On this day in history….29th December 1860

On this day in history : 29th December 1860 – HMS Warrior, Britain’s first iron clad warship, is launched – during the coldest winter London had seen for 50 years…. It was so cold Warrior froze to the slipway during her launch and it took 6 tugs to help haul her into the River Thames….img_5052

Warrior was built to rival the French iron clad ship ‘La Gloire’….the first ship of its kind in the world…. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir John Somerset Pakington, was determined to have a ship bigger, faster and with more gun power than that of a French ship….

Warrior was designed by Chief Constructor of the Royal Navy, Isaac Watts and Chief Engineer Thomas Lloyd…. The 40-gun, steam powered armoured frigate was built between 1859-61….and the contract for the great iron hull was won by the Thames Iron Works and Shipbuilding Company, in Blackwall, London….

On the day of the launch large crowds gathered to watch – braving the bitter cold….the dockyard and even the Thames covered in frozen snow…. Braziers had been lit down each side of the ship the day before and kept burning through the night – but despite this Warrior remained frozen to the slipway…. Sir John Pakington named the ship….but she was stuck fast…. On the upper deck hundreds of men ran from side to side to try and rock her free…. In the end tugs and hydraulic rams had to be employed and some twenty minutes later the ship began to move…. “God speed the Warrior” shouted Sir John….as he broke a bottle of wine upon her bow…. Cheers erupted from the watching crowd as she took to the water….

HMS Warrior under sail – by William Frederick Mitchell – Public domain

The morning after the launch Warrior was moved to the Victoria Docks, ready for fitting out…. She eventually left the Thames bound for Portsmouth on the 19th of September 1861…. When commissioned Warrior was the largest warship in the world – 60% bigger than La Gloire and weighing 9,210 tons…. Along with her sister ship, ‘Black Prince’, the pair were to become the most feared ships to sail the seas….

Warrior began active service in June 1862, patrolling coastal waters and sailing to Gibraltar and Lisbon…. She was the pride of the British Navy – and was crewed by 50 officers and 656 sailors…. The majority of the crew lived on the gun deck – with up to 18 men, sleeping in hammocks, between each gun…. Life would have been very similar to that on board the traditional wooden ships….the work hard, with a lot of heavy labour involved…. The anchor alone was one of the heaviest manually hauled anchors in history….

Gun deck after restoration – Photo credit : Paul Hermans CC BY-SA 3.0

The officers were allocated small, individual cabins at the rear of the ship…. Whereas, the Captain had two spacious and well-furnished cabins….

Reproduction of the Captain’s day cabin – Photo credit : Geni CC BY-SA 4.0

By 1871 Warrior had been superseded by faster ships with bigger guns….and she was downgraded to coastguard patrol and reserve purposes…. In May 1883 it was discovered that her masts were rotting – and it was decided it would not be economic to repair her…. In 1904 she was renamed Vernon III and was converted into a floating naval torpedo training school….

In 1924 Warrior was put up for sale as scrap – but no buyers came forward…. So in March 1929 she was taken to Pembroke Dock and turned into a floating oil pontoon and give the rather un-majestic name ‘Oil Fuel Hulk C77’….

Warrior as ‘Oil Fuel Hulk C77’ in Llanion Cove, 1977 – Photo credit : Verbcatcher CC BY-SA 4.0

Between 1861 and 1877 forty five iron hulled warships were built for the Royal Navy….by 1978 Warrior was the only one left…. It took a £9 million restoration project to restore her to her 1862 condition…. The work was completed in Hartlepool – and she has been back in Portsmouth at the Historic Dockyard as a museum ship since 1987….and well worth a visit if you are able….img_5051

Warrior’s figurehead – Photo credit : Colin Smith CC BY-SA 2.0

On this day in history….7th September 1838

On this day in history : 7th September 1838 – Grace Darling, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter, assists her father in a daring rescue mission off the coast of Northumberland – which makes her a heroine….

Grace Darling – Portrait by Thomas Musgrave Joy – Public domain

During the evening of the 7th of September a terrible storm raged and 22-year-old Grace was watching it from an upper window of the Longstone Lighthouse…. Suddenly she spotted the wreck of the Forfarshire, a paddle steamer travelling from Hull to Dundee, which had struck rocks and had completely split into two….

Grace was one of nine children but on this particular fateful night all of her siblings were away and only she and her parents were home…. Deciding it would be too dangerous for the lifeboat from the nearby village of Seahouses to attempt the rescue Grace and her father headed out in their own small boat to help the survivors…. With the weather so rough they were forced to keep to the more sheltered side of the islands, meaning they had a further distance of nearly a mile to row….

