FDR’s Vision Fulfilled: A Visit to the National Museum of the Royal Navy

Portsmouth Overhead

HMS Victory


By David F. Winkler

As the United States fought a two ocean war during World War II, the commander-in-chief had a post-war vision of a naval heritage complex with representative ships of the late 18th century, the Civil War era, the new Steel Navy, and World War I astride of an interpretive naval museum. To underwrite the operational and maintenance costs of the endeavor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned charging admission – a dime!

FDR's proposed naval museum (NHF Archives)

FDR’s proposed naval museum (NHF Archives)

With Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, plans for a DC tidal basin that would host the Constellation, Hartford, Olympia, and a World War I destroyer as well as an adjacent museum died with him. However, Roosevelt’s vision would be validated – by our British allies at Portsmouth, England.

Two decades ago, I traveled to Portsmouth to visit the Royal Navy Museum and the HMS Victory. Both entities were operated by the Royal Navy with civil servants operating the museum and Sailors manning the ship. In addition, I had the opportunity to visit the recently reconstructed HMS Warrior and viewed Mary Rose, a Tudor period warship that had been launched in 1510 and capsized in1545. Recovered in the 1970s, the ship was undergoing conservation work during my visit. Both ships were operated by independent trusts not affiliated with the Royal Navy – similar to the situation we have in the U.S. with the majority of our historic naval ships displayed around the nation.

Victory was impressive. Yet I could see the challenges that were being faced by the over two-hundred year old hull as buckets were strategically placed to capture dripping water. The Royal Navy Museum displays provided a nice narrative of Royal Navy actions in the 18th and 19th centuries. The missing 20th century story was glaring. Overall it was underwhelming.

In August 2002, Jonathon Band was promoted to admiral and assumed the duties of Commander-in-Chief Fleet. Having a distinguished career in the Royal Navy, Band appreciated naval history. “I have always used geography of where we are going to teach the relevance of it and when we were here last time and what we did,” Band stated in a 2012 interview in Pull Together.

Sir Jonathon Band

Sir Jonathon Band

With the bicentennial of Trafalgar approaching, Band met with the Navy Board to explore how the battle commemoration could serve as a launch pad to fight “what a number of us had seen as ‘Sea Blindness’.” During ongoing discussions, the Navy Board reviewed the museum set up and Band concluded, “this is pretty disjointed – we had a very good sailing navy museum in Portsmouth — and of course we have the Victory which was still owned by the Crown and is the national flagship – we had a fantastic museum for the Royal Marines, for the submariners, for the aviators, but nowhere did we tell the whole Navy story.”

It was a case of be careful what you ask for. Upon retiring as the First Sea Lord in 2009, Band found himself as the chairman of the recently reorganized National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) consolidated the four existing museums under a quasi-government non-profit arrangement. Under Band’s leadership, the NMRN took control of the HMS Victory and set up a separate trust to support her upkeep. Of note, the ship still remains as the oldest warship in commission as the Royal Navy “leases” the ship for this purpose and still provides manning for the historic vessel.

Since Band’s 2012 interview, the NMRN has taken procession of the Belfast-based HMS Caroline – a former cruiser that had served for decades as a training ship. The recent opening of this World War I vintage cruiser proved timely given her service at Jutland. In addition, the NMRN reached an agreement with the Hartlepool Borough Council to take custody and operate the existing Hartlepool Maritime Experience which took visitors back in time to an 18th dockyard surrounding the HMS Trincomalee, Britain’s oldest warship afloat. With Hartlepool’s location on Northern England’s East Coast, the Napoleonic-era frigate is now the centerpiece of what has recently become NMRN, North.

Back in Portsmouth, I recently had the opportunity to revisit the Historic Dockyard, tour the existing and new attractions, and meet with Paul Elgood and John Rawlinson of the NMRN staff to discuss the continuing growth of the museum. One of the recent administrative accomplishments was the merger of the NMRN with the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard which had operated as a separate non-profit organization. This new rubric enhanced the ongoing partnerships with the Warrior Presentation Trust, the Mary Rose Trust, and the Portsmouth Naval Base Property Trust.

