The story of how a Tyneside ship ended up as the Resolute desk of the President of the United States Part Two

Following on from last weeks post on HMS Resolute, we pick up the account in this second blog post.

On 10 September 1855, the abandoned HMS Resolute was found adrift by the American whaler George Henry, captained by James Budington of Groton, Connecticut in an ice floe off Cape Walsingham of Baffin Island, 1,200 miles (1,900 km) from where she had been abandoned. An October 1856 New York Journal relates Captain Budington and crew’s encounter:

Finally, stealing over the side, they found everything stowed away in proper order for desertion—spars hauled up to one side and bound, boats piled together, and hatches closed. Everything wore the silence of the tomb. Finally reaching the cabin door they broke in, and found their way in the darkness to the table. On it they accidentally turned on a box of lucifer matches; in a moment one was ignited, the glowing light revealed a candle; it was lit and before the astonished gaze of these men exposed a scene that appeared to be rather one of enchantment than reality. Upon a massive table was a metal teapot, glistening as if new, also a large volume of Scott’s family Bible, together with glasses and decanters filled with choice liquors. Near by was Captain Kellett’s chair, a piece of massive furniture, over which had been thrown, as if to protect this seat from vulgar occupation, the royal flag of Great Britain.

Buddington split his crew, and took 13 men with him on the Resolute. He arrived home in New London, Connecticut on Christmas Eve.

Although most of the expeditions in search of the lost Franklin expedition, before 1856, were funded by either the British government or by public subscription from within the British Empire, two expeditions were funded by Henry Grinnell, a New York merchant and shipowner in New Bedford, in addition to the assistance offered by the United States Government. Senator James Mason of Virginia, presented Congress with the bill to restore Resolute and return her to England as a gesture of “national courtesy”.

Grinnell wrote in support of this bill. The United States Congress purchased the Resolute for $40,000. Once refitted, Commander Henry J. Hartstene sailed Resolute to the U.K. to present the ship to Queen Victoria on 13 December 1856 as a token of comity which was particularly important as at the time their were tensions between the countries with many voices in Washington wanting to go to war 

A painting of Queen Victoria visiting HMS Resolute on its return from North America.

A painting of Queen Victoria visiting HMS Resolute on its return from North America.

Both Grinnell and Lady Jane Franklin hoped the restored Resolute would once again be employed for a new expedition in search of the Franklin expedition. Evidence found by John Rae proved beyond reasonable doubt that the crew had suffered harsh conditions that led to their deaths. The British Government declined. Lady Franklin organised a private expedition under Francis Leopold McClintock, who, in 1859, located the only written account of the fate of Franklin.

HMS Resolute served in the Royal Navy once more from 1856 but never left home waters and was de-commissioned in 1879 before being salvaged for timber. The Canadian settlement of Resolute, Nunavut, is named after the ship.

The Resolute desk in the Whitehouse is built from these same oak timbers that were once part of HMS Resolute. The double pedestal, partners desk is 32.5 in (83 cm) high with a workspace which is 72 in (180 cm) wide and 48 in (120 cm) deep. The 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms) desk was created by skilled carver William Evenden at Chatham Dockyard in Kent, probably from a design by Morant, Boyd, & Blanford in 1880, and is decorated with carved mouldings and carved floral swag designs.There are sets of drawers behind the cabinet doors on each side of the desk pedestals.

By way of appreciation another desk was presented to the widow of Henry Grinnell with both being gifts from Queen Victoria.  Back in the day they cost £380 or almost £40,000 in todays money.

A further desk was made for Queen Victoria herself which for a time was on the steamship that she and Prince Albert enjoyed and which is now in Kensington Palace.

1280px-Photograph_of_Socks_the_Cat_Sitting_Behind_the_President's_Desk_in_the_Oval_Office-_01-07-1994_(6461515323)

The Resolute Desk as it was in 1994 with Socks the cat.

A plaque, mounted on the front center drawer, explains the history of the Resolute and the meaning behind the desk.This plaque was originally on the back of the desk but was moved to the front at some point.

The underside of all the exterior drawer fronts are stamped “MORANT BOYD & BLANFORD / 91 NEW BOND STREET” and the lock plates are stamped “BY ROYAL / LETTERS PATENT / FOUR LEVERS / SAFETY LOCK / COMYN CHINC & Co

The desk was presented to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 and has been in the Oval office almost, but not quite, ever since.

In March 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown presented US President Barack Obama with the framed commission of Resolute, and a pen holder made from the wood of another Royal Navy ship, HMS Gannet.

And there you have it, the incredible history of the famous Resolute Desk of the President of the United States which has literally been to the end of the world and back with its humble origins as a sailing ship built at Newcastle Upon Tyne.

Former President Obama (with new President Biden) showing Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall the very desk that his Great Great Great Grandmother, Queen Victoria sent to the Whitehouse.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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1 Response to The story of how a Tyneside ship ended up as the Resolute desk of the President of the United States Part Two

  1. President Biden is now using this desk again.

    Liked by 1 person

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