000, is secured.

In terms of costing, the Trust related that an initial sum of £330,000 will allow them to fully secure the ship, while £2,000,000 would allow basic hull works to be completed and a new mooring to be constructed. The additional million would allow for a full restoration. Mr Williams urges the public to continue to write to their local MP encouraging any move to support the preservation of the ship, and of course, he requests that the Trust’s Just Giving page is shared.

In the words of Julian Lewis MP, “we must not let a hundred years of history to be turned into scrap metal.”

Editorial Comment: This ship, the last of its type, literally was put in the firing line in the defence of this nation. Now, it is we who need to protect her. HMS President needs our support, she has the potential to pay for her own future if help is found for her now, and her restoration would represent a significant development of cultural and heritage efforts to mark the Great War centenary both now, and for future generations.

For more information on the HMS President Trust, visit:www.hmspresident.com/

For the Just Giving donations page, visit: https://www.justgiving.com/hms-president

HMS President on Victoria Embankment, her home for more than 90 years. (Courtesy of Tony Hisgett)

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