HMS Excellent 1830-1930

I was shopping in Chichester last week when I came across the centenary history of the gunnery school at Portsmouth, published by Charpentier of Portsmouth.  The famous Excellent, Collingwood’s ship, ended her days moored in Portsmouth Harbour, and the earliest formal courses of instruction were held in her around 1830.  Soon afterwards the Admiralty formalised the arrangement of the Gunnery School as HMS Excellent and the name was carried by several ships moored in the harbour to house the school.  Eventually the establishment moved onto Whale Island in the 1890s, and with the changes in naval weaponry after World War II the original purpose of the establishment changed too.  Excellent was recommissioned in 1994 after several years’ lapse as the command for Whale Island, which as the MoD page shows is still a vital part of naval organisation.

I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet (I have a long list of stuff to get through first) but as the plates in it were so fascinating, I snapped a few and they appear here.  They are a bit fuzzy as I took them with the phone on my camera, but hopefully they come across well enough to be worthwhile.

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I was in a bookshop and luckily this was sat at the end of a row of books, otherwise I might not have spotted it as there is absolutely nothing on the spine.  But the cover has this marvellous plate of a painting by Harold Wyllie (son of the great WL Wyllie) and it immediately caught my eye.

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The Wyllie plate again as frontispiece, and the title page.  Charpentier were based in the High Street, and were devastated during the Blitz along with so many other historic businesses and homes.  The image below is from a different book, “The Portsmouth That Has Passed”, and it tells the story better than I can:

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We make fairly little fuss about the devastation of so much of our historic city, perhaps influenced by the wartime necessity of discretion in order not to give information to the Germans about the effect of their bombing.  Perhaps also we are conscious that post-war “reconstruction” entailed much further destruction of heritage which today would attract outrage and be forestalled.  Although the Luftwaffe bombed large parts of Portsmouth to rubble, HM Dockyard was their first target and they did less well against it than they would have liked.

But to get back to HMS Excellent,

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This is the ex-HMS Boyne, which was renamed Excellent in 1834 and was moored in Fountain Lake.  She served as the home of the Gunnery School until 1859, when she was replaced by HMS Queen Charlotte, which was also then renamed Excellent.

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This illustration of a gun deck around 1850 will look familiar to anyone who has been on HMS Victory or HMS Warrior, two ships built almost a hundred years apart.  In all that time the nature of naval warfare changed little, although things moved on much more quickly from the 1860s.

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This map of the harbour and Whale Island in 1862 shows Excellent with Illustrious moored ahead of her.  The Gunnery School had already expanded beyond the original ship, and Excellent and Illustrious both shot at targets out in the harbour.  There was a reasonable trade in recovering the shot at low tide and returning it to the school!

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At that time Whale Island itself was just two small low-lying islands, the larger of which was used as a rifle range.  From 1867, the islands were built up and joined using spoil from the excavation of basins in the Dockyard, a process which carried on for 25 years with the help of convict labour.

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The first building on Whale Island.

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Eventually Illustrious was found to be in danger of disintegrating, and was replaced as the sister to Excellent by HMS Calcutta.  You’ll see the two are joined by a rope bridge.

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This map shows the island in more or less the shape it exists today, expanded by the dumping of spoil from the excavation of Dockyard basins.  There was a railway viaduct to the island to carry the spoil, which existed until the 1890s when it was removed having outlived its purpose.  I had no idea there had been a viaduct there; most people know about the old viaduct between the Harbour Station and the Dockyard (the name of South Railway Jetty gives the game away) but I’ve never heard of this one before.

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The book doesn’t explain when this photo was taken.  Two field gun tournaments to commemorate the exploits of naval gun crews on land in the Boer War commenced in 1907, the Brickwood Trophy (presented originally by the famous Sir John Brickwood) which still carries on today at HMS Collingwood, and the competition at the Royal Tournament which ran from then until 1999.  Some more history of the competition is here.

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The buildings around it look rather different these days, but the parade ground is unchanged.

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This painting shows SMS Nurnburg, a German World War I cruiser.  She had been surrendered with the German Fleet at Scapa Flow, where many of the ships were scuttled by their crew.  However Nurnburg had been seized by the British and beached before she could sink.  After some time moored at Portsmouth in Fountain Lake, she was sunk as a gunnery target south of the Isle of Wight.

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Collingwood is a name familiar around Portsmouth, the shore establishment at Gosport being named in his honour.  Collingwood made his name in HMS Barfleur at the “Glorious First of June” and in HMS Excellent at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, where the fine gunnery of his ship attracted much admiration.  St Vincent College at Gosport is housed in the former HMS St Vincent shore establishment – their website at the link above has a lot of interesting material about the battle.

Appropriately (but coincidentally) it was the same Excellent which later became the first home of the Gunnery School.  Nelson was 10 years younger than Collingwood and looked up to him in many ways.  Collingwood fought as Nelson’s second-in-command at Trafalgar, and after Trafalgar was Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet until his retirement shortly before his death in 1810.

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His brilliance both as a commander in battle, and a tactful representative of British interests in the Mediterranean meant the Admiralty kept him in post at some cost to his health, and he returned to his home in the north-east in 1809 more or less worn out after unending years at sea. Collingwood is rightly revered in naval circles everywhere, but he deserves a far higher place in this country’s consciousness than he has.  Like many others (my own hero is Cunningham) he is overshadowed by Nelson; it is crazy that a country which has produced so many brilliant naval leaders is so bad at perpetuating their memory and remembering the lessons of their service.

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Last illustration from the book, a gorgeous plate of the crest of Excellent and her motto, which is that of the Navy as a whole: “If you desire peace, prepare for war”.  It is a quote from Vegetius’ 5th-century work “On Military Matters”, one of those works now often referred to by mystical management consultants who confuse warfare with peaceable human relations.

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And that’s the end!  I’m looking forward to reading the book properly and delving into the history of a place thousands of us pass every day, but which few of us get to visit.

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