Royal Navy 1870

British Empire (1850-1870)
About 350 ships

In full transition: The Royal Navy in 1870

In 1870 the Royal Navy experience one of the largest transition in its history, from a wooden and sail fleet inherited from the early 1800s, and crowned by the achievement of the last great admirals of the Napoleonic era, and the towering figure of Nelson.

French innovations drove British innovations in response

This transition seemed obvious already during the Crimean war, when the French Napoleon showed what could be achieved by a ship of the line converted to steam. From then on, a large program saw the conversion of dozens of large sailing ships, whereas new ones currently building were converted. It also shown that armored barges (The Devastation class) used as artillery batteries proved superior to fortresses.

The second shock came a few years later, when the French Gloire was revealed to the international press (it was already known when in construction by British intelligence in 1858). In 1859, Gloire was the first sea going ironclad. While her armor was impregnable, her hull was made in wood, and her artillery was no stronger than that of a frigate. Soon enough, two all-steel ironclads, twice the displacement of the French ship, were laid down and launched.

HMS Warrior in the 1870s
HMS Warrior in the 1870s

The HMS Warrior (1861) and Black Prince were completed in 1861-62 and showed a path that only the Royal Navy was able to follow. This new class of ironclad was there to ensure France would never be able to match it in quantity and quality.

The ironclad race

What followed was a race with France to built more ironclads, of an overall better quality: HMS Defence (1861), Hector and Valiant (1862), Achilles (1863), Minotaur, Agincourt and Northumberland (1863-65), and the cheaper, wooden-hulled Pince Consort class (1862), and HMS Royal Oak (1862). The following vessels were 11 central battery ironclads. The French on the other hand built only 16 broadside Ironclads, all operational in 1870. Afterwards, central battery ships grew in displacement, up to 9000 tons (HMS Alexandra) and often single ships.

First Turret ships

Cowper Philip Coles was the inventor of the naval turret, naval captain and inventor, patenting a design for a revolving gun turret 10 March 1859. His design first came right in time when adopted by John Ericsson, and used in 1861 on the USS Monitor, the first riverine ironclad and turret ship.

HMS Prince Albert.

HMS Captain, the first sea-going turret ship (1869). A fully-rigged turret ship victim of a capsize in 1870, showing that it was time to migrate to steam-only. She sank because a gust of wind combined to a side wave which pushed her to an angle of heel around 18 degrees (versus 40 degrees for the Monarch).

These were fully rigged ships, the only exception being the HMS Royal Sovereign, a 1857 ship rebuilt and completed as a turreted coast defence ship in 1864 with the brand new Coles system, as well as HMS Prince Albert (completed 1866), the Scorpion class (1863), HMS Monarch, combining full rigging and turrets, in 1868 or the ill-fated HMS Captain (1869) completed in January 1870 and which capsized in September, showing the limits of rigging and mixed ships with modern features such as turrets.

The dark years of the Victorian navy

HMS Sultan, launched in 1870. She a powerful double central battery ironclad, nearly 10,000 tonnes in displacement and named in honor of the progressist Sultan Abdülâziz of the Ottoman Empire. These shining examples of British engineering masked the general state of the Navy, in poor shape.

The 1870s were paradoxically the “dark age” of the Royal Navy, about ten years during which a weak and conservative admiralty was constrained by an economy-minded government, a decade often called ‘Dr Oscar Parkes’. Only in 1879 and the Carnarvon committee it was realized the true state of the Navy and from then on the press started a campaign to boost the navy size and quality, pushing for more construction. It was particularly clear in 1884 and the true electric shock that followed more ambitious naval programs, compounded after the succession of Queen Victoria.

The sailing fleet heritage

In 1855, at the time of the Crimean war, the Royal Navy was made of a formidable array of first, second and third class ships of the line, which had undergone little changes since the era of Nelson. In fact he would have felt at home, and many of these ships were dating back from the Napoleonic era. The principle was always the same, being twice as much powerful in numbers that the next two best fleets combined. Since the immense majority of these has been converted to steam, only a small bunch remained:

The 2nd class 1830s HMS Asia, Calcutta, Clarence, Formidable, Ganges, Thunderer (2255-2290 tons, 84 Guns), and the 3rd class Boscawen (2212 tons, 70 guns), and Vanguard (2609 tons, 78 guns). There were also 25 ships no longer on the effective list, either because they were in 1860 in the process of steam conversion or reduced to harbour duties (depot and prison ships…).

These were for many Napoleonic era 1st rank ships of the line, the HMS Britannia, Excellent, Hibernia, Prince Regent, Princess Charlotte, Royal Adelaide and St Vincent (and the legendary HMS Victory of 1865, yes, this one), dating back from 1810 to the 1820s, ad were armed by 104-120 guns.

HMS Britannia and Malelina by John H. Wilson. Britannia was never converted to steam and was stricken in 1869.

These were also 2nd rank ships of the line such as HMS Albion, Bombay, Foudroyant, Hindostan, Impregnable, Indus, Powerful, Superb, Vengeance, in general 80-84 cannons, and 70+ cannons 3rd rate ships Achille, Agincourt, Canopus, Carnatic, Collingwood, Egmont, Implacable, Sultan, Wellesley and Wellington. Albion, Bombay, Collingwood and Prince Regent were indeed converted to steam and served in 1870, apart Bombay which burnt in 1864. HMS Britannia has been sold in 1869, as well as Collingwood, Powerful, Sultan, and Superb. HMS Wellesley, a 1815 3rd rate ship of the line was the only sunk in an air attack during ww2.

Ships of the line Converted to steam

HMS Royal Georges by Charles Fitzgerald

Called “screw ships of the line” they were manned and used still the same way as traditional man-o-war, as their steam engine was considered as an auxiliary power, only good to gave them some mobility when the wind was down. The principle met a lot of resistance at first, as it was known in the 1830s. Until then only corvettes and dispatch vessels has been equipped as such, but with paddle wheels, too vulnerable for military service.

Screw vessels such as the SS Archimedes and later HMS Birkenhead (1845) were among the first adopting the screw, making it possible to swap to larger vessels as it was less vulnerable. After the demonstration by the Napoleon that screw vessels of the line were possible, a wave of conversions followed on both sides of the channel.

