Conserving warships

Preserving warships for posterity is always challenging and financially demanding, but skilled and passionate conservators are working to save historic vessels.

Preserving warships for posterity is always challenging and financially demanding, but skilled and passionate conservators are working hard to save historic vessels from the scrapyard. 

Campaigners in Liverpool have gathered together to save HMS Bronington, a wooden-hulled Cold War minesweeper, which is lying partly submerged and rotting in the river Mersey. 

They have begun fundraising to help move the wreck to the nearby Cammell Laird shipyard, which has promised to support a restoration through its apprenticeship scheme. 

“We hope to soon have an underwater survey which will be very important in determining our efforts going forward in trying to save Bronington,” explains Royal Navy veteran Mike McBride, who is spearheading the campaign. “We’re making good progress with the project and the response from people has been great. We believe that Bronington could eventually be turned into some kind of facility for the Sea Cadets or other marine activity charities.” 

The hopes and ambitions of the Bronington campaign reflect the many efforts — often unsuccessful — by passionate groups who have worked hard to try and preserve naval ships that have managed to achieve a particularly emotional connection with the wider public.  

Sadly, in recent years, iconic veteran Royal Navy vessels such as HMS Illustrious and HMS Ark Royal have been ignominiously towed off to far flung breaking yards after being sold off for scrap, despite, sometimes herculean, efforts to save them for posterity.

Success stories

Viable restorations are, of course, possible. The World War II cruiser HMS Belfast, most notably, has been on public display on the Thames in central London for the past fifty years. It remains one of the UK’s top tourist attractions, drawing in 300,000 visitors each year.  

However, Belfast’s upkeep remains a constant strain. The current conservation team consists of two technicians and a team of keen volunteers, ranging from students to retirees, who visit the ship at least once a month, or even a couple times a week, depending on what time they can spare and what skills and experience they are able to contribute. 

Meanwhile, in the USA, the historic 872ft (265m) aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, which was decommissioned in 1974, is now berthed proudly on the Hudson River, New York, as the centrepiece of the extensive Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, following a series of renovations — some costing many hundreds of millions of dollars.  

Back in the UK, just east of London on the River Medway, the Historic Dockyard Chatham — one the world’s most highly successful naval museums — is dedicated to preserving ships and artifacts connected with the development of Royal Navy warship design. 

Impressive projects at the dockyard include the extensive work carried out on the 190ft (58m) Victorian Royal Navy sloop HMS Gannet, which has included re-coppering its original hull and the re-fitting of its original decks, cabins, masts and spars.  

A small but dedicated group of volunteers still meets weekly to help with the full-time restoration of the World War II destroyer, HMS Cavalier, which has had its upper decks fully restored to how they would have look in the 1950s, and which is now officially designated as a war memorial to the 142 Royal Navy destroyers sunk during the war and the 11,000 men who were killed sailing them. 

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Proudly restored HMS Belfast with Tower Bridge in the background. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Wooden warriors

The famous project to restore the Tudor warship Mary Rose in Portsmouth, England, has been pivotal in pioneering techniques for the conservation of historical wooden warships. After being lifted to the surface in 1982, the Mary Rose was regularly sprayed with water and kept at low temperatures to prevent its timbers from shrinking, warping and cracking. 

Archaeologists and conservators worked closely together to prevent the growth of any damaging fungi or microbes, creating new techniques in chemistry and low-temperature storage. They even introduced the use of common pond snails which eat wood-degrading organisms yet leave the wood itself completely unharmed. 

A similar story has occurred in Stockholm, Sweden, with the impressive restoration and preservation of the 17th century warship Vasa, which capsized and sank in strong winds shortly after being launched in 1628. Fortunately, the extremely cold temperatures and low oxygen levels at the bottom of the Baltic Sea helped preserve the integrity of the ship for hundreds of years, protecting it from harmful and destructive organisms.  

After the 226ft (69m) ship was lifted back to the surface in 1961, the entire structure was sprayed down with a waxy substance called polyethylene glycol to prevent it from eroding. 

The preserved warship is now on public display at Stockholm’s impressive Vasa Museum. 

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The Vasa Warship Museum in Stockholm displays the 17th century warship of the same name. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Battling beetles

Wood-boring insects such as death-watch beetles can cause significant damage to the timbers of historical warships, and monitoring the extent of the damage they create can be difficult to ascertain without the use of destructive sampling techniques.  

To solve this problem, a team from the University of Cranfield, led by Diana Davis, head of conservation at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, is testing the potential of high-resolution photography and micro-computed tomography to investigate beetle activity and the extent of the internal damage being done to a sample timber from Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory.  

Davis also recently led the preservation and restoration of a large three-ton bronze cannon salvaged from the ship’s namesake, which sank during a storm off Plymouth in 1744, taking the lives of all 1,100 of her crew. 

“It is an incredibly rare and ornate example,” she says. “When it was raised from the wreck in the Western Approaches in 2008, it was covered in marine concretions and underwent a lot of conservation work for around a decade. Conservators from West Dean College removed the incrustations to reveal the lovely surface and fine details that we see today.  

“It then had to be treated with inhibitors to stabilise corrosion and remove as many of the chloride ions as possible, because obviously seawater is very damaging to metals.  

“In fact, when it was being conserved the team discovered that it was actually loaded, with a cannonball inside it, along with the hemp wadding and some very wet gunpowder.” 


Dennis O’Neill is a freelance journalist specialising in maritime.