Reigate's majestic wooden ship,
complete with crow's nest for a bird's eye view
One doesn't expect to find a wooden sailing ship in the middle of a country park for the children to play on, so let's look at why there is this one in Reigate Priory Park.
Well, Reigate Priory was founded in medieval times by Augustinian canons (monks, that is, for those not familiar with the word). Being in such a pleasant and healthy setting, it also had a role as a hospital, with a Guest House or Infirmary on the east side, underneath what is now the Priory car park. In fact, ancient human skeletons are known to be in the sacred ground by the main building - sadly there is no visible acknowledgement of this nowadays as a mark of respect.
When King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, instead of destroying this one, he gave the whole area to one of his most esteemed supporters, Lord William Howard. He was the uncle of Anne Boleyn, Henry's 2nd wife and also Catherine Howard, Henry's 5th wife, and the king appointed him Lord High Admiral. They were such friends that they went hunting and played tennis together. It was on 8th June 1541 that Lord William and Lady Margaret became the owners of Reigate manor, as a family home just 20 miles from their house in Lambeth for official duties.
During the next 140 years the Howard family and their descendants owned Reigate Priory, but it wasn't all "smooth sailing" for Lord William and his wife however. As the old stone monastic building was being modernised into a Tudor mansion, complete with brick-built Tudor Tennis House and stabling for the hunting horses, the King became furious with his wife, suspecting her of infidelity. He imprisoned her uncle and aunt in the Tower of London - 'forever'! After some months, the King relented, released them and returned their properties, so what a relief it must have been for them to return safely to Reigate in 1543. Such drama!
Their son Charles was just seven years old at the time, spending much of his childhood in Reigate. As he grew up, he also came to be very highly regarded and famous too. He often went to sea with his father. His bride was Catherine, the new Queen Elizabeth I's closest friend and First Lady of the Chamber, with the great responsibility of supervising Her Majesty's wardrobe and her jewels.
With his noble parentage, the Queen appointed young Charles, above others, as Lord High Admiral to lead the Navy - 'and Army prepared to the seas against Spain'. Yes, for the history books, this was the Charles Howard, Lord Howard of Effingham and First Earl of Nottingham who had the leading role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. How grand it would have been to have total command of the fleet, with the Ark Royal flying the Howard standard, just like the one carved into the top of the Tudor fireplace here at Reigate Priory! He had the advantage of Sir Francis Drake as second-in-command.
Lord Charles Howard, who foiled the Armada
and prevented subsequent Spanish invasions
Reigate's famous link with the defeat of the Armada explains the modern beacon at the southern edge of the grassed parkland, which was installed in 1988 to commemorate 400 years since the Armada along with a massive fireworks display. Oddly, the beacon was lit whereas to be historically accurate, the original array of beacons across the country were to be lit only if the Invasion took place (which of course it never did). You see, we had the military tactics of an excellent Lord High Admiral, plus an excellent second-in-command, plus better sailing ships. Naturally, the weather would have had something to do with it too.
To this day, Reigate can be proud of the Ark Royal , having adopted the modern version: in 1914 at the start of World War 1, a seaplane tender was given the name, taking part in the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign. Ready for World War 2, in 1937 the Navy's second ever purpose-built aircraft carrier was launched as the Ark Royal. That one successfully tracked and helped to sink the Germans' flagship, the Bismarck, much to Hitler's fury! The Ark Royal was a key target now and was actually destroyed near Gibraltar, not long afterwards. The current Ark Royal aircraft carrier, launched 1978 has just recently 'set sail' in 2009 after a £12-million refit. It is 210 metres long - 683 feet.
The Reigate Unit of the Sea Cadets Corps is also named Ark Royal.
Returning to Charles Howard and England's safeguarding of 1588, we should note that Her Majesty did not authorise any funds for the welfare of the injured and disabled sailors, so he bore the expense himself. Later he founded the Chatham Chest which funded the creation of the Royal Chelsea Hospital.
The next naval link with Reigate was in the 17th and 18th centuries when the very wealthy and influential Parsons family took ownership. Sir John Parsons was Commissioner for Victualling for the Royal Navy since 1683. His brewing business in London was popular for its strong stout, known as "Parson's Black Champagne". For ship's biscuits, oatmeal was the main ingredient so this is why Sir John Parsons encouraged the growing of oats and the milling via numerous windmills locally. This was also big business, with large amounts of money owed by Sir John to at least one oatmealman in Bell Street, it emerged in a trial for murdering his housekeeper. His face was recognisable from a description in the press; having run away, he was caught out and as a result, he was hanged. Dare I suggest that, without the security of the money he was owed, and with the sudden news of a baby on the way he had reached the end of his tether...?