Though there are multiple operational entities at Portsmouth, for the visitor the experience is seamless. There is now a single visitor center operated by NMRN where tickets for the individual attractions can be purchased. With a steady increase of the number of attractions, many visitors find value with the All-Attraction Ticket. At 33 pounds (approximately 48 dollars), the ticket allows entry to the dockyard’s ten attractions for the next year.

HMS Caroline and HMS Trincomalee (Courtesy NMRN)

HMS Caroline and HMS Trincomalee (Courtesy NMRN)


Unfortunately time constraints did not allow me the opportunity to take the ferry over the Gosport to visit the Royal Navy Museum Gosport, home of the HMS Alliance, Holland1 and X24. Also located in Gosport is the new Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower. The addition to the NMRN is situated within 18th century buildings at the Royal Navy’s armaments depot of Priddy’s Hard. Promoted as “A frightening collection of firepower,” the museum includes the Grand Vault that once stored 4,000 barrels of gunpowder for Nelson’s Navy. Both of these attractions will be “must see” on a return trip over.

Mary Rose was closed for conservation work and is expected to reopen later this Summer. HMS Victory remains magnificent, though her rigging was removed for preservation work. HMS Warrior remains my favorite ship on the property. The contrast between the Sloop of War Constellation in Baltimore and Warrior could not be more striking. Placed in service in 1853, Constellation was the last sail-only vessel constructed for the U.S. Navy. Seven years later, the British introduced the iron-hulled steam and sail driven Warrior embodies some of the most revolutionary changes in warship design in the history of the Royal Navy. For example, to facilitate sail operation, the 26-ton propeller could be raised via a well in the stern.

M13

An unexpected surprise was M.33.  Placed within an historic dry dock, the Royal Navy monitor, launched in May 1915, is the Royal Navy’s sole surviving warship from the Gallipoli campaign. Volunteers spent thousands of hours to ready her for public touring. In addition to M.33, the NMRN also acquired LCT 7074 – the last surviving World War II landing craft that had participated in the D-Day landings.

Since I last visited, additional attractions have appeared around the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. I was fortunate my visit coincided with the recent opening of the “36 Hours: Jutland – the Battle that Won the War.” Touted on billboards throughout the nation, the exhibit combined multimedia effects with a rich collection of artifacts and ship models. Most impressing where displays of ensigns that were flown from several of the British combatants during the battle. While it might be a stretch to claim that the battle won the war, most historians concur that had the German High Seas Fleet scored a Trafalgar-like victory over the Royal Navy, it could have been game-set-match.

One of the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard’s industrial buildings has been opened to the public to allow viewing of conservation/restoration work being conducted of the NMRN’s large assortment of small craft. In addition, the building hosted interactive activities for visiting children.

HMSThe interior of the building I visited two decades ago housing exhibits on the Royal Navy has undergone an extreme makeover. There are two wonderful galleries paying homage to Admiral Nelson and interpretation of the nearby Victory. Another gallery covers life in the Royal Navy during the age of sail. Then there is that missing 20th century that has been addressed in “Hear My Story” where the history of the Royal Navy during the 20th Century requires the visitor to sit down and view/listen to video recordings of Sailors who served in various campaigns over past decades. There were other interactive activities targeted towards younger audiences. Not exactly my cup of tea, but I had to admit that children and their parents were getting into it. The final gallery, a special exhibit on the failed World War I Gallipoli campaign, was provoking and much to my liking. Overall, the National Museum of the United States Navy does a far better job in telling historical narrative than does this British counterpart.

However, this is where FDR’s vision comes into play. Navies are about ships. In an era where museums are spending millions of dollars to create immersion experiences for their paying guests, the Portsmouth hosts the ultimate immersion experience in the form of its ship collection. With Mary Rose the visitor is transported back 500 years to experience life in the Tudor-era navy. Victory represents the pinnacle of capital warship design in the late 18th century and is a national shrine. Warrior displays Britain’s greatness as the initiator of the industrial revolution. M.13 continues the narrative into World War I and LCT 7074 will tell of story of Great Britain’s involvement in the greatest over-water assault in history. Alliance helps tell the Royal Navy’s role in the Cold War. By walking in and around these vessels visitors absorb by sheer osmosis the history of the Royal Navy and the importance of sea power through an experience that is difficult to replicate in a brick and mortar structure.

