Guardships at Kingstown

GUARD-SHIPS AT KINGSTOWN

By

Cormac F. Lowth

Shortly after the completion of Kingstown Harbour in the early 1820s, it became a convenient and preferred haven for elements of the British Royal Navy. It was a regular port of call for most visiting naval vessels in preference to the main port of Dublin with its sometimes tortuously dangerous approaches, particularly for sailing ships. During the course of coastal patrols, the Harbour was used for re-victualing, and later, coaling. One of the first recorded Royal Naval vessels based at Kingstown for any long period was HMS Ranger, an eight gun brig. This ship was later reduced to a hulk and converted to a church for holding religious services.

HMS ESSEX

HMS ESSEX

A former Royal Naval vessel, HMS Essex, arrived at Kingstown harbour in 1824 to be cut down and converted to a prison hulk. This ship was used as a floating prison and as a detention centre for convicts awaiting transportation to Australia, many of whom were re-routed to Cork by sea before heading to the Colony. Life aboard the hulk may or may not have been as horrific as one might imagine, as the inspector of H.M. prisons, Capt. J. Williams, was to write,

There is no means of finding employment on board, none of inciting the prisoners to habits of industry by uniform or routine occupation, none even of fatiguing the body, so as to diminish the activity of vicious minds by inducing sleep; no means of classification in separation, the youngest boy associating with the most hardened felon or murderer. There is an attempt at a school on board ship, but it would appear that by far the greater part of a convict’s time is passed in recounting his adventures in vice and infamy to his less wicked companions…

HMS ESSEX

ESSEX as a Prision Hulk

Essex was formerly USS Essex, a very strongly built thirty-two gun frigate, built in 1799 in Salem, Massachusetts, by Enos Briggs, a firm that went on to build many of the great American clipper ships some decades later. During the war of 1812, Essex had sought shelter in the neutral port of Valparaiso in Chile, under Captain David Porter. The ship had devastated the British whaling fleet in the Pacific and had taken the most ships as prizes in the entire war. After leaving port, she lost her main topmast in heavy weather and was engaged by HMS Phoebe and HMS Cherub, whose longer range guns were to prove decisive, as Essex was armed mainly with short range Carronades. Essex was taken as a prize and was later incorporated into the Royal Navy. Among the crew of Essex on the day of the battle was a ten year old midshipman, David Farragut, later to become an admiral in the American Navy, and whose remark during the American Civil War, Damn the Torpedoes, has become legendry. Essex remained in the Navy until 1823 when she was hulked, The ship that accompanied Essex to Ireland as she went to be hulked was HMS Surprise, the name of a Royal Navy vessel made famous by the late author Patrick O’Brien, as the ship of his fictional hero, Captain Jack Aubrey. She served briefly at Kingstown before becoming a hulk at Cork. There is an example of an American frigate similar to Essex still afloat, USSConstitution, known as Old Ironsides. Essex was finally sold in 1837 for the sum of £1,230.

In the early decades of its existence, Kingstown harbour developed beyond its intended purpose as a harbour of refuge to become an important harbour of general maritime commerce and a useful naval base. A fleet of big sailing beam- trawlers, many of which had come from ports in the south of England such as Brixham and Devonport, had become established in Dublin, particularly at Ringsend, in the first few decades of the century, and Kingstown was used regularly by these vessels. With the building of the railway from Dublin to Kingstown in 1834, and the advent of steam powered vessels, the harbour quickly became one of the main packet stations. In addition, The Coastguard had become established by the 1830s. In 1835, the number of vessels that entered Kingstown was stated to be just over two thousand, in addition to fifty-seven men of war and cruisers. The Kingstown Coastguard district for that year consisted of five officers and thirty eight men.

In 1837, the Mariners Church, which now houses the Maritime Museum, was opened in Kingstown, and this catered to the many naval and other seafaring personnel who now used the harbour. Church parades from the various naval ships to the Mariners Church would have been a regular sight. On the gallery of the church, the visitor can still see the special enclosed pews that were reserved for naval crew members who were under detention.