HMS Birkenhead was a paddle steam frigate (1845) converted to a screw propulsion as a redundant propulsion, and therefore one of the very first Royal navy screw ships. Only after 1855 mass conversion started for larger ships. The process lasted for ten years. To see the ships in detail, have a look on the following section.

Converted Ships of the line:

In total since 1849, 53 ships of the line has been converted, nine more in conversion and two in construction as such in 1865. They were all completed and soon budget was diverted to the new promising ironclad. The last of these were the HMS Bulwark and Defiance, started in 1859, of the same tonnage of around 3715-3745 tonnes and 91 guns, but they were never launched as all work stopped in 1861.

They were classed by artillery rather than tonnage, which diverged so greatly it is difficult to identify homogeneous classes. This was simply not the policy of the time as each yard had its own ways. Displacements varied indeed from yard to yard as they devised their own measurements.

The two most prestigious and powerful of them all were the HMS Wellington and Marlborough, 130 guns each. They were followed by five 120-121 guns, and seven 100-102 guns, the majority being 91 down to 60 guns, 4240 down to 2500 tons.
Needless to say, their artillery was still placed in the broadside, with just two in the bow and in the stern and perhaps some carronades on the deck, placed on railings, which allowed traverse to 30 to almost 90° degrees.


HMS Impregnable in Plymouth, former HMS Howe (cc)

So this is an attempt to regroup these ships and classes and sub-classes. Do note that it’s for 1860. Ten years after in 1870, many has been sold: Agamemnon and Algiers, Brunswick, Caesar, centurion, Colossus, Cressy, Orion, Renown, Sans Pareil or BU (Majestic, Orion) and others in 1871-78. However many survived as pontoons until the great war or even the interwar and one to WW2.

  • 131 guns Wellington class: Wellington, Marlborough (1852, 1855) 3771-4000 tons
  • 121 guns Royal Albert class: R. Albert, R. Sovereign (1854-57) 3720-3760 tons
  • 121 guns Victoria class: Prince of Wales, Victoria (1859-60) 3990-4000 tons
  • 110 guns HMS Frederick Williams (1860) 3241 tons: Former Royal Frederick
  • 110 guns HMS Howe (1860) 4000 tons
  • 102 guns HMS Royal Georges (1827) 2616 tons: Ex. HMS Neptun, undocked as screw ship 1853.
  • 101 guns St Jean D’Acre class: St Jean, Conqueror, Donegal, Gibraltar (1855-60), 3200 tons
  • 100 guns HMS Windsor Castle (1858), 3101 tons
  • 92 guns HMS Nile (1839) 2622 tons
  • 91 guns class: Agamemnon, Anson, Atlas, Bulwark, Defiance, Edgar, Hannibal, Hero, Hood, Orion, Princess Royal, Renown, Revenge, St Georges, Trafalgar, Victor Emmanuel
  • 90 guns class: HMS Aboukir, Algiers, Caesar, Exmouth, Nelson, Albion*
  • 86 guns HMS Queen (1839) 3249 tons
  • 81 guns HMS Sans Pareil (1851) 2339 tons
  • 80 guns class: Brunswick, Centurion, Colossus, Cressy, Goliath, Irresistible, James Watt, Lion, Majestic, Mars (1842-53)
  • 72 guns Neptune class: R. Williams, London, Neptune, Rodney (1832-40) 2680-2700 tons
  • 60 guns HMS Meanee (1848) 2591 tons

*Albion (1842) was converted to screw in 1865.
Source: Conway’s all the world’s fighting ships 1860-1905

Wellington class (1852)

Although the subject is covered abundantly in the following post about the Duke of Wellington it is fair to say that the Marlborough built three years after was larger. The Wellington displaced 3771 tons and the Marlborough 4000. So we will focus more there on the Marlborough.

HMS Marlborough (1855)

Classing ships into same classes became more straightforward in the industrial age, where it was easier to measure and used accurately the same parts, whatever their origin. For wooden vessels, that was another story as each yard had its own empiric methods and measurements. HMS Marlborough was a first-rate three-decker bearing 131 gun, and a screw ship built as such for the Royal Navy. She was launched in 1855 at Portsmouth Dockyard.

She was started as a pure sailing ship with her sister ships HMS Duke of Wellington, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Royal Sovereign, with diverging specs by yards. Of course the French Napoleon changed this and HMS Marlborough completed like the others to a modified design, converted on the stocks. Changes consisted notably in modifying the internal structure of the hull to house the heavy compound steam engine and make storage for coal where there was only ballast, and take precautions to insulate the wooden surrounding from heat.

9-in gun in the central battery of HMS Iron Duke in 1870

HMS Marlborough served as flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet in 1858-64 (Vice-Admiral William Fanshawe Martin). Her captain was William Houston Stewart until 20 April 1863 and from there, Vice-Admiral Robert Smart teamed with Captain Charles Fellowes. Next year she was replaced by HMS Victoria as flagship and was back to Portsmouth, converted as a receiving ship. Apparently also she was downgraded to 121 guns. From 1878 she became a training ship for engineers and was downgraded to a 98 gun ship. In the 1890s she was in the Steam Reserve and used as tender for HMS Asia.

In 1904 she was towed to Portchester Creek, renamed Vernon II. From there, she was an accommodation hulk, part of “HMS Vernon” while Vernon I was the new name of joint hulls HMS Ariadne and HMS Actaeon connected by bridges with Vernon II. She was sold to A. Butcher for BU, October 1924. While on tow however she capsized and sank on 28 November 1924 off Selsey.

HMS Marlborough in Valletta harbour in the 1850s.


