Sunday, 5 June 2011

HMS Lord Clyde - the worst ship in Victoria's Navy

When she was launched the Lord Clyde was theoretically one of the strongest ships in the most powerful navy in the world. She was also a milestone in naval design, but not in a good way. It's possible that the Royal Navy has had worse ships, but apart from the Mary Rose it's hard to think of any.

It was due to the narrow window of time in which she was designed, the Royal Navy was intellectually convinced of the need for ironclads warships, but didn't really know how to make them yet - and there was an awful lot of timber and sail cloth in store.

For a start, her basic shape was completely wrong, she rolled so much her gun ports went under water during sea trials. The Lord Clyde and her sister ship the Lord Warden were the worst bad weather ships in the Victorian navy, but of the two the Lord Clyde was worse. Even in 1867, Blackwoods Magazine was reporting that she rolled 12 degrees in mild weather, and up to 30 degrees in windy, not even stormy, conditions.

Although she was technically "ironclad", her hull used a lot of oak, two and a half feet thick behind eight inches of armour. The idea was that this would defeat even the 15-inch Dahlgren guns carried by the American monitors at the time (the Trent affair being fresh in everyone"s minds). Unfortunately, the supposed surplus of seasoned timber, which was part of the justification of her existence, was found not to exist at all, and she was built with large amounts of unseasoned wood. This was to have disastrous consequences.

The entire crew, except the most senior officers, bedded down on the lower deck, denied sunlight and ventilation as the scuttles, hatches opening to the outside, were only a few feet above the waterline and couldn't be opened if the ship was moving. The sick list of ships with this design was always higher than with ships with crew accommodation on the higher main deck.

Anyway, in 1866 HMS Lord Clyde was commissioned, with an unfortunate crew of 605 and twenty-four 7 inch muzzle-loading rifled guns. Four of these were in an armoured battery facing forward, which left a broadside of 10 guns each side. She also huge ram on the front, though this was perhaps optimistic given her speed, and in fact probably contributed to the disaster that was to come at Malta.


Using the term loosely. She started in the Channel fleet in May 1866, but by 1868 she was sent down to the Mediterranean where the waters are calmer and she stood a chance of firing her guns without sinking. The main threat there was, as ever, the French with the Illustrated London News of 1867 trumpeting her superiority to Emperor Napoleon's fleet. Then there was the Russian threat from the Black Sea, but a rising concern was the Italians, who after getting thrashed by the Austrians at Lissa were building a fleet of ironclads.

Although, even in 1867, the Lord Clyde was described as "one of the slowest of the ironnclads under sail" she was at least spectacular, with an incredible 31,000 sq ft of sail, allowing her only positive entrance in the record books, as the largest ship ever to enter Plymouth under sail. Unfortunately this was just as well as her engine broke down after just one cruise in the Med and she had to be sent home. Yet another failed design feature had been the use of a two cylinder engine which oscillated more than the hull could absorb, leading to wear and strain on the machinery. She was then quietly put in the reserve.

In 1870 though she was re-armed with two 9 inch muzzle-loading, fourteen 8 inch muzzle-loading and two 7 inch muzzle loading rifled guns, and in September 1871 re-commissioned and sent back to the Mediterranean.

Over Christmas 1871 Lord Clyde was stationed in Malta, where on Friday afternoon 2nd February the crew hosted a dance. According to an eye witness it was not a success, although "the ladies dresses were short as a rule, and a lot of leg was shewn", "the deck was damp and quite sticky and one soon got quite tired of dancing as your feet began to stick to the deck. Two ladies lost the heels of their shoes".

Valetta Harbour, Malta, in the 1870s

In March 1872 she was given something useful to do, going to the aid of a British steamer off Malta. Unfortunately she then went aground herself.....

"Anchors were laid out, coal jettisoned, guns, ammunition and stores hoisted over the side into small casters from the island hired on the spot, and everything possible done to lighten her, but she remained a fixture except to sway in the swell from the open sea, strain her back, and wrench off her sternpost, rudderpost and rudder. .... an officer was dispatched by a passing steamer to Malta, where the Lord Warden was lying as flagship and came at once to pull her crippled sister off and return to port. This proved an extremely difficult job even when she was afloat again, as she yawed about so violently without a rudder when in tow, as to pull the sister in charge all over the place. It took three days to travel a distance that could ordinarily be covered in less than one, and all the while she was leaking at a steady rate of 2 feet (1 m) per hour.

On arrival at Malta she had to be docked with great care on account of the badly damaged state of her bottom; and the yard reported that it would take six months to repair. The inevitable court martial meanwhile sentenced the gallant Bythesea and his navigating officer to be severely reprimanded and dismissed their ship, with the result that neither was ever employed again. On receipt of the report from Malta the Admiralty decided that only sufficient external repair for a passage home was to be carried out, but even that required half a year and cost a lot of money… She was escorted home by the Defence, with a navigating party on board supplied from that vessel; and on arrival at Plymouth her engines, boilers and hold fittings were removed to ascertain what internal repairs were required.”

“This disclosed a disastrous state of affairs as a consequence of insufficiently seasoned wood having become prey to the germs of timber fungus from bow to stern… Every remedy known to the expert science of the day, including chemical antidotes, was tried in turn, but to no purpose… It was hoped that perhaps she might serve for a time as a drill hulk attached to the Portsmouth gunnery school... but after nearly three years of ceaseless though unsuccessful curative treatment even that idea had to be abandoned, as she was sinking into decay so fast that she had to be sold before being too far gone to find a purchaser.

She was sold for scrap in 1875 for £3,730.

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