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HMS Alfred (launched as Asia, 1811)

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NameAlfred (launched as Asia)Explanation
Type3rd rate   
Launched2 December 1811
Builders measure1763 tons
Ships book
Note1819 = Alfred.
1828 50 gun 4th rate
Snippets concerning this vessels career
1819Renamed Alfred
22 February 1831
- 1834
Commanded by Captain Robert Maunsell, Mediterranean
1 March 1842
- 6 August 1845
Commanded (from commissioning at Sheerness until paying off at Portsmouth) by Commodore John Brett Purvis, in command on the south-east coast of America
(January 1843)Out of commission at Sheerness
Extracts from the Times newspaper
Sa 22 September 1860


Sir,— As a statement of the following facts may assist to bring the public mind to a safe decision on the question of that great change in the material and character of future war-ships so ably mooted in your article of the 10th inst., recently received here, I beg to offer them for insertion in The Times, if considered of sufficient importance. There are now before me all the data and observations, taken on the spot for my own professional information, of the several trials made off Shoeburyness since January, 1859, to penetrate the sides of the floating battery Trusty, built in 1855 for the purposes of the Russian war, with a scantling of 25 inches of oak timber, covered with 4-inch iron plates. This vessel was prepared for being fired at in the beginning of 1857, and, had the experiments been then carried out, our present state of "indecision" would most probably have been avoided; for at that time no rifled cannon of any power had been produced, and we now know that at the distance then intended of 450 yards the spherical shot of the heaviest smooth-bored gun must have been found quite powerless to enter the ship.
It was not, however, until January, 1859, that the first attempt was made to penetrate the Trusty's side, the gun used being Sir W. Armstrong's rifled 32-pounder, which had given the surprising range of 9,200 yards. Fourteen shot in all were fired, with charges of 61b., and at distances varying from 450 yards to about 20 yards, the material of the shot being cast iron, wrought iron, and steel. Of these latter two stuck into the side, between the joints of the plates, projecting externally 6 inches and 2 inches respectively, and indentations with some cracks were likewise produced on the plates by the other shots; but the gun was evidently powerless to injure seriously the complete protection of the side.
In September, 1859, attempts for two successive days were again made to penetrate the side with Sir William Armstrong's rifled 80-pounder, which, with a 12lb. charge, had also thrown its shot more than 9,000 yards. The first day's distance was 400 yards, at which 10 shots in all were fired, only three of which, however, took effect so as to give proof of the combined resistance of the side; but this, to the surprise of every one, was found to be so practically complete that it was judged necessary to reduce the distance for firing on the second day to 200 yards. At this range 11 shots in all were fired, some of them of 100lb. weight and of hardened steel, but even with these no entry could be effected. One 80lb. steel shot did, however, succeed in entering the ship. Its immediate predecessor had struck a joint of the plates, and opened at three-quarters of an Inch. On this opening the shot in question struck fair, and within two inches of the former shot, which, besides opening the joint, had also shattered the timber; but, although thus assisted, the force of the shot on entering was so expended that it only reached half-way across the deck, throwing before it, however, a formidable splinter of iron; and this single violation of the protection of the Trusty's side was the only result of the 14 shots which in the two days took effect upon her plates.
At the trial made in June last with Mr. Whitworth's rifled 80-pounder I was not present, but have since carefully examined the effects then produced, and found that of the three shots which took effect on the side one only entered the ship. It received no assistance from the effects of any previous shot, but where it struck outside the plate was unsound, and where it entered inside the timber was rotten; and, though a greater power of penetration was here exhibited than in the case of the Armstrong shot, yet, like it, it entered the ship in a spent state, and reached no more than half-way across the deck. Twelve and thirteen pound charges were used on this occasion, the shot being of carefully prepared steel; but, as in the previous trials, no shells were fired, it having been judged useless to do so where solid steel had been so completely foiled.
Excluding, then, altogether the attempt with the 32-pounder, we have thus 17 shots, of from 80lb. to 100lb. weight, made of special material, of special form and temper, fired with the heaviest charges the guns will bear, as far as practicable at right angles, within the shortest safe distance, from the two most powerful pieces of artillery ever yet produced, and the ship's side thus subjected to proof has been penetrated twice. The side which has exhibited this power of protection is one of the first of its description ever constructed. Its outer lining of iron is slighter than that since manufactured; the plates of which it is composed are much smaller; and, instead of being firmly bolted upon the timber beneath them, they were found to be loose, owing to the shrinkage of the wood since the ship was built. When struck near their edges these plates were more or less injured and broken, when near their centres more or less indented and cracked; but the iron splinter which went in with the Armstrong shot was the only mischievous one of any sort which the whole 17 shots produced, and both that shot itself and the Whitworth would have been perfectly harmless to any one on the other side of the deck opposite where they entered. With every advantage, therefore, on the side of the guns to an extent which could never occur in action, these results may, I think, be safely accepted as conclusive proof that, in the terms of your article,— "British manufacturers can, indeed, produce plates of iron capable of affording such protection to the sides of British ships that the best of even British guns cannot penetrate them."
