Fifty years ago today two divers – John Towse and the late Alexander McKee – pinpointed the whereabouts of King Henry VIII’s famous flagship.
McKee and Towse were members of Southsea BSAC (British Sub Aqua Club).“On May 14, 1966 Alex and myself visited the penultimate resting place of the Mary Rose.” John Towse
Alexander McKee’s widow stated “while we were living in Hamburg, he used to express his interest and admiration for the raising and preservation of Vasa – a Swedish warship – in 1961. I remember he said, ‘I want to make my mark in life.’ He has achieved that.”
John Towse wrote about the useful break that helped to find the ship. John and Alex discovered the location of the Mary Rose whilst looking at charts in Cricklewood. “There laid before Alex and myself was a magnificent hand-drawn chart [by the Deane brothers in 1836] of the approaches to Portsmouth Harbour. In a very short time and prompted by one of the Hydrographic Office staff, the actual charted site of the Mary Rose was clearly shown.”
In 1965 McKee initiated ‘Project Solent Ships’ in conjunction with Southsea BSAC. The aim was to investigate wrecks lost in the Solent. His real quest was to find the Tudor Warship and he was the driving force behind the hunt and discovery of this Tudor Battleship.
Many years of seabed searching followed. Cynics dubbed the wreck ‘McKee’s Ghost Ship’. Between 1968 and 1971 volunteer divers explored the Solent. They used sonar scans and plunged long steel rods into the soft mud until they struck timber. Then the team employed dredgers, water jets and airlifts to excavate a strange shape underneath the seabed. Alex Hildred, curator of the Mary Rose, confirmed that this was the first time that remote sensing technology sub-bottom profiling and side scan sonar had been used in England.Without Alexander McKee’s dedication and pioneering work, it is likely this ship would still be buried beneath the soft Solent mud. John Lippiett, the Rear Admiral who leads the Mary Rose Trust said “The project wouldn’t be what it is today without the foresight and inspiration of Alex and the divers.” (McKee’s stubbornness was later rewarded when he received the OBE for finding the Mary Rose).
“We were very fortunate that on the first dive of the year [5 May 1971] we slightly missed our target – the area that we had been searching. We were about 150 metres to the south. Percy Ackland, who I always called our underwater gun dog, came up and whispered to me, ‘The timbers are down there Margaret [Rule].’” Ackland had found three of the port frames of the Mary Rose. By some miracle half of the hull had been well preserved by Solent mud. It was as though someone had chainsawed through the wreck from bow to stern and the entire starboard side of the Mary Rose survived.
On 29th August 2014 BBC Radio 4 broadcast ‘The Reunion‘ with Sue MacGregor. Sue reunited some of the members of the team of marine archaeologists, divers and engineers who raised Henry VIII’s sunken battleship Mary Rose from the sea bed in 1982. This link goes to a RAM (Real Audio File) recording of that programme.