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Joe Biden inauguration: The Resolute Desk used by US presidents in the White House since 1880 and its history linked to Kent


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The world's gaze will be drawn to Washington DC and the Capitol once again today for President Joe Biden's official inauguration.

And when the first historic picture is taken of Mr Biden sat at his desk in the Oval Office, there's one reason why residents of Kent may have an eye on the furniture rather than the 46th President of the United States of America.

Joe Biden will become the 46th US President today. Picture: Niall Carson/PA
Joe Biden will become the 46th US President today. Picture: Niall Carson/PA

The desk, a symbolic representation at the cornerstone of the UK and America's long-lasting special relationship, was a gift from Queen Victoria to our trans-Atlantic cousins back in 1880.

The hand-built solid oak Resolute Desk has been the centrepiece of choice in the White House office for virtually every American president since it was built right here in our county more than 140 years ago.

Although the new President has six choices of desk – not the "like eight" a certain outgoing commander-in-chief infamously told French president Emmanuel Macron during a visit to Washington last year – it is highly likely this tradition which even President Trump upheld, will be continued by Mr Biden.

However, stranger things have happened in American politics in recent years.

The Resolute Desk started out life in the timbers of the Royal Navy warship HMS Resolute.

The Resolute Desk was made in Chatham and presented by Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B Hayes in 1880. Picture: Chatham Historic Dockyard
The Resolute Desk was made in Chatham and presented by Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B Hayes in 1880. Picture: Chatham Historic Dockyard

She was part of a four-ship squadron under Edward Belcher and sent to the Arctic Ocean in the early 1850s to search for explorer Sir John Franklin.

Franklin was searching for the north-western passage to Asia.

Resolute became stranded in the ice and spent two full seasons stuck in the frozen waters of the Arctic.

In the second summer, Belcher abandoned Resolute and her sister ship also stranded and returned to England where he was court-martialed for "abandoning a seaworthy vessel", naval records detail.

The following summer, Resolute had broken free of the ice and was found by an America whaling vessel under the command of James Buddington who towed into port where she was purchased by the US Congress for $40,000 and refitted.

In 1856, HMS Resolute was presented to Queen Victoria on December 17, 1856 as a symbol of lasting peace between Britain and America.

The desk was a favoured footstool for Barack Obama and at 590kg will make it a tough item to move should Mr Biden wish it to be changed. Picture: Official White House Photograph by Pete Souza
The desk was a favoured footstool for Barack Obama and at 590kg will make it a tough item to move should Mr Biden wish it to be changed. Picture: Official White House Photograph by Pete Souza

The event is considered the start of the "special relationship" the two powers have shared ever since.

Resolute served in the Royal Navy for a further 23 years but never left home waters and she was broken up in 1879 at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Chatham.

Due to her symbolic importance, the British government ordered for three desks to be made from her oak timbers.

William Evenden, a skilled joiner based at the dockyard, was tasked with turning what was left of the ship into the desks.

If Mr Biden is to decide to replace the Resolute Desk with one of the five other choices, it will be a tall endeavour to remove it from the Oval Office with it weighing in at 590kg.

It has been used by all but three of the 45 presidents so far and has been in the Oval Office since 1993.

'The Historic Dockyard Chatham hopes President Elect Joe Biden chooses to work from the Resolute Desk...'

Bill Clinton returned it after George Bush Sr used it in the Treaty Room, his personal office in the White House Residency during his term from 1989.

John F Kennedy's son is pictured playing under the desk while his father reviews documents in the early 1960s.

JFK was the first president to use the desk in the Oval Office – after his wife Jacqueline replaced it in 1961.

Bill Clinton brought the Resolute Desk back to the Oval Office, where it has remained since 1993
Bill Clinton brought the Resolute Desk back to the Oval Office, where it has remained since 1993

After Kennedy was killed two years later, the desk was included in an exhibition by his successor Lyndon Johnson.

It remained on display in museums and exhibitions until 1977 when Jimmy Carter brought it back to the White House and the Oval Office.

President Trump's knowledge of the history and traditions was also caught out during that same visit with President Macron when he said it had been built in "something like 1814" even though a plaque located right in front of where he sits details its history.

President Biden will be aware of the history and significance of the Resolute Desk as it was also a favourite of Barack Obama – who has been pictured on multiple occasions on the phone resting his feet on the wood.

The double pedestal desk was designed by London firm Morant, Boyd, and Blanford and is decorated with carved mouldings and floral swag designs.

The original plans are held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

Timber from HMS Gannet, now housed at Chatham Historic Dockyard, was used to create a pen holder to commemorate 130 years of the Resolute Desk when former Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited the USA in 2009. He presented it to President Barack Obama. Picture: Chatham Historic Dockyard
Timber from HMS Gannet, now housed at Chatham Historic Dockyard, was used to create a pen holder to commemorate 130 years of the Resolute Desk when former Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited the USA in 2009. He presented it to President Barack Obama. Picture: Chatham Historic Dockyard

The other two desks made from the Resolute timbers were presented to the widow of Henry Grinnell in 1880 in recognition of his efforts to find Sir John Franklin. It is held at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts.

A third desk was commissioned by Queen Victoria and remains in the Royal Collection.

Chatham and the US Presidency were joined together once more to mark the 130th anniversary of the Resolute Desk being presented when Gordon Brown visited Mr Obama for the first time on a visit to Washington DC a few weeks after his inauguration in 2009.

Joe Biden takes up residence in the White House after his inauguration in Washington DC. Picture: Getty Images
Joe Biden takes up residence in the White House after his inauguration in Washington DC. Picture: Getty Images

The Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust had been commissioned to provide a suitable gift for President Obama and it was decided a pen holder made in the same Joiners Shop where Evenden had built the Resolute Desk would meet the brief.

It was made by ship keepers David Appleton and Chris Jones from an off-cut of timber salvaged from HMS Gannet, which had entered service at Sheerness in 1879 – the same year Resolute was broken up along the River Medway and the desk created.

Trust spokesman Lynette Crisp said: "The Historic Dockyard Chatham hopes President Elect Joe Biden chooses to work from the Resolute Desk and that this fascinating piece of Chatham history inspires him whilst he plans the future for the United States of America."

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