Class: 1st rate 131-gun (later 121-gun )
Displacement: 5,892/6071 tons FL
Dimensions: 240 ft (73 m) x 61 ft (19 m)
Propulsion: Sails + 780 hp cp steam engine, 1 screw propeller
Speed: 10.15 kt
Armament (1855):
-Gundeck: 10 × 8in (65cwt), 26 × 32pdrs (56cwt)
-Middle deck: 6 × 8in (65cwt), 30 × 32pdrs (56cwt)
-Upper deck: 38 × 32pdrs (42cwt)
-Quarterdeck & Forecastle: 20 × 32pdrs (25cwt), 1 × 68pdr (95cwt)
Later (121 guns): 1 × 110pdrs, 16 × 8in guns, 6 × 70pdrs, 10 × 40pdrs, 88 × 32pdrs

Royal Albert class (1854)

Born at the arsenal of Woolwich, HMS Royal Albert was the first launch of two ships of generally identical appearance and close characteristics to the Royal Sovereign, although the latter is often assimilated to a superclass of massive 1st rate vessels also comprising the Wellington, Marlborough, Victoria and Prince of Wales. On paper, the Royal Albert and Royal Sovereign are very close in displacement, at 3720 and 3760 tonnes, whereas the Victoria and PoW are 250-300 tonnes heavier. But all four bears the same artillery of 121 guns. Although it looks less than the Marlborough and Wellington, the gun deck pieces (the lower ones, by gravity’s sake) are heavier.

Both the Albert and Sovereign were of course laid down as sailing vessels and converted on the stock. Royal Albert was ordered as a sailing ship on 26 March 1842, then re-ordered as mixed steam/sail 1st rate 31 January 1852, and completed two years later, launched on 13 May 1854 and Completed on 19 November 1854.
There are confusing statement about these vessels as lithographs from that era claims they are 131 guns ships. It is possible indeed that was the case in their pure sailing state, but modified after conversion. Royal Albert was launched on 13 May 1854 at Woolwich Yard.

Commission happened at Sheerness. During the conversion the armament was modified: The lower deck mixed artillery was made uniform with 32 modern 8in guns, the 68 pdr guns were eliminated from the middle deck, two 32-pdr were dropped from the upper deck and on the quarterdeck and forecastle, the mixed long/short 32 pdr guns were replaced by 24 long 32 pdrs and one pivot 68 pdr gun usable as carronade.

First captain was Commander Alexander Little (until October 1854), then Captain Thomas Sabine Pasley, William Robert Mends. She served as flagship to Rear-Admiral Edmund Lyons, Mediterranean fleet. In late December 1855, she was sailing to Crimea while a leak was detected en route and she was was beached at San Nicholas, Kea, Greece, later refloated repaired in Malta. Captain Francis Egerton was in command until 1858, then Captain Edward Bridges Rice. She became flagship of the Channel Squadron (Rear-Admiral Charles Fremantle). Captain Henry James Lacon was in command until the ship was paid off and decommissioned at Plymouth, 25 January 1861. BU 1884. A very short active life indeed (1854-1860).

Launch of the Royal Albert at Woolwich 1854. PAF8131 – Royal Museum Greenwich coll. SRC

The case of Royal Sovereign:
Ordered as a sailing ship in 1842, re-ordered as a mixed vessel, launched in 1857 but stayed into the ordinary from 25 April 1857. Meaning she was fully equipped for service but not currently needed, and thus partially/fully decommissioned. Basically she was ept in reserve. It was too late for her to serve in Crimea anyway. In 1862 she was chosen to be converted as an experimental turret ship, at the instigation of Captain Cowper Coles, the British inventor of the naval turret. Her fate is therefore studied in the turret ship section (see later).

Specifications (Before conversion):

Class: First rate 120 guns
Displacement: 3,393 70/94 bm 1842, 3,463 by March 1851
Dimensions: 220 ft (67 m) oa, 60 ft 10 in (18.54 m) x 25 ft (7.6 m).
-Lower deck: 28 x 32pdrs + 4 x 68 pdr guns
-Middle deck: 32 x 32pdrs + 2 x 68 pdr guns
-Upper deck: 34 x 32pdrs
-Forecastle/Quarterdeck: 6 x 32pdrs + 14 x short 32pdrs

Specifications (After conversion):

Displacement: 5,517 tons (Tons burthen: 3,726 26/94 bm)
Dimensions: 232 ft 9 in (70.94 m) oa x 61 ft (19 m) x 25 ft (7.6 m) DL
Hold depth: 24 ft 2 in (7.37 m)
Propulsion: 2-cylinder horizontal single expansion trunk 1,801 ihp, 1 propeller
Sail plan: Full rigged ship
Top Speed: 10 knots under steam
Complement: 1,050
Armament: 121 guns:
-Lower deck: 32 x 8in guns
-Middle deck: 32 x 32pdrs
-Upper deck: 32 x 32pdrs
-Forecastle/Quarterdeck: 24 x 32pdrs + 1 x 68 pdr gun

Sailing Ships of the Royal Navy

Figurehead of HMS Hibernia, no longer on the effective list.

Conversion could not reach each and every ship in the Royal Navy. Outside special cases, such as the Victory, preserved and still extant today thanks to the care she benefited, 10 were still in 1870 in the effective list and 21 in the reserve or “non-effective” list. This was quite substantial.

Ships of the line, effective list

Note: This account is based on 1860 records in Conway’s page 3. Between 1860 and 1870 they may have been more ships discarded or relegated to the non-effective list (see below). None of the ten vessels listed below were converted to steam and therefore likely to join the non-effective list (see below) in between. The decade 1860-70 saw indeed these sailing vessels, particularly in the Royal Navy which benefited a context of heavy industrialisation, either converted or discarded, to release men and resources for more useful tasks.

More than 30 of these old “man-o-war”, impressing sailing vessels with stacked artillery decks, were nearly all disarmed but their hull survived often to see WW1 and for some, ww2 as well. A few (4) burnt, all remaining were sold for timber, copper and other materials, long after their guns were melted in 1901-1929.

  • 2nd rank Ganges class (1821-34): Asia, Calcutta, Clarence, Formidable, Ganges, Monarch & Thunderer. 84 guns, 2300 tonnes.
  • 3nd rank Cumberland class: HMS Cumberland (1842), HMS Boswawen (1844): 70 guns, 2200 tonnes
  • 3rd class HMS Vanguard (1834) 78 guns.

HMS Hibernia as a depot ship, circa 1880. A fate shared by most of these old hulls in the 1870s.

Ships of the line, not on the effective list

Ships no longer listed as war capable vessel. Retained for auxiliary duties and disarmed. The wooden hull and their bronze or copper plating proved extremely resilient as many were still around in WW2.

