THE TASMANIAN GOVERNMENT decided in 1883 to form an engineer torpedo corps, and by 11th June that year the unit was in operation. Commanded by Captain Boddam, and with Lieutenant Henry as instructor in electricity, the corps got off to a good start. One of the main pieces of equipment was to be a 63 foot spar torpedo boat, which was ordered from Thornycroft’s in England, and built under the Yard Number of 191.
To put the corps on a professional basis, the services of an instructor was sought from the Royal Engineers of the British Army, and a good recruit was signed up. He was Quarter Master Sergeant J. Falconer, RE, a man who was to prove exceedingly popular with the colonials, and also a man who really knew his job.
No. 191 was built as a part of an order for eight second class torpedo boats of one basic type, four for New Zealand, and four for Australian Colonial Governments. The boat underwent trials on the Thames on 24th January 1884, attaining a mean speed of 17.221 knots, after making six runs over the measured mile. The spar torpedo gear was tested at 12 knots, with circling runs to both port and starboard, with good results. Trials completed, No. 191 was placed aboard the steamer Abington for delivery to Hobart. On 1st May 1884, the torpedo boat was off-loaded in Hobart, and then towed to John Lucas’ Boatyard, at Battery Point, Hobart, to have her machinery fitted. The propulsion unit is described as ‘Compound, surface condensing, air pump worked by a rocker arm from LP cylinder. Locomotive boiler with Belpair fire box, 130 PSI working pressure. McEvoy spar torpedo.’
Evidently there was no great appreciation of the maintenance of the boat, as on 14th June 1884, Colonel W.V. Legge, Commandant Tasmanian Forces, wrote to the Chief Secretary requesting that a mechanic be appointed as caretaker, with the main duty of getting the boat into working order. The next time that No. 191 came into the news was the visit by Chief Engineer W. Giles and Lieutenant T.C. Fenton of HMS Nelson, on 10th October 1884, when they were requested to investigate the failure of the generator (termed by these officers as ‘dynamo-electric machinery‘). In their report, these officers stated that steam had been raised and the boat given a trial run, the trial being reported as successful. At this time the boat was housed in a specially built boathouse, and appears to have spent more time out of the water than in. It appears that a Mr. Pitfield had been engaged as the engineer of the boat, and it was probably he that supervised the fitting of the machinery.
In August 1885, the Chief Inspector of Machinery for Tasmania reported on the general condition of No. 191. Steam was raised, the machinery tested and found correct. All that remained was a steaming trial to find out how the boat acted under full power conditions.
On 3rd August 1885, No. 191 was launched and prepared for her trials, the first to be held on 7th August. Colonel Legge and the Hobart Harbour Master came aboard for the run, the latter to take the bearings for the speed runs. Mr. Pitfield was in charge of the machinery, and there were no complaints about his handling of the main engines. The same cannot be said about the fireman. This man seems to have been a novice when it came to naval locomotive type boilers fitted with forced draught. During the trial, the steam pressure dropped from 120 psi to 72 psi, with a corresponding drop in speed. At the start of the trial run the main engine was ticking over at 550 RPM, but was down to 440 with the steam pressure drop. A second trial was held, with much the same result. Steam pressure was taken up to 150 psi, but this dropped to 72 psi. RPM at the beginning of the run were 600, but could not be held. A third trial was also a failure.