The Victorian Era
The articles below relate to naval and other history in the Victorian period, strictly 1837-1901. They are arranged in chronological order and will be added to regularly. Suggestions for other articles will be welcome – see the “Contact” bar above.
The SS Archimedes – setting the shipping paradigm 1839
So how did the propeller – insignificant in size by comparison with the more dramatic paddle-wheel – achieve its prominence and drive its competitor from the worlds’ oceans? The surprising answer goes back to the Third Century BC but the story takes off in the 1830s and involves innovative designs, investors willing to risk large sums and Britain’s greatest engineer.
A visit to the SS Great Britain – the world’s first passenger liner
The SS Great Britain, laid down in 1839 and launched in 1843, was the brainchild of the great British engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Not only was she the largest steamship yet built, but the largest ship built of iron, as well as the first large vessel to be driven by a propeller. The first ocean liner, she set the standard for what followed. Abandoned as a hulk in the Falkland Islands for many years, she was salvaged and brought back to Britain in 1970 for superb restoration. This article is occasioned by a recent visit to her at Bristol and is illustrated by photographs taken on board. She now lies in the graving dock that was constructed for her to be built in. Once more in her 1845 configuration, she provides a fascinating insight to the reality of sea travel in the Victorian era.
Grace Darling, Unexpected Heroine, 1838
November 15th 2015 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the great Victorian heroines. Grace Darling might have lived out her life in obscurity had not a shipwreck when she was allowed her to display courage of the highest order. She was to gain widespread – and well-merited – acclaim for her heroism, and was celebrated in verse, prints and Staffordshire china.
The End of Fighting Sail – Sidon, Beirut and Acre 1840
Though steam propulsion was first applied to warships, on a small scale, in the late 1830s, it was to take another half-century before sail was finally abandoned by the world’s navies. 1840 was however to see the last major action by the Royal Navy in which a sailing wooden line-of-battle ship, of a type almost identical to those which fought under Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805, was to play the leading role.
The painful transition from Sail to Steam, 1840s
Admiral John Moresby (1830 – 1922) entered the Royal Navy in the 1840 and was responsible for the exploration of the coast of New Guinea in the 1870s. Moresby’s description of professional standards in navy he entered in in the late 1840s is somewhat of a shock for the modern reader.
The Victorian Fascination with Murder (1840s & 50s)
A fascination of the general public in the Victorian period is one that has remained a favourite with the general public ever since. A strong bloodline (no pun intended) can be discerned between a Punch cartoon of the 1840s and the endless documentaries about real-life crime that are such a feature of television today.
HMS Charybdis to the rescue, 1841
When reading about the Royal Navy in the 19th Century one never ceases to be amazed by the degree of autonomy accorded to ships’ commanders, even of relatively junior rank, and the willingness of both Admiralty and Government to back their actions. One such incident in 1841 was so extreme and so dramatic that a novelist would hesitate to invent it.
HMS Rattler 1843: The screw propeller comes of age
What links a tug-of-war between two steam warships, 100 veterans of the Battle of Trafalgar, one of the first joint British-American naval operations and 36 Chinese Pirate junks?
Capturing a Slaver—1845
The Royal Navy’s Anti-Slavery Squadron off West African coast in the post-Napoleonic era 1815 involved encounters with armed slave-ships which were of an intensity equal to that encountered in the wars themselves. Such battles were among the last ever fought between sailing ships and one such desperate action involved the bizarrely-named HMS Pantaloon in 1845.
Shipwreck, Survival, Slave Trade Suppression – and Injustice, 1845
Britain’s West African Anti-Slavery Patrol was active in catching slave traders for almost half-a century after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. It involved many murderous exchanges between naval vessels and slavers and resulted in the liberation of thousands of prisoners. No encounter was however to have a more astonishing, bloody and disappointing outcome than that which began with the capture of the Brazilian schooner Felicidade in 1845.
Britain and France confront Argentina: The Battle of Obligdo 1845
Today, when one thinks of naval combat between British and Argentinian forces the Falklands War of 1982 is the case most likely to come to mind. An equally fierce engagement did however occur 137 years earlier and, though it is largely forgotten in Britain today, is commemorated annually in Argentina by a national holiday on each 20th November.
The Intercontinental Junk Keyling 1846
In 1846 a large trading junk, the Keyling, set out on a voyage that would make her the first Chinese vessel to round the Cape of Good Hope, sail to the United States and on to Britain. A visit to her in London in 1848 by the novelist Charles Dickens inspired him to write a viciously xenophobic attack on Chinese culture that did him little credit.
Hazards of suppressing the Slave Trade, 1847
Britain’s West African Anti-Slavery Patrol was active in catching slave traders for almost half-a century after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. It involved many murderous exchanges between naval vessels and slavers and resulted in the liberation of thousands of prisoners. Here’s an account of one such bloody incident in 1847.
