When HMS Warrior was launched in 1860 she the world's fastest and largest ocean-going warship. Built due to concerns over French re-armament, the threat quickly passed and she never saw action but the technological advances incorporated into the ship set in motion a transformation of the Fleet that revolutionised naval warfare.
The late seventeenth century saw Britain suffer a series of humiliating naval defeats at the hands of the French and Dutch. This prompted the Government of William III to form the Bank of England as a means of funding the building of the substantial Navy. Over the course of the subsequent century, huge swathes of the economy adapted to serve the purposes of the maritime industry. By the time of the Napoleonic wars, Britain had become the foremost maritime power with a worldwide empire. With the defeat of the Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), Britain became the unchallenged dominant sea power and maintained that position by ensuring the Royal Navy was larger than the combined might of the next two biggest navies. However by the mid-nineteenth century advances in weaponry, including incendiary and explosive ordnance, were serious threats to wooden ships. Although the British had experienced this first hand during the Crimean War (1853-56), they were slow to realise the significance - particularly as the country had invested so heavily in wooden hulls.
In 1852 Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte declared himself Emperor Napoleon III. Conscious of the unassailable position of the British in the numbers and quality of wooden sailing ships, he commissioned the world's first ocean-going Ironclad warship - the 'La Gloire' (the Glory). Although a wooden framed ship, the vessel's hull was protected by 12cm thick iron armour plating providing complete protection against the weapons used by the Royal Navy at this time. Furthermore, whilst the ship's normal means of propulsion was sail, it was also equipped with a steam engine and screw enabling her to reach speeds of up to 13 knots. Whilst such propulsion was not new - the Royal Navy had launched the first screw propelled warship, HMS Rattler, in 1843 and France the Napoléon in 1850 - this was the first time it had been incorporated into an armoured, ocean going ship. No longer safe behind the 'wooden walls' of the Royal Navy, the Government initiated the largest peacetime military building project in British history consisting of chains of forts around key naval dockyards. Concurrently the Admiralty commissioned its first two armoured, ocean going warships - HMS Warrior and HMS Black Prince.
Design and Build
HMS Warrior was ordered from the Thames Iron Works and Shipbuilding Company based at Blackwall, London. Rather than follow the French concept, which was basically to protect an existing design of wooden warship with metal, the Admiralty opted for an iron hull on the new ships. This was drawn from experience with the Mersey-class frigates - vessels which had incorporated engines and an extended length but had been wooden hulled and accordingly had suffered from the extreme stresses opening the seams of the vessel. The shape of the hull was sound though and re-cast in iron it offered both internal capacity and speed. Use of this existing design also reduced the risk of delays with the project - the Admiralty needed a functional warship as soon as possible and this was also reflected in other aspects of the design. The engine, screw and main weaponry was all drawn from tried and tested designs but HMS Warrior was the first warship on which it had all been successfully blended. Ultimately the balance between old and new was successful as HMS Warrior was built within 10 months - by contrast today's state-of-the-art Royal Navy warships are rarely completed in less than two years!
Weapons and Armour
The main weapon system of HMS Warrior was the 68-pounder gun of which 26 were fitted on the main gun deck. This tried and tested weapon had been designed in 1846 by Colonel Dundas and was a standard muzzle loading weapon which could fire a round every 55 seconds. The Admiralty however was well aware the defences of the La Gloire had been designed to resist this weapon and accordingly HMS Warrior was also fitted with 110-pounders breach loading guns. These rifled weapons, which could fire a round every 50 seconds, were a brand new design devised in 1859 by William Armstrong. They proved of dubious reliability during the first few years at sea.
The ship's armour also significantly differed from the French ship. Whereas that vessel had relied exclusively on hardening the exterior of the hull with metal, HMS Warrior instead had an internal citadel - an armoured box that was within the ship and enclosed most of the main gun deck as well as the engine room and boilers. This was protected by 11cm of wrought iron plating and a further 45cm of teak (a preferred type of wood as it didn't splinter). Additional armour plating was installed on the exterior of the hull. The vessel's resilience against damage was enhanced by the installation of watertight compartments - the first use on warship but now common-place.
The main weapons on-board HMS Warrior were smooth-bore, muzzle loading 68-pounder guns (left). However, conscious that the armour on the La Gloire was designed to withstand such attacks, the vessel was also fitted with rifled, breach loading 110-pounders (right).
