Saved from the Axe: HMS Valiant's Bell

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Saved from the Axe: HMS Valiant's Bell

Written and researched by Ann Ellender, Cathedral Floor Volunteer.

Since 1759, six British Royal Naval ships have been launched and named HMS Valiant. In the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral hangs a ship’s bell, which once belonged to the fourth ship named HMS Valiant (1914 - 1948). With such a long service record there are many stories to be told here; battles won and lost, and acts of bravery by her crew, not least of all the ship’s mascot, for he knew how to crow a tale or two, and the crew member who married a Princess!

Life began for HMS Valiant in the Fairfield shipyard on the Clyde in Scotland, when World War One was declared. The battleship was launched in early February 1916 and participated with the Grand Fleet at The Battle of Jutland (May – June 1916). HMS Valiant came through the battle unharmed, but the same could not be said of the ship’s mascot, a cockerel. He lived aloft in a gun turret, but unfortunately a shell carried away his hut and some of his tail feathers. The brave mascot kept on crowing during the night battle at Horn’s Reef, and he would be ready when duty called another day - indeed, the ship’s motto is ‘Valiant and Vigilant’ and the emblem is a fighting cock on a blue field.

When war broke out again, having had a major refit, the old sea veteran HMS Valiant was ready to join the Mediterranean Fleet, taking part in another strategic naval battle. The Battle of Cape Matapan (March 1941) was the first naval encounter to take place at night since the Battle of Jutland.

On board was a young Midshipman, Prince Philip aged 19, in charge of the ship’s searchlight, enabling the crew of HMS Valiant to pinpoint enemy ships in the dark. Later Prince Philip married Princess Elizabeth on the 20th November 1947 at Westminster Abbey. The Royal wedding cake was decorated with various emblems including the night Battle of Matapan and HMS Valiant.

HMS Valiant spent the last three years of her life at a training establishment in Devonport when the decision was made to sell her off for scrap. It was a sad farewell on the day she was towed to the shipbreakers in 1948.

The bell in the Nelson Chamber was saved from the axe and presented to St Paul’s Cathedral by the Royal Navy c.1960. It is a tribute to the people who worked on Valiant’s construction, and those who served on her.

Sources

  • The Burnley News, 21 June 1916, British Newspaper Archive, British Library 
  • The Express and Advertiser, 8 July 1916, British Newspaper Archive, British Library
  • The Sphere, 12 April 1941, British Newspaper Archive, British Library
  • The Sphere, 31 January 1948, British Newspaper Archive, British Library