The Capture of Fort Serapaquí, Nicaragua — 1848
One of the novelist Jane Austen’s brothers was to launch a small and now-forgotten punitive expedition in Nicaragua in 1848. It demonstrated just how effectively the Royal Navy could function as Britain’s 19th Century rapid-reaction force.
Fighting the Riff Pirates 1848-51
As late as the mid-nineteenth century merchant shipping was still being captured by Barbary pirates off the Riff coast of Morocco. Daring rescue and retaliation efforts by the Royal Navy in 1848 and 1851 depended on use of paddle sloops, then a new type of warship.
The humbling of “General Hyena” 1850
Not naval-oriented but interesting nonetheless! It’s always gratifying to see a bully and tyrant cut down to size and a particularly satisfying example of this occurred in London in 1850, even if the retribution meted out was disproportionately small compared with the crimes in question…
James Brooke – the First White Rajah of Sarawak
An Englishman who ruled like an Oriental potentate, pirates, head-hunters, Robbie Burns’ grandson, Jane Austen’s brother, desperate battles on land, sea and swamp – how can all these be linked? Sir James Brooke (1803 – 1868). was one of the most intrepid and colourful figures of the 19th Century. He founded modern Sarawak, governed it as monarch of an independent kingdom, and established a dynasty of “White Rajahs” who were to continue to rule until 1946.
The Loss by Fire of the RMS Amazon 1852
Passenger travel by sea was a dangerous undertaking in the nineteenth century, not least due to absence of standards and often slipshod command procedures. One of the most horrific example of the consequences of such shortcomings occurred in 1852 when the new and highly regarded Royal Mail Ship RMS Amazon met a horrific end on her maiden voyage.
The first battle between steamships, 1853
The end of the Age of Fighting Sail was a process that straggled through the 1820s and 30s and 40s as steam power became increasingly reliable. It was not until 1853 however that one steamship would face another in combat. The location for this was to be off the Black Sea coast of Turkey and it was to be the prelude to a yet greater, and more devastating, battle…
The Crimean War – Bombardment of Odessa 1854
The Crimean War (1854-56), in which Britain, France, Turkey and Piedmont took on Russia, is generally thought of in terms of the operations in the Crimea itself. Prior to the landing of the large Allied invasion force there in September 1854 there was however an earlier – and significant – naval action. This was the bombardment of the Russian Black Sea port of Odessa in April 1854. It was carried out by a combined British-French force and though it initially had a superficial quality of “an affair of honour” it was to have of powerful strategic implications.
The Crimean War – First Victoria Cross Winner 1854
Ever since the Crimean War (1854-56) the Victoria Cross has been the highest award for British service personnel for gallantry in the face of the enemy. Instituted by Queen Victoria in 1856 it was revolutionary at the time of introduction in that award made no distinction between officers and enlisted men. But who was the first winner?
The Crimean War – Operations at the Danube Mouth 1854
Though the war fought by Britain, France, Turkey and Piedmont in 1854-56 is normally referred to as the “Crimean War” it was not in the Crimea alone where combat took place. Daring Royal Navy operations off Danube mouths in 1854 were to prefigure commando raids of WW2 and after.
The Crimean War’s White Sea Theatre – 1854
It is often forgotten that operations in the Crimean War (1854 – 56) were not confined to the Crimea itself but extended also to the Baltic, the North Pacific and the White Sea. This last is the least known of all the campaigns of this war and it has a fascination of its own, not least because it pitted modern steam warships against a 16th Century combined monastery and fortress.
The Crimean War’s North Pacific Theatre: Petropavlovsk August 1854
The most common image of the Crimean War (1854 – 56) is of Britain’s Light Brigade charging to death and glory against Russian guns at Balaclava. Almost equally well known are the epics of the ”Thin Red Line” and of the Storming of the Redan, both in the Crimea itself. The more nautically- minded may think of the enormous and costly expedition to the Baltic that earned such scanty returns. Few have however heard of the most remote operation of the war, the Anglo-French assault on Petropavlovsk, Russia’s Northern Pacific port on the Kamchatka peninsula.
The Arrival of the Naval Mine, 1850s
The naval mine has proved a cheap and effective weapon for more than a century and a half. This latest blog tells about the earliest types used, including Russian employment in the Crimean War (1854/56) and in Britain’s “Arrow War” with China (1856-60).
Women and Children Last! The SS Arctic Disaster, 1854
For almost a century insufficient provision of lifeboats were a major factor in marine disasters. Only the Titanic loss in 1912 was to evoke a sufficient measure of outrage for the problem to be finally addressed, even if the rules are not always enforced today. The spectacular loss of the SS Arctic in 1854, some 60 years before the Titanic, was one of the maritime disasters that should have led to much earlier reform – and to the saving of countless lives. But it didn’t.
