In the immortal words of Lance Corporal Jones, ‘Don’t Panic, Mr Mainwaring!’ It’s not as bad as it sounds. Yes, the US did declare war on Britain but it was back in 1812 and the British are deemed to have won on points. (Read more about the whys and wherefores here: http://www.galafilm.com/1812/e/intro/index.html)
So, you’re thinking. This blog is supposed to be about Winchester history and mysteries so why is she wittering on about a little-known war half-way across the world? I’ll tell you…eventually.
When I was ruminating on my second Victorian murder mystery, Death is the Cure, I collected lots of scraps of paper with scribbled notes all over them; one of them said, ‘woman with wooden leg’, and another one, ‘man who likes funerals’. (You can tell I’m a writer with impeccable planning skills, can’t you?) The book had my heroine, Charlotte, setting off to visit Bath with her best friend, Mrs Knightley, to try some new-fangled medical treatments and for the purposes of the plot I wanted them to stay in an upmarket guest house that specialised in invalid guests. That meant I had to fill the other rooms with said invalids which was fun to do.
One day I was wandering round Abingdon Cemetery (as you do), nodding hello to my father-in-law’s parents who’ve been there a long time, when I came upon a tombstone that immediately caught my interest. I can’t remember the name but the occupant of the grave was a naval captain and there was a brief history under his name and dates. He had, as a young midshipman, taken part in a battle during the War of 1812 when the British captured the USS Chesapeake and from that day to his death at the age of 58 he had carried within him a musket ball from that battle.
Up till then I hadn’t thought of having a naval visitor at the guesthouse but Captain Horatio Penbury fitted in beautifully, bluff and hearty but given to whispered confidences about his ‘trouble amidships’. I loved him and particularly cherished the idea that he was based on a real sailor – I’m not sure I could have come up with such an eccentric injury myself, but this was perfect.
Anyway, now we come to the War and the Chesapeake and the Hampshire connection. You can read about it in detail here, http://www.chesapeakemill.co.uk/history.html#top but essentially the captured Chesapeake was dispatched toEngland for examination and study as to why the American frigates were so superior to the Royal Navy ones. Eventually she was sold in 1819 and broken up and her timbers purchased by a flour miller from Wickham, which is 17miles from Winchester. The miller, Mr John Prior, was building a mill and he used the ship’s timbers to do so.
According to the history of the Chesapeake Mill the timbers were still stained with blood, which doesn’t seem to have bothered the miller, but I don’t think the stain remains to this day. However, the timbers are still in situ after nearly 200 years and the mill, though no longer milling flour, is a flourishing antiques centre with an excellent coffee shop – trust me, I had one of their brie and cranberry sandwiches yesterday and it was very tasty.
If you get a chance, do check out the mill and Wickham too, which is worth a visit in its own right; a redbrick market town that could be the model for Meryton or any other of Jane Austen’s locations.