The most recent in this list were 1840s ships, HMS Albion, Collingwood, Hindostan, Indus, and Superb. They were 80 guns, 2030 tonnes (Indus, 3rd rank class) up to HMS Albion a 90-guns 3rd rank of 3111 tonnes which was converted to screw in 1860. The oldest ones, apart the HMS Victory which nearly escape total destruction, were the Achille (1798), sold in 1865, Foudroyant of the same year (a 80 guns, 2nd rate), the 1st rank Hibernia (1804) and various 1810-1828 2nd and 3rd rank vessels.

Former 1st rank vessels, they were no longer operational and disarmed. They were used as hospital ships (like the mixed 1st rate hms dreadnought) others served as prison ships, floating lazareth, depot ships, storage hulks or training and drill hulks, floating barracks. Technically though they were still listed in the Navy register and therefore, forbidden to squatters as they would have been using a property of the government without approval.

HMS Dreadnought as an hospital ship off Greenwich.

  • 1st class: St Vincent, Britannia, Hibernia, Excellent, Princess Charlotte, Royal Adelaide, Victory*
  • 2nd class: Foudroyant, Hindostan, Impregnable, Indus, Vengeance**
  • 3rd class: Agincourt, Canopus, Carnatic, Egmont, Implacable, Wellesley, Wellington***

*1st class: 120 guns St Vincent & Britannia (1815-20) were of the same class. 110 guns Hibernia (1804), 104 guns were HMS Excellent, Princess Charlotte, and Royal Adelaide (1825-28), while the only 100-gun Victory (1765) was still listed in commission but in terrible condition.
**HMS Foudroyant was a 1798, 80 guns ship, still commissioned but as a tender. Impregnable (1810) was on paper a 98 guns, Hindostan, Indus were modern (1839-41) 80 guns. HMS vengeance (1824) was a 84 guns.
***Agincourt, Carnatic, Egmont, Implacable, Wellesley and Wellington were 74 guns, 1815-18, circa 1750 tonnes. HMS Implacable was a former captured French vessel of the same name.

HMS vengeance by George Pechell Mends

HMS Albion through the Bosphorus, by Le Breton, 1854

The Royal Navy 1870 in detail

In this section we will see the entire strength of the Royal Navy in 1870. The list is based on page 3 of Conway’s all the world fighting ships 1860 register. Crucial to these listings are the stricken ships list. The fleet was still in transition, with active vessels looking like Nelson’s man-o-war, and on the other hand central battery ships with the first breech-loaded long range guns, with rail-mounted traversing mounts and turrets. This list is an enormous work, so it will be completed and updated as it goes. A work in progress.

All-metal Broadside Ironclads

Warrior class (1860)

Author’s illustration of the HMS Warrior.

British Intelligence were perfectly aware of Dupuy de Lôme’s works and in 1858 well informed of the conversion of a steam screw frigate into an ironclad. Not to be undermined, the British admiralty ordered in the 1859 programme the construction in emergency of two massive ships, almost twice the displacement of the Gloire (9300 versus 5630 tons), built entirely in riveted steel and having twice the power of the French ironclad, with a single shaft Penn HSET engine fed by ten rectangular boilers for a total of an estimated 5267 ihp and 13.6 (Black Prince) to 14.08 knots. Compared to this, Gloire HRCR engine and 8 ovale boilers could only deliver 2500 ihp for 13 knots.

Therefore when revealed to public, both ships launched in December 1860 (HMS Warrior) at Ditchburn & Mare Blackwall NyD and February 1861 at Napier of Glasgow (HMS Black Prince), became the largest fighting ships afloat. They dominated French ironclads head and shoulders not only by construction and speed, but also artillery, with 40 68-pdr SB cannons (vs. 36 6.4 in RML on Gloire), but it was changed during construction to ten 110pdr BL (Breech loading guns), twenty-six 68 Pdr BL four 70 pdr saluting guns.

68 Pdr smooth-bore guns

These hips had a high lenght-to-beam ratio and fine lines, so they were quite fast but had poor agility. The armour belt was 213 feets long by 22 feets deep, made of iron plates 15 feets by 3 feets, 4 tons each. They were tongued and and grooved to give mutual support if hit. This was a fine idea, but a complex and costly process and therefore it was not repeated in later ships.

The unarmoured ends were bilged without loss in stability, but there was no protection over the steering compartment. However, the hull was subdivided into 92 compartments and there was a double bottom for 240 feets of the total lenght. All of these could have been filled with coal if need be. Not only both warships were impressive from outside with their clipper lines and huge dimensions (they were the largest warships afloat), but the refinement of the officers’s mess and admiral and captain rear saloons were quite impressive.

HMS Warrior joined the Channel Fleet in July 1862 and was in and out further trials and refits until 1867. The armament was changed again in the first reconstruction of the ships: They were given twenty-six Smoothbore muzzle-loading 68-pounder guns, ten Rifled breech-loading 110-pounder guns but she kept the four Rifled breechloading 40-pounder guns. The engine was revised again and allowed 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph).

HMS Warrior as built

The ship joined again the Channel Fleet in 1867 and was later towed to Bermuda in 1869 with her sister ship. From 1872 to 1875 she served there, and was then in drydock to be given a modern poop deck. Recommissioned in 1875 she multiplied training cruises until 1883. Reclassified as an armoured frigate in 1884 she was eventually disarmed and her rig and masts taken out.

She ended hulked as a depot ship in Portsmouth in 1902. Vernon III in 1904, she became the barrack ship of the Torpedo School. In 1923 she was converted as an oil pipeline pier. Towed to Pembroke Dock in 1929, she was renamed C77 in 1942, C77 in 1979. Her hulk was moved to Hartlepool for a long restoration. Meanwhile she served as Fleet Headquarters in Northwood and is now nearby HMS Victory at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

Black Prince had a relatively similar career but was damaged when capsizing at Greenock, served with the Channel Fleet, in reserved in 1878, Devonport, training ship in 1896 in Queenstown, Ireland. HMS Emerald in 1903, hulked, renamed Impregnable III 1910, sold for scrap 1923. More images:,_1860)

Warrior class specifications)

Dimensions 62,26 x5,94 x2,44m
Displacement 275t, 320t FL
Crew 63
Propulsion 2 screws, 2 TE engines, 4 boilers, 3,900 cv
Speed 27 knots (50 km/h; 31 mph)
Range 8,870 nmi (16,430 km, 10,210 mi) 19 knots (35 km/h, 22 mph)
Armament 1 x76 mm QF, 5 x47 mm QF, 2 x457mm TT (axial).

