HMS Trincomalee (image 1) was for eighteen years a Royal Naval Reserve drill ship in Southampton Water. A teak-built 46-gun frigate from the Wadia Shipyard in Bombay [Mumbai], she was launched on 20 October 1817. Her first twenty-five years were spent in the reserve fleet. She was converted into a faster, smaller 26-gun corvette in the mid-1840s and saw service in the Crimean War, in North America, the West Indies and the Pacific, surveying off the coast of British Columbia. She was paid off in 1857 as effectively obsolete. In 1860 the Trincomalee became one of seven training ships established for the newly-formed Royal Naval Reserve. Recommissioned at Chatham on 16 December, she was based at Sunderland between January 1861 and December 1862 as a tender to the existing drill ship HMS Castor and – as an independent command – at West Hartlepool between December 1862 and February 1877. She was fitted with new 61/2 ton 7 inch rifled muzzle loading guns in December 1872.

The Admiralty decision to move the Trincomalee to Southampton was announced in September 1876. Royal Naval Reservists had hitherto been trained on HMS Hector, 18 guns, an ironclad commissioned in 1861 and from May 1868 stationed off Netley Hospital as the guardship of the Southern Reserve Fleet. The reservists were to be cleared out of the Hector, now retained solely for coast-guard service, and transferred to the Trincomalee.

The decision was welcomed in Southampton, not least because the Hector was frequently off station at Cowes, acting as the royal guardship when the Queen was at Osborne House (Hampshire Advertiser, 20 and 30 September 1876; Southampton Times, 23 September 1876). The West Hartlepool Improvement Commissioners petitioned the Admiralty – through their local MP – for the Trincomalee to be retained. This was rejected, and she was not replaced. “Her departure is deeply regretted in the town” (Weekly Gazette [published in Middlesbrough], 10 February 1877.

The Trincomalee left Hartlepool on the late evening tide on 5 February 1877, under tow from the Portsmouth-based HMS Valorous, an 11-gun paddlewheel frigate. The convoy arrived in Southampton Water on 8 February, the Valorous leaving her charge at the Hector’s buoy off Netley. The following day the steam tug Grinder came up from Portsmouth and towed the Trincomalee to her permanent mooring – approved by Southampton Harbour and Pier Board on the advice of the Harbour master William Burbidge – on the edge of the Gymp opposite the Town Quay and away from the navigation channels. She was moored ‘on all fours’ – with two anchors forward and two aft (Hampshire Advertiser, 10 February 1877).

A month later she suffered slight damage when HMS Tay, a gunboat in the steamboat Reserve on machinery trials, ran foul of her (Hampshire Advertiser, 7 March 1877).

The Trincomalee was a disappointment. She was not the full-rigged ship that many in Southampton expected to see: in no sense a replacement for the 72-gun HMS Boscawen, a training ship capable of accommodating up to 500 boys which had been a prominent feature of the upper Southampton Water between March 1862 and late 1866. The Trincomalee was a mere hulk, demasted (apart from one mast stump) and without rigging, intended for men “well trained in going aloft” and wanted only for “gunnery drills” (Hampshire Advertiser, 10 February 1877). “The Trincomalee will be a poor substitute for a regular training ship, with her hundreds of active youngsters; but she will be better than nothing” (Southampton Times, 23 September 1876).

The Southampton Board of Guardians almost immediately began a campaign for a training ship for pauper boys to be established in Southampton Water (Hampshire Telegraph, 7 April 1877). Permission for “ball and cannon practice from the vessel on the opposite side to the town, across the Gymp” was given by Southampton Pier and Harbour Board on 17 April 1877. The gun would only be a six-pounder, the charge would be small, there would be no firing except when the mud was covered, a large flag would be exhibited when the firing exercise was going on, and boats would also warn any vessels coming up or down the river (Hampshire Advertiser, 18 April 1877). The purpose was to fire from the starboard side of the ship to a target on the western edge of the Gymp bank, a distance of something like 1,270 yards, and the balls would not carry above 700 or 800 yards (Henry Abraham, Chairman of the Board and Mayor of Southampton: ditto). The affected area was navigable only at high water, when gunnery practice was forbidden.

