- Thurston, H. J.
- Ship histories and stories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1979 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
IF A SINGULAR BRITISH WARSHIP could be called the harbinger of the formation of the Royal Australian Navy, that warship is HMS Nelson.
The Colonial Defences Act of 1865 provided for a definite Colonial defence policy, whereby some of the Australian states were able to provide, maintain and use their own vessels, under prescribed conditions and were to raise and maintain seamen and volunteers for the Royal Naval Reserve.
In NSW, in 1881, the Admiralty gave the naval brigade the screw-corvette Wolverene as a training ship, and on 29th of June 1881, Commodore James Elphinstone Erskine hoisted his broad pennant at Chatham in HMS Nelson, an armour belted cruiser, and flagship of the Imperial Squadron on the Australian Station.
Commodore Erskine arrived in HMS Nelson in Sydney Harbour on 8th January 1882, amid an impending Russian war scare and great jubilation from the citizens of Sydney.
HMS Nelson had been built at Glasgow by John Elder and Co., in 1876 and is described as an armour belted ship, twin screw, 12 guns. She was a sister ship of the Northampton.
Her length between perpendiculars was 280 feet and her breadth was 60 feet. Load draught forward was 24 feet 6 inches and aft, 27 feet 3 inches. Displacement loaded was 7,986 tons, depth of hold, 23 feet 8½ inches and height of midports above waterline was 12 feet 3 inches. Overall length was 301 feet and including the ram, was 310 feet.
180 feet of the centre section was armoured – the protection extended downward for 9 feet below the shotproof lower deck, and tapered from 9 inches to 7 inches in thickness.
The battery was on a 2 inch armoured deck, which covered the engines and boilers amidships, as well as having protected the steering gear aft.
They were the last major warships to carry the main armament on the broadside and between decks. They were also the first armoured ships to have a protective deck at the ends and the first with heavy belt armour.
John Elder and Co. were also the makers of the two pairs of two cylinder, inverted, compound, direct acting engines. The high pressure cylinders were 60 inches diameter and the low pressure cylinders were 104 inches; length of stroke was 3 feet 6 inches; length of connecting rod was 7 feet.
There were ten boilers with three furnaces to each boiler. She had an engine rating of 6,640 horsepower. The capacity of the coal bunkers was 1,152 tons.
Nelson had two screw propellers, each of four blades, and the blades at the time of commissioning were 6 hundredweight heavier than those installed before her full speed trial at Devonport in February 1878, when one blade broke. Her speed was rated at 14 knots.
The name Nelson stood out in gold letters at the stern, and on the break of the bridge was displayed the words of the famous signal of her equally famous namesake, ‘England expects that every man will do his duty‘.
Her mainmast was 172 feet above deck, the foremast was 162 feet, and the mizzen 125 feet. She carried 9,186 square feet of canvas.
The main armament comprised four 18 ton 10-inch rifled muzzle loading guns and eight 12 ton 9-inch muzzle loading guns – all twelve guns on the main deck. The 10-inch guns fired a shell weighing 400 pounds and these were accurate up to 4,800 yards. In addition six breech-loading guns were carried on the upper deck as well as ten Nordenfelt machine guns and four Gardner guns.
In addition to the guns mentioned, the Nelson carried two steel 65 foot torpedo boats armed with two torpedoes each. Each torpedo boat crew consisted of one officer and nine seamen and stokers. The torpedo boats had a speed of 16 knots – two knots faster than the Nelson.
In spite of all this heavy armament and the two torpedo boats the ship also carried a large number of rifles and also over 200 swords, 30 boarding axes and 90 boarding pikes.
The ship’s company consisted of 33 officers, 8 Chief Petty Officers, 66 Petty Officers, 200 seamen, 37 other ratings, 19 Domestics, 42 Boys, 73 Engine Room Artificers (including 11 Leading Stokers and 45 Stokers), 77 Royal Marines, a total of 555.
The Commodore, Staff Commander and Commodore’s Secretary had cabins on the Main Deck, with an additional cabin for visiting dignitaries, while a large fore cabin was used for Courts Martial, and a large deck space aft of the fore cabin was used for the dispensations of Petty Sessions and Divine Service, when the ship’s company attended on Sundays. The Lower Deck accommodated the officer’s wardroom and cabins, mess and galley, and Sick Bay; and lower were the ‘Flats’, some four feet below the waterline, where the torpedo armourer’s workshop, store rooms, entrances to magazines, steam steering gear, sail room, band master’s store, chain lockers and other necessary workshops and stores were located.
Apart from carrying the Commodore’s barge, thirteen other boats were also carried, including a 48 foot Picket Boat, a sailing launch, a steam pinnace and a steam cutter.
On the 9th January 1882, the day after Nelson’s arrival in Sydney Harbour, Admiral J. C. Wilson visited the ship and two days later the Russian Admiral paid a visit. Both admirals were given 13 gun salutes.
It was on the 20th January that Commodore Erskine hoisted his broad pennant and assumed command of the Australian Station.
Nelson then underwent a thorough refit, coaled, provisioned and after an open day for visitors, she weighed and set sail for Hobart on the 11th February. Later voyages took Nelson to Melbourne, New Zealand, Fiji, Brisbane and Port Moresby. It is interesting to note that the ship arrived at Port Moresby on the 2nd November 1884 and on the 6th, Commodore Erskine, in the presence of a large number of native chiefs, proclaimed the Protectorate over what was to become British New Guinea, later Papua.
The Commodore’s broad pennant was hauled down from Nelson in Sydney Harbour on the 14th January 1885. The flag of Rear- Admiral George Tryon, CB, was then hoisted. In the two years that followed, Tryon established the prestige and power of an increasingly important command, which was to be followed by ten succeeding flag officers until 1913 when the last British Commander-in-Chief struck his flag. Tryon soon shifted from his Admiral’s cabin in the Nelson and took up residence in a fine mansion overlooking the harbour at Kirribilli, later to be known as Admiralty House. In 1893 as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, Tryon went down with his flagship Victoria when she collided with the Camperdown.
HMS Nelson was replaced as flagship of the Imperial Squadron in 1889 by the new First Class Cruiser HMS Orlando, a sister ship to the Australia. It was a sign of the times that the Orlando and her class were not rigged for sails.
In 1902 the Nelson became a training ship and in 1910 she was sold for breaking up.