Mallet’s Monster Mortar and the Birth of Seismology 1854/56
The need for massive weapons for breaching fixed land defences was dramatically illustrated during the Crimean War’s Siege of Sevastopol in 1854/56. One response, by a forgotten Victorian genius, was the creation of the largest weapon constructed up to that time. Two examples remain and visiting one of them impelled Antoine Vanner to write this piece. But there was more to the story than weapony alone, for the engineer responsible was to found the science of Seismology and to prefigure weapons used with devastating effect in WW2.
The Novara scientific expedition, 1857-59
A visit to the magnificent Natural History Museum in Vienna introduced me to an ambitious scientific expedition of 1857-59. It involved a circumnavigation of the world by an Austro-Hungarian warship that brought back 26,000 zoological, botanical, geological and other specimens as well as making significant contributions to oceanography. But the expedition was only part of a story that involved cocaine, a victory in a sea battle and the hubris and nemesis of a would-be emperor of Mexico.
1859: The Battle of Solferino and the Red Cross
At Solferino in Northern Italy, in 1859, the French, Piedmontese and Austro-Hungarian armies clashed in the largest and most murderous battle since the Napoleonic Wars. But the most unexpected outcome of the carnage followed from the actions not of a soldier, but of a Swiss businessman who was present by accident at the aftermath…
The Birth of Weather Forecasting: The “Royal Charter Storm” of 1859
Today that concept of weather forecasting is regarded as an integral aspect of news reporting but in the mid-nineteenth century that concept was in its infancy. It took a storm of massive proportions to emphasise the value of such a system and the credit for conceiving the idea was due to Captain Robert Fitzroy (1805-1865) who had previously commanded HMS Beagle on her voyage of scientific discovery with Charles Darwin. The story is one of great tragedy and great heroism.
The Bloody 1860s
Nicholas Dawlish came of age in the 1860s, often seen from the British viewpoint as a time of peace. If a global perspective is however adopted the picture changes significantly and the 1860s in particular may well have represented the bloodiest single decade in human history up to that time…
Royal Navy Gunvessels and Gunboats of the 1860s
One tends to think of the Royal Navy in the mid-Victorian era as consisting of large ironclads, armoured successors to the ships-of-the-line that had dominated warfare in the Age of Fighting Sail. Such huge ships were however few in number compared with the swarms of smaller gunvessels and gunboats which undertook an almost endless variety of tasks across the globe. In 1860 there were over 200 of such units – this article tells about these useful vessels.
1863: The first American-Japanese naval battle
July 1863 was recognised both at the time and afterwards as the turning point of the American Civil War. Long and bitter fighting still lay ahead but the Union victory at Gettysburg in the first three days of the month, and the surrender of the Confederate fortress of Vicksburg in the 4th, ensured that the nation would ultimately be reunited. But in this same month, and on the far side of the world, an American warship was to fight the nation’s first battle with a foe which would become even more significant later….
The Battle of Heligoland: War in the North Sea,1864
In 1864 the small nation of Denmark was attacked by the combined forces of Prussia and Austria-Hungary. The Danish resistance was to be heroic, and never more so than when naval forces clashed off the island of Heligoland in a battle now largely forgotten outside Denmark.
The Spar Torpedo – a weapon for heroes and madmen 1860s-80s
The Spar Torpedo – which plays a vital role in Britannia’s Wolf, the account of Nicholas Dawlish’s service in the Ottoman Navy 1877-78 – was a crude weapon, born of necessity and desperation in the American Civil War. Its use demanded a near-kamikaze commitment from its users, for it was potentially as dangerous to them as to its intended targets…
The Ram Triumphant: The Battle of Lissa 1866
The clash between the Austro-Hungarian and Italian navies off the Dalmatian island of Lissa in 1866 was to be the only large-scale battle fought by first-generation ironclads. It was remarkable not only for the success of ramming tactics but for the aggressive and capable leadership of the Austro-Hungarian commander, Wilhelm von Tegettoff. An earlier article saw him in action against the Danes off Heligoland two years earlier but his day of greatest glory was to be at Lissa.
1866: Horror at Sea – the loss of the SS London
Samuel Plimsoll, a now largely-forgotten hero, devoted much of his life to improving safety at sea. One of the disasters that most focussed public opinion on the need for this was the loss in 1866, in horrific circumstances, of the SS London. The catastrophe also casts an interesting spotlight on Victorian values and behaviour in extremis…
The French Navy in Korea, 1866
The savage martyrdom of missionaries and Korean Christians in 1866 was to trigger a punitive expedition by the French Navy that was to mark the end of Korea’s long centuries as “The Hermit Kingdom”. And it was to be followed by a long and deadly struggle between a beautiful and ruthless Queen and her cruel and unscrupulous father-in-law, the power behind the throne.
