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HMS Royal Sovereign (1857)

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NameRoyal SovereignExplanation
Type1st rate TypeThree-decker
Launched25 April 1857 Converted to screwon the stocks
HullWooden Length241 feet
PropulsionScrew Men1100
Builders measure3765 tons   
Displacement6071 tons   
Fate1885 Last in commission-
Class  Class (as screw)Duke of Wellington
Ships bookADM 135/409   
 Never fitted for sea as unarmoured ship.
25 April 1857Launched at Portsmouth Dockyard.
8 March 1864Convertion to ironclad turret ship, 4 turrets (5 guns), completed.
7 July 1864
- 14 October 1864
Commanded (from commissioning at Portsmouth) by Captain Sherard Osborn, Channel squadron
15 October 1864Tender to Excellent
(1 July 1865)
- 9 October 1866
Commanded (until paying off at Portsmouth) by Captain Frederick Anstruther Herbert, Channel squadron
9 October 1866Tender to Excellent
July 1867Commanded by Captain Cowper Phipps Coles, temporarily commissioned for the 1867 Naval review
3 September 1869Paid off
May 1885Sold for breaking up
Extracts from the Times newspaper
Tu 11 September 1860The following vessels comprise the four classes of the steam reserve at Portsmouth, the list corrected to this date :-
First Class.- Duke of Wellington, 131 guns, 700 horsepower; Princess Royal, 91 guns, 400 horse-power; Shannon, 51 guns, 600 horse-power ; Immortalité, 51 guns, 600 horse-power; Volcano, 6 guns, 140 horse-power; Philomel, 6 guns, 80 horse-power; and gunboats Brazen, Beaver, Snapper, Traveller, Grinder, and Blazer, of two guns each, and 60 horse-power.
Second Class.- Royal Sovereign, 131 guns, 800 horse-power; Victoria, 121 guns, 1,000 horse-power; Prince of Wales, 131 guns, 800 horse-power ; Duncan, 101 guns, 800 horse-power; Nelson, 91 guns, 500 horse-power; the Sutlej, 51 guns, 500 horse-power ; the Harrier, 17 guns, 100 horse-power; the Rinaldo, 17 guns, 200 horse-power; the Medea, 6 guns, 350 horse-power; the Stromboli, 6 guns, 280 horse-power; the Coquette, 6 guns, 200 horse-power; and the gunboats Cracker, Fancy, Swinger, Pincher, and Badger, of 60 horse-power each, and 2 guns.
Third Class.- The Tribune, 31 guns, 300 horse-power; the Rosamond, 6 guns, 280-horse power; the Vigilant, 4 guns, 200 horse-power; the Vulture, 6 guns, 470 horse-power; the Cygnet, 5 guns, 80 horse-power; and the gunboats Cheerful, Rambler, Pet, Daisy, Angler, Chub, Ant, Pert, and Decoy, of two guns each and 21 horse-power.
4th Class.- The screw transport Fox, 200 horse-power; the Erebus, 16 guns, 200 horse-power; the Meteor, 14 guns, 150 horse-power; and the Glatton, 14 guns, 150 horse-power.

The foregoing - not including the gunboats and mortar vessels in Haslar-yard - consist of seven line-of-battle ships, four frigates, two corvettes, nine sloops, three floating batteries, 20 gunboats, and one troop steamer. They give a total force of 1,150 guns, propelled by 11,420 horse-power (nominal). The Fox steam troopship is given in this return as not carrying any guns, but in the official Navy List she still carried "42" attached to her name.

