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Joris Minne: Can HMS Caroline pull off a famous final victory?

The decommissioned C-class light cruiser has been shortlisted for this year's prestigious Art Fund Museum of the Year. But competition from across the UK is fierce. Does the 105-year-old veteran of the Battle of Jutland stand a chance, asks Joris Minne


Captain John Rees OBE, who is project director for the HMS Caroline

Captain John Rees OBE, who is project director for the HMS Caroline

The HMS Caroline undergoing structural work three years ago

The HMS Caroline undergoing structural work three years ago

The HMS Caroline in 1918

The HMS Caroline in 1918


Captain John Rees OBE, who is project director for the HMS Caroline

There is a mystery vessel in the docks of Belfast which is slowly emerging as a star attraction. While it still remains a destination for those in the know, its position as one of the great secrets of Belfast is about to be blown out of the water.

This is thanks to the fact that, following some of the most complex and expensive restoration programmes ever undertaken on a historic ship anywhere in the world, the HMS Caroline has now been shortlisted in this year's Art Fund Museum of the Year title challenge.

To give you an idea of how significant this is, the 1914 ship is up against the spanking new and magnificent V&A Dundee, the Pitt Rivers anthropological museum in Oxford, the Nottingham Contemporary, which has a huge international reputation among modern artists, and St Fagan's Museum in Cardiff, where social movements and developments are interpreted, understood and applied to modern-day community programmes.

The Ulster Museum secured the title in 2010, the Mac was a finalist in 2015 and recent winners include the V&A St Ives, the V&A in London and the Whitworth in Manchester. That's what the ship is up against.

Captain John Rees OBE, the National Museum of the Royal Navy's chief of staff and Caroline project director, says the achievement already makes the ship a winner.

He said: "If the shipyard workers in Birkenhead who built the 4,000-ton, 400-ft HMS Caroline in a record nine months back in 1914 knew that 100 years later, there would be a very cultured debate about the merits of the ship they had riveted together versus museums housing artefacts of ancient civilisations from across the world, modern design icons and some of the most modern of modern art, they would probably have raised a few eyebrows."

Ships built in the Edwardian era to go into battle with the Germans were not expected to have a lifespan beyond 10 years.

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That's if they survived the torpedoes and 11-inch shells lobbed relentlessly at them by the German dreadnoughts during the First World War.

But last it did, thanks to a quirk in Irish and British history.

While war raged in Europe, families in Ireland were split by politics closer to home.

The campaign for Home Rule and the resistance mounted up north by the unionists, the war in Europe and the uprising in the south were both considered as calls of duty.

The difficulty for Irishmen and women was whose side to take. There are many instances of unusual choices made and allegiances struck. For instance, many GAA clubs in Mid-Ulster were wiped out because their entire membership of hurlers and footballers answered the call to fight Germany and never made it back.

After the Great War, the first steps towards the partition of Ireland were taken and eventually concluded. In 1921, Ireland was partitioned and the first Northern Ireland government met in Belfast City Hall three years later.

It was at this stage that a request for a naval presence in Northern Ireland was issued and the following year, the light cruiser HMS Caroline arrived in Belfast, where it has remained ever since.

Its relationship with Belfast in the past century has been eventful. From training ship to communications hub during the Second World War for the North Atlantic fleet and back to training ship again, it remained in service until 2011, making it the second-oldest ship in commission, after Nelson's famous Trafalgar flagship, the HMS Victory.

By 2011, it was lying moored to a forgotten quay at Alexandra Dock, along the wharves of Belfast Harbour.

Cared for like an elderly and disabled relative, ship electrician Billy Hughes, miraculously still on the payroll, and his dad, George, did their best to keep it afloat while its fate was decided back in Whitehall.

At this point, the MoD, which had enough and wanted to scrap the ship, was approached by the recently formed National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth. The museum, based in the ancient historic dockyard of the city, home to HMS Victory, had plans for Caroline. They proposed one of two solutions: secure funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and backing from the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy to plan a restoration programme and reopen the ship as a museum, or place the ship on a barge and tow it back to Portsmouth, where a quay was ready and prepared to provide safe mooring.

The second idea made sense, because the historic dockyard already attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors each year and the cost of towing the ship from Belfast was a mere £400,000.

It was at this stage that the Friends of Caroline group, which had been campaigning to rescue the ship and led by local historian Frankie Robinson and former naval officer Pete Cochrane, helped mount an appeal to keep the ship in Belfast.

Arlene Foster, the-then Economy Minister, pledged support, funding applications were made and the ship was saved for Belfast. Now the race was on to open the ship to the public in time for the centenary of the Battle of Jutland in May 2016.

But by this stage the ship was in a sorry state. The big freeze of 2010 had severely damaged already fragile plumbing in the engine rooms and leaks were springing up everywhere.

The decking was rotting away and the ship, which had not been dry-docked in almost 40 years, was in urgent need of hull repairs and superstructure work to stop water ingress.

The funding was secured, contractors appointed and work eventually got under way in 2015. The shipworkers who had built it in nine months would have admired the skill and speed of work undertaken to meet the deadline. But not even the rush could prevent amazing discoveries.

Over the 100 years in port, Caroline had undergone all sorts of interior transformations.

Classrooms had been formed, bars and common rooms fitted out and tons of formica, asbestos and other 20th-century features were safely removed to reveal a ship which was effectively still 85% intact.

Four Parsons turbine engines in situ, an emergency steering system in case the bridge was hit by a shell, cigarette packets from the war, pennies and farthings under carpets, and a multitude of other tiny bits and pieces soon built a picture of Edwardian life on board.

Sick bays, hooks to hang hammocks, class-distinctive officers' quarters, the original galley kitchen and much more were all revealed. Most fascinating of all was the discovery of a tiny patch of overpainted superstructure, hidden away in a corner where painters could work unsupervised.

Here was found a thick area of more than 60 layers of paint. Each layer was traceable and went the entire way back to the day it was built and first painted.

From this, the archaeologists could deduct which shade of grey the ship was painted on the day of Jutland.

This was priceless information, because colour photography had not yet been invented, so the naval grey colour of the fleet was only now able to be determined clearly and accurately.

This is the colour you see the ship painted today.

Its history in Belfast is still celebrated by retired Wrens who trained on board the ship after the war. Today, the outreach programmes, which so far have touched more than 14,000 individuals, include women's groups from west Belfast, men's sheds, Alzheimer and autism groups, children's education trips and many more. The ship is also more than a museum, where interactive displays keep children and adults enthralled for hours, testing their sea and navigation skills, communications abilities and even by a torpedo school.

This year, 45,000 people have made the visit and the word is getting out. HMS Caroline is a key asset in Belfast's maritime heritage. Soon, it will be joined by more assets.

But, in the meantime, let's keep our fingers crossed that the Art Fund judges fall in love with it - just as 45,000 of us have.

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