Bermuda’s Floating Dry Dock 1869
In the late 1860s the construction of a giant floating dock was one of the engineering wonders of the age. Perhaps even more impressive perhaps was the fact that this enormous structure was safely towed for some 4000 nautical miles from Britain to Bermuda, where it was to provide sterling survive for over three decades
Diplomacy at Sea: USS Miantonomoh 1866/67
In the direct aftermath of the American Civil War the US Navy’s twin-turret monitor USS Miantonomoh made a 17,767 mile cruise that brought her not only across the Atlantic to the capital of the Russian Czar, but to Denmark, Prussia, Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy as well. Though her mission was ostensibly diplomatic she awakened the world to American technological progress, and to the nation’s emergence from the devastation of war as a major power…
Opening the Suez Canal 1869 – and Death in the Ice
The Suez Canal, financed and constructed by a French consortium, was due to be opened on November 17th 1869. The high point of the ceremonies was to be the first transit of the canal by French Imperial yacht L’Aigle, carrying the Empress Eugenie. But an act of calculated insolence by a Royal Navy officer was to snatch this honour from France. The link between the pomp and circumstance of these events and later privation and death in the Arctic was to prove an unlikely one…
Sir George Nares – Sailor, Explorer and Oceanographer
The future Admiral George Nares first came to public attention for the trick he played to gain the honour for Britain of sailing the first ship through the Suez Canal. Were we to have judged Nares by this one exploit alone we would have expected him to have been an insolent, devil-may-care rover. The opposite was indeed the case for Nares was to prove himself one of the most systematic, meticulous and scientifically-oriented officers of his generation and his participation in the HMS Challenger expedition from 1872 was to lay the foundation of modern Oceanography.
The Battle of Havana 1870
A single-ship action, fought off the coast of Cuba in 1870, was one that could have had no bearing, however remote, on the outcome of the Franco-Prussian War. It was indeed triggered by almost medieval concepts of pride and honour.
The USA’s First Korean War, 1871
In 1866 an American-owned vessel, the SS General Sherman, attempted to open trade-relations with the “Hermit Kingdom” of Korea. The outcome was a massacre which the United States was not to avenge until 1871 when US naval forces were to fight onshore in Korea for the first time. Largely forgotten elsewhere today, these events were to achieve almost mythic status in Communist North Korea.
Life at sea in merchant service in the 1870s
It is easy, at this remove, to be entranced by the “romance” of the seaborne trade in the 19th Century, when the numbers of ships grew explosively to satisfy the needs of the first era of commercial globalisation. Images immediately come to mind of clippers racing under full sail to carry tea from China, of square-riggers rising to the challenge of Cape Horn, of the tens of thousands of brigs and schooners which carried oceanic as well as coastal trade, of the early steamersand other ships that were to be immortalised in the writing of Joseph Conrad. But, in reality, life on so many of these ships was brutal in the extreme…
The families left behind by merchant seamen of the 1870s
The great maritime reformer Samuel Plimsoll (1824-1898) worked tirelessly to ensure safety at sea. His crusade, inside and outside the British Parliament, was heavily dependent on amassing a vast amount of evidence, much of it gained through interviews with officers and sailors. He also interviewed seamen’s families in harbour-towns – who were only too often reduced to the status of widows and orphans. His meetings with bereaved relatives provide particularly poignant insights to the lives of the poor in the 1870s. This article gives an impression of what he found.
Coast Defence Ships – Big Bangs in Small Packets 1870-1951
For some eighty years from 1870 small, slow, powerfully armed and heavily armoured “Coast Defence” ships represented the backbone of many small navies, and even found limited use in much larger ones.
The Nordenvelt Gun, 1870s onwards
This weapon was a semi-automatic which was in general use in many of the worls’s navies from the 1870s onwards. It plays a very significant role in Antoine Vanner’s novel “Britannia’s Wolf”
How do you make a monster gun disappear?
From the 1870s onwards 11-inch and 12-inchguns, firing 600-pound projectiles, were coming into service and yet larger weapons were to follow in the coming years. These guns had a slow rate of fire and protecting them against enemy fire during their laborious loading sequences was a vital concern. One solution was to expose them to enemy view for the shortest possible time – and so “the disappearing mount” was born. It was to be remarkably long lived.
The Powder Keg: Russia, Turkey and Britain in the mid-1870s
THE BACKGROUND TO BRITANNIA’S WOLF
The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 almost triggered World War 1 some forty years before its time. This conflict forms the background to Britannia’s Wolf, in which Nicholas Dawlish volunteers for unofficial secondment to the Ottoman Turkish Navy.
The Discovery of Franz Josef Land 1873
Emperor Franz Josef (1830 – 1916) of the Austro-Hungarian Empire reigned for an amazing 68 years and is probably best remembered today for his complicity in starting World War 1. Conscientious, unimaginative, hardworking, pig-headed, but essentially stupid, his tenure was to be marked by military defeat, political decline and personal tragedy. His domains lay in Central and Southern Europe and it is therefore all the more surprising that the archipelago named after him – Franz Josef Land – should be located in the Arctic Ocean and be today a Russian possession of considerable strategic value. The story of its discovery is one of heroism and high scientific achievement.