But it will be asked, with such results as these for now a year before us, whence has arisen that "indecision" which, as your article observes, has hitherto characterized our own adoption of this invention, and which still seems to delay its progress?
The only reply is, I believe, to be found in the fact that, simultaneously with the experiments at Shoeburyness, other experiments have been taking place at Portsmouth which have furnished results of a totally different nature. Month after month for far more than a year the public has been informed, in general and in detail, of the entire destruction of armour plates of all descriptions and of almost all thicknesses, effected, not by any new and powerful rifled cannon, but by the old smooth-bored gun of heavy calibre, with its limited range of some 4,000 yards. And although, as you observe, "it is impossible for us to balance our own experiments in this matter against those of the French, inasmuch as we cannot be sure that the conditions were equal," yet it may be well to apply this process to our own two sets of experiments, if only to remove the perplexity caused by the great discrepancy they present; and we shall then readily perceive that the difference in the essential conditions under which they have been respectively made will fully account for the opposite deductions they admit of. The side of the Trusty, as before stated, was built but five years since for the express purpose of sustaining the shock it has shown itself so well able to bear. The sides of the Alfred, the Undaunted, and Sirius, experimented upon at Portsmouth, were built nearer 50 years ago, with a strength of scantling and with fastenings totally unfitted even then to undergo that hammer-and-anvil process of hanging heavy plates upon them to be attacked with the heaviest guns, and under which plates and timbering have both inevitably succumbed when the operation has been performed, after "old age" had of itself already brought these ships to the verge of the breaking-up dock. Why experiments of such a nature were made under such conditions at all I presume neither to know nor inquire; but I cannot doubt that their necessary results have had the natural effect of inducing that doubt and indecision in the public, if not, the official, mind, which it might have seemed so desirable to avoid In a matter so serious and new, and in which only the most practical experiments possible could be expected to afford a safe guidance. But, whatever may have been the especial object of these Portsmouth experiments, we may be assured that whenever British armour-ships may have to contend with those of other nations the timbering which supports their plates will be found, not of the same age and weakness as that of the old ships named, but on the same scale of strength as that of the Trusty; as witness the 24-inch scantling of the Normandie, now receiving her plates in the basin of Cherbourg.
Thus, within a period of 10 years, has the march of human progress twice overtaken with serious change the status of British naval affairs; and, while our requisite force of screw ships of the line is yet far from complete, we find ourselves unavoidably launched into the most complete revolution in the character and construction of ships of war ever yet known. No ship of wood, of whatever size or force, can be expected to contend with the modern projectiles of conical and spherical shot, shells, and molten iron, against even a single-decked ship with sides as impenetrable as those of the Trusty. Even at 200 yards we have seen that favourable accident alone enables such sides to be pierced at all; with sufficient steam speed to enable a fighting distance of 1,000 yards to be maintained, such ships must prove "invulnerable" (except through their portholes) to any gun yet known, while capable themselves of the most effective use of their powers of destruction against any opponent of wood; and the "reconstruction" of the line-of-battle portion of our fleet has, indeed, become an imperious necessity. Nor is our present position that alone of having been surprised into the numerical inferiority which your article places before us, but this time we have lost our usual priority in practical experience too; for, while our own first armour frigate will require still come considerable time before she can be launched, the Gloire appears to be in full course of realizing established data for the future management and improvement of the similar structures of our great neighbour. Doubtless, the superiority in resources of money, material, and skilled labour to meet the occasion are all on our side, and it had been well if such considerations had weighed with our Administrators during those indications of the approaching crisis which were evident to so many, so as to have urged them to secure to ourselves the lead in this great change and this new rivalry. As it is, however the "stern-chase" can be no longer delayed; and if it be wisely and energetically prosecuted, with that united effort which the talent and great practical experience in iron constructions of this country enables us to call forth, every allowance will, no doubt, be made for any over-reluctance which may have been shown to enter on that increase of naval outlay which must now be encountered before England's requisite superiority in the new description of war-ship can be established.
I remain. Sir. yours. &c.,
E.P. Halstead., Captain, R.N., lately commanding the Steam Reserve Fleet in the Medway.
Talladh-a-Bheithe, Perthshire, Sept. 17.
We 3 October 1860


Sir, — The consideration of our present means of naval attack and defence involves questions of pressing importance, and in the hope of rendering some assistance in forming correct conclusions I offer a few observations upon the subject.
While I agree with much that was contained in the letter addressed to you by Captain Halsted, I think that his opinions are based chiefly on those trials at which he was present, when the armour plates were successful in repelling cannon shot. As I have only been present at trials where the projectiles have invariably peretrated the armourplates, I have arrived at a different general conclusion.