Defence class (1861)

The HMS Defence and Resistance signed a return to more budgetary wise ships, as the admiralty lordships was not convinced the high price tag of the Warrior class was able to parry a mass-production on the French side. These ships were 1/3 lighter. These vessels were provided under the 1859 Programme, and were classified as frigates, being smaller editions of Warrior, but inferior in almost all respects except manoeuvrability.

The belt armour was 140ft long, and arranged as in Warrior, with the ends of the ship and the steering gear being unprotected. They had a frigate stern, as in Warrior, but a ram bow was
adopted in place of the clipper bow. Both ships exceeded the designed speed of 10.75kts. Armament as designed was 18-68pdr SB and 4-40pdr BL, but Defence was completed with 8-7in BL, 10-68pdr SB and 4-5in BL, and Resistance with 6-7in BL, 10-68pdr SB and 2-32pdr SB. Defence was rearmed 1866/68 and Resistance 1867/69. As completed, 10-68pdr and four 7in guns were behind armour, and as
rearmed eight 7in and the two 8in guns were behind armour, the endmost ports of the battery being left vacant.

These were barque-rigged vessels with a sail area of 24,500 sq ft; Defence was modified to ship rig in 1864 and then reverted to barque during the 1866/68 refit. They could make 10.5kts under sail and handled well, except in a beam sea. Both were fitted with lifting screws.

The sea-going service of Defence ended in 1885; she was renamed Indus (TS) in 1898, and hulked in 1922. The sea-going service of Resistance ended in 1880. She was used as a target for gunnery and torpedo experiments in 1885.

Hector class (1862)

Hector class (1862)

HMS Hector and Valiant were completed in 1864 and 1868, these two ships were a return towards the Warrior-class, not however going as far, but quite an improvement over the last class anyway. These two ships had one shaft connected to a horizontal return rod steam engine fed by 6 boilers and rated for 3,260–3,560 ihp (2,430–2,650 kW). She was barque rigged, slower than the Warrior at 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph) and with a lesser range at 800 nmi (1,500 km; 920 mi) at 12 kn (22 km/h; 14 mph).

Hector and Valiant were armoured frigates similar to Defence but with increased protection, speed and armament, the beam being increased to compensate for the added top weight. The battery armour extended the full length of the ship, 4in for 216ft amidships and 2žin at the ends, providing partial protection to the steering gear.

Armour bulkheads were fitted across the end of the waterline belt only, the waterline at the bow and stern still being unprotected.
They had straight stems with no ram, and a rounded stern unpierced except by gunports. The hull was divided into 92 watertight compartments, 52 being in the partial double bottom and the wings.

As completed Hector was seriously overweight and the coal capacity and the armament of both ships was reduced to compensate for this. Valiant’s original builders, Westwood & Baillie of Millwall, became bankrupt and her construction was taken over in 1861 by the Thames Iron Works.

This and the decision to rearm her with MLR guns resulted in extensive delay to her completion. Hector’s machinery was manufactured by her builder, and Valiant’s by Maudslay. The coal capacity of 450 tons gave an endurance of 1600 miles. Both vessels had lifting screws, but lifting tackle was not fitted.
The designed armament was 24-68pdr SB. Hector was completed with 4-7in BL on the upper deck and 20-8pdr SB on the battery deck. Hector was rearmed in 1867/8 and Valiant ras completed with the armament known above, twelve 7in being mounted on the battery deck and the remainder on the upper deck. The Hector class were armed with a mix of old and new guns like the previous class. The 7-inch (254 mm) were Armstrong breech-loaders, and the twenty 68-pounder were smoothbore muzzle-loading guns and after 1868 sixteen 7-in and two 8-in rifled muzzle-loading guns (RML). Maximal protection was limited to 4.5 in (114 mm) with a belt down to 2.5 in (64 mm) and Bulkheads up to 4.5 in (114 mm).

These vessels were barque-rigged, and had a sail area of 24,500 sq ft. They rolled badly but manoeuvered well. Their sea-going service ended in 1885/6. Hector became part of the Vernon torpedo school in 1900 and was the first ship fitted with a wireless transmitter. Valiant was employed on harbour service, being renamed Indus in 1898, Valiant (Old) in 1916, and Valiant III in 1919. In 1924 she was converted into a floating oil tank.

HMS Hector as built (only known photo)

HMS Achilles (1863)

A single ship classed as an armoured frigate due to her two-levels artillery, HMS Achilles depended of the 1861 Naval Programme and signed a return to the large, well-armoured Warrior type but with many improvements learned from this first generation broadside ironclads. She displaced indeed no less 9,820 long tons (9,980 t) for generous dimensions, 380 ft (115.8 m) by 58 ft 3 in (17.8 m) and 27 ft 2 in (8.3 m) draught.

A modified version of Warrior with the same basic design and machinery and improved protection, Achilles had 13ft deep waterline belt over her full length, 23in beyond the battery. The was 212ft long, battery armour enclosed at the ends by 4 in bulk-heads to the full depth of the side armour.

The steering gear was fully protected, the rounded stern being designed to suit this purpose. The stem was of blunt ram form. She was
one of the best early ironclads constructed. The hull was divided into 106 watertight compartments, 66 being in the wings and the double bottom. The boiler pressure was 25psi, compared with 20psi in earlier ironclads.

Armament as completed was 4-110pdr BL on the upper deck and 16-100pdr ‘Somerset’ SB at the middle ports of the battery; 6-68pdr SB
were added at the end ports of the main battery in 1865. The ship was rearmed as shown in 1868, 4-7in being on the main deck and the remainder in the battery, and rearmed again in 1874 with 12-9in MLR in battery and 2-7in and 2-9in MLR on the upperdeck. During the refit of 1889 two 6in BL, eight 3pdr QF and 16MGS were added, the 7in MLR being removed.

