The Shivering Timbers

Picture source:

Picture source:

Can objects carry a shadow of their history with them?

I remember looking through the glass of a cas which contained a book owned and read by Catherine of Aragon. She had thumbed it, turned the pages, thought on it, mused over it. At a time when books were incredibly expensive, she, a woman of rank and privilege, had made it part of her everyday life.

So, I asked it silently, do you remember her?

Of course not. Surely that would be impossible. Scientists would snort with derision at the very idea.

But it was there. With her.

I am hatching plans to travel to a little village in Hampshire which sits on the River Meon as it flows enchanting for 21 miles through the Meon Valley. Because there, inanimate wood has retired after the most astonishing of pasts.

I speak of timber. Wooden beams, the humblest of materials, which have been reused in a little English corn mill.

But they began life as one of the great battleships of American history, in Gosport Naval Yard, Virginia, America.

Chesapeake. The 44-gun frigate created largely from American longleaf pine, launched on February 28th, 1799. A thing of beauty, to naval engineers and to anyone, with its billowing sails and sleek lines.The Chesapeake saw 24 years of service before becoming embroiled in the last skirmish with the British navy.

Britain was locked in combat with Napoleon, and all its might was focused on defeating the French. Though America had her independence, the British had supremacy of the seas. They insisted that the Americans must not trade with France, and impressed many American seamen into fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. With blundering arrogance, they would board American ships and search them for deserters.

It was all beyond decency, and the Americans fought back. And for 12 months, they thrashed the British throroughly. Not one British victory at sea was to be had. There were some purple faces at the Admiralty, I can tell you.

In the Spring of 1813 the Chesapeake was having a refit and its new captain, James Lawrence, took command. Lawrence came with a pedigree: he had already taken a British sloop, The Peacock, in battle.

So there was the Chesapeake, minding its own business, in Boston harbour, when it was espied by the British warship HMS Shannon, whose Captain sent a message challenging it to a fight. But before the message could be delivered, Chesapeake was off to confront the Shannon off Cape Ann.

Twelve minutes. It took twelve minutes for the Shannon to trounce the Chesapeake, but the loss of life in the meantime was horrendous. It was a bloody conflict, but the Shannon had too many guns; 69 men lay dying on those wooden timbers as the British boarded the Chesapeake; including the valiant American Captain, Lawrence.

His dying words are famous. The first ship for 12 months to be captured: “Don’t give up the ship,” he ordered with his last breath.

But they did. It was hopeless. And the ruined American ship was sailed back to England and after a spell as a stores ship, she was broken up, and those timbers which had seen so much action were sold to a man building a mill.

And they are there to this day. At Chesapeake Mill, in Wickham, Hampshire,

The English Heritage listingΒ reveals that the ghost of the ship still whispers from the wood. There are burn marks on the first floor, made by canons firing in another life. The very width of the mill was dictated by the dimensions of the ship’s beams, and there is the ‘ghost’ image of a ‘carling’- a beam for supporting the deck- on the second floor.

And so: conclusively, objects can carry shadows of their former lives.

The history of those timbers is written in their grain.

Written in response to Side View’s weekend theme: Should that be there? Which you can find here.


42 thoughts on “The Shivering Timbers

    1. Me too, Myfanwy. Apropos of nothing, have you see my plea for help earlier this week? I’m in the finals of a Penguin Books competition to become a writer for them, walking across Britain and recording what I do during teh Summer hols. If you have a moment, please pop over to and vote for Kate Pitt πŸ™‚

      1. Did so as a result of Andra’s post, and reblogged it too. Have twittered – and asked my online writing group too. Hope you are successful, you deserve it. πŸ™‚

      2. Thanks Myfanwy, I am all over the place at the moment, the response has been wonderful but keeping a track of it all proves challenging! Thank you post coming soon (voting closes Monday) – your help is very much appreciated.