Bashi Bazooks – Massacre and Atrocity in the mid-1870s
In “Britannia’s Wolf” Nicholas Dawlish encounters the massacres of civilians and the widespread atrocities that were such a dreadful feature of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. And the worst of these horrors were committed by Bashi Bazook irregulars …
The Dutch East Indies Ulcer – the Aceh Wars begin 1873-74
The history of the Netherlands in the 19th Century is a closed book for most non-Dutch, not least because of the incorrect perception that “little happened” and as the country was at peace in Europe from 1831 to 1940. The Netherlands were however involved in a series of colonial campaigns in the vast territory of the Dutch East Indies, which constituted most of what is the present-day nation of Indonesia. The greatest – and most sustained – of these conflicts was the series of difficult campaigns from 1873 to 1914 which became known as the Aceh War.
The Wreck of the RMS Atlantic 1873
The wreck of the White Star liner RMS Atlantic on the coast of Nova Scotia in 1873 was one of the most notable disasters of the Victorian era. It’s a story of high drama, unforgivable incompetence and dauntless courage. From 156 women and 189 children on board, out of a total of 952 passengers and crew, only a single child survived, and no woman. Largely forgotten today, this disaster was the Titanic of its time.
The ramming of the Forfait by the Jeanne d’Arc, 1875
For half a century from 1866 ram bows were considered as a normal feature of warships of every size. They were however to prove more dangerous to friends than to enemies and they occasioned several major shipping losses. One such ramming incident, now largely forgotten, occurred when a French Squadron was exercising in the Mediterranean in 1875.
The loss of HMS Vanguard 1875
Vanguard is a name that has been used by no less than eleven ships of the Royal Navy including the last, and arguably the most aesthetically pleasing, of the Royal Navy’s battleships, which was scrapped in 1960. An earlier Vanguard, an ironclad, had however met an even more unpleasant fate when she was rammed in 1875 by a sister warship during a fog off Ireland’s East Coast. And a surprising postscript was that a survivor lived to see the launch of the second-last HMS Vanguard in 1946.
The Ottoman Navy’s Mesrutiyet, The Royal Navy’s Orion and Belleisle 1876
The Ottoman ironclad Mesrutiyet is one of the heroines of Antoine Vanner’s novel “Britannia’s Wolf”. Built in London, on the Isle of Dogs, she was to have two sisters which ended up unexpectedly in service in the Royal Navy: HMS Orion and HMS Belleisle.
Passing by on the other side at sea? 1876
On countless occasions at sea captains and crews have played the role of Good Samaritan, risking their ships and their lives to help others in distress and it has been a matter of pride among seafarers of all nations that they should do so. It is however a chilling thought that there have been occasions when ships have “passed on the other side” and have ignored requests for assistance. When the steamship Vesper was wrecked on the Kish Bank, outside Dublin, in 1876 this may have been the case.
Hit and Run at Sea 1876: the Strathclyde and Franconia disaster
The previous article dealswith an 1876 case of a ship “passing by on the other side” and not rendering assistance to a wrecked vessel. A collision in daylight and clear weather in the Straits of Dover soon after could be characterised as “Hit and Run”, with one ship causing a collision that sank another and ignoring the plight of her survivors without any significant effort to render assistance. The case was to have serious consequences as regards Maritime Law.
HMS Shah vs Huascar 1877 – an indecisive but significant single-ship action
An obscure single ship action off the coast of South America, though inconclusive, was of enormous significance for future naval warfare. It involved a British cruiser, HMS Shah, and the Huascar, a rebel Peruvian ironclad which still exists today, though inn anotehr navy…
Hobart Pasha: A Forgotten Victorian Hero 1877
“Of the fearless, dashing, adventurous Englishman, ready to go anywhere and do anything, Hobart was a brilliantly representative type.” Thus, on his death in 1886, the Daily Telegraph’s obituary, was described Hobart Pasha, head of the Ottoman Navy, to whom Nicholas Dawlish found himself reporting in late 1877, as recounted in “Britannia’s Wolf”. Hobart’s service in Turkey was however only one episode in a very varied life that included service as a blockade runner (and corset trader!) in the American Civil War.
HMS Iris – the Royal Navy’s first steel ship 1877
Launched in 1877, HMS Iris was not just the fastest ship in the Royal Navy when completed, but the first to be built of steel.
The ramming of SMS Grosser Kurfürst 1878
For more than four decades from the mid-1860s almost all warships were built with bows designed for use of ramming as an offensive tactic. In practice the ram proved to be more of a hazard to friends than to enemies, and there were numerous cases of serious damage being inflicted, sometimes fatally, in collisions. One such incident occurred in sight of the English shore in 1878, resulting in sinking of the newly completed German ironclad Grosser Kurfürst with the loss of some 270 lives.