Southampton became the headquarters of the Royal Naval Reserve for the Southern district shortly after the arrival of the Trincomalee. Reservists gave a few weeks each year for their training. In the first week, “there were quite 100 at drill on board”. The average since then has been about 80 (Hampshire Advertiser, 28 April 1877).

The Trincomalee was a familiar sight from Southampton’s quayside until her removal further down Southampton Water in October 1892. She was routinely decked out for royal anniversaries and was a convenient marker for local yachting regattas.

Rarely a subject for photographers, she can be seen in a photo-engraving of the new Royal Pier, c.1891/2, published in The Cabinet Album views of Southampton and neighbourhood (image 3), and, more clearly, in a photograph of the pier in the 1880s reproduced in Bert Moody, Southampton railways, 1992, page 105.

She was absent for a short time in April 1881 when she was towed to Portsmouth for refurbishment – a new upper deck and galley were added – and for her armament to be exchanged. Two government lighters overhauled her moorings in her absence (Hampshire Advertiser, 13 and 23 April 1881).

Census returns for April 1881 and April 1891 give a snapshot of her crew, both on board and ashore (RG11 1215 ff12-14 and RG12 0921, ff84-5 respectively). Analysis of the 1881 data forms part of a now somewhat outdated article – ‘HMS Trincomalee in Southampton’ – in The //Journal of Southampton Local History Forum, no.7. Summer 1998, pp 10-16. In both censuses the shipboard contingent included the gunner (Thomas Murray in 1881; John Kirby in 1891), the gunner’s wife and their children.

The annual return for the Trincomalee was printed in the Hampshire Advertiser, 25 April 1891:

Expenses: £384 for maintenance and £441 for ammunition.
Pay and allowances: Commander £589; Fleet surgeon £626; Fleet paymaster £528; Gunner £178; Two chief officers £143; Chief-writer £99; Four ship’s corporals £236; Carpenter’s mate £56; Armourer £62; Twelve able-bodied seamen £375; Sick-berth attendant £24; One domestic £20.
Allowance in lieu of provisions, £27.7s.6d. to each of the chief petty-officers, chief-writer, etc £630. Total £3,566.
Seventeen officers and 421 men drilled during the year.
Ship’s armament: a 5 inch breech-loader, a 7 inch 61/2 too, and one 64-pounder muzzle-loader, and one 100-pounder smooth bore with two Nordenfelts, 80 rifles, 12 pistols and 80 drill swords.
Rifle and pistol practice takes place at Millbrook Volunteer rifle range, and floating target, 21/2 miles distant.

The Admiralty was asked to move the Trincomalee to a less congested part of the harbour in May 1892 (Hampshire Advertiser, 18 May 1892: meeting of Southampton Harbour Board, 17 May). The increasing number of yachts and other vessels using the anchorage ground made the present site untenable from both a navigational and a financial point of view. Part of the summer fleet of yachts was already being driven away to Cowes and Gosport (Hampshire Advertiser, 22 April 1893: letter from Henry Owen of the Steam Yacht Lady Bell referring to the dispersal of yachts the previous year). A nearby coal hulk had been removed a short while before. The Trincomalee’s captain was against shifting the vessel except to the Empresss Dock (Hampshire Advertiser, 22 June 1892), but a compromise was reached three months later when the Admiralty accepted the Board’s proposal to berth the vessel immediately below the Gymp.

Government tugs towed her away on 18 October 1892, first to a temporary anchorage off Netley Hospital and then, after her original moorings had been relocated, to her new position near the Lower Gymp Buoy, almost in line with the head of the Empress Dock (Hampshire Advertiser, 22 October 1892). The mooring is marked on Admiralty Chart 2040, 1879 with corrections to 1895. A new steam launch was provided in early 1893: perhaps because access was now more difficult.

