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HMS Warrior, the first iron clad warship

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 14:15 UK time, Friday, 2 September 2011

HMS Warrior was, for a brief period of ten years, the most powerful warship in the the Royal Navy. Yet she spent her last 50 years of active service as an oil hulk at Llanion on the River Cleddau in west Wales.

HMS Warrior in Portsmouth

HMS Warrior (All images kindly provided by HMS Warrior Preservation Trust)

These days, with the restored Warrior on public display at Portsmouth, the link between the most powerful ship in the world and Wales is barely remembered. Yet from 1929 through until August 1979 she was a common sight, nestled serenely against the wooded bank of the river, a reassuring landmark for anyone who sailed up the Cleddau from Milford or Pembroke Dock.

The Warrior was laid down at the private yards of CJ Mare, the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company as the business was called, as the Admiralty felt that no Royal Naval Dockyard had the skill or capacity to undertake such a job. She was launched on 29 December 1860, just over 18 months after building began.

She was built as a response to the French armoured warship La Gloire, which had been laid down a year before. Rumours of the French design had been troubling the Admiralty for months, nobody daring to believe that Britain's sea power might be seriously challenged.

However, when the design was complete, it was clear that the Warrior was to be bigger, faster, more fully armoured and equipped with better guns than the French vessel, thus easily maintaining Britain's supremacy at sea.

The Warrior was an iron hulled, armour plated battleship, powered by steam engines and armed with nearly twenty breach loading guns of various calibre. She was a frighteningly powerful ship, a vessel that, together with her sister ship Black Prince, soon became the pride of the Royal navy.

The winter of 1860/61 happened to be the coldest winter for half a century, and on the day of her launch the Warrior's iron hull actually froze to the launching ways. Six tugs had to tow the mighty warship into the river.

The Warrior immediately made every other capital warship totally redundant and the maritime nations of the world were soon falling over themselves to follow in Britain's footsteps and build ironclads of their own.

The Warrior had cost £357,000 to build - a figure that, these days, would be translated to the region of £25 million pounds - but, so quickly did technology develop, that within ten years she was out of date and ready to be replaced.

The Warrior saw active service all over the world but never fired her guns in anger. In her later years she became Guard Ship for Osborne House, Queen Victoria's favourite dwelling place on the Isle of Wight, and then on the River Clyde.

In 1904 she was taken to Portsmouth where she became part of the HMS Vernon torpedo school. It was a job she carried out for many years until the school "came ashore" and Warrior was once again redundant.

The admiralty planned to sell her for scrap but no-one was interested, despite the fact that she had armour plating that was nearly four feet thick - or perhaps that was the reason as it would have been the devil's own job to break her up. So she remained at Portsmouth, idle and useless, until in March 1929 it was decided to send her to Llanion on the Cleddau where she would operate as Oil Fuel Hulk No C77.

Over the next 50 years more than 5,000 ships docked against the Warrior's side to receive fuel from the oil tanks that were located further inland. Modifications had to be made to the hulk and tons of concrete were poured onto her upper deck, in order to make transfer of men and oil easier. It was a sad end for one of the most revolutionary and influential warships ever to float.

For the people of south Pembrokeshire the Warrior soon became a common sight as they went about their daily tasks. They sailed their boats past her, fished alongside her and, if they were lucky, were invited for a look around by Watchman who lived on board with his family. She became part of the scenery on that section of the river.

HMS Warrior in west Wales

HMS Warror at Llanion on the River Cleddau in west Wales

It was nothing short of criminal, however, to allow such an historic and important vessel to simply rot away. And in 1968 no less a person than the Duke of Edinburgh - himself a navy man - chaired a meeting to discuss the possibility of restoring this once proud ship to her former glory. The Maritime Trust was founded and negotiations continued right through the 1970s. Finally, however, an agreement was reached.

In August 1979 the Warrior was towed away down Milford Haven and brought around the coast to Hartlepool where she was moored in the Coal Dock and an £8 million pound restoration project was begun. It took eight years, one of the toughest jobs being to remove the concrete from her upper deck, but at last the task was complete.

In June 1987 the Warrior was taken to Portsmouth and opened to the public. Along with Nelson's Victory she now holds pride of place in the historic dockyard. And most visitors do not know that for 50 years this wonderful old ship lay as a derelict hulk on a backwater in west Wales.

You can visit HMS Warrior at Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard. See the HMS Warrior website for more information.


  • Comment number 1.

    “They sailed their boats past her, fished alongside her…” Now that rings a loud bell Phil. In the late ‘50s – early ‘60s I must have passed the Warrior when she was at Llanion hundreds of times, and fished alongside her on many occasions. There was a convenient ‘lug’ on her hull on the side nearest the shore on her port quarter, which a rope could be hitched to, then drop down alongside her on an ebb tide with an old coat as a fender and drop the fishing lines down beneath her hull. Allsorts would be caught – bass, mackerel, pollack, gullock (S. Pembs dialect for pouting) and herrings. Then home and hand them round the neighbours for which I would often get a few shillings which went in the ‘rabbit and fish money box.’

    “….Warrior was taken to Portsmouth and opened to the public.” Fast forward to 2001 and both my daughters have pitched ashore in Portsmouth. So what an opportunity when visiting them, to visit the Warrior now restored to her former glory. I must have been over her 5 or 6 times by now. Wonderful, and I would recommend to anyone interested in ships and the sea to visit her. And good photos of her can be had from the top of the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth – as you have seen Phil.

  • Comment number 2.

    Like you, Rog, I often fished alongside the old Warrior. My favourite memory, however, is of being asked, by the watchman, to come aboard and look around. I don't think I realised what a significant ship this really was - all naval vessels for the next hundred years after her launch were influenced by the Warrior. And interestingly - like the Dreadnought that came forty or fifty years after her (another revolutionary ship) she never fired her guns in anger!

  • Comment number 3.

    Sadly, I never got asked aboard Phil. How good that she was saved from the scrapyard and what a shame we have not saved some more of our maritime heritage - say a 'Queen Elizabeth' class battleship from WW1 and an 'Indomitable' Carrier from WW2, and many others besides.

    You mentioned the concrete on the upper deck of Warrior Phil. That was done in the dry dock at Milford where they used to take Warrior for a ‘refit’ now and again. It was a tight squeeze to get her through the lock gates into Milford Docks by all account. I knew a guy who worked on the job of concreting the upper deck and he told me that they stripped the original teak deck off first and decided to burn it! Sacrilege! Apparently it took 2 weeks to burn. When they restored Warrior in Hartlepool they put a pitch pine deck on her, but it wasn’t old growth ‘Dockyard’ pitch pine but plantation grown and it started to rot. The last time I was on board her they were in the process of re-laying her upper deck with Teak. Her ‘tween decks are still the original teak, as is the backing to the iron hull. It’s fascinating to see how well it has lasted.


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