The Princess Alice disaster 1878
Only three months after the sinking of Grosser Kurfürst a second disaster was to occur in British waters, this time on London’s doorstep. Despite its massive death-toll this tragedy is largely forgotten in popular memory…
The Vega Expedition and the North-East Passage 1878-79
Though Russian explorers had first passed along the northern Siberian Coast and into the Bering Strait in 1648, the completion of the so-called North-East Passage from Northern Europe to the Pacific by the Swedish scientist Nordenskjold in 1878-79 was one of the great epics of Polar exploration. It was especially notable for the meticulous nature of the planning that resulted in a faultlessly executed expedition. Though Nordenskjold’s name is relatively unknown today and this article will, I hope, bring his name to the attention of a wider audience.
Training Tragedies – the losses of HMS Eurydice and HMS Atalanta, 1878 & 1880
Sailing frigates – almost identical to those of the Napoleonic era – were still in use for training in the Royal Navy in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Two such vessels, HMS Eurydice and HMS Atalanta, were to be lost in some of Britain’s worst peacetime naval tragedies. The young Winston Churchill was a witness to one of these disasters – an experience he never forgot – and the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins was to write powerfully of the same event.
1879: An explosion on HMS Thunderer ended a 300-year era of naval warfare
The muzzle loading cannon dominated naval warfare from the age of Drake until the 19th Century. Ever larger cannon were developed in the 1870s, their loading facilitated by use of hydraulics. But in 1879 an explosion of the revolutionary new battleship HMS Thunderer brought this era to a dramatic end…
The Five Padstow Heroines of 1879
Many of the entries on this website deal with naval history, and inevitably involve much “Blood and Iron”. This post deals however with a peacetime act of heroism and one that typifies the courage and resolution of so many formidable Victorian women.
Routine on a Royal Navy warship, late-19th Century
Information on the daily routines in the Royal Navy in the late 19th Century is not easy to come by but a book published by a naval chaplain in 1901 provides insights to the relentless training regimes followed. It also gives a glimpse, shocking to modern sensibilities, of the callous attitudes to outsiders which could be considered acceptable at the time even by a clergyman.
The Imperial German Navy appears on the world’s oceans in the 1880s
The German Empire was proclaimed early in 1871, shortly before its crushing victory over France. It united into a single entity a patchwork of individual German kingdoms and states, many of which had been recently at war with each other as recently as five years before. Germany became at once the single strongest land power in Europe but it had minimal naval resources. When, in the early 1880s, interest grew in acquisition of colonies in Africa and in the Pacific, it was necessary to create a “Blue Water Navy” in addition to the coast-defence forces that had been built up over the previous decade. The vessels required were characterised by long range and long endurance as well as being powerfully armed. Few in number, they were however ideally suited to training of officers and crews in navigation, ship-handling, gunnery and machine management. Within a very short period this newly created navy had achieved high levels of professionalism and efficiency, while establishing a vital naval ethos and tradition.
A Flawed Concept – Imperial China’s Rendel Cruisers 1881
For a short period in the 1880s the Imperial Chinese Navy possessed two ships, the Yang Wei and the Chao Yung, which carried what was probably the heaviest armament for any ships of their sizes afloat.
Adam Worth: the real-life “Napoleon of Crime”
The inspiration for the creation of Sherlock Holmes’ adversary, the master-criminal James Moriarity, was a real-life person, an American, Adam Worth. He was as remarkable for the global span of his activities as for the ease with which he found acceptance at the highest levels of British society, despite very humble beginnings. (He also features in a key role in “Britannia’s Shark” of the Dawlish Chronicles)
The loss of HMS Doterel : Disaster off Punta Arenas 1881
The explosion that destroyed the Royal Navy sloop HMS Doterel at a remote Chilean anchorage led to a salvage effort which relied heavily on what was, at the time, cutting-edge diving technology.
HMS Polyphemus 1881 – The original of H.G. Wells’ Thunder Child
The attack by a Royal Navy “torpedo ram” called the HMS Thunder Child on Martian fighting-machine tripods is perhaps the most dramatic and memorable incident in H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” First appearing in 1897, it showed late-Victorian Britain as powerless to resist the devastation wreaked by huge Martian “walking machine” tripods armed with heat-days and “black smoke poison gas”. Only the Thunder Child’s sacrifice, so movingly described, provides a brief set-back to the Martian advance. The Thunder Child was in fact based on a real-life ship, an experimental one that was never to be repeated, but which was however to have one day of fleeting glory.
The loss of the Dutch Monitor Adder 1882
Slow, heavily armoured, shallow-draught monitors looked like the ideal solution for defending the approaches to the Netherlands’ largest cities in the 1870s and 1880s. But these vessels turned out to be death-traps when they ventured into the open sea, as in the case of the monitor Adder…
Dynamite Guns: Brilliant Technical Dead-Ends!
A major role is played in the latest Dawlish Chronicles novel , Britannia’s Shark, set in 1881, by an experimental “pneumatic projector” – essentially a gun from which the projectile was launched by compressed air. Such weapons were considered very promising in the 1880s and 1890s and found application both for coastal defence and at sea. Forgotten today, they were once regarded as of great potential for changing warfare at sea.