She was completed with a four-masted rig (bow, fore, main and mizzen masts) and 44,000 sg ft of canvas including stunsails, Achilles had the largest sail area ever provided in a British warship, and was the only British warship to have four masts. She had an
unsatisfactory sail arrangement and with her rig the sail area was 30,133 sq ft.
She had a single shaft, Trunk steam engine was fed by 10 rectangular boilers provided 5,720 ihp (4,270 kW), enough to reach 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph) for an autonomy of 1,800 nmi (3,300 km; 2,100 mi) at 6.5 knots (12.0 km/h; 7.5 mph).

Her protection was also improved, especially compared to previous “budget ironclads”, at least in compartmentation and length, since thickness was the same, with a belt 2.5 to 4.5 in (64–114 mm) thick and bulkheads of 4.5 in (114 mm). This was more than enough to defeat all projectiles of the time, muzzle velocity and projectiles shapes being insufficient.

The bow mast and bowsprit were removed in 1865, head sails being rigged to the stem. In 1866 the foremast was moved forward 25ft and the vessel was reduced to a barque rig in 1877.

Although difficult to handle because of her great length, she manoeuvred better than Warrior and steamed and sailed well under most
conditions. Her sea-going service ended in 1885. She was renamed Hibernia (base ship) in 1902, Egmont in 1904, Egremont in 1918, and finally Pembroke in 1919.

Minotaur class (1863-66)

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Wooden Ironclads

Like in France, wood was still a common and relatively affordable building material, if well backed by armor. All-metal ironclads such as the Warrior were much more expensive. Ten has been built and made the hardest core of the Royal Navy. Alongside these, there were twelve cheaper wooden ironclads, six broadside ironclads and six central battery ironclad (including a composite one).

There was few homogeneity and classes, nearly all of these ships were single experiments, varying wildly in tonnage and design. This was an experimentation time which was rather costly. Granted, a few of these ships were orders from other countries such as Brazil or Turkey. In 1872, a committee reported the state in which the Royal Navy was in, radical changes were made. Fortunately it all happened long before WW1 broke out. France took the same path in the 1880-90s, with the Young school, which had dire consequences…

Prince Consort class (1862)

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HMS Royal Oak (1862)

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HMS Royal Alfred (1864)

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HMS Research (1863)

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HMS Enterprise (1864)

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HMS Favorite (1864)

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HMS Zealous (1864)

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Lord Clyde class (1864)

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HMS Repulse (1868)

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Central battery Ironclads

This was the new generation of masted war vessels just before 1870. That year, many of these types, plus turret ships, were either in completion, construction, or planning.

About central battery ironclads

The central battery was a new concept, in-between the traditional broadside fixed artillery, and turrets.
The idea was to have at least the main artillery placed on rail-mounted cradles, in order for it to be able to engage targets with a much greater arc of fire. Speed, combined with the advantages of steam, could free war vessels of the traditional, rigid line of battle format, with little manoeuvres.

It was the transition between what was essentially an ordered attrition match with low-velocity, low accuracy, heavy artillery mirroring the musket lines of traditional battlefields (shattered during the American civil war), towards a much quicker, all-angle, long-range, accurate fire of metal-cladded vessels free to choose better tactics to win the day. This also signalled the end of armoured frigates, with their full-length gun decks.

Central battery fire gave more options to the commander. The inspiration came from the 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads, famous duel between ironclads, which basically tried to out-turn each others, and had greater flexibility in their artillery: USS Monitor had a turret, but CSS Virginia could shift artillery positions between ports. She is widely considered as the first with a central battery.

However, to maximize firepower, even if central battery artillery gave greater arc of fire, broadside, with ships in columns, was still the order of the day even after the battle of Lissa showing that it was the chosen tactic on both sides, before ships engaged in a chaotic ramming melee. Ships therefore would emphasis broadside artillery, even mounted on pivots and having considerable traverse, shown again in 1894, 1898, 1904-1905 and even in 1916.

Outside of UK, these were called casemate ship, but the principle was the same. They all had a “box battery”, with all centralised main guns in the center of the ships, firing through recesses in the hull. The advantage was also to concentrate armor in this area. In UK, central battery was developed not long after the HMS warrior, by Chief Constructor of the Royal Navy, Edward James Reed. HMS Bellerophon (1865) was his prototype, followed by 18 more vessels, wooden-hulled or all-metal ironclads. Almost at the same time, turret ships were experimented and five years later they were considered the way forward.

Armour scheme of the HMS bellorophon, showing the concentration of armor in the center, with a residual belt. Over time, the central battery was called a casemate, which became longer, extending with turret ships to the barbettes fore and aft.

HMS Bellophoron (1865)

The central battery prototype.
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HMS Bellerorophon, 1865 Brassey’s

HMS Penelope (1867)

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HMS Hercules (1868)

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Audacious class (1869) – in completion 1870-71

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Turret Ironclads in service

HMS Royal Sovereign (1857/63)

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HMS Prince Albert (1864)

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Scorpion class (1863)

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HMS Monarch (1868)

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HMS Captain (1869)

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Turret ironclads in construction

HMS Devastation 1871

-Cerberus class A coast defence monitors (launched 1868), completion in 1870
-HMS Abyssinia: A coast defence monitor (launched 1870), completion in 1870
-HMS Glatton: A breastwork monitors (launched 1871), laid down at Chatham in 1868.
-Devastation class: Probably the most modern of all ships laid down in 1869. By their appearance a full contrast to masted ships. They looked like space age vessels. The Devastation and Thunderer (launched 1871-72, completed 1873 and 1877) were steam-only turret ships actually too large to be considered as monitors, notably because of their twin turrets fore and aft. At 9330 tonnes standard, they were the first ancestors of the whole lineage of modern battleships in use in the Royal Navy, up to the Vanguard in 1946…

HMS Hotspur (1870)

Author’s illustration of the HMS Hotspur after completion

The HMS Hotspur was launched in 1870. A fine ship for her age, she deceptively looked like a turret ship. She was more exactly an ironclad Ram, made to compete with the French ironclad rams of the time. She was still close to the Glatton, a breastwork monitor laid down two months earlier, but with a higher freeboard to increase the height of the breastwork.

There was indeed an added unarmoured hull structure above the belt. Instead of a Coles type turret, the engineers built a larger round, fixed structure with several ports covering the side, frontal arc for the unique 12-in gun (305 mm) MRL (Muzzle Rifle Loaded). It was indeed thought at that time, that a turret would not stand up the shock of a full speed ramming. The MRL was mounted on both traversing arcs and a turntable, while the two remaining 64 pdr MLRs were positioned aft (at the rear), behind bulwarks.

