HMS Warrior is a Victorian vessel whose home is now Portsmouth Historical Dockyard. She was built to counter French advancements in naval ship building and in her day, HMS Warrior was the largest, fastest and most innovative warship throughout the world. She was exemplar of British nineteenth century engineering and stands testament to a century of industry and advancement in science and technology. She embodies naval history and technology, spanning the eras of wood, iron, sail and steam, all of which are reflected in her. Her reputation was such that thousands (some say up to 6000 a day) would visit her when she in port and she was described as ‘The Black Snake amongst the rabbits in the Channel’.
The ship was used for twenty two years of service before she was then relegated to a variety of undignified roles, including depot ship and even as a floating workshop to an oil jetty at Milford Haven in Wales. In 1978 the depot was announced as closing, which meant the Warrior’s life expectancy was suddenly shortened.
In 1979 however, her fortunes changed and she was towed some 800 miles to Hartlepool where she underwent a series of costly restorations. This change of fortunes was in great part thanks to Sir John Smith, who had formed the Manifold Trust to restore items of our national heritage. It seems his persistence came to the attention of the Duke of Edinburgh, himself a naval man, who supported the project.
If every warship in the 19th century still existed and was available for preservation Warrior would still be my first choice – Sir John Smith, the then MP for the Cities of London and Westminster.
After having more than £8 million spent on her to restore her to near mint condition, she was unveiled. This restoration was one of the most significant and costly of its time (the Mary Rose for example was not raised from the seabed for another three years) and signalled a new era in naval maritime interests. The Manifold Trust underwrote the cost, and in 1983 ownership was transferred to the Ship’s Preservation Trust, which became the Warrior Preservation Trust in 1985.
HMS Warrior was first commissioned into the Royal Navy on the 1st August, 1861 although she was still being fitted out on the River Thames. The Honourable Arthur Cochrane was her first captain and she had capacity for up to 700 crew members. Initially, because of her unprecedented design and innovation, the ship was trialled. Inevitably this created a process of refinement but finally in June 1862, she was declared ready for active service and began to patrol coastal waters and voyaging to Lisbon and Gibraltar. Wherever she went, she signified the mite of the Royal Navy.
In November 1864, after two years on commission, HMS Warrior was brought back to harbour where she would spend two years. From 1867, she then spent four years with the Channel Squadron. Her design and success triggered a series of fast pace implementations throughout the Navy, not just in British fleets but in foreign ones as well.
Ships became more armoured and were given ever powerful guns. Engines improved, and although she was not the first ship to use steam and sail, she was more efficient due to her coaling stations (this was later replaced by oil). In 1871 her masts, rigging, her decks had all been refitted, and a poop deck had been added at the stern (intended to make her the flagship of Admiral commanding the Mediterranean squadron). However within just ten years, new designs meant that HMS Warrior was already appearing aged and by 1875 Warrior’s active service role had been relegated to that of Coastguard and Reserve ship, where she was stationed at Greenock.
Her sea-going service ended in May 1883 when it was discovered that her main and foremasts were rotten, and would need replacing. The Warrior was now becoming too costly to maintain, and the armour-plated Shannon usurped her.
The Warrior’s indignities began: her masts and guns were stripped when she was used as a depot ship for two years and she was renamed Vernon III – one year later, another armoured cruiser called Warrior was launched. In 1924, the original Warrior was put up for sale but no-one wanted one. She was renamed once again to the rather mundane Oil Fuel Hulk C77, and it was then that she found herself at the jetty in Wales. She was the only example of the 45 iron hulls built between 1861 and 1877 to survive. It is this fact which saved her from destruction and thanks to the likes of Smith, she now stands proud in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
Images via HMS Warrior, Wikipedia, World Naval Ships, Team Locals