Sunday, February 17, 2019

RMS Queen Mary

Three years ago I married the love of my life and together we took our honeymoon in the United States, the first week would be in San Francisco and the second on board the liner Queen Mary. Now this liner has always been at the top of my list of places to visit and for some very good reasons - for this liner is not only historic but a legend in the history of ocean-going travel.

In the days when the luxury liners were the only way to travel for the upper class and the only way to emigrate to a foreign land for those who had saved up all their earnings, the ships of the early part of the 20th Century were becoming floating palaces and record breakers. After the Cunard Line launched the Lusitania and Mauritania followed by White Star Line introducing Olympic and Titanic it became a race against the clock to cross the Atlantic and win the coveted Blue Riband, an award given for the fastest crossing. But following the sinking of both Titanic and Lusitania within a few years of each other led to both companies being hit hard and safety recommendations changing life at sea permanently.

Fast forward to the 1930s and we have ship number 534 at John Brown & Co shipyard at Clydebank, a huge hull that was kept under wraps until she was named Queen Mary and launched on 26 September 1934. She made her maiden voyage on 27 May 1936 from Southampton bound for New York, although she did not win the trophy she did wow the crowds, the newspapers following her every move. It would only be a matter of months before she held this record though and celebrated the fastest crossing in August 1936. This was a time of great difficulty around the world in the Great Depression, both White Star Line and Cunard becoming one company and therefore Queen Mary was a "Cunard White Star Liner" vessel. (Later White Star Line would be completely dropped and the company remaining just Cunard.) She made her headlines for the right reasons and quickly became a favourite with the film stars, royalty and celebrities alike.

When the Second World War broke out in September 1939 she was put into service as a transport vessel and carried thousands of troops in every crossing - her record being over 15,000 troops as well as her crew, which is still held to this day for the amount of people carried on one vessel. With her hull painted grey she earned the nickname "Grey Ghost" which must have been quite a sight seeing this huge ship coming out of a foggy patch!

It was during this time of her career that a very unfortunate and deadly accident occurred. During a voyage east towards the UK carrying thousands of troops she was in close proximity to the cruiser HMS Curacoa. The date was 2nd October 1942 and it was one that would not be spoken about for many years. At some point the Queen Mary slammed into the midships of the smaller warship and sliced her in half, as the crew fought for their lives in the water the liner had no choice but to proceed towards her destination - there was a a reward for any U-boat captain who could sink this ship especially if it took out this many soldiers in one go! Thankfully the escorting warships picked up around 100 survivors, but 337 others lost their lives. This disaster was covered up until after the war due to the effect on morale and never letting the enemy have such valuable information as the loss of a ship by accident. A later investigation blamed the cruiser for the collision.

After the war the Queen Mary continued her life as a transatlantic liner but as the years ticked by it became apparent that less people were making the transatlantic journey when aircraft could take them to their destination in just a few hours. With her sister ship Queen Elizabeth they became holiday cruise ships, but as the 1960s saw an increase in the jet airliners the passengers for these great ships became fewer and fewer. Operating at a loss Cunard realised that the only sensible business thing to do was to sell the ships. Queen Elizabeth was purchased by CY Tung to be used as a floating university, unfortunately this was never to be as she caught fire in Hong Kong in 1972 and sank.

But for Queen Mary her life would continue but not as ships usually are. She was sold to the town of Long Beach in California and she made her 1000th crossing to her final destination where she was refitted as a hotel and museum, opening in 1971. Over the years the ship has featured exhibitions, festivals, parties, weddings to name just a few. She is loved still the world over and remains the only example of a liner from this period - the rest being scrapped or sunk.

In February 2016 with excitement brewing my wife and I arrived at this magnificent ship and was immediately in awe at the size of the hull. Seeing modern day cruise liners leaving Southampton I was actually expecting Queen Mary to be smaller to look at but I was surprised to find that she looked huge. The next week was spent exploring the ships and taking every tour possible (yes including the ghost ones - it had to be done to see some of the closed off areas). The entire ship is oozing with history, with original fans in the cabins, plaques and information boards, photographs of her heyday, swing music quietly playing out of speakers around the decks. Being run as a hotel the service was fantastic, the main ship tour was not only historically accurate and full of detail but the guide, James (pictured here), was a funny guy who somehow kept a serious face when telling his wisecracks! He made the tour memorable with the things he said and how he said them, I recommend checking out some of the YouTube videos with him in, if you are reading this James - thank you and keep up the good work!

