by Liz Stewart-Liberty
Sir Arthur Liberty bought the last two wooden hulks from the Royal Navy in 1926 and used timber from them to construct Liberty’s Tudor building.
Only one ship had a figurehead – that of Admiral Lord Howe, which was brought to The-Lee and planted at the top of the back drive to The-Lee Manor (the proper manor) and was then moved to its present site at Pipers by my husband in 1953.
The Naval Commander
Richard Howe (1726-1799) was a British admiral, commander of the North American squadron early in the Revolutionary war, during which the British failed to exploit their naval strength. After France became a party to the conflict, Howe had one significant success in preventing the French from capturing Newport, Rhode Island. He was sympathetic towards the colonists and influenced his brother William Howe in pursuing a course of reconciliation. He twice served as First Lord of the Admiralty and is best known in British history as Commander of the Channel Fleet at the Battle of First of June (1794) (‘Annus Mirabilis’) during the French Revolutionary Wars, a brilliant victory unsurpassed even by the later exploits of Horatio Nelson.
He was commissioned into the Navy in 1745 and promoted to admiral in 1770. Howe’s professional standing and conciliatory disposition saw him given wide powers in 1776 to try to negotiate peace in America. After two indecisive years and lacking the ministerial support he expected, Howe gave up in disillusion. Raised to British peerage in 1782, he relieved Gibraltar that October and from 1783 to 1788, when he became an earl, was First Lord of the Admiralty. After his First of June victory of 1794, his reputation proved important in quelling the Spithead mutiny in spring 1797, in which year he received the Garter. He was also famous for the victory at Quiberon Bay.
This information (from the internet) describes his illustrious career but does not mention some of his other achievements. I was always told that he devised the signalling system for the Royal Navy still in use today. Could this be a form of semaphore? Also, I understand the very first submarine was constructed on his ship: a barrel with an air pipe and a bicycle-type mechanism used to propel the barrel which carried a charge of dynamite up front. This was used at the Louisiana Blockade; the submarine was found and dug up a few years ago and has now been restored.
His figurehead was put on the Himalaya as a salute to his brilliance and gallantry – as today we might name a ship after a recent famous naval hero to acknowledge past glorious achievements.
As you can see from the photograph of the picture by Dixon commissioned by my husband in 1975 to commemorate Liberty’s 100th anniversary, Admiral Howe was always sited thus, at the top of the 14 ft prow, gazing out to sea. The rest of the prow was buried in the ground, to give stability when he was ‘landlubbed’. The Himalaya, a three-decker, was launched at Pembroke Dock in 1860. A 110 gun screw ship with a displacement of 6,557 tons, she was obsolete before she was launched, overtaken by steam and never fired a shot in anger. She was turned into a training hulk, renamed the Bulwark, then Impregnable and many boys were trained in her when anchored in Devonport dock.
The picture shows her at the Spithead Review, Portsmouth, with the vessel dressed overall and with the training boys aloft. Dixon fulfilled my husband’s romantic view of the occasion (some authenticity was sacrificed for composition) with a steamship on the port side to complete the allegorical theme.
Life at The-Lee
In 1975 Mr Pearce of Swan Bottom, who regularly restored the carving and painting of Admiral Howe, suggested the figurehead needed remedial treatment beyond his skills. The experts recommended we cut him off to his present height, squirted the prescribed unguents into drill-holes and moved him four feet onto a concrete base supported by a metal buttress. A lime tree was axed, sadly, to minimise damp. This surgery revealed his construction – an inch of paint, carved pine and a carcass of oak held together with brass pinions and bolts. One of these my husband appropriated and kept by our bed to deter intruders.
My husband had wanted to move him into Liberty’s, to emphasise the relationship between the hearts of oak timbers, the 100th anniversary of the shop and the Dixon picture. However the experts did as experts do and said “No”. The warm atmosphere within the shop would rot him and turn him to dust in four days.
The sight of him hanging in the air between two huge steeplejack lorries with chains attached was agony. While Bert shouted to Ted “Up a bit, down a bit, ahoy, he’s all at sea, drop anchor” and “you’ve main-braced the splice” – which will remain with me always – so we stood and prayed in case a passing albatross spooked the intrepid removal team and, all wrapped up in eiderdowns and sacking, he was accidentally dropped. A shopwreck possibly, remembering his connection with the store (sorry).
In 1993 I took endless advice about his condition, which worried me. Finally a young scientist with all the know-how came to Pipers for three months and, on professional instruction, hollowed him out. Huge amounts of gunk, a cross between Gambozola and dry-rot fungus, were removed before the recommended filler was stuffed into the carcase.
When I moved to The Lee House I was given permission to bring him with me as he is an ancient monument first class, and those in charge of such things have to be consulted. But the Church monument removal experts, whom I was recommended to use, said he was too fragile to go on another voyage. So, rather than damage the Admiral, for whom my family and I have huge regard and affection, I left him behind and Bill Baxter kindly followed my wishes and has done a great restoration and preservation job.