Sa 26 March 1864Captain Sherard Osborn has been appointed to the command of the Royal Sovereign cupola ship.
Th 7 July 1864The Royal Sovereign, 5-gun turret-ship, will have her pennant of commission hoisted this morning at Portsmouth, by Captain Sherard Osborn, C.B. The Duke of Somerset and Admiral Sir Frederick Grey are expected to arrive at Portsmouth during the day, from the Admiralty, for the purpose of inspecting the ship now that she is in commission and ready for active service. Yesterday Rear-Admiral the Hon. James R. Drummond, C.B., the Fourth Lord of the Admiralty, visited the Royal Sovereign. During his stay on board he entered one of the turrets, which was manned for the occasion, and assumed the office of director. Under his direction the 12-ton gun was elevated and depressed, and the turret was turned round. The facility with which the whole was done evidently afforded the Admiral considerable pleasure. The ship's funnel has been lengthened 12 feet to improve the draught of her furnaces. The trial of her guns and turrets outside the harbour is looked forward to with great interest. If the Admiralty decide upon trying the guns with full 50-pound charges of powder and shot, the results will be really valuable as fully testing both the guns and the turret principle. If, however, only blank charges are fired, or 40-pound charges with shot, the results will be valueless.
Fr 22 July 1864The Royal Sovereign, 5, iron-cased turret ship, Capt. Sherard Osborn, C.B., was swung under steam yesterday in Portsmouth harbour, to ascertain the deviation of her compasses. According to existing arrangements, she will go out of harbour on Monday and anchor at Spithead, to complete her ammunition before sailing on her experimental cruise. Rear-Admiral R.S. Robinson, Controller of the Navy, visited the ship on Wednesday.
Ma 25 July 1864The Royal Sovereign, 5, iron-cased turret-ship, Capt. Sherard Osborn, C.B., was officially inspected in Portsmouth harbour, on commission, by Vice-Admiral Sir M. Seymour, G.C.B., Naval Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth. She will go out of Portsmouth harbour this morning, and, according to pre-existing arrangements, proceed to off Osborne, where Her Majesty has announced her intention of paying a visit to the ship. On Tuesday, most probably, the Royal Sovereign will anchor in St. Helen's Roads, preparatory to commencing her trial cruise.
Th 28 July 1864

The Royal Sovereign.