I have always had a love for this ship, photos and souvenirs adorning my house of a time that we both wont forget. I'd love to return back to Queen Mary and see what new things have been added - the Diana exhibition has now closed and will most likely be replaced with something just as fascinating and hopefully they will continue to open parts of the ship up to tourists that have previously been off limits.

What did surprise me though was there was NO mention whatsoever of the Curacoa disaster. Perhaps using one of the disused spaces as a memorial chapel to the hundreds who died may be a good idea but they certainly shouldn't be forgotten. Like it or not this incident is now a piece of this ship's history and is already well known about now. Over the years since the ship was built 50 people have died and a list appears on the walls of one of the exhibits at the stern.

Over the years the ship has corroded and there is currently a plan in place to bring the ship back up to standard but as with any preservation of a historic relic - especially one of this size - it will take time. But while there are still fans of this amazing ship still ready and willing to care for her she will have a long life and continue to amaze her modern day passengers, long after she had sailed her last voyage.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Sinking and Legacy of the Mary Rose

The Mary Rose would have been one of those old time shipwrecks that were (at the most) given a brief mention in a history book now and again if it wasn't for the determination of a man named Alexander McKee. He had always had a fascination for shipwrecks and had written several books including one detailing the sinking of the Medusa and the survivors battle for life on a raft.

He focused his research on the area between the Isle of Wight and the mainland known as the Solent, here it was known that over hundreds of years countless historic ships had gone down, especially in the two World Wars. But three in particular needed further attention - the Royal George (sunk 1782), Invincible (former French warship captured by the British and sunk in 1758) and the Mary Rose.

It was 19th July 1545 that the Tudor warship, one of the ships that made up the pride of Henry VIII's fleet, set sail from Portsmouth to engage a French fleet laying in wait off the Isle of Wight. With hundreds of soldiers, sailors and marines on board she was dangerously overloaded and (according to recent investigations) badly designed due to extensions of her during refitting. In full view of the King himself who was watching from nearby Southsea Castle, the 35 year old Mary Rose rolled onto her side and sank without a shot being fired.

The suddenness and sheer horror of the disaster shocked all those who witnessed it. Anti-boarding nets prevented anybody escaping and simply pulled everybody down even if they were on the upper deck. Estimates range from between 500-700 dead with only around 34 survivors.

Salvage operations were unsuccessful and it wasn't until 1836 that divers John and Charles Deane discovered the wreck and recovered several cannon. Before too long the site was once again abandoned and the Mary Rose lost once again. 

Alexander McKee began his search in the mid-1960s and was elated when he finally confirmed that he had discovered the Mary Rose around 1968 during dives on a site that appeared on his sonar printouts.

Over the next decade a careful excavation took place of the wreck site which revealed some incredible objects. Since those days began an intricate operation to preserve these unique artifacts began and continues to this day. Never before had so many items been recovered from such a wreck, telling more about the story of the Tudor period and her military than any other site.

Now it was time to do the unthinkable - recover the remains of the ship itself and bring her home.

When the ship sank onto her side she had slowly been buried into the seabed, over the years the ship had been eaten away, rotted and been worn down until only half the ship remained and that was slowly covered over by the mud of the Solent. Digging half of a ship out and raising it would be the biggest underwater archaeological excavation ever undertaken. Only the Vasa could come close and that was still in the harbour of Stockholm and in one piece!

On 11th October 1982 using a huge frame on the end of a floating crane the wreck was cradled gently and slowly brought to the surface, a scene that was broadcast live on television and watched by Prince Charles himself (now President of the Mary Rose Trust and who had dived on the wreck during the salvage operations). Apart from a moment when part of the cradle came apart, the raising of the Mary Rose was an immense success. Placed on a barge she was slowly towed back into Portsmouth Harbour where her journey had begun 437 years before.

Since that day the wreck has been sprayed in an enclosed area on display to the public. A chemical called polyethylene glycol was used to treat the wood and it took a staggering three decades to finish the treatment process. In 2013 after an large lottery grant and a lot of help from the volunteers ensured that the opening of a brand new museum (left) would show off the Mary Rose and all the objects found in her wreck. Still being dried out, it was not until July 2016 that finally the public would be able to be in the same room as the famous ship.

Today you can visit her and smell the aroma of the wood as you enter the doors of the ship hall, gaze upon her treasures as well as the remains of her lost crew. She has become the winner of countless awards and has hosted over 10,000,000 visitors since her salvage.

A snapshot of the Tudor navy and the age of Henry VIII, this museum (pictured left) is well worth the visit and is a must for any tourist, historian or lover of all things maritime.