The wreck of HMS Wasp in 1884
Though it is likely that many in her crew disliked the task assigned them it is fair to say that the mission on which HMS Wasp was engaged at the time of her loss was one of the most inglorious ever undertaken by the Royal Navy…
HMS Hero – the Player’s “Navy Cut” battleship 1885
HMS Hero and her sister, HMS Conqueror, both commissioned in the late 1880s, were described as “two of the most useless turret ships ever built for the Navy”. Despite this damning evaluation, which was supported by many officers during her lifetime, HMS Hero was to achieve a bizarre degree of fame for over another century in the logo of a cigarette brand.
Chile’s fleeting moment of naval superiority over the United States, 1885
The “Panama Crisis” of 1885 is forgotten today and indeed blew over quickly at the time. A potential confrontation with Chile highlighted the weakness of the United States’ “Old Navy” as compared with the Chilean “Elswick Cruiser” Esmeralda – the fastest cruiser in the world at the time. This embarrassing incident emphasised the necessity for the United States to build modern ships and create a “New Navy.
SMS Iltis: A gunboat, a pope and a stand-off in the Pacific, 1885
The small German gunboat SMS Iltis (1880) was typical of the sort of small vessels that many European navies used in colonial operations in the late 19th Century. She was to have a very active career which included such a surprising event as a confrontation between Germany and Spain that was only solved by Papal intervention….
The Captains’ War: Bulgaria and Serbia 1885
There is something intensely sad when reading about forgotten conflicts, often fought over issues that were trivial even at the time, and which were memorable only to the families whose happiness was wrecked by loss of loved ones. War may be “Last Argument of Kings” – as was inscribed on his cannons by Louis XIV – but the true price is paid by much humbler people. One such forgotten conflict was that between the Balkan nations of Serbia and Bulgaria in 1885…
Miss Betty Mouat and the Colombine 1886
Articles on this site often deal with blood and thunder, conflict and battle, but this present item deals with a middle-aged lady of poor background, who demonstrated a very high degree of heroism in peacetime without having any prior warning of what was needed. It is a surprising – and inspiring story that deserves to be better known
Blood in the Streets, Amsterdam 1886
From 1833 to 1940 the Kingdom of the Netherlands experienced one of the longest periods in which any nation did not go to war in Europe. There was however one incident in this period in which serious bloodshed occurred in the streets of Amsterdam, leaving many dead, as the army was called in to subdue rioting. The trigger for these tragic events was a ludicrous one, involving mistreatment of an eel.
The loss by fire of the SS City of Montreal 1887
The history of maritime passenger-transportation in the mid-nineteenth century is, in great part, a depressing catalogue of disasters. Many involved large loss of life and, if not wholly preventable, could have involved far lower death-tolls had elementary precautions been observed. It’s therefore all the more heartening to read of the loss in the open sea of a major ship in which the vast majority of passengers and crew survived.
Pride, Folly and Superb Seamanship – HMS Calliope at Apia 1889
The unlikely location of Samoa saw a confrontation between American and German naval forces in 1889, with a Royal Navy warship as neutral observer. This stand-off had the potential to launch a shooting war which would have had immense impact on subsequent world history. But then a hitherto unexpected player, Mother Nature herself, dealt the deciding hand…
A Sultan, a Queen and a Salvage 1889
It’s hard to imagine a sequence of events that links an Ottoman Sultan, Queen Victoria, the Royal Navy of 1889, an innovative epic of marine salvage and an 1870s warship which served in various capacities until the end of the Second World War. The link is however the ironclad HMS Sultan, built between 1870 and 1876.
Shore Leave from HMS Trafalgar, 1890s
A book of recollections of by a naval chaplain offered fascinating insights to the attitude of officers towards their crews’ welfare in the 1890s. The malign influence of the “grog-shops” of the then-Ottoman port of Salonika was to be combatted in an innovative manner!
The first successful use of a torpedo to sink a warship: 1891
Though the self-propelled torpedo emerged as a serious weapon in the 1870s, at the same time as availability of light and powerful steam engines allowed development of fast torpedo boats for launching them, it was not until 1891 that a torpedo was used for the first time to sink a warship. And this occurred in a very unlikely location and the torpedo was launched by a class of vessel that has had a very bad press ever since…
SS Utopia and HMS Anson 1891
A dark and stormy March night in 1891 saw the harbour at Gibraltar transformed into a scene of horror when a passenger steamer loaded with Italian emigrants wounded herself mortally on the pointed ram of a Royal Navy battleship. This forgotten tragedy claimed 562 lives in sight of shore.
The Royal Navy Exhibition of 1891
The huge Royal Navy Exhibition of 1891 nurtured British pride and introduced a vast public to the new naval technologies of the time, as well as providing spectacular entertainment. This article, and the contemporary illustrations that accompany it, give an insight to the vast public enthusiasm for all things naval in the late 19th Century.