The ram was protecting 10 feet forward of the bow, and reinforced by an extension of the side armour. The belt was 11 in down to 8 in at the ends, the deck 2-3/2 in, the bulwark 8 in and the gun house had 10 in walls and formed a large observation platform, with the conning tower passing through it at the rear and a small steering cabin behind.

Completed in November 1871, she proved to be a very stable gunnery platform and her Napier steam engine propelled her to 12.65 knots, but this proved difficult to maintain in heavy seas and so for her intended role as well as a lack of seakeeping qualities. She was used as a coast guard ship and was reconstructed at Lairds in 1881-83, receiving a turret, full-width armoured citadel, new superstructure, new boilers, with a steam steering gear, and received a torpedo launching gear and close defence midget torpedo boat, a concept which was in the wind at that time.

HMS Hotspur with her torpedo nets deployed in the mid-1870s

In construction 1870:

-HMS Sultan (launched May 1870): central battery ironclad
-HMS Swiftsure class (launched June-Sept. 1870): central battery ironclad
-HMS Rupert (laid down 1870): A turret-armed ironclad ram
-HMS Dreadnought (laid down 1870): An improved version of the Devastation class, 10,886 tons.
-Cyclops class (laid down 1870): Four coast defence monitors


HMS Superb (Future HMS Alexandra in 1874), laid down at Chatham DyD in March 1873. She was the last British masted central battery ironclad.
HMS Neptune: A turret masted ironclad, ex-Brazilian Independencia laid down in 1873 and completed in 1881.
More promising was the first Royal Navy barbette ship, HMS Temeraire which combined main guns in barbettes fore and aft and a central battery. This “hybrid” was laid down at Chatham in August 1873, while the more conventional HMS Hamidieh (later repurchased by the British government in 1877) was built at Thames Iron Works, of Blackwall. Like the also ex-Turkish HMS Belleisle and Orion, all three were sail-only vessels. The trend was there to stay.

Masted Cruisers:

They directly derived from Frigates and the name “cruiser” was only adopted for HMS Shannon, while classes were known to be either “frigates”, “corvettes” and “sloops” until the 1890s, all masted and either wooden, composite and steel (from 1889). They were all reclassed (for the survivors) as gunboats, 1st class in 1914.

The Future: HMS Shannon, the first purpose built armored cruiser. She started as a project in 1871 as a cheap ironclad and evolved until August 1873 when she became an armoured cruiser, in a sense also the first 1st class “cruiser” of the Royal Navy.

Screw Frigates:

“Frigates” were rather large, well-armed and well-rigged, but unprotected (at least by iron plates). Wooden essences mixed to form a matress with hard, super-hard surfaces and softer wood to absorb energ was the norm, like for the 1790s revolutionary American “super-frigates”.
From the 1850s, steam conversion or construction, and the first rifled muzzle loaders (RML) and Breech-loading guns (BL) made their apparition. Like for ironclads, diversity was the norm. Classes are largely artificial as each yard delivered a specific ship which different characteristics. Some of these were really impressive, like the 90 m long iron frigates of the HMS Inconstant class, 5800 to 6250 tonnes. They looked externally like broadside ironclads and were heavily armed.
Older screw Frigates
In 1870, there were already 15 older screw frigates in service (1846-59) ranging from 12 to 51 guns, and 1200-3800 tonnes in displacement:
HMS Dautless, Diadem, Doris, Forte, Forth, Liffey, Melpomene, Mersey, Narcissus, Phaeton, Phoebe, Seahorse, Severn, Shannon, and Topaze.

Sailing Frigates
In addition, five sailing Frigates were still in the effective list, and 28 no longer in it. The latter survived like old man-o-war as pontoons, often renamed to free names for other vessels, used as floating utility hulks as long as they stayed afloat. HMS Trincomalee and Unicorn were preserved and are new museum ships.
Effective: HMS Active, Cambrian, Chichester, Indefatigable, Nankin.
Not-effective: HMS Africaine, Aigle, Arethusa, Brillant, Circe, Clyde, Daedalus, Fisgard, Flora, Hamadryad, Hebe, Hotspur, Isis, Jupiter, latona, Leda, Leonidas, Melampus, Mercury, Minerva, pique, Southampton, Thisbee, Vernon, Winchester, Worcester, and the two above.
The most recent was HMS Worcester, 1844, a 4th rank ship of the line, 52 guns, 1468 tonnes.
The five service Frigates (1845-50) displaced 1600, 2000 or 2400 tonnes, bearing 36 to 52 guns.

Modern Screw frigates

-Walker’s Frigates: 6 Disparate 32 guns wooden screw frigates, about 3880 to 4600 tonnes in displacement: HMS Diadem, Doris, Ariadne, Galatea, Mersey and Orlando. Designed by Sir Baldwin Walker in 1854 and laid down 1855-57, completed 1857-59.
Immortalité class (1860): Five 3900-4000 tonnes wooden screw frigates: HMS Immortalité, Bristol, Glasgow, Newcastle and Undaunted.
50-guns converted 4th rate sailing frigates: Basically Razee types with steam power. 50 guns, 3700-3800 tonnes.
Unclassed wooden screw frigates: HMS Auroa, Narcissus, Endmyon. Again, disparate specs, 3200-3500 tonnes, 51 guns.
Inconstant class iron frigates:

Paddle Frigates:

(To come)


(To come)


screw Sloops:

Paddle Sloops:

Sailing Sloops:



Not small enough to be considered as “naval dust”, gunboats were until the arrival of the aircraft carrier, the embodiement of a “gunboat diplomacy” on far away stations. Powerful symbols of colonial power, they were the less glamorous substitutes to cruisers, although some reached the level of unprotected cruisers of the 1880s.
Probably a direct evolution of the gun sloop, a single heavy gun on a small sloop, or the Galiot, mortar-carrying ships used in maritime sieges, Gunboats became indispensable to all fleets to “show the flag” for a Navy at the four corners of the globe.

