On Wednesday 17 August, Dan Snow and Sian Williams take a trip to HMS Warrior at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in the latest in the series of National Treasures Live. There, the duo will experience what life was really like on a 19th-century ship and officially open the ship’s sick berth, a project that has been three years in its completion.
When you’re thinking about British history, it’s as well to remember the impact that geography has on the national story. Andrew Lambert phrases it nicely: ‘Britain is a maritime rather than a continental state, and therefore its icons of power are not fortresses or borders but warships and the dockyards that go with them.’
There’s one dockyard in Britain that holds three such icons of power. Now a major heritage attraction, it goes under the umbrella title of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. It famously holds Henry VIII’s Mary Rose and Nelson’s Victory, but the third member of the triumvirate, HMS Warrior, goes somewhat overlooked, even though hard to miss, sitting as she does just inside the entrance to the dockyard.
‘Victory tells us how Britain got to be the masters of the ocean,’ says Lambert. ‘Warrior shows us how, in the middle of the 19th century, the rising power of industrial technology was harnessed to maintain that status without the need to engage in conflict. Queen Victoria’s little wars were fought, therefore, against the backdrop of Britain being at peace with the great powers between 1856 and 1914. The reason for that was overwhelming naval power, and the most potent emblem of that is this transformational ship, the first iron-hulled, armour-clad ship armed with breech-loading rifle artillery.’
Warrior – long, fast and powered by sail or by its 26-tonne propeller (which took 400 men to raise out of the water) – was launched in 1860. Steam power had been introduced to Royal Navy ships in 1821, and over the next couple of decades, by using paddle-wheel and then propeller, it had become an important propulsion technology, to the ire of some of the more traditional proponents of the sailing ship. With new technology came a brief arms race, with Britain and France tussling to fill their fleets with as many wooden-hulled, steam-powered battleships as they could manage.
By the late 1850s, Britain had gained the upper hand, but the French then changed the rules by building a wooden-hulled, steam-powered, armour-plated battleship called La Gloire, which launched in 1859. The arms race was concluded when Britain quickly trumped this with the iron-hulled Warrior, which was, as Lambert notes, ‘…a massive technological solution to the problem of arms racing. The French simply gave up. It killed the competition stone dead. The British built half a dozen more like Warrior, and the French could do nothing about it.’
Interestingly, Warrior never actually saw much action. If it had been involved in battle, the navy would have hoped that its central armoured box design would have kept out the enemy’s attacks, while its own fearsome range of cannon would have penetrated its opponent’s defences. As it was, the most dangerous thing she ever did was to run into another Royal Navy battleship. Her great achievement was demonstrate Britain’s position of overwhelming naval strength and thereby keep the peace. ‘There was nobody out there who’d have dreamt of taking on Britain after they started producing ships like Warrior.’
You can see why when you pay a visit. She’s a big ship and it will take you a while to walk around her and to climb up and down through her decks. What you get immediately you step off the gangplank is a sense that she sits between two times: your line of sight is confused by steamship funnels, which are surrounded by huge, rope-ridden masts for sails.
Go below deck and the sense of transition is even more apparent. The gun deck, with its low ceilings and styling, feels and looks like that on the earlier, much smaller HMS Victory (which, of course, is also worth a visit), yet it’s home to a long line of much more modern-looking cannon. If you’re not quite sure which period you’re standing in, descend to the boiler- and engine-rooms and you’ll be in no doubt, as you walk along the row of ten iron boilers and into the huge engine room, that this is a 19th-century ship.
Warrior’s transitional nature is underlined by the fact that she became obsolete within a decade. In 1883 she was withdrawn from sea service. After a few more decades of various naval roles, she then had a long and somewhat undignified life as a floating oil jetty in Pembroke Docks. This did at least mean that she survived broadly intact, unlike every other ironclad of her time.
Although Portsmouth has a long history as a naval dockyard, Warrior wasn’t actually built here, but rather at the Thames Ironworks in London. Nevertheless, she does fit in well with the rest of the naval heritage attractions at the Historic Dockyard, which, along with the other historic ships, also has several museum displays. The Mary Rose, for all her venerable age and exciting rediscovery story, and the Victory, for her central role in one of Britain’s greatest maritime triumphs, both demand attention when you’re visiting of course. But what you don’t want to do is head straight past Warrior without a second glance because her story is just as interesting and important.
Nominated by Andrew Lambert, professor of history, King’s College London
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Victory Gate, HM Naval Base, Main Road,
Portsmouth, Hampshire PO1 3QX
023 9277 8604
This is an extract from the BBC History Magazine book 100 Places that made Britain, by David Musgrove, published on 2 June 2011