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Portsmouth Builds Rare HMS America in 1749


"I think it's unique, absolutely unique," says Rob Napier of Newburyport. He is talking about the wooden ship model of HMS America on display in the Reading Room of the Portsmouth Athenaeum. (Click headline for full article) 

Rob Napier should know. He restores and repairs ancient ship models full time and is currently booked two years in advance. Napier has worked extensively on the ship model exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and will be working on a model of "Old Ironsides" this year at the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown.

Built by 1749, the model was already an antique when it was donated to the membership library in 1820, making it the very first item in the Athenaeum collection. It is the oldest known model of a British ship built in the United States. The 44-gun warship was built by Nathaniel Meserve at his yard once located along what is today Raynes Avenue at the North Mill Pond bridge.

"It's a  beautiful model," he says. "It has great character and great visual texture, although it was created by a much less refined, less academic hand."

In other words, this prized possession of the Portsmouth Athenaeum is one-of-a-kind, but for lack of a better word, it is also "crude."

 HMS America small

Dockyard Models 

To understand what makes the model unique, Napier explains, we need to go back to England in the 17th century. That's when British shipwrights began building scale models of their warships. By the 18th century the British Admiralty had standardized the size of the models to 1:48 or one-quarter inch of model representing one-foot of the real ship.

Some 450 to 500 of these elegantly carved models have survived in museums and private collections, Napier says. Because of their intricate detail, historians once believed that the models were created first as a template in order to guide the building of the real ship.  

"But this is not the case," Napier says. "The models were not the blueprints for the ships."

The British warships were built then, as today, from paper plans. The models were often built at the same time from the same plans right at the shipyard. That's why they have become known as "dockyard models."  Their key purpose may have been public relations. Models could be shown to the patrons, political leaders, and navy brass to demonstrate how their money was being spent. Many models have survived in England, Napier surmises, because they were routinely given away as gifts and prized by their owners.

As with HMS America, most dockyard models did not include sails, masts, rigging, or armament. These elements were so standardized that everyone in the shipping business knew what to expect, and these additions simply made the models costly, took more time, and made them difficult to store and transport.



HMS America exhibit

First pork barrel project

Then came the Siege of Fort Louisbourg. In 1745 England was at war with France. In support of the Motherland, 3,000 New Englanders successfully took over the strategic French fort in Nova Scotia. William Pepperrell of Kittery helped British Gen Peter Warren win the day, which is why their life-sized portraits still hang inside the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

"The British Navy very much liked having their ships built at home because it was big business," Rob Napier says. "They were loathe, I think, to send shipbuilding contracts outside of southern England."

But amazingly, they did exactly that. As a nod to the impressive colonial victory at Louisbourg, Portsmouth was given the contract to build HMS America. Col. Nathaniel Meserve, who had been instrumental to Pepperrell in the victory at Louisbourg, received the commission. Another ship, HMS Boston, was built nearby in 1748 and survived four years.  

The British Navy sent its agents to oversee the project and it has been speculated that one of them, possibly familiar with the English tradition, may have built the model for Meserve. This theory, Napier says, may account for the fact that the Portsmouth model -- built from local wood  in the wilds of colonial America --is less refined and ornate than those made by master model makers for the British Admiralty. This also makes our model very rare.

"This is a real British dockyard model," Napier says, "built on this side of the Atlantic, which makes it stunningly unique. It is very unlikely that there is another authentic British dockyard model built in the United States."

When Meserve died of smallpox in 1758 at the second siege of Louisbourg. the model was located in a glass case in his West Front Room. Worth 50 pounds according to Meserve's will, it was among the most valuable items in his house. Shipbuilders George Boyd and George Raynes continued the North End shipbuilding tradition into the 19th century.

The model of HMS America, however, fared better than the ship. Apparently built from green wood, the warship was a disappointment to the British Navy and no more commissions followed. The real HMS America saw no significant action. The model ended up in the possession of Gov. John Langdon, also a shipbuilder, who later built the Ranger that made history in the hands of John Paul Jones.

Portsmouth built a second warship named Americaunder John Langdon in 1782, but that is a sad story for another day. That ship too was a disappointment. Assigned to Capt. John Paul Jones, the 74-gun USS America was instead gifted by Congress to the French at the end of the American Revolution. It has been suggested, jokingly, that Jones and Langdon may have taken the name from the model of the HMS America. That is pure speculation, but what we do know, is that the two men disliked one another intensely.



HMS America model in 1963 

The Smithsonian connection

In 1820 the newly formed Portsmouth Athenaeum put out a call for local curiosities to add to its planned museum. John Langdon's daughter Elizabeth Langdon Elwyn donated the model, making it the first item in the collection.

Noted maritime historian Howard I. Chapelle was head of the Transportation Division of the Smithsonian Museum In Washington D.C when he learned of the Portsmouth model. Obsessive about details, Chapelle wanted to measure the precise dimensions or "take the lines" of the model for one of this many history books on American sailing ships.

Chapelle made a deal with the Athenaeum in 1963. In exchange for borrowing the model, the Smithsonian would make repairs to the aging artifact, then over 200 years old. John Knowles, a Smithsonian technician, packed the HMS America model in foam rubber and drove it off to Washington.

"If I have to stop at a motel on the way back," Knowles told the Portsmouth Herald in 1963, "I'd better get one with twin beds, and put her in the other."  Three years later Knowles returned the model in significantly better shape. His repairs made half a century ago are clearly visible on the model today.

After being studied and showcased in an exhibit in 2014, the HMS America has been returned to its  humble position in the downstairs reading room where only Athenaeum proprietors and special guests have access. Athenaeum curator Elizabeth Aykroyd has seen to it that the 265-year old artifact now rests on a new beautifully-crafted wooden table.

"Perhaps now that we know more about it," says Portsmouth Athenaeum Keeper Tom Hardiman, "we will appreciate the first artifact in our collection more than ever."


Copyright © 2014 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS. 


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