Grace Darling rowing out to sea in a furious storm. Colour wood engraving by E.Evans after C.J.Staniland. Credit : The Wellcome Collection CC BY

The Forfarshire had been carrying around 40 passengers and with the crew there was a total of 63 on board…. As the ship split in two the stern half sank, drowning all but 12 and a further few who managed to make it into a lifeboat…. The front end of the vessel remained stuck on the rocks; 5 crew members and 7 passengers clung to the wreckage….but managed to climb on to the slippery rocks as the tide went down…. Three of the passengers, the Reverend John Robbery and two children, died of exposure….their mother, Sarah Dawson, was clinging to her dead children when Grace and her father arrived….

Grace Darling at the Forfarshire – by Thomas Musgrave Joy – Public domain

Grace held the small boat steady as her father helped Sarah Dawson and four men on board – they then rowed back to the lighthouse…. Grace’s father and three other men then returned to the wreck to rescue the four remaining survivors…. Those who had managed to make it to the lifeboat were picked up by a passing ship the following morning….

Grace was honoured with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s Silver Medal for Gallantry and the Gold Medal of the Royal Humane Society….and she also received a £50 reward from Queen Victoria….

On this day in history….28th April 1772

On this day in history : 28th April 1772 – The death in Mile End, London of what is believed to be the World’s most ever travelled goat ~ having circumnavigated the globe twice….

When practical it was normal practice to carry livestock onboard a ship for use during the voyage – and remained so until the time refrigeration became available…. Small animals, such as pigs, goats, lambs and chickens provided fresh meat, milk and eggs…. Goats were a popular choice, being hardy and easy to breed….

The goat we are concerned with here must have been truly exceptional…. We don’t have a name for her – but sometimes she is referred to as ‘Sir Joseph Banks’ goat’…. We’ll come to that shortly….

NPG 5868; Sir Joseph Banks, Bt by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Sir Joseph Banks by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1771-1773 – Public domain

Our goat’s first trip around the World was onboard HMS Dolphin, the first ship to circumnavigate the globe twice…. George Robertson was master on the second voyage, which sailed under Captain Wallis…. Robertson wrote a book recounting the journey and it was entitled ‘The discovery of Tahiti; a journal of the second voyage of H.M.S. Dolphin round the world under the command of Captain Wallis, R.N. In the years 1766, 1767 and 1768 written by her master’ – and in it he makes reference to the goat….

HMS Dolphin – Public domain

But what really earned our little goat her stripes was her second circumnavigation – this time with Captain James Cook on his first voyage onboard HMS Endeavour from 1768-1771….

Endeavour departed Plymouth on the 26th of August 1768…. It carried onboard 96 people, including a team of elite scientists consisting of naturalists, an astronomer – and eminent botanist Sir Joseph Banks…. Also onboard were a number of pigs, goats, poultry, 2 greyhounds and a milking goat….yes, our goat….

HMS Endeavour by Samuel Atkins (c.1760-1810) – Public domain

Cook was fastidious about keeping a clean, hygienic, disease-free ship and knew the importance of a good diet to maintain a healthy crew…. Our precious goat more than stepped up to the mark in performing her duty of providing fresh milk each day…. One sailor onboard recorded….“I must not omit how highly we have been indebted to a milch goat; she was three years in the West Indies, and was once round the world before in the Dolphin, and never went dry the whole time; we mean to reward her services in a good English pasture for life”….

And that is exactly what happened…. Sir Joseph Banks had a silver collar made for her to wear…. His friend, Dr. Samuel Johnson – English writer, poet and playwright, most noted for his Dictionary of English Language in 1755 – comprised a Latin epigram for her which was engraved upon the collar….

‘Perpetui ambita his terra praemia lactis,

Hac habet, altrici capra secunda Jovis’….

Later Boswell wrote Dr. Johnson’s biography and expanded on its meaning….

‘If fame scarce second to the nurse of Jove,

This Goat, who twice the world had traversed round,

Deserving both her master’s care and love,

Ease and perpetual pasture has found’….

Our little goat was bestowed ‘the privileges of an in-pensioner of Greenwich Hospital’ and cared for and put out to pasture…. Sadly her retirement was to be short-lived, as she died not long after…. I can’t help thinking that maybe she missed her sea legs….

Goats on Dalkey Island – John Fahy CC BY-SA 3.0

On this day in history….14th March 1757

On this day in history : 14th March 1757 – The execution by firing squad of Admiral John Byng on HMS Monarch at Portsmouth – for ‘failing to do his utmost’….

john Byng – oil on canvas, Thomas Hudson 1749

“In this country it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others”…. as written by the philosopher Voltaire in his controversial novella of the time ‘Candide’…. He was referring to a revision of a British law to make ‘failing to do his utmost against the enemy, either in battle of pursuit’ an offence punishable by death – among the officers of the British Navy….