Definition and use of British masted gunboats:

Ironclads, Frigates, Corvettes presented a much larger threat, but they were just too precious to waste on so many remote outposts where the only threats came from ‘uncivilized natives’. It was thought the sound of gunfire was enough to quell any rebellion. But beyond this, Gunboats has a vital policing and patrolling duty. They were the only defence against any sea-borne attacks, piracy and trafficking, or dissuade any ships from other nations, likely to be at best light cruisers. They even played the role of governor’s yacht, carried landing parties, passengers or heavy loads to remote islands, escorted transports themselves or were used as fishery protection vessels.

They were the beasts of burden and jack of all trades of the Navy, and the amazing number produced during four decades (until the 1890s) reflected this. Always masted, even in the 1890s as a way to spare coal, they often mounted a motley collections of heavy guns oof many calibers, some mounted on centerline traversing mountings. A wooden or composite construction with no turret, no armour, and a standard speed fixed at 10 knots. Often also the wood was used to shelter iron from the blasting heat of these often tropical waters;

HMS Raven of the Albacore class (1856)

The Crimean war as a catalyzer

The Crimean War revealed itself as the true incentive to built screw-driven gunboats. In 1854 these shallow-draught vessels became indispensible. The first vessels were the six Arrow-class, arme with two 68-pdr Lancaster MLRs. Production of these particular types of ships in the Royal Navy was stupendous, well beyond any other type in service in 1870. In 1860 already, nine class existed.

The more prolific of all were the Albacore, built in 1855-56, 232 tonnes and two 68-pdr. No less than 96 has been built, an impressive feat of mass-production. But just like the equally prolific Union Navy ’90-days shcooners’ during the Secession war, they were not built to last. In fact, perhaps 30% were still active in 1870 and many were discarded until 1884.

Gunboat Classes:

Crimean war era wooden gunboats:

Arrow, Intrepid, Vigilant, Gleaner, Dapper, Albacore, Cheerful, Clown and Algerine classes, plus five Paddle gunboats and three 16-gun, two 12-guns sailing brigs in 1870.

Armoured gunboats: Vixen class (1865)

These were certainly the most impressive of the whole list. 1230/1280 tonnes, with 4-1/2 inches armour plating backed by 10-in wood and armed with two 7-in guns (254 mm) and two 20-pdr guns, they were impressive indeed, almost “pocket ironclads”. The class comprised the Vixen, Viper and Waterwitch, completed in 1866-67. Vixen and Viper would remain permanently in Bermuda. In their particular case, they were a substitute for an entire fleet, far from any support, added to fortifications.

Wooden masted gunboats:

-Philomel class (1859)
-Cormorant class (1860)
-Plover class (1862)
-Britomard class (1867)

Composite masted gunboats:

-Beacon class (1867)

Flatiron gunboats:

-A single prototype, HMS Staunch (1867), followed by Plucky (1870) and 1870-79 vessels of the Ant and Gadfly, bouncer and Medina classes, partly armored.

In construction:

-Frolic class (1872)


In the 1870s were launched two interesting ships, difficult to place in a box: HMS Vesuvius and HMS Polyphemus.
Both were classed as torpedo ships.

-The first was a 245 tonnes torpedo gunboat, a “mote in god’s eye” compared to the rest of the Royal Navy. HMS Vesuvius was far less outrageous for her time compared to the Polyphemus, but for many Historians, this small craft has more merit and legitimacy for the title of “first torpedo boat” against the better known and celebrated HMS Lightning (1876). She was designed around a bow tube, to launch the brand new 16-inches (406 mm) Whitehead torpedo. She was both low in silhouette, small, and quiet, with her two shaft compound steam engines rated at 350 ihp. Her only problem was not to be fast enough, the craze of the day. She barely could reach nine knot when the sea was a lake. Laid down in 1873 she was completed in 1874.

-The second was a much more “Vernian” proposition, which appeared when submersibles were already a wartime reality, between the American Hunley and Alligator and the Spanish Ictineo and French Plongeur. But she was a surface ship, looking like a bit like a submarine with overgrown superstruture. An all-steel 2640 tonnes cigar-shaped miracle of empiric hydro-dynamism, she was a torpedo ram, using her top speed of 18 knots, reinforced bow to presumably open the flank of an enemy vessel while retaining the capability of launching five torpedoes simultaneously underwater.

Her monitor/submarine low hull was intended to bounce projectiles up. A very interesting prototype, she served from September 1882 to the late 1890s so a bit far away to out topic. But will deserve her own post. Her breed was soon eclipsed by torpedo cruisers, themselves replaced by destroyers. About the same time (1878) appeared the HMS Hecla, first torpedo depot ship, carrying 2nd class TBs.

Work in progress. Since it’s a massive project, new ships will be added over time and updates made on Facebook and twitter.


Chesnau, Roger and Kolesnik, Eugene (Ed.) Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1860-1905. Conway
The 27-knotters on wikipedia
White 27-knotters on navypedia
On the mid-Victorian Navy
Colledge, J. J.; Warlow, Ben (2006). Ships of the Royal Navy: The Complete Record of all Fighting Ships of the Royal Navy (Rev. ed.). London
Winfield, Rif (2014) British Warships in the Age of Sail 1817–1863: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. Seaforth Publishing.
Winfield, R.; Lyon, D. (2004). The Sail and Steam Navy List: All the Ships of the Royal Navy 1815–1889. London
“News in Brief”. The Times (22262). London. 12 January 1856
“Naval and Military Intelligence”. The Times (22278). London. 31 January 1856.
Archived book: The “three panics” by Richard Cobden

Author: naval encyclopedia

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2 thoughts on “Royal Navy 1870

  1. I am looking for information on the HMS Inquisitor. Ancestor John Frederick Mitchell is listed as either surgeon or retired surgeon of the HMS Inquisitor when he married Julia Elizabeth Glenwright March 1870 in Simonstown, Cape Colony. (She was underage.) I haven’t been able to find anything on this ship. Will you please help?

    1. Hello Doug, no info unfortunately on the HMS Inquisitor on my 1860-1905 volume in Frigates or sloops, even pre-1860, so i assume the ship was less than gunboat-size, as i went in the register as far as 1840s 2-6 guns screw gunvessels and paddle gunboats. It could have been pre-1840s as well, although if wooden, it’s unlikely to have survived until 1870. I know this is no reference, but nothing in here either: Best of luck with your quest !

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