The turret-ship Royal Sovereign, Captain Sherard Osborn, C.B., yesterday completed her first course of two days' experimental firing from her 12-ton turret-guns in St. Helen's Roads (a man-of-war anchorage situated in the comparatively clear water off Bembridge Point, at the east end of the Isle of Wight, and about 6½ miles south of the entrance to Portsmouth harbour), with blank cartridge in the first instance, as a preliminary round of drill for the guns' crews, and afterwards with shot, with full and distant charges of powder, the full charge consisting of 35lb. and the distant charge of 40lb. The guns were fired at different angles over the vessel's deck, and also at different degrees of elevation. In fact, during these two days' trials everything has been done that could possibly be done to test the guns in their working and the effects they might be expected to produce when fired on the vessel, or her upper deck and its fittings. Strong prophecies have been uttered at times relative to the damaging effects shotted guns when fired from the Royal Sovereign's turrets must produce upon the wooden planking of the ship's upper deck, and the immense amount of concussion which must be experienced in the turrets and on the deck, on which the turrets rest, and the fittings of the officers' cabins, &c. It has been asserted, further, by many that a few discharges from these guns at any lengthened angle along the ship's deck, and with the guns depressed, to strike an object at short range, must, as a matter of necessity, rip up the planking of her deck and commit no end of other damage; that the men would not be able to stay inside the turrets for any length of time when working the guns, owing to the amount of concussion which must be felt; and, finally that the turrets would become filled with smoke, and the men inside would therefore be in danger of suffocation.
It is, therefore, satisfactory to be able to state, as the results of the two days' firing, that no disaster of the kind predicted has occurred, nor is it at all likely to occur. The guns have been fired singly and in broadsides at all possible angles and degrees of depression, and the result of the two days' amount of damage is - half-a-dozen panes of glass in the Captain's cabin skylight broken, and those parts of the leather flaps whlch surround the turrets at their junction with the upper deck scorched by the flame of the gun's discharge. To remedy these two slight matters only require that the panes of glass in the cabin skylights shall be put in rather differently to the ordinary dockyard fashion, and that the leather flaps of the turrets under the muzzles of the guns must be fitted, or rather covered, in those parts, with flush coverings of boiler-plate. Throughout the whole length and breadth of the ship's upper decks not a sign exists, however small, of even the pitch between the seams having been started. As to the 'tween decks, the china and glass in the steward's pantries, which are merely hung up in the ordinary way, have suffered no damage whatever, neither have the glazed engravings and other pictures hung up in Captain Osborn's cabin. As a further proof of the steadiness of the ship in all her parts under the fire of her guns, it may be mentioned that the paymaster's office on board in abreast the fourth turret, and yesterday, when the gun was firing shot with 40lb charges of powder directly over the heads of the clerks employed in the office, those gentlemen could be seen busily continuing their writing in the most unconcerned manner possible. With regard to the inside of the turrets, there was less concussion experienced there than in any other part of the ship, and at the same time the smoke which entered each time the gun was discharged was very trifling indeed.
The guns work remarkably easily, and the turrets revolve also with the most perfect ease and nicety. The same men were employed working the guns in the turrets seven hours each day, and it was impossible not to notice the great interest they took in their duties, and with what coolness they went about them. On Tuesday a large number of rounds were fired with blank cartridge to accustom the men at first, as we said before, to their work. Afterwards 20lb, 35lb., and 40lb. charges were fired with shot at different angles and elevations. Yesterday 50 rounds were fired at different angles and elevations with shot and 35lb. and 40lb. charges, the day's firing being brought to a close by a concentrated fire from the four turrets, at the mark - a square foot of white bunting on a slight staff, at 1,000 yards' distance. When the smoke cleared away the flag and its staff were found to be also gone.
This morning the ship will make a three hours' cruise outside the Isle of Wight, and afterwards go down to Osborne, where Her Majesty will go on board, the Royal visit, which had been originally fixed for Monday last, having been deferred until to-day.
Th 6 October 1864THE ROYAL SOVEREIGN - In justification of the extraordinary determination taken by the Lords of the Admiralty in regard to this ship, we are informed that the Royal Sovereign was never intended for a sea-going ship. She is a floating battery for harbour defence, capable of being sent to any port in the Channel; but not adapted to cruise with a squadron. She has no masts and her decks are too low for a seagoing ship of her tonnage. To try her, therefore, with the ships of the Channel Squadron would have been of no practical use. She was sent to Portland as a convenient place for trying her turrets and guns and her behaviour in a moderate seaway. After these trials had been in progress for some time the destruction of her hawsepipe by an accidental shot left her with only one anchor, and for the safety of the ship it was necessary to bring her back to a dockyard. Captain Osborn then sent up a list of defects and alterations, which were ordered to be carefully examined, and, as they would require a considerable time to make good, no advantage would be gained by keeping the ship in commission with a large number of officers and men, with the winter approaching. It was therefore determined to attach the ship to the Excellent as a tender keeping Captain Osborn, the First-Lieutenant, and a sufficient number of men on board to carry on the further experiments with the turrets and guns that might be desirable, and also to have the assistance of Captain Key and the officers and men of the Excellent in carrying out those experiments.
Fr 7 October 1864

The Royal Sovereign.