John Byng was born in 1704 in Bedfordshire and joined the Navy at the age of 13…. By the time he was 23 he was a captain and a rear-admiral at 40…. By 1756, at the start of the Seven Years’ War, he was a well-respected Admiral….

Byng was given orders to prevent the French from capturing the garrison at Fort St. Philip on the island of Menorca – a British stronghold…. He set sail with a fleet of 10 ships to Gibraltar to collect a detachment of 700 soldiers…. From the onset Byng made it clear his resources were inadequate; he had 10 leaking ships and not enough men to sail them….

Admiral Byng’s fleet getting underway from Spithead – John Cleveley the Elder – oil on canvas 1755

Having collected the Gibraltar garrison the fleet continued on its way….and on the 20th of May a battle with the French left some damage to the British ships whilst the French retreated unscathed…. Having learned the French already had a strong foothold on Menorca Byng decided to return to Gibraltar…. He sent a letter to the Admiralty explaining his reasons; the fort was already as good as lost – it would be a pointless exercise and an unnecessary risk to life….

When the letter arrived in London the government and King George II were furious…. The King’s words being…. “This man will not fight”….

In late June Fort St. Philip surrendered to the French and Byng was summoned home…. On his arrival he was arrested on breach of the 12th Article of War…. The court martial was held at the end of December with Byng being charged with ‘failing to do his utmost’…. Crowds chanted ‘swing, swing Admiral Byng’….

The siege of Fort St. Philip – Jean-Baptiste Martin le jeune (1700-1778) Public domain

Although he defended himself the Admiral was found guilty – but was cleared of cowardice and disaffection…. It was with extreme reluctance that the death sentence was passed….Prime Minister William Pitt the elder appealed to King George for clemency for Byng – but this was refused – the King’s response being “You have taught me to look for the sense of my people elsewhere than in the House of Commons”….

At 7am on the day of the execution, during a howling gale, a coffin was brought onboard the Monarch, Admiral Byng’s flagship…. The inscription upon it read…. ‘The Hon. John Byng Esqr. Died March 14th 1757’….

Next the Admiral was brought on board…. The ship was soon full with officers from all of the other warships at anchor in the harbour at the time…. Other vessels crammed with spectators filled the waters….

At noon Admiral Byng, wearing a light grey coat, white breeches and a large white wig, was taken to the quarter-deck…. Waiting for him on a pile of sodden sawdust was a cushion, on which he knelt…. He tied the blindfold which he had reluctantly agreed to wear on account of the firing squad – six marines in their scarlet tunics – not to see his face…. The Admiral raised a neatly folded handkerchief in his right hand and after a pause of a few moments it dropped…. The six marines fired and he fell to the side – Admiral Byng was dead….

The King and his government had underestimated the French….rather than lose face they found a scapegoat….

The Shooting of Admiral Byng – artist unknown – Engraving 1757

On this day in history….12th January 1950

On this day in history : 12th January 1950 – A British submarine and Swedish oil tanker collide in the Thames Estuary – resulting in the sinking of the submarine – and 64 deaths….

HMS Truculent was returning to Sheerness having undergone trials at Chatham following a refit…. As well as her usual crew the submarine was carrying an additional 18 workers from the dock yard….

HMS Truculent 1942 – Image from the collections of the Imperial War Museums

It was 7pm and Truculent was making her way along the surface of the Estuary – when a ship showing 3 lights appeared ahead in the Channel…. Crew on board the submarine believed the vessel to be stationary – and aware they could not pass on the starboard side, for fear of running aground – the order was given to turn to port…. Too late it became obvious the ship was not anchored and was in fact moving – and the extra light was to indicate she was carrying explosive material….

The two vessels collided; the bow of the 643 ton Swedish oil tanker – the ‘Divina’ – striking HMS Truculent – and the two remained locked together for several seconds before the submarine sank to the bottom of the Estuary…. The crew of the Divina – which was on route to Ipswich from Purfleet with a cargo of Paraffin – immediately went into action…. Ropes and life belts were thrown to the men thrashing in the water…. Divina’s lifeboat was launched and 15 men were picked up – a further 5 were rescued by the Dutch ship ‘Almdijk’….


Ironically very few died as a direct result of the immediate impact….the majority managed to escape. Out of the 64 men who died most lost their lives through drowning or by perishing in the freezing conditions on the mudflats of the Estuary….

The 1,000 ton submarine was salvaged on the 14th of March 1950 – and 10 more bodies were recovered. In May 1950 she was sold as scrap….

An inquiry into the incident put 75% of the blame on to HMS Truculent…. Later the disaster was to lead to the introduction of the ‘Truculent light’ on the bow of British submarines – to make them visible to other ships….

HMS Truculent Memorial Service 2014 – Image credit : Matthew via Flickr