UK: Royal Navy’s Warship HMS Britannia Celebrates Its 150-Year Bond with Dartmouth

Royal Navy's Warship HMS Britannia Celebrates Its 150-Year Bond with Dartmouth

The Royal Navy’s officer corps will celebrate their 150-year association with the town of Dartmouth in 2013. An all-star concert by former Royal Marines musicians in March kick-starts anniversary events which mark the arrival of HMS Britannia on the Dart back in 1863.

The spiritual home of the Royal Navy’s officer corps will celebrate 150 years of their association with Dartmouth and the River Dart in 2013.

Back in September 1863 the man o’war HMS Britannia sailed up the Dart, forging a bond between the Royal Navy and the small Devon town which has never been broken.

The first anniversary event to celebrate those ties will be an ‘all-star’ band concert at Britannia Royal Naval College – the imposing red brick building which has come to dominate the town and which replaced the hulks on the river.

Former members of the band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Dartmouth will reunite to perform on Saturday March 30, kicking off ‘Britannia 150’.

Back in 1863, HMS Britannia was a cadet training ship carrying onboard about 230 boys from affluent families whose long-term plan was for their sons to become Royal Navy officers.

The Victorian RN decided that a common foundation was needed to train the next generation of Officers. Previously boys, like a young Nelson, were sent straight to sea to receive their training under a Naval Captain usually known to the family. A few were sent to the Naval Academy in Portsmouth.

In fact Portsmouth was originally the location for the new cadet training ship with Britannia moored at Haslar Creek.

BRNC archivist Doctor Jane Harrold said:

“It was soon decided that Portsmouth was not the best place to teach young boys.

“In fact one report describes ‘the fleshpot of Portsmouth’ and so a good harbour, with access to the sea, away from temptations was sought.

“The French and Germans also located their colleges in similar areas.”

After a brief spell at Portland, which proved to be unsuitable because of the windy conditions, HMS Britannia arrived in Dartmouth to be greeted by townsfolk who lined the harbour wall. Although the ship had been towed most of the way it was the last time she would be under full sail.

The cadets schooled onboard arrived at the age of 12¾, among them were the grandsons of Queen Victoria, the Duke of Clarence and the future George V.

The boys spent three or four years as cadets learning traditional academic subjects and also seamanship and navigation.

They were taught by Naval instructors and civilian teachers, the first of which was the Rev J C P Aldous, who was appointed the Chief Naval Instructor in April 1875. The Rev Aldous was a Dartmouth resident and had a house and family ashore.

Dr Harrold said:

“The boys didn’t join the Royal Navy properly until they left the school.

“They were mainly the sons of middle ranking officers who could pay for their sons’ education, but couldn’t afford the more well known public schools such as Eton.

“It was really a case of social engineering to keep the Navy supplied with the right sort of boy. Although there was an expectation that the Cadets would join the Royal Navy, some didn’t.

“However for the majority they did what they were told by their parents and once immersed into the culture they decided to stay.

“The boys would sleep in hammocks and wear Naval uniform.

“It was a very unhealthy ship, there were lots of outbreaks of measles, mumps, flu and other illnesses, but the Dartmouth boys were well fed and, in many cases were better built and stronger in comparison to other boys their age.”

Overcrowding onboard soon became an issue and in 1864 another ship, HMS Hindostan, arrived to supplement the accommodation. HMS Hindostan was an old two-deck ship of 74 guns.

She was one of a number of ships built for the Royal Navy in India from locally supplied teak. The ships were given names associated with the country. Hindostan was built in Bombay and was launched in 1841.

The original Britannia quickly became too old and leaky and was replaced by HMS Prince of Wales in 1869, which was immediately renamed.

The new Britannia had not seen active service.

The practice for the wooden Navy was to build hulks and then hold them in reserve, fitting them out as and when required. As the ironclad warships came into commission these hulks became redundant and alternative uses needed to be found for them.

Health concerns and a requirement for even more accommodation were the reasons for moving ashore and the College building of today was opened in 1905. The idea of using hulks also became somewhat outdated.

Dr Harrold said:

“Set against the rise of Germany and the need to create a modern fighting force, it was decided that training future Royal Navy Officers on old wooden hulks didn’t create the right image of Britain’s continuing Naval power.”

Hindostan left Dartmouth almost immediately and was broken up in 1920. HMS Britannia remained and was used for seamanship training and as a floating classroom, before eventually being towed away in 1916.

College Curator Dr Richard Porter said:

“Dynamite was required to blow her apart, the ship was that well built. Her copper bottom was used for the First World War effort.”

Today the small Devonshire town is synonymous with the RN’s officer cadre.

Around 400 cadets a year pass through the College – one in ten is female and, while the RN remains by far the heaviest user, in 2012 budding officers from 20 different nations, including Yemen, Singapore, Kuwait and Nigeria, passed out of Britannia.

Naval Today Staff, January 31, 2013; Image: Royal Navy