HMS ESSEX

HMS AJAX

In 1858, the biggest ship to be stationed at Kingstown up to that point in time arrived in the harbour, HMS Ajax. She was built at Blackwall by Wigram in 1809 as a third-rate, seventy-four gun, wooden ship of the line, a ‘wooden wall’ exactly like many that had fought at Trafalgar under Nelson. She was stationed in the Mediterranean until 1816 where she was involved in many actions and engagements under Captain Rupert Otway, including the blockade of Toulon, during which she defeated and took as prizes the French Dromedaire and Alycone, and several French merchant ships. During one such battle, sixteen crew on Ajax were killed and twenty-one wounded, in addition to thirty-seven listed as ‘missing’. Ajax was involved in the bombardment of the Spanish town, San Sebastian. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Ajax entered Algiers where the crew released eighteen hundred Europeans from slavery.

After a period of being laid up, Ajax was fitted with an auxiliary steam engine in Cowes in 1846 and re-configured as a fifty-six gun guard-ship. She was stationed at Cork until 1853 and there is a fine portrait in oils by a local marine artist, George Mounsey Wheatly Atkinson, showing Ajax sailing past Roches Point, hanging in the Crawford Gallery, Cork. Ajax took an active part in the Crimean War, notably at the bombardment of Bomarsund in Finland which was then a part of the Russian Empire. She was noted for her poor performance under both sail and steam. In 1858 she came to Kingstown as the guard-ship, under the command of Captain John McNeil Boyd, a native of Derry. She served both as guard-ship and as Coastguard and Reserve headquarters afloat. In 1861, Captain Boyd and five of his crew were drowned while attempting to save the crew of a wrecked ship on the Outer side of the East Pier of Kingstown Harbour. A granite obelisk was erected near the spot. Captain Boyd had been selected to command the new all iron ship Warrior, which is still afloat in Portsmouth. Ajax remained at moorings near the East Pier in Kingstown Harbour throughout her service there. During that time a small wooden gunboat of 232 tons named HMS Nightingale was stationed there also. Ajax served as the guard-ship at Kingstown until 1864 when she was withdrawn and broken up. Many ships of the Royal Navy carry names that have been repeated throughout its history. A later HMS Ajax took part at the Battle of the River Plate with HMS Exeter and HMS Achilles against the German Pocket battleship Graf Spee. The original figurehead from Ajax is in the Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

HMS ROYAL GEORGE

HMS ROYAL GEORGE

The successor to Ajax at Kingstown in 1864 was another great wooden warship of 2,616 tons, the Royal George. Launched in 1827 as a first-rate, three-decked ship of one hundred and twenty guns at the Royal Dockyard in Chatham, she was originally laid down as HMS Neptune. Her dimensions were 205 ft. x 54 ft. In 1853 she had a steam engine fitted. Her career was undistinguished until later that year with the outbreak of the Crimean War when she was posted to the Baltic, where she was involved in a minor collision with HMS Caeser, but the capture of a Russian Brig named Patrioten seems to have been the only action in which the ship was involved, most of the time being taken up with blockading. An outbreak of Cholera occurred aboard Royal George while off Kronstadt with several fatalities.

Royal George was cut down to a two-deck ship on her return to Britain due to her reported propensity to roll heavily while at sea. She went to the Crimea as a troop carrier towards the end of the Crimean War in 1856 and in 1864 she was posted to Kingstown to replace Ajax as the Guard-ship. During her first year at Kingstown there was an outbreak of smallpox aboard. She continued the function also of depot ship for the Coastguard. In 1867 Royal George was at Spithead for the Royal Review in honour of the visit of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and in 1869, she took part in the cruise of the reserve fleet. There were several ships called Royal George in the Royal Navy over the years but one notable predecessor was another huge wooden warship that sank while at anchor at Spithead in 1782, with the loss of about nine hundred lives including her commander, Admiral Kempenfeldt. She was undergoing minor repairs when she sprang a leak and quickly overturned. The wreck was a major obstruction until it was cleared by some of the first hard-hat divers. In December of 1869 Royal George was replaced as guard-ship by HMS Pallas and she was eventually sold for breaking up in 1875.

HMS PALLAS

HMS PALLAS

HMS Pallas was the first vessel to serve as guard-ship at Kingstown that had been built as a steam ship. She was a three-masted, wooden hulled ironclad with four and a half inches of armour plate on her sides. Her armament consisted of large muzzle loading rifled guns contained in central box batteries. Early steam warships still carried a full rig of sail in order to conserve coal while on voyages. Her tenure at Kingstown was short, beginning on January 1st 1870 and finishing in October of the same year. She spent several years in reserve at Plymouth and Devonport before being posted to Malta. She was sold in 1886.