HMS Warrior was commissioned on 1 August 1861 and placed under the Command of Captain Arthur Cochrane who was the son of Admiral Thomas Cochrane, Earl of Dundonald. Visits around the UK followed, doubtless allowing taxpayers to see what they had brought, and the ship joined the Channel Squadron mostly operating in and around British waters although she did also complete deployments to Bermuda and later the Mediterranean. Throughout her career she never saw action although did suffer damage from a collision with HMS Royal Oak.
Advances in engine technology and improvements in armour saw HMS Warrior quickly surpassed by newer warships. The Royal Navy's first mastless warship - HMS Devastation - was launched in 1871 and this rapidly became the norm. HMS Warrior, increasingly looking like a ship from a by-gone age, was relegated to a training role in 1875 and used by HMS King Alfred, the Portsmouth based branch of the Royal Navy Reserve. Plans to use her as the flagship of the Mediterranean squadron came to nothing and in 1881 the ship was sent to Greenock again to perform a reserve training role. In May 1883 a survey confirmed that the ship needed a substantial refit but, given the vessel was now obsolete in an increasingly engine-only navy, funding was not allocated and she was assigned for long term disposal.
Decommissioned on 31 May 1883, she was then re-named Vernon III and used as a generator for supporting neighbouring hulks. Attempts were made to sell the hull in 1924 but there was little interest and so she was retained in Naval Service and in 1929 sent to Pembroke Docks where she became Oil Fuel Hulk C77. She spent the next 50 years there providing fuel for the vessels operating out of the Royal Navy dockyard there.
Although fitted with an engine, HMS Warrior was designed to operate under sail for most of its time. In under a decade after the ship was built, the Royal Navy was routinely building mastless ships.
The Royal Navy closed the facilities in Pembroke Dock in 1978 and it seemed likely HMS Warrior, by then the last of its kind, would be scrapped. However the Maritime Trust acquired the vessel and started a multi-million pound restoration in Hartlepool aided by the training notes made one of the Ship's Young Officers on-board a century earlier. In June 1987 the vessel returned to Portsmouth Harbour and now is a popular attraction within the Historic Dockyard.
Ballard, G. A (1980). The Black Battlefleet. Naval Institute Press, Maryland
Baxter, J. P (1968). The Introduction of the Ironclad Warship. Archon Books, Connecticut.
Brown, D.K (2003). Warrior to Dreadnought: Warship Development 1860–1905. Caxton, London.
Davies, W (2011). HMS Warrior - Ironclad. Seaforth Publishing.
Lambert, A (1984). Battleships in Transition. Conway Maritime Press, London
Lambert, A (2010). HMS Warrior 1860: Victoria's Ironclad Deterrent. Naval Institute Press, Maryland
Mcllwain, J (1991). HMS Warrior: Britain's First and Last Iron-hulled Warship. Sovereign.
Sandler, S.L (2004). Battleships: An Illustrated History of Their Impact. Santa Barbara.
Wells, J (1987). The Immortal Warrior: Britain's First and Last Battleship. Kenneth Mason, Emsworth.
Winton, J (1987). Warrior: The First and The Last. Maritime Books, Liskeard.
HMS Warrior has been restored to her 1860-state and offers a fascinating insight into this crucial era in Britain's maritime heritage. The vessel is located within Portsmouth Historic Dockyard with combined tickets available for the various ships and exhibitions within.
HMS Warrior. There have been six vessels named HMS Warrior that have been commissioned into the Royal Navy. The first was a 74-gun third-rate ship of the line that took part in the Battle of the Saintes (1782). The next was the HMS Warrior seen above but, when she was decommissioned in 1883, she was stripped of the name and it was re-allocated to a Duke of Edinburgh class cruiser in 1905 (sunk in 1916), a requisitioned yacht in 1917 (sunk in 1940) and a Colossus class aircraft carrier in 1948 (later sold to Argentina). The last use of the name HMS Warrior was for the Royal Navy's operational headquarters in Northwood between 1963 and 1999.
Gun Deck. The Iron hulled construction meant HMS Warrior could be longer than traditional wooden warships. Rather than tiered guns spread across multiple decks, the primary weapons were all on one level and enclosed within an armoured citadel.
Sail and Steam. Although fitted with an engine, HMS Warrior would have used sail for most of her sea time. Within a decade of HMS Warrior being commissioned, new Royal Navy ships were being built without sails.
Officer's Accommodation. The Wardroom (left) and an Officer's cabin (right).
Galley. The central catering facility for the ship.
Steering Wheel. The substantial steering wheel. During conflict or rough weather there was another wheel within the armoured citadel.