Obituary: Alexander McKee
Monday 27 July 1992
AS THE discoverer of Henry VIII's warship Mary Rose, which had sunk in the Solent in 1545, Alexander McKee has a unique place in the study of British history. With dogged persistence, enterprise and imagination he initiated and pushed the project beyond the point of discovery, so that it created its own momentum, and the ship could be excavated, raised and preserved.
McKee probably first heard of the Mary Rose as a boy on one of his frequent journeys from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight, but his file on the ship started in 1941, when he was 23, with a local newspaper report that gave a vague idea of where she had sunk. Further enquiries in 1962 and 1963 showed that in fact nobody knew where she lay.
McKee had by then conceived his dream of finding her. He wanted to combine his expertise as an amateur diver, acquired while serving in the army after the Second World War, with his other skills as a professional military historian and writer. He had written many books and had considerable experience of research on subjects as diverse as the Normandy landings, an airship disaster in 1928, and the mutiny on the Bounty.
But first he had to narrow down the location of the ship. It was while in Portsmouth Central Library in 1965, researching commissioned books about Canadian army activities in Europe during the two world wars, that he took time off to look at records of local events in 1545. He learned that the Mary Rose was a 'key' vessel in naval history as one of the first designed to carry guns.
McKee considered that there was a good chance of finding her, though he later wrote that this 'to some scholars must have smacked of non-academic effrontery, if not wishful thinking. I saw no reason why I should not succeed.' He sometimes took a poor view of academics and their institutions, probably because he was not restrained by their cautious attitudes to research.
He invited a group of divers from the South Sea Branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club to join him on 'Project Solent Ships' to discover and survey several of the well-documented historic wrecks - the Royal George sunk in 1782, and the Boyne, which blew up in 1795. But the Mary Rose was apparently his main objective, and later McKee admitted that the study of those later wrecks was a 'smoke-screen' to conceal the true importance of the Mary Rose. He did not want her site plundered. The breakthrough came in February 1966 when McKee found records of the Deane brothers who discovered the Mary Rose in 1836: amongst them was a chart marking the spot where she lay.
But McKee and his divers had no archaeological experience, so he invited Margaret Rule, a local archaeologist who did not then dive, to join him in her spare time. He also turned his attention to fundraising: 'The first money we ever got towards our efforts was a pounds 10 cheque for an article that I wrote.' It was an amazing start to a multi-million-pound project.
In holiday times and at weekends his group explored the sea- bed but found no trace of the ship, and yet in 1967 he drove his dream forward by forming them into the Mary Rose (1967) Committee whose aims were 'to find, excavate and preserve for all time such remains of the ship Mary Rose as may be of historical or archaeological interest'.
He inspired the team in spite of many set-backs, including a lack of funds, as year after year they cut trenches in the sea-bed and found nothing - until September 1970, when an iron gun was revealed, their first evidence that the Mary Rose was there. Eight months later they found the ship itself.
McKee continued to take charge of the excavations until it became obvious that the state of preservation of the vessel was all that he had dreamed - and more. It became increasingly clear that the project needed to be taken under the control of trained archaeologists, and it was crucial that Margaret Rule agreed to learn to dive. This she did, and other archaeologists joined the team. McKee understandably found it difficult to relinquish his place as the driving force behind the Mary Rose, but of course he remained very much part of the team and was there when 'his' ship was raised in 1982. Her preservation at Portsmouth as one of Britain's leading historical and tourist attractions is a fitting permanent memorial to a remarkable man.
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