The next ship to arrive was HMS Audacious, one of three sister-ships that were to serve as guard-ships at Kingstown. She gave her name as a class to a quartet of identical ships that included Invincible, Iron Duke, and Vanguard,

the latter two of which served at Kingstown. These ships were built entirely of iron and steel and they represented part of a giant leap forward that had taken place in warship design in the 1860s, beginning with the innovative HMS Warrior, which can still be seen afloat today in Portsmouth. These were mighty ships compared to what had gone before, each of over six thousand tons. Built in 1869, the dimensions were 250ft. x 54ft., with 4,800 horse power produced by twin steam engines. Each cost in excess of £358,000. The ship’s armour plating consisted of an eight inch belt above and just below the waterline with four to six inches elsewhere to a total of 920 tons. The shell plating of the hull was one and a quarter inches thick. The main armament consisted of ten nine-inch Armstrong muzzle-loading rifled guns (M.L.R.s), each weighing about twelve tons. Six of these were mounted on the main deck and the remaining four were mounted above these in box-like armoured sponsons, which were arranged to provide fore and aft arcs of fire. This arrangement was known as a Central Battery. All of these massive guns were installed before the armoured deck above was put in place. This consisted of heavy iron beams and stringers on top of which the armoured deck plating was bolted and riveted and this was overlaid with layers of oak and elm decking that rendered all shell-proof. All of the Audacious class battleships had an armoured protrusion or ram on the stem under the waterline, which in the case of Iron Duke and Vanguard, was to prove effective in its intended purpose. A later Royal Navy battleship called Vanguard hit a German mine and sank off Lough Swilly, County Donegal, during the First World War. Audacious departed from Kingstown in July 1871 and her place was taken by her sister-ship HMS Vanguard. She spent much of the remainder of her active career in the Far East until she was decommissioned in 1894 and sent to Scapa flow as a Depot ship. She was scrapped in 1929.

HMS VANGUARD

HMS VANGUARD

When HMS Vanguard arrived, she was part of the Reserve Squadron. On November 1st. 1875, some elements of that part of the fleet, that included Warrior, Iron Duke, Hector, and Achilles, arrived in Kingstown while on a cruise around various Irish Ports. Vanguard was ordered to join them. The ships were heading south in two lines ahead with Vanguard leading the port line and Iron Duke to her rear. When abreast of Bray head, a sailing ship appeared out of a bank of fog causing Vanguard to veer hard to port. Iron Duke was coming up close astern and she ploughed into the port side of Vanguard causing her to sink in the space of about an hour. All hands were saved and returned to Kingstown aboard Iron Duke, which now took up the position as guard-ship. Vanguard still lies on the seabed, about ten miles east of Bray Head and in fairly intact condition. She is visited regularly by divers.

Iron Duke remained in home waters until July 1877 when she returned to the Far East as flagship. She never saw action and had an uneventful life apart from running aground on the Woosun sandbar in the Shanghai River and striking a rock off Hokkaido. She was broken up in Glasgow in 1906.

HMS TOPAZE

HMS TOPAZE

HMS Topaze was next to follow Iron Duke. She served from July 1877 until June 1878. A Liffey class steam-engined wooden screw frigate of 2659 tons, length 235 ft., with 24 guns, she was built in 1858 in Devonport. She was classed as an Ironclad having four and a half inch armour plating on her sides. She carried a crew of 560. She had just arrived back from a tour of duty in Chinese waters and on one foreign voyage in 1868, the ship had called at Easter Island, where the crew removed one of the smaller of the big carved stone statues known as Moai. This can be seen in the British Museum. She was sold for breaking up in 1884. She was commanded during her stay By Captain John Rowley of the Coastguard who resumed command of the next guardship arrival at Kingstown, HMS Belleisle.

HMS belleisle

HMS Belleisle

HMS Belleisle was the first Kingstown guard-ship not to have a considerable rig of sail, having only fore and aft sails on two masts. Her general appearance reflected the future development of warships. Belleisle was classed as a Central Battery Ironclad although her hull was entirely built of steel. Her tonnage was 4870. She was built as the Peyk- i- Shereef for the Ottoman Empire in 1876 by Samuda Brothers of London. War was threatening between the Ottomans and the Russians so the British Government took over the ship lest the sale would infringe upon their neutrality policy. The specifications of the ship were found to be below standard for the Royal Navy and an extensive refit was necessary. Her weaponry capability was enlarged to include four 25-ton 12-inch guns. Nevertheless, she still was found wanting in terms of speed and armour so she was relegated to the status of port guard-ship, hence her posting to Kingstown.

