Anger over sale of historic mill made from captured US warship

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The Independent Online

Built from the timbers of one of only two American warships ever captured, a unique, battle-scarred mill, hailed as one of the world's most important relics of naval warfare, is on the market.

Hampshire County Council, owner of Chesapeake Mill, at Wickham in the Meon Valley, has decided to sell the building, enraging leading academics, local historians and villagers. They accuse the county council of asset-stripping a unique piece of history, and of scuppering their plans to save the mill for the nation.

One angry supporter of the mill said the council had betrayed villagers and historians in setting a deadline of Tuesday to complete the bidding process. Campaigners are worried that the building could be turned into a shop, office, private flats or a restaurant, with limited - if any - public access.

For the US navy, the 12-minute clash off the Massachusetts coast between the USS Chesapeake and HMS Shannon on 1 June 1813 was a duel between two of the finest ships in the American and British navies.

The story is also a source of some squirming for the world's mightiest sea power: the Chesapeake is one of only two US warships ever to be captured and held. The other is the USS Pueblo which was seized by the North Koreans in 1968.

After the battle, the Chesapeake was taken back to England. In 1819 the vessel was sold to ship-breakers in Portsmouth, and much of its structure was used to build the mill at Wickham. Timbers at the mill bear the scars of battle with damage from cannonballs and musket-shot visible on beams, posts and wooden walls.

The Grade II-listed building was bought by Hampshire County Council in 1998 for about £125,000, with the intention of finding a use for it, but a change of heart at the council has now led to the mill being sold. It says it is offering the building on a lease which will require any owner to allow some public access. However, campaigners fear a new owner could renegotiate the lease after purchase.

"It's a sop... a great shame," said Geoffrey Morrell, a retired vicar from nearby Shedfield and a member of the Friends of Chesapeake Mill. "We had a vision of making it a heritage centre. It's a unique building."

Wickham villager Mark Phillimore helped to launch a campaign to buy the mill in the late 1990s. "More of the original timbers of the Chesapeake are in the mill than exist from any other historic ship. Thirty per cent of the original timbers of the Chesapeake are in that building - only 5 per cent of HMS Victory is original. The whole selling process is unnecessarily speedy."

Dr Robert Prescott, a leading maritime historian, said: "The Chesapeake-Shannon battle was the most extraordinary single-ship action in the days of sail. 'Don't give up the ship!' is the great slogan."