Taking charge of the Mary Rose Trust has been the biggest challenge of John Lippiett’s career.
He talks to MICHAEL POWELL about what the future has in store.
You would think that after a 36-year career in the Royal Navy, including active service during the Falklands War, John Lippiett had earned a rest.
But there was no cushy retirement job waiting for him when he left his post as a Rear Admiral to become the new chief executive of the Mary Rose Trust.
In fact, the job turned out to be the biggest challenge of the 63-year-old’s life.
It was 2002 when the admiral started his very first job in civvy street.
Back then, the Mary Rose Trust was facing bankruptcy and the project to conserve and display the wreck of Henry VIII’s 500-year-old warship was itself in danger of going under.
Now, 10 years on, there are far calmer seas ahead at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
A brand new £35m museum will open in the new year, displaying the world-famous hull and its thousands of Tudor artefacts like never before.
The Trust has just marked 30 years since the ship was raised and the future seems as bright as the autumn sun’s glare coming through the Georgian sash window of John’s small office.
Not that he will take sole credit. He winces at the suggestion that he is the saviour of the Mary Rose.
‘No, no, no, I would hate that,’ he says.
‘I’m not the person who saved the Mary Rose. It’s the team over 30 years – some of whom have been here for all that time – who have done it. It’s down to the professionalism and dedication of people here. I’m still the new boy after 10 years.’
The saying ‘once navy, always navy’ certainly applies to John’s leadership style.
He says: ‘I regard the staff and volunteers here as a ship’s company and a family, as a ship’s company is.
‘I’m the captain, but the captain is not the guy who fights the ship or propels the ship. The captain has to be the man with his hand on the tiller, but he would be nowhere without his ship’s company.’
It’s at this point that he reveals for the first time just how close the Mary Rose Trust came to going out of business.
‘On my arrival, the trust was near bankrupt with an overdraft facility that we bounced off month by month,’ he says.
‘There were months when we didn’t know if we could pay the staff. It has been deeply challenging.’
John has led an astonishing fundraising campaign to pay for the new museum he is so passionate about. The Heritage Lottery Fund may have granted £21m of the cash, but the remaining £14m has been raised from the general public.
‘There’s no government funding in the Mary Rose,’ he says.
‘The business of raising money to preserve this national treasure has been a struggle for the last 30 years ever since the Mary Rose came to the surface.
‘When I joined, the aspirations were there to build a new museum and finish the conservation but without the funding, there was a state of complete impasse.’
With that dream now nearing reality, he reflects: ‘I rather consider my first career of 36 years as getting me ready to face the challenges here at the Mary Rose Trust.
‘It seems a lifetime but at the same time year by year has sped past. I find it incredible to think of the sheer pace of what’s going on. I’ve never come across such an interesting and diverse and fascinating job and there’s no other job I would prefer to do than what I’m doing now.’
It’s clear John had a passion for the sea from an early age. Born in Bognor Regis in 1949, his mother was a navy Wren based at Whale Island during a Second World War and his father was a Royal Navy volunteer chaplain.
He grew up in East Sussex and was educated at Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School. But he has always had close links to Portsmouth, living in West Sussex for most of his adult life and settling in Bosham with Jenny, his wife of 36 years.
He says: ‘My earliest childhood memory is here in Portsmouth seeing the fleet out for the Spithead Coronation Review.
‘I remember, as a tiny tot in the 50s, spending time in a house down by the Square Tower down by Garrison Church not realising it was built by Henry VIII. It’s funny that I’m tied up in all of that now.’
He joined the senior service straight from school at the age of 18, rising all the way through to the Admiralty.
‘I grew up in to a navy career,’ he says
‘My mother had a very close Wren friend who lived in Old Portsmouth and that’s where they used to dump me frequently to get me out of their hair. I remember, to keep me amused, I would often go on the chain ferry over to Gosport. I’d just go back and forth for hours watching all the activity in the harbour.
‘I was dying to get away to sea. I was not very good at ball games so I took up dinghy sailing off Brighton all year round in horrendous conditions – health and safety wouldn’t allow it now.
‘I became very independent and was looking forward all the time to breaking out in to the navy.’
In 1982, as a Lieutenant Commander, John was second-in-command of the frigate HMS Ambuscade when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The ship fought in San Carlos – known as bomb alley – but fortunately came home unscathed.
‘The hard bit was leaving my wife with a four year old and a two year old while she was pregnant,’ he recalls.
‘Warfare is 80 per cent boredom, 15 per cent fairly tense and the last few per cent is pure adrenaline.
‘War is far, far worse for those who are left behind in many ways. Families can worry 24 hours a day if they are not careful, but for people out in a war situation there’s long periods where it’s not life-threatening and you know you’re not in harm’s way.’
John pays tribute to his devoted wife Jenny for her strength during those dark days.
Like many servicemen, the Falkland War strained their relationship as never before.
He says: ‘I was writing a letter a day to home. It became like my diary except I was not saying things that would scare her. And she was writing back about how the washing machine had broken, the buggy had fallen apart, the gas bills were unaffordable and things like that.’
Five years ago, the fascinating letters were published in a book called War and Peas which was widely acclaimed and serialised on BBC Radio 4.
He says: ‘We have always had a strong marriage. We got used to separation. You have to be strong in marriage and independently. It’s up to individuals to make it work.’
At 63, is it now time for him to now retire, take it easy and bask in the astonishing fundraising achievement which leaves the Mary Rose Trust in such good health?
‘I’ve got no exit strategy,’ he says defiantly.
‘I know what I’ve got to do next. The trustees now realise that to ensure the long-term future of the Mary Rose, the trust must now open an endowment fund to build up the coffers to ensure it is never threatened in the future. So, as I finish the public appeal this year, I will be turning to people to go on supporting the Mary Rose in all sorts of ways. I will be turning my attention to legacies and ask people to put the Mary Rose in to their will, whatever the sum.
‘To start saving up for a rainy day, we need a reserve. I’ve offered myself to the trustees to go on and ensure the Mary Rose is never imperilled again.’
And with that, this captain sets sail on his next mission.
Born: July 7, 1949
Married: Jenny, 1976
Children: Louisa, 35, Marc, 33, and Oliver, 30. Three grandchildren and a fourth due this month.
Career: Royal Navy, 1967 to 2002. Mary Rose Trust Chief Executive, 2002 to present.
Rank: Rear Admiral
Commands held: HMS Amazon, HMS Norfolk
Battles: Falklands War, 1982.
Honours: Companion of the Order of the Bath, Member of the Order of the British Empire.
Hobbies and interests: Classical music and opera, gardening with his wife in their two and a half acre garden at home in Bosham, and spending time with their grandchildren.