Belleisle was paid off at the end of 1892 and went into reserve. She was converted into a target ship in 1900 and used to test the effect of Lyddite shells, which were used extensively in the Boer War. She was eventually sold to Germany for scrapping in 1904.

HMS CURLEW

HMS CURLEW

HMS Curlew came to Kingstown as guard-ship for a brief period in 1891. She was a composite hulled Beacon class gunboat of 603 tons. This meant iron frames and a wooden outer shell. She was built in Devonport in 1867 and armed with one 6” inch, and three five pounder, guns. She also had five torpedo tubes. Curlew had just come back from the Persian Gulf where she was involved in the suppression of the slave trade. She was sold in 1907.

HMS MELAMPUS

HMS MELAMPUS

In 1892, one of the best known guard-ships came to Kingstown, HMS Melampus. The name is derived from a soothsayer and healer in Greek Mythology. She was an Apollo class protected cruiser of 3440 tons, built by Vickers of Barrow in Furness in 1890. Her armaments were 2 x 6inch and 6 x 4.7, eight six pounders, and one 3 pounder guns. She also had two fixed torpedo tubes and these can be seen in the photograph of the ship, taken in Kingstown Harbour. Melampus had a top speed of twenty knots. She was captained initially by the future King George V of England, who relinquished his command on the death of his elder brother just before the ship was posted to Kingstown. She had a complement that varied between three hundred and twenty, and two hundred and seventy five. A large buoy was placed in the harbour during her stay to facilitate mooring and this was in existence until relatively recently. The ‘Melampus Buoy’ was removed during harbour developments.

Melampus was withdrawn in 1903 and she seems to have been the last dedicated guard-ship in Kingstown. She was scrapped in 1910. The National Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire have in their possession a fine mahogany cased barograph presented to the Club by the Port naval officers in 1919. It was originally presented to the officers of the naval base by the officers of Melampus in 1903.

HMS TOPAZE

HMS FORWARD

From the turn of the century, up to and beyond the First World War, Kingstown was developing as a naval base with shore facilities and an ever increasing number of naval vessels coming and going. Despite that, the Kingstown Urban District Council passed a motion in 1904 to draw attention to the Admiralty that Kingstown was now without a guard-ship and that this represented some economic loss to the town. There seems to have been an escalation of naval ships using the Harbour in the year prior to the First World War, perhaps in anticipation of the conflict, as there are photographs from 1913 showing several Laird-type Liffey class, and tribal class destroyers, some moored in the customary position of the former guard-ships. One of these also shows HMSForward which seems to have spent some time in the Harbour ‘to prevent gun running’ as the caption says on the photograph. She was a Scout class cruiser built in Govan and she was deemed to be unsuitable for fleet action, being lightly armoured and rather slow. Nevertheless, she served in the North Sea and the Mediterranean during the conflict and she was in Hartlepool when the town was bombarded by German battle-cruisers, but she escaped. She was broken up in 1921. During the First World War the harbour was a hive of activity with many anti-submarine vessels and a great many other warships stationed there. Wartime censorship has deprived us of much knowledge or imagery of this period.

DESTROYERS AT KINGSTOWN

DESTROYERS AT KINGSTOWN

Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, Kingstown was the chosen place of arrival and departure for Royal visits. Most of the complement of the guard ships and any other naval personnel available, invariably turned out to form guards of honour, and the guard-ships fired multi-gun salutes, as the royal yachts came into the harbour. It was usual for the royalty to come and go from the Victoria Wharf or the Carlisle Pier. There were many fleet visits by the Royal Navy that were sometimes associated with these royal visits, some anchoring in the adjoining Scotsmans Bay if the harbour was too crowded. Troopships frequently called at Kingstown to bring army regiments from, or to take others to, all parts of the Empire.

There are some graves in Carrickbrennan Cemetery in Monkstown of sailors who had died while serving on the guard-ships. The foundation of the Irish Free State saw the abolition of the Coastguard and the departure of practically all naval activity except for an occasional visit by a leftover fishery protection vessel, Helga, renamed Muirchu, and a few armed trawlers during the ‘Emergency’ and it must have presented a dismal prospect to people in those years who were used to the drill and the pageantry, and to some, the associated economic advantages, of the British naval presence. 

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