Captain Halsted appears to have made a mistake in applying the results of the experiments which he witnessed to others at which he was not present. Having stated that at 400 yards the Armstrong gun failed to make an impression on the Trusty, he concludes that the Whitworth 80-pounder would not succeed at a like range; whereas the fact is that in October, 1858, my 68lb. projectile, fired from a distance of 450 yards, penetrated through the 4-inch armour plate and the sides of the Alfred and entered into the ship.
For a statement of what were really the results of the trials of my 80-pounder against the Trusty in May last I would refer to the account given in The Times of May 28, written, I believe, by your "own correspondent," who witnessed them.
The Carnation gunboat, from which the gun was fired, was anchored at the short range of 200 yards, because it was blowing "half a gale," and the rolling of the boat rendered it difficult and unsafe to take aim from a greater distance, — unsafe for this reason. It had been proved, by experiments made on board the Excellent in December, 1857, that my flat-fronted projectiles passed through 30 feet of water and still retained great penetrating power. When I made a request to be allowed to fire at the Trusty's armour plate below her water line my proposition was declined, and it was not thought advisable, considering the rough state of the weather, to run the risk of the experiment being involuntarily tried by an accidental low shot of the gunner, who was one of the Excellent's best marksmen.
In Captain Halsted's letter he speaks of "only three Whitworth shots taking effect" on the Trusty's side. He omits mention of another shot which struck a sound plate fixed over a porthole and strengthened at the back with beams of solid timber, of such thickness and so firmly fastened with large iron bolts that it formed apparently the strongest part of the ship's side. This shot "pierced through the centre of a plate and into the main deck of the ship, driving before it a mass of splinters and an immense iron bolt, which, from the position in which it was found among the fragments of wood on the main deck, had evidently been dashed through and whirled about with a force only inferior to that of the projectile itself." (Vide The Times, May 28.)
Only five shots in all were fired from my gun on the occasion referred to; of these one shot, owing to the rolling of the gunboat, went over the Trusty; four hit her sides, and every one of them went through her plates. Two, which struck directly "end on," entered into the ship; two, which struck obliquely, after penetrating through the armourplate, buried themselves in the ship's side. I will not here dwell on what would have been the effect had the rear ends of these projectiles been made as shells, which I certainly believe may be done without destroying their penetrating power.
If it be asked why only five shots were fired from my gun, the answer is simply that the experiments were made at the request and in the presence of the Lords of the Admiralty. They, with the First Lord himself, went on board the Trusty and personally examined the effects of the shots. As all that hit the plates went through them the results were considered conclusive, and more experiments being then deemed unnecessary, they were ordered to be discontinued.
There is no doubt but that ships may be built which are proof against ordinary shot, but my experience leads me to believe that the penetration of armour plates is a question of firing against them a projectile under the proper combined conditions; these are, that it shall be of the proper shape, material, and weight, and have the requisite velocity. A flat-fronted projectile of properly hardened material, and weighing less than an ounce, fired from one of my ordinary rifles, will penetrate wrought-iron plates 6-10ths of an inch thick. Again, plates 4 inches thick are penetrated by the 80lb. projectiles, and I have no doubt but that 6-inch plates would be penetrated by heavier projectiles with a more powerful gun. Increased thickness of plate, then, is to be overcome by increased power of gun; and the question is, in which case will the capability of increase sooner reach its limits?
Ships which are hampered by the weight of enormous plates are so overburdened that they are unfit to carry a broadside of guns heavy enough to penetrate the armour of vessels plated similarly to themselves.
Again, a ship constructed to carry very thick plates cannot be driven at the high speed which must hereafter give the superiority in naval warfare.
There yet remains the consideration of cost. It is true that the richest nation can best endure the drain of costly equipments, and therefore cheap warfare would be a disadvantage; but it is also true that naval casualties and mishaps must be calculated upon, and it would be bad policy to concentrate too large an outlay upon a single vessel.
It will be for naval authorities to consider the position in which the large heavily-plated yet still vulnerable ship would be placed if attacked by several smaller and far swifter vessels, each carrying a few powerful guns, and able to choose its distance for striking an enemy which presents so large a target. What would be the result of firing flat-fronted shots at her plates below the waterline, or of their concentrated fire directed upon the axis of her screw — a mark that might be hit at a considerable distance?
The plan of warding off shot by protecting armour bas been often resorted to, but the means of attack have continually proved the vulnerability of the armour and driven it out of use. It has to be shown whether this will be the case with our ships of war, and I fully concur in the opinion expressed in your paper, that the best and speediest mode of arriving at a right decision is to give full publicity to the results of properly conducted experiments.
I remain, Sir, yours very obediently,
Joseph WhitworthExternal link, Manchester, Sept. 28.

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