    1. It would. But I always wander back to the science behind these things. How would it work, if an inanimate object could record its past in some way? Do walls really absorb happiness and sadness and the gamut of emotions in between? Questions, questions….

  1. Thanks for another beautifully told story Kate! I live not far from the Chesapeake Bay (on the Maryland / top half and close to Baltimore — a city that saw a lot of action during the War of 1812 — so this story was especially interesting to my history loving heart. Cheers, Rita

  2. how fascinating.

    I hate stories of people dying in wars that later no-one can remember which wealthy/powerful man wanted what.

    This wood at least had a second life, more productive than the first.

  3. Enjoy your outing, Kate. I expect that you’ll find more lovely leads to follow as you peruse the Chesapeake’s beams.

    I’m delighted to see that you are solidly in 10th position at this point . . . with a 100 vote margin. Let’s not “give up the ship.” πŸ˜€

  4. Good piece, but the story of how and why the war was fought is a bit one sided! 1. USA was trying to seize Canada 2. US frigates were generally much bigger than their adversaries. 3. America lost the war. That’s the British version! Glad we made friends afterwards anyway!

    1. Hi Chris – thank so much for taking the time to read and comment! Fair comment. Though I established the Americans as the ‘overdogs’ here. Every war has mulitiple layers. I had to choose the ones I needed to tell the story of the ship and its fate from the perspective of the men who would have sailed it. Getting bogged down in a balanced essay on the reasons for the war was not my aim; telling Chesapeake’s story was.

  5. This is one of those stories that gets my imagination going, Kate. I love it all, but I am still stuck on Catherine’s book…….I wonder if it does remember her, what it could tell if it could speak.

  6. Shiver me timbers, what a good yarn (except the mill does corn rather than cotton)!
    I can’t blame the Brits for getting a bit miffed about the trade with France, but the deserter searches was a bit high-handed indeed so they asked for it.
    A victory in twelve minutes is astonishing. I must study the details of that engagement.

  7. Ah have missed your fantastic stories Kate!
    In most Asian communities people do believe that inanimate objects carry spirits from their past. Any second hand timber undergoes major purification rituals before reuse! I for one would never live in a house built with timber with such a tragic history, even if it was purified and proclaimed free of ghosts πŸ˜€

  8. In an interesting twist of fate, we stumbled into a show on PBS about our National Anthem while waiting for a show hosted by Prince Charles about Queen Elizabeth II (featuring home movies of her life).

    Francis Scott Key wrote The Star Spangled Banner during the War of 1812, while a “guest” on a British Battleship as it blasted Fort McHenry and Baltimore Harbor.

    At the end of the show this evening, as the Naval Academy Chorus sang about “the rockets red glare” and the “bombs bursting in air,” the camera panned away to reveal these words posted on the wall behind them: β€œDon’t give up the ship.”

  9. Fascinating story Kate…
    Your thoughts on whether objects have memory… have you heard of psychometry? In a course I did on the paranormal, we all had a go at psychometry.This is when you hold an object and feel/ know it’s history

    I picked up an old gold bracelet, not knowing who it belonged to, and was able to describe the people who had worn it, their families, and some incidents which had happened. Afterwards, the woman who owned it told me it was all true..though.I’m not actually psychic or anything….

    Joan Grant, who wrote a celebrated series of books on ancient Egypt, dictated them them while she was holding a scarab…

  10. Talk about repurposing things! Ah, if walls, or wood, could talk, what tales they would tell. I do hope you have a chance to see the Chesapeake Mill, Kate, and will tell us more of what its wooden boards have to say.

  11. I definitely think objects can retain the energy of events or people. I’m sure that wood has a lot of stories… Do you know if anyone at the mill every experienced anything odd?

  12. I loved reading and learning this. I believe most ancient structures retain vestiges of their former lives, or of the lives that inhabited them. Wood, Stone, Water, they are all very good conductors of the shadows of the past.

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