I myself first heard of the Mary Rose as a 12 year old and was desperate to know more about this ship. First visiting the museum in May 1999 (the ship hall and artifacts were in two separate buildings at the time) and attending the opening of the new museum on 30 May 2013 led to a meeting with one of the original team members Margaret Rule and the first look at the venue. This is one wreck that is very close to my heart and one that continues to fascinate me just like it has for generations of others.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Why I wrote Boleyn Gold

Apart from learning about the Kings and Queens of England at school when I was just a boy, my first real research into this came in 2010 when I watched the Keith Michell film Henry VIII and his Six Wives, soon 
becoming fascinated by the story of this guy and the actions he took during his life. The Anne Boleyn saga was at the forefront of my research and I took a trip to London just days later to the Tower of London to see for myself the area where her execution took place and where she remains to this day. From then on my collection of Tudor history books grew as did the DVDs of the vast amount of documentaries and films that had been released.

I have now been fascinated by the story of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII for 9 years especially so when you read the evidence and see that it was clearly a show trial on false charges of adultery and incest just so he could get rid of her and pave the way for the new love in his life Jane Seymour.

As an author of several books on historic events this kind of thing was right up my street, but while I love writing about history there were already hundreds of books taking you deep into the Tudor way of life and everybody involved. There were also countless fiction books that had proved so popular that they made it on to the big screen such as The Other Boleyn Girl, Wolf Hall and not forgetting the hit series The Tudors.

What I wanted to do was bring Anne back to the present and have a story of complete fiction that would combine the stories together, pretty much the ways that made films such as National Treasure and Indiana Jones a household name. To have a modern day relic hunt while a bad guy followed their every step would turn it also into a whodunit so the characters have several things to think about at the same time which would all wrap up nicely at the end.

Obviously in real life things never work out this way. Over 40 historic sites would take decades of legal actions, permissions, archaeological red tape and countless other things before they would be excavated properly.

The way the police operate would not make for a good story of this type, so our detective Palmer would never be the only person on for each step of the way, he would be on a shift pattern which involved rest days, clocking on and off daily and having his work load taken over by other officers. While a lot of the police are over worked they are the ones that keep our counties safe and do a lot of amazing things behind the scenes. For all your services we the public are always grateful even if most do not show it. 

So as you could probably tell the whole story was fiction, as were the places where the treasures were found, although I did throw in Southampton as the base for their search simply because it has a harbour big enough to have a research vessel and several universities. Rumsford Castle doesn’t exist nor do any of the artifacts described.

Except one. Anne’s “B” necklace is the most iconic piece of jewelry of that time, several of Anne’s portraits show her wearing that and one of these can be seen today hanging on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery in London. The necklace itself has never been located. The photograph (right) shows the necklace on an information board outside the Tower of London.

So what did exist? The words spoken by Anne as she was executed were real, as was the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 - an act that led to America joining the allies in the First World War two years later. The people who were executed the days before Anne were real as were all the “crimes” that they were charged with. The other ships mentioned Queen Mary 2 and HMS Diamond are real and can often be seen in Southampton and Portsmouth harbours on a regular basis. The wreck of the Trantellion is fiction as is her lost cargo and the research vessel Carver.

            Also remember our historian and resident expert Claire Ridgeway? Well she exists too! Years ago her fascination for the story of Anne Boleyn led to her creating a website called The Anne Boleyn Files, a collection of documents, information, discussions and even souvenirs relating to all things Anne. Her work to bring the story of Anne to light is an incredible journey, one which I doubt she will ever give up. For all your hard work and devotion to history I thank you and am honoured to have included you in this book.

Finally it leaves me to say that Anne is not buried somewhere forgotten. Upon her execution she was placed in an old arrow box and buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London. Her remains were discovered during renovation work during the reign of Queen Victoria in 1877 where they were re-interred and the floor of the chapel re-covered. A plaque today marks her grave along with that of the fifth wife of Henry VIII, Catherine Howard, also executed for adultery several years after Anne. I was able to take a photograph of her grave (below) in my 2010 visit to the chapel. 

Normally my books are non-fiction and involve years of research, tracking down people and sifting through archives, but being my first novel I found it thoroughly enjoyable. It was a chance to put my thoughts and ideas on paper as well as throw a few real-life events, people and ships in there too. 

Boleyn Gold was over a year in the making, ending with me running a competition for up-and-coming artists to design the front cover. This was won by Maxii Doyle who took a lot of time to figure out what the book contained and what scenes would be relevant to the story. She was presented with an award and a copy of the book at the official launch on 4th August 2018 at the Tudor House in Southampton. The launch was a great turn out and I can't wait to do it all again. 

Meanwhile the characters in Boleyn Gold have not sat down to rest, for a sequel adventure is already being written......