A must attraction if you ever visit Portsmouth UK.
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.
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translated to the region of £25 million pounds – but, so quickly did technology develop, that within ten years she was out of date and ready to be replaced.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.
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.
Photo Credit to Sue Woodbridge