When we think of royal yachts we invariably think of the most recent example, the Britannia. She was a beautiful ship, no doubt about it, a vessel of grace and style. But it's a little known fact that for a 100 years before Britannia ever slipped down the launching ways, the royal yachts of Britain were all built in the Royal Naval yards at Pembroke Dock.
Henry V sells the royal yachts
Many monarchs have had their personal or state yachts over the years. Sometimes there were as many as five or six of them, all operating at the same time. They were useful vessels, even though Henry V did his best to destroy the tradition. He simply sold off all the royal yachts owned by the crown in order to pay the very serious and growing debts of the monarchy – and, of course, to fund his wars with France.
Charles II resurrects yachts
After the restoration of Charles II in 1660 the idea of royal yachts was resurrected – with a vengeance. This pleasure loving king had no fewer than 25 of them during his reign, some small, others large and opulent. By the time Victoria succeeded to the throne in the early 1830s there were still five such yachts in service.
HMY Victoria & Albert during a royal visit to Le Treport, France; September 1843. (Image from Creative Commons *)
Victoria promptly requested a more “up to date” yacht and, after a few years, this was duly agreed. The new dockyard at Pembroke Dock was to be the chosen builder.
The dockyard, sitting at the furthest point of west Wales on glorious Milford Haven had only been created in 1814 but already it had acquired a reputation for quality workmanship. It was the logical choice to build the new royal yacht.
Victoria and Albert I
The Victoria and Albert I was laid down, built and duly launched on 26 April 1843, a steam powered, paddle driven vessel – the first steam powered royal yacht ever built in Britain.
Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, loved cruising around the coast of their kingdom in what was still a relatively small and compact vessel. They made 20 voyages on the yacht, occasionally venturing across to the continent but, in the main remaining in British coastal waters.
Conditions on board were a little spartan, as befitted the upright bearing and physical hardiness of Prince Albert. Victoria recorded in her journal on 20 September 1843 – when the yacht was still brand new – that she woke early on the first day of their cruise, “there being nothing as proper curtains to keep out the light".
Victoria and Albert II
A second Victoria and Albert was launched on 16 January 1855, a far more substantial and imposing vessel than anything that had gone before. Once again Pembroke Dockyard was honoured with the creation of the new ship, the vessel, this time, having the ability to make 15 knots on her steam driven twin paddles. Huge crowds flocked to west Wales to witness the launch and the Queen was, apparently, extremely pleased with her new yacht.
A vessel of some 2,470 tons, the Victoria and Albert II was crewed by 240 sailors from the Royal Navy - all of Victoria's royal yachts were not only built but also operated by the Navy. The Victoria and Albert II remained in service until 1900.
Victoria's third royal yacht
Pembroke Dock created a third royal yacht on 19 December 1870 when the Osborne went down the launching ways into the waters of Milford Haven. She was originally built for use by the Prince of Wales, King Edward VII as he later became, but Victoria promptly fell in love with the small vessel and used hers whenever she was able.
Designed by Edward Reed, the Osborne made regular visits to the continent but, like all royal yachts of the time, did not venture further afield. Any long range visits the sovereign decided to make were done either on warships, specially fitted out for the occasion, or on cruise liners that had been hired on a short lease.
The Alberta was not, technically speaking, a royal yacht. Launched from Pembroke Dock in 1863, she was listed as a “passage boat” or tender but Victoria, imperious as ever, decided she was to be her favourite yacht. Indeed, this tiny 370 ton vessel carried out the last act in the Queen's reign, carrying her body from the Isle of Wight to Portsmouth in February 1901.
Tragedy at sea
The Alberta was involved in a collision in the Solent on 18 August 1875 when, with Victoria on board, she ran down and sank the private yacht Mistletoe. Several members of the Mistletoe's crew and the sister-in-law of the owner were drowned. The commander of the royal yacht – Prince Victor of Leiningen – was severely criticized, at least in the press and by the public.
Investigation ruling provokes fury
The Admiralty Board that immediately ran an investigation into the affair concluded that the Prince was not to blame, his attention being taken up by attendance on the Queen. It was a decision that provoked fury in Portsmouth and Prince Victor was hissed and booed in the street. Queen Victoria, with regal disdain, put it down to “the rougher elements of the town.”
Victoria and Albert III
Pembroke Dock built a third Victoria and Albert, launching the first screw-driven royal yacht on 9 May 1899. The ship carried too much weight top side – including a huge traditional capstan so that the Queen could be entertained by watching sailors at work – and when sitting in the dry dock at Pembroke Dock she suddenly heeled over.
In an effort to discover what was wrong the Victoria and Albert was towed out to a buoy in the middle of the river and 400 dockyard maties made to run from one side of the ship to the other. Dangerous work, indeed.
Queen Victoria did not much like the look of her new yacht. However, she was destined never to sail on her as she was not ready for use until late 1901 – and by then Victoria had already died. The yacht did serve four other sovereigns and served as an accommodation vessel during World War Two before being broken up in the 1950s.
The Admiralty yacht Enchantress, built at Pembroke Dock in the 1860s, was also used by members of the royal family but is perhaps best remembered for taking Winston Churchill – then serving as First Lord of the Admiralty – on a cruise in 1912.
The battleship Renown
The battleship Renown was another Pembroke Dock ship (launched 8 May 1895) to be used as a royal yacht. She took the Duke and Duchess of Connaught on a royal tour to India in 1902 and was so successful that in February 1905 she was brought to Portsmouth for conversion into a royal yacht.
She subsequently took the Prince and Princess of Wales, later King George and Queen Mary, on yet another Indian visit and in 1907 was loaned to King Alfonso and Queen Victoria of Spain – all a far cry from her original function as a ship of war.
Pembroke Dockyard closed in 1926. It remains the only Royal naval dockyard ever to exist in Wales. And none of the 260 ships launched from the yards was more famous or more beautiful than its wonderful royal yachts.