Early in the 20th century, Reigate Priory was a popular place for the 'Marlborough set' on lease and for house parties. Who should be visiting again in the summer of 1911 but Winston and Clementine Churchill! This was exactly when he was made First Lord of the Admiralty. Now he needed to have some key discussions with Lord Jackie Fisher, a much older and very experienced First Sea Lord cronie of his. Where would be an ideal location for a comfortable long weekend? Reigate Priory of course. He commented on the 3 day meeting in his diary, so did Lord Fisher, whose brain, he wrote, was buzzing like a hive of bees - and naturally there is the Guest Book to check signatures. Disappointingly, the Churchill biography by Roy Jenkins bears no mention of Reigate Priory itself. His team of researchers must have had no idea of the significance of the place and 'dumbed it down', referring to it as just a country house in Surrey, as I recall. I didn't bother to read the rest of it.
As a result, Churchill's priority decision was to convert the Royal Navy from Welsh coal to oil. He then asked the now retired Fisher to solve the question - to "crack the nut" of the "riddle" of supply of oil. Fisher accepted the challenge, suitably delivered with a touch of eloquent flattery along with his personal, direct request in writing. Of course it made sense that the Welsh miners had skills to be expertly employed in the Royal Engineers, digging subterranean bunkers - including the secret one in Reigate's chalk hill 30 years later.
Now who else was a naval friend of Winston Churchill from those pre-WW1 days? None other than the young and dashing Admiral David Beatty. He married the fabulously wealthy American, Mrs Ethel Tree and went on to achieve great successes in sea battles during WW1 with his famous battle cruiser flagship, HMS Lion. What a powerful symbol. Incidentally, a lion is the coat of arms of the Churchill name. Ethel meanwhile, had her own large sea-going yacht named Sheelah. With no expense spared, she had this kitted out as a hospital. She staffed it with leading surgeons and nurses, personally took part in the caring for injured sailors and organised huge amounts of fundraising for the sailors' families.
By 1919, Admiral David Beatty was rewarded by the British Government to the tune of £100,000 and created an Earl, Admiral of the Fleet and First Sea Lord. His official residence was now the Mall House in Admiralty Arch, yet he and his wife had several properties around the country. Still , London was not peaceful enough for Ethel, who had suffered increasingly from depression and loneliness when her husband was away. When the opportunity came up in 1921 to buy the historic Reigate Priory with such maritime connections, that they were already so familiar with from various visits, this country property became their next acquisition. It was as a result of this purchase at £35,000 by the newly promoted Earl and his Countess that the 19th century dining room ceiling now became modernised and painted gloriously with gold! The Admiral's Daimler and the Countess's Rolls-Royce became their chosen forms of land transport and they entertained lavishly, honoured by the company of the King and Queen at dinner in London. We know that even some minor iron gates on the premises were painted gold, whereas others, the Park Lane gates and railings, dating back to 1720 and of a vintage comparable with Cheyne Walk, Chelsea were of huge value. By this time, the stately brick pillars had been adorned with stone pineapples on top.
What happened in the wintertime? Nature takes over. The hunting horses on the estate would be in their stables whereas Priory Lake would freeze up, much to the enjoyment of Countess Beatty and her visitors as a temporary site for a skating rink, complete with coloured lanterns and a magical party atmosphere!
On a sombre note, lest we forget, it was Earl Beatty with the greatest dignity, who made a speech to the crowds on the official unveiling of the Borough's War Memorial in 1923. Earl Beatty is himself commemorated in Trafalgar Square, directly behind Lord Nelson. He received a state funeral and was laid to rest in St Paul's Cathedral alongside Lord Nelson. There is a school named after him in Toronto, Canada. After all, the Canadian Army was stationed here in Reigate too "with their drawl and their chrome", during WW2 before they were shipped off to Normandy on D Day.
Now I hope that explains why we have a whopping great wooden ship in the middle of Reigate Priory Park, and a Churchill Fellow to tell you about it. I hope that also explains why it is named the Grey Lady...? I cannot offer any explanation why this stately galleon should be described on an official website as just a "pirate ship" but perhaps no-one had ever told them about the REAL maritime history, with all its gunpowder, blood and gore.
The last of Reigate's famous admirals,
with a commanding view over Trafalgar Square and its famous pigeons
Reference 1: 'Discovering Reigate Priory - the place and the people' 1998
Author: Audrey Ward
Editor: Grace Filby
Publisher: Bluestream Books, 1 Howard Road, Reigate RH2 7JE
Proceeds are for Reigate Priory Museum
Reference 2: 'Churchill's Secret Reigate' illustrated lecture by Grace Filby featuring a specially commissioned poem by Barrie Singleton, 2009.
A DVD and summary are available.