Perhaps Admiral Band expressed it best in the 2012 Pull Together interview:

“There is no doubt that the Royal Navy is a great brand and its history is also a great brand, and everyone in the world who knows anything about the sea has heard of HMS Victory. So if you can put the right package together there are people who will support you, particularly if you bias it towards whatever their interest is whether it be technology, education, or training.”

Not surprisingly when I sat down with Paul Elgood and John Rawlinson, who have the rather enjoyable jobs of selling and marketing the brand, they produced the statistics that bore out the thesis on the drawing power of ships. During 2015, NMRN attracted nearly 900,000 visitors. Rawlinson cited ticket sales to the “The Big 4” (Mary Rose, Victory, Warrior, Alliance) as the major generator of income for the enterprise. To further attest to the drawing power of the ships, Rawlinson noted that overall attendance was off this year due to the closure of Mary Rose.

While ticket sales cover the majority percentage of the annual operating costs, additional millions of pounds are provided by the on-site retail operations and facility rentals, generous support from Great Britain’s Heritage Lottery Fund as well as grants from local governmental entities, and the Royal Navy. To illustrate the success NMRN has had since its inception in 2009, initially NMRN generated just over one pound per pound the Royal Navy contributed. Today the ratio stands at 4.3 to 1.

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Commodore Jerry Kyd with Queen Elizabeth II in the background. Queen Elizabeth will soon become a close neighbor to the NMRN


Overall, since 2009 the Royal Navy has recognized a tremendous return on its investment given that NMRN provide training and ceremonial function assets for the fleet. With the commissioning and home porting at Portsmouth of the first British supercarrier HMS Queen Elizabeth next year, NMRN’s fleet support mission will only expand.

With regard to actual fundraising, Rawlinson pointed out that if you have to rely on fundraising to support operational costs, then you have a defective business model. Instead, fundraising provides a margin of excellence to underwrite blockbuster exhibits such as the new Jutland exhibition or collect and restore new artifacts. A former fundraiser for the National Army Museum, Elgood attracts corporate and individual partners through putting “the right package together.” Not all partners are Brits. Elgood works to foster the New York City-based “Friends of the National Museum of the Royal Navy.” Led by retired Rear Admiral Joseph Callo and retired Captain Sally McElwreath Callo, the Friends have hosted a “Pickle Night” dinner. Held at the New York Yacht Club every early November, the dinner celebrates the schooner Pickle which brought home the news of the Royal Navy’s great victory at Trafalgar and the sad news of Nelson’s death.

This year’s dinner, to be held on Veteran’s Day, November 11, will feature Commodore Jerry Kyd who will be the first commanding officer of Queen Elizabeth and Commander Carrier Strike Group. For those interested in joining this annual Anglo-American naval bonding experience contact Captain Sally McElwreath Callo at SallyMC79@verizon.net.

Thanks to the vision of the former First Sea Lord, the efforts of a dedicated staff, hundreds of volunteers, government financial support, and generous donors, the Royal Navy has accomplished much to address its “Sea Blindness” problem, turn Portsmouth into a world class visitor destination, and improve and open other naval heritage attractions throughout the United Kingdom. For further details about the NMRN experience visit www.nmrn.org.uk/.

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Dr. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical Foundation

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One Response to FDR’s Vision Fulfilled: A Visit to the National Museum of the Royal Navy

  1. FRED CARINO says:

    I visited HMS Victory and the Museum of the Royal Navy on May 21st. I was pleasantly surprised to learn Victory is 3 years into a 20 year overhaul. I also learned that her masts are iron, replacements from some other ship probably back when when was drydocked in 1922. Anyway, I was very much impressed by the access permitted throughout the ship and the care with which everything is exhibited. HMS Warrior was quite a surprise. Compared to USS Monitor and CSS Virginia she is a starship!

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