Alexander McKee, the man who found the Mary Rose, remembered in Portsmouth bust

By Culture24 Reporter | 02 April 2014

The man behind the raising of the Mary Rose has a permanent place on the ship - decades after defying his doubters

A photo of a sculptor working on a bust of man
Luke Shepherd tends to his sculpture of Alexander McKee© Luke Shepherd
In 1968, realizing a lifelong dream, Alexander McKee struck timber on the wreck of the Mary Rose, 433 years after the ship had been sunk by a French invasion fleet.

A military historian and amateur diver, McKee had spent the 1960s searching for Henry VIII’s Tudor warship. Cynics dubbed it McKee’s Ghost Ship. But the determined man known as Mac is a hero at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard these days, receiving a bust, paid for by supporters who raised £6,500 in donations, at the Mary Rose Museum.

“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,” says Mac’s 92-year-old widow, Ilse, who lives in Hayling Island in Hampshire having moved there from Germany.

“I remember he said, ‘I want to make my mark in life.’ He has achieved that.”

Her husband, whose stubbornness was rewarded with an OBE, died in 1992 at the age of 73. John Lippiett, the Rear Admiral who leads the Mary Rose Trust, believes the Mary Rose would still remain lost without McKee’s discovery.

“The project wouldn’t be what it is today without the foresight and inspiration of Alex and the divers,” he says.

“It eventually led to the excavation and raising of the ship and her amazing collection of artefacts on view today.

“The new museum fulfils the dreams they had over 40 years ago.

“The bust will be mounted in the gallery which is named after him and is dedicated to those early days of rediscovery and displays one of Alex’s original dive logs.”

Sculptor Luke Shepherd made the bust in his Devon studio, guided by McKee’s family, photos and film.

“His family were wonderful,” he says. “They helped me get to know him through their stories and family video footage.

“This is a real story of discovery and triumph and I am grateful to have been a small part in helping the man be honoured, forever.

"Through this sculpture I am very pleased to enable McKee's family, the Mary Rose Trust and the nation to be able to remember the man and his vision to discover the Mary Rose.”

Another Trust-reliant ship at the Dockyard, the HMS Warrior, has also had good news with an £89,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant for its project, HMS Warrior 1860 – Revealing the Secrets of Shipwrights and Sailors, towards the total cost of £3.6 million.

The development funding is an initial show of support for “essential” conservation work to the bulwarks and water bar on the upper deck of the first iron-hulled, armoured warship in the world, built to withstand a French invasion.

Victorian engineering skills will be used on a ship which served for 22 years. The Warrior was one of the most advanced ships in the world, but was ultimately listed for scrap and used as a refueling pontoon for oil tankers.

Talks about her restoration began nearly 50 years ago. Work began in Hartlepool in 1979 before the ship returned to Portsmouth eight years later, where she is now a landmark attraction.

The project will also digitize archive collections and provide new interpretation around the Warrior.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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On the site below are some pictures of the bust which supporters raised £6500 to have made. The bust is a vehicle to make sure that McKee's profile is raised as many have never heard of him - even people living in Portsmouth.
Henry Yelf
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