Stationery, wooden-walled training ships were by the 1890s an anachronism. The Times, 4 October 1895, described the Trincomalee as “an obsolete ship with obsolete armament”. Alternative uses were needed if the vessel was to remain in Southampton. At the height of the 1893 cholera scare, the Borough Medical Officer of Health, Dr A Wellesley Harris, had recommended that “the best form of Port Hospital for Southampton would be a wooden vessel similar to HMS Trincomalee” (Annual report of the Port of Southampton, 1892 [published 1893], p 76). The Secretary to the Admiralty was asked by Thomas Chamberlayne MP “whether, in view of the fact that the Trincomalee would shortly cease to be used as a training ship at Southampton, he would suggest to the government that she be handed over free of charge to the sanitary authority at that port as a floating hospital for cholera cases” (House of Commons, 11 July 1893). The Admiralty Secretary denied that the Trincomalee was to be given up. The City of Adelaide was brought to Southampton later that year (Veronica Green, ‘The floating hospital //City of Adelaide//: controlling infectious disease in the town and port of Southampton, 1893-1923’: //Southampton Occasional Papers//, 7, 2014).

Southampton was host for almost two years to what are now amongst the most famous and well-visited preserved ships in the world: the Trincomalee –the oldest Royal Navy ship still afloat - at Hartlepool and the City of Adelaide – the oldest surviving clipper ship - in Australia.

The following May, on rumours that the Trincomalee would be sold and chopped up, Southampton Town Council requested the Admiralty that it be converted into a training ship for boys, so that “hundreds of their waifs and strays would be trained to an honourable career, and would feed the mercantile marine as well as the Royal Navy” (Hampshire Advertiser, 12 May 1894: Charles Hardiman, Town Council meeting 9 May). An improbable suggestion, it was scotched by Captain Frederick Edwards, Conservative councillor for Portswood and commander of the Trincomalee between 1884 and 1889, who strongly advised the deputation to the Admiralty “not to ask for the Trincomalee because such an application would be refused straight away as the vessel was not fit for the training of boys, as it did not possess the necessary accommodation”.

HMS Trincomalee was replaced by HMS Medusa, a newly-built, well-armed third-class cruiser with a complement of 84 men, in late 1895. The Medusa was commissioned – together with her sister ship HMS Medea, destined to replace the equally archaic HMS Castor at North Shields - at Chatham on 12 October 1895. Portsmouth riggers had already laid down her moorings in Southampton Water (The Times, 4 October 1895), and by 8 December (Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper) the Medusa had taken up her berth in Southampton Water as the training ship for the Royal Naval Reserve. Stores had been transferred from the Trincomalee. The same newspaper had reported on 13 October 1895 that the Trincomalee would not be removed from Southampton as originally intended but “will be used still for the ordinary purposes of Royal Naval reserve drill”, with the Medusa used “for going to sea with reserve officers and men, to give them an opportunity of learning the working of modern guns in a seaway”. This came to naught.

The Trincomalee left Southampton Water in February 1896, taken alongside the sheer jetty at Portsmouth on 12 February to have her guns and gun mountings lifted (Hampshire Telegraph, 15 February 1896). It was rumoured that she was to be converted into a police ship. She was, however, left in reserve until sold to Read’s Shipbreakers of Portsmouth Camber – for £1,323 - on 19 May 1897 for breaking up.

She was saved from the breakers in June 1897, purchased by Commander Geoffrey Wheatley Cobb as a replacement for his private training ship Foudroyant, lost off Blackpool in a storm. After a five-year refit at Cowes, the Trincomalee – renamed the Foudroyant in 1903 – served as a boys’ training ship at Falmouth, Milford Haven and, for fifty-five years, at Portsmouth. She was twice in Southampton docks: for a refit by Harland and Wolff in No.5 dry dock in 1972 and for a hull survey by Husbands in No.4 dry dock. Splendidly restored, the Trincomalee has since 2001 been berthed afloat in Hartlepool Historic Quay (image 2), promoted as “one of the most important ships in the world”.

1. HMS Trincomalee

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Lithograph by T G Dutton after a painting by G F St John, now in the National Maritime Museum.

2. Trincomalee in Hartlepool Harbour

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Photograph, August 1996

3. Detail from the New Royal Pier Engraving

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From the Cabinet Album views of Southampton and neighbourhood, c.1892. The Trincomalee is in the upper right centre of the illustration.

Further reading:

Trincomalee: the last of Nelson’s Frigates, by Andrew Lambert.
HMS Trincomalee, 1817 Frigate, by Wyn Davies and Max Mudie.


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