Sir, -The explanatory statement which appears In The Times of this morning in justification of the extraordinary determination taken by the Lords of the Admiralty in regard to the Royal Sovereign is calculated to mislead the public mind altogether on the subject unless corrected. The most important part of this statement is to the effect that on the return of the Royal Sovereign from her last cruise, at the end of September, Captain Osborn sent up to the Admiralty a list of defects and alterations which were carefully examined, and, as they would require a considerable time to make good, no advantage would be obtained by keeping the ship in commission with a large number of officers and men on board, with the winter approaching. This official statement is contrary to the facts. Captain Osborn sent in this list of defects and alterations to the Admiralty at the close of his experimental firing with the ships guns in St. Helen's Roads at the end of July last. The inference attempted to be drawn, therefore, that the Royal Sovereign is now to be put out of commission because of the extent of a list of defects and alterations just sent in to the Admiralty falls to the ground. The list sent in by Captain Osborn would have been made light work of in a private yard, but only a few unimportant matters were allowed to be taken in hand at Portsmouth dockyard; the really important ones were left untouched, and Captain Osborn and his ship were driven off to Portland out of the sight and reach of an obtrusive public, who began to manifest considerable interest in the new method of mounting and working monster ordnance on board ship. Time was wasted in plastering the patent Whitehall belt on the Royal Sovereign's sides, at some two or three thousands of pounds sterling expense; but time could not be given to carry out necessary and important alterations and repairs.
Another part of the explanatory paragraph terms the Royal Sovereign a "floating battery," not adapted to cruise with a squadron, with no masts, and decks too low for a sea-going ship, and therefore to have tried her with the ships of the Channel squadron would have been of no "practical use." Now, with regard to the term "floating battery," that has a very indefinite sense. I believe the Royal Sovereign to be a floating battery certainly, not one such as the war with Russia created, but a battery that would steam through a gale on fully equal terms with such vessels as the Defence and Resistance, and would fight her central guns under such conditions of wind and sea that the two vessels named dare not cast their main deck broadside guns loose in. Opinions are, of course, divided on this very point, the "broadside" and "central" gun principles having both their advocates; but it is this important matter that could have been effectually decided by a trial of the Royal Sovereign with the ships of the Channel Fleet, and such a course, therefore, must have been attended with some "practical use."
I am, Sir, Your obedient servant,
Oct 6.
Sa 8 October 1864Our readers have not had long to wait for an explanation of the proceedings in the case of the Royal Sovereign turret-ship, but the sufficiency of this explanation as submitted to the public is what now remains to be estimated. We had represented it as an unaccountable proceeding that the Royal Sovereign, being the single turret-ship in the British Navy, newly launched, newly commissioned, and newly sent to sea, should suddenly be paid off, and placed out of sight in the Steam Reserve exactly at the minute when the greatest interest was taken in her performances. We said that this vessel offered us the first real opportunity of testing the merits of the turret system, that public curiosity had been much excited by her partial success, and that the gratuitous interruption of so important an experiment appeared a most extraordinary measure. In reply to these remarks it is now stated that the Royal Sovereign was never intended to go to sea at all; that she was built merely as a floating battery for harbour defence, that her want of masts and the lowness of her decks disqualify her for the navigation of the open sea; that she was sent to Portland as a convenient place for trying her guns; and that as after this trial she required considerable alterations and additions, it was thought that no advantage would be gained by keeping the ship in commission with the winter approaching while the necessary work was executed.
Now, on these statements we can only observe, that if they contain a complete history of the facts the public must have lain under great misapprehension for some time past. It was generally believed that the Royal Sovereign was as fairly an experimental vessel as the Achilles or the Research, and if we were to be told tomorrow that the Minotaur and the Bellerophon were never intended to go to sea, the intelligence would not be more surprising than this information about the Royal Sovereign. It is perfectly true that Captain Coles, the designer of those turret or shield ships, professed his readiness to build vessels of two classes - either shotproof rafts for harbour defences, or seagoing frigates and line-of-battle ships. But did Captain Coles himself understand that when a trial of his system was at length permitted in the Royal Sovereign the product was to be merely a floating battery for coast service, and not a seagoing man of-war? Was it as a shot-proof raft that Captain Sherard Osborn took the vessel under his command? Was it understood that when she went to Portland it was merely to get a convenient range for her guns, and to have a little practice before being laid up? If these were the ideas entertained from the beginning, we can but say that the public were mistaken, and that what it was