The French Navy’s goodwill visit to Britain in 1891
A visit by a French naval squadron to Britain in 1891 went some way to easing the relationship between the two countries, which had frequently regarded each other with suspicion in the decades since the fall of Napoleon in 1815. Queen Victoria reviewed the visiting French ships, and a comparison with a similar review a third of a century earlier emphasised very clearly that the age of sail had died and that the age of steam and armour had replaced it.
Another peacetime ramming disaster: Hoche and Maréchal Canrobert 1892
Ram bows were seen as essential features for warships of almost all sizes in the half-century prior to WW1. Such bows – extended forward underwater to end in a sharp point that could gouge deep into an enemy hull – were to prove a major hazard in peacetime. One of several disasters involved the French battleship Hoche in 1892 colliding with a passenger steamer.
The Value of Money – Pay in the Royal Navy in the 1890s
What were the rates of pay in the Royal Navy in the 1890s? How much did an Admiral or a Lieutenant or a Petty Officer receive? And what about the most junior ranks of all, the Ordinary Seamen, the Boys and the Stokers? Some very surprising facts emerge…
The Wreck of the Russian monitor Rusalka 1893
A separate article recounts the story of the loss of the Dutch monitor Adder in 1882. The lesson of this tragedy was not however learned in the Imperial Russian Navy. Eleven years later it was to lose a generally similar vessel, of the same vintage, in generally similar circumstances. As in the case of the Adder, the tragedy was wholly preventable.
Gunboat Diplomacy: The Franco-Siamese War of 1893
A short and daring stroke by lightly-armed French warships proved to be one of the most effective instances ever of “gunboat diplomacy.” It resulted in Laos of being wrested from control by Siam – now Thailand – and brought under French rule. This blog article tells the story and puts it into the context of French colonial expansion in the last decades of the 19th Century.
The disappearance of the Spanish cruiser Reina Regente, 1895
Disappearance without trace of ships at sea still occurs in our own time but was a more common happening before the days of radio allowed transmission of distress calls. Many such losses in the past were associated with poor maintenance and poor operational procedures of merchant ships. Disappearances of naval ships were much less common, reflecting high standards of construction, maintenance, seamanship and discipline. One such loss – the modern cruiser Regina Regente – was however to be sustained by the Spanish Navy in 1895.
The Shortest War in History: Zanzibar 1896
The island of Zanzibar, off the coast of modern Tanzania, was to be the scene in 1896 of what has been described as “The Shortest War in History”. It lasted a mere 38 minutes but in this short period it proved to be very bloody indeed. Victorian Britain demonstrated just how ruthless it could be in defence of its interests and how it was prepared to use the Royal Navy like a sledgehammer.
The Imperial German Navy vs. Haiti, 1897 and 1902
On two occasions when Imperial Germany felt that its prestige had been injured by the poverty-stricken Republic of Haiti it had no hesitation in unleashing naval power to demand satisfaction. These confrontations were to be unequal in the extreme, but one was to trigger an act of insane heroism.
The loss of the liner La Bourgogne, 1898
One of the most terrible disasters of North Atlantic passenger travel was the loss of the French liner La Bourgogne in 1898, the final death-toll being in no small measure due to panic by the crew. Transatlantic travel had indeed become fast – La Bourgogne could cross from Le Havre to New York in seven days – but on the threshold of the twentieth century ocean passenger traffic was still fraught with danger. Perhaps nothing exemplifies this fact more starkly than the loss of La Bourgogne.
The varied career of the Dutch protected cruiser Gelderland 1898-1944
In 1900 a young queen sent a cruiser to rescue the fugitive South African president . The vessel involved, the Gelderland, was to have a very varied career thereafter, culminating in a battle off Finland against the Soviets in 1944. It’s quite an amazing story ….
Naval Brigades of the Victorian Royal Navy
Throughout the nineteenth century the Royal Navy had a strong tradition of landing “Naval Brigades” in trouble spots – invariably succeeding brilliantly. Trouble often flared up in remote locations, to which sending Army units would be slow and difficult. The Navy was in a position to land ad-hoc forces made up of marines and bluejackets….
Steerage-passenger conditions on the North Atlantic
“Steerage” was the term applied to the lowest class of ocean travel in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries. Passengers were to endure gross overcrowding and conditions of the most appalling squalor. Yet often luxury was only a few decks higher…
Wooden Derelicts – a Menace of the Age of Wooden Ships
A major menace of the Age of Mercantile Sail – which lasted up to WW2 – was represented by derelicts, ships abandoned by their crews but stubbornly staying afloat. The most serious class of derelict consisted of wooden-hulled ships carrying cargoes of wood, large numbers of such ships were employed on the North Atlantic. Some, when abandoned stayed afloat for years and drifted over vast distances.