Hidden Treasures from the Mary Rose exhibition in Croydon

PUBLISHED: 14:34 12 September 2012 | UPDATED: 15:56 20 February 2013

One of the most poignant artefacts found, a silver devotional Maltese cross pendant set with a garnet

One of the most poignant artefacts found, a silver devotional Maltese cross pendant set with a garnet

Once Henry VIII's flagship, the Mary Rose remains a source of great intrigue to many - and, for the first time away from her south coast base, a major exhibition in Croydon is set to uncover a few of the ship's many mysteries

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine April 2009

Once Henry VIII's flagship, the Mary Rose remains a source of great intrigue to many - and, for the first time away from her south coast base, a major exhibition in Croydon is set to uncover a few of the ship's many mysteries. MATTHEW WILLIAMS finds out more

Despite more than 60 million people worldwide watching her being brought to the surface in 1982, after 437 years submerged in the Solent, the Mary Rose remains something of an enigma with various theories as to why she sank - and, even today, her mysteries continue to unravel at her home in Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard.

Now, however, Henry VIII's flagship is ready to set sail to Croydon, in the first ever major exhibition away from her south coast base. While the hull of the ship will, of course, remain in Pompey - where it continues to be restored - many items that have never before seen the light of an exhibition, not even in Portsmouth, will be gracing Croydon's prestigious Whitgift School.

"The biggest exhibition Croydon has ever seen was for Picasso, and that was back in the 1990s," says Dr Christopher Barnett, headmaster at Whitgift School, who has researched and written all of the information boards for the exhibition personally.

"I think from memory they had something like 28,000 visitors and we're really bullish about being able to exceed that - who knows what is possible? There is such a freshness to this collection - it's never toured and a lot of the items coming have never been shown anywhere before."

The Mary Rose continues to capture the minds of millions - the number of visitors each year and a recent 21 million heritage lottery grant towards the Mary Rose Trust's building of a new museum attest to this - but what is it that has such a spellbinding affect on people?

"There is a wonderful quote from David Starkey, the historian, where he says that the Mary Rose is right up there with the Magna Carta and the Domesday Book," says Christopher. "Her remains provide a perfect time capsule of life at that time, rather like Pompeii or Herculaneum. Right there, in just one day, all are taken out of life. And then somehow, miraculously really, all these hundreds of years
later, so much of what 'disappeared' has still survived."

It is quite extraordinary to think that this ship went down in 1545 and yet much of what will be on display looks not too dissimilar to something you or I might have dropped on the way home yesterday. In fact, I cast a worried look at the soles of my shoes when I view a leather pair that have survived almost 500 years at the bottom of the sea, rather than just a few brisk walks into the office, and yet seem almost as pristine.

But a question had been lurking in my mind as I ventured up to Croydon - a town that despite national press reservations, I have grown to love for what it is. Yet, even I would never claim that Croydon is the heritage or culture capital of the world, which surely an exhibition of this stature requires...

So why Croydon?

"Well, it goes back a few years, when the Mary Rose Trust was celebrating her 25th anniversary," explains Christopher.

"I was invited to the dinner they were having up at the House of Commons and ended up putting this idea forward. Why not put something on in Croydon? At the time, I knew that we were shortly to open this wonderful sports and conference centre at Whitgift. In my mind, I felt that we should put on something rather spectacular.

"It could be that these treasures will tour further. I mean, if this is a massive hit then it's possible they could go to Birmingham or Edinburgh in a touring exhibition.

"The other interesting thing about the Mary Rose Trust is that they've got this huge heritage lottery grant of 21 million towards their new museum but they've also got to raise another 14 million because the museum is going to cost them 35 million. So I think there is definitely a sense of putting the Mary Rose up there in people's minds, a little closer to London, too, and if we can just sow seeds, maybe get people talking, I'm sure that it will be very helpful to them."

There is no doubting that this landmark event will raise the profile of the ship, but the kind of kudos that an exhibition of this scale could bring to Croydon cannot be measured in purely monetary terms.

"I think it is definitely a bit of a coup for Croydon and I'm really delighted that we've had such strong support from the council," says Christopher. "It will be really good for the town's image and, of course, Croydon has a Tudor past. People think of it as a 1960s creation that mushroomed up out of nowhere but forget that Queen Elizabeth visited here and there are Tudor buildings still in the town. So, hopefully, this will put Croydon back in touch with its roots a little.

"At the exhibition, we'll also be highlighting a few of the links between Whitgift and the Tudor period," he continues. "We have strong links with the Howard family because this estate, Haling Park, was owned by Lord Howard of Effingham, and the Howards were admirals on the Mary Rose."

As well as the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's accession to the throne, this exhibition is also timely in that this year is the 30th anniversary of the Mary Rose Trust - a crucial point in the story of the ship. If the Trust hadn't stepped in to protect the wreck from treasure hunters, there might not be the possibility of an exhibition today.

There also happens to be a new painting of the Mary Rose by leading maritime authority Geoff Hunt, which is going to be shown for the first time at this exhibition. So there are many reasons to celebrate and this promises not to be your average school 'show and tell'. For instance, two of the crew will be recreated with CGI based on actual skulls discovered with the vessel, a rotating sushi-style bar will highlight what those aboard would have been eating and interactive displays will bring those cannon hits to life. There will also be dogs roaming the exhibition. Sort of.

Bringing history alive

"Yes, that is a very interesting one," laughs Christopher, when I ask about the pooches set to guide groups of schoolchildren around the exhibition. "This little dog was the only animal of any significance to be found on the ship - she was trapped, it looks like, in the doorway of the carpenter's cabin because the cabin had a sliding door and the ship keeled. We've named this little dog Hatch and she will appear every so often with a little interpretation of the more complicated boards for children. It makes things more accessible and adds another angle to the story."

Of course, it is not all about seafaring mutts: some extremely rare items such as that integral part of English medieval history, the longbow, will be on show, too. Very few have survived the passage of time and, without the Mary Rose, we may well have ended up longbow-less. It's not necessarily the most extravagant items either that are the most striking. Coins minted just months before the ship sank, pewter that the officers would have eaten off and even peppercorns, plum stones and such will be on display. It is the sheer day-to-day normality of some of the items that makes the Mary Rose such a personal piece of history to so many.

"A lot of the sailors on the ship were very young - quite a lot of them were in their teens and I think most of them were in their early twenties," says Christopher. "This means that a lot of them would have been the same age as the boys in our sixth form here, who are coming up to university and the end of their schooldays, and yet these chaps would have been on a naval warship and heading to war.

"I think that visiting this exhibition will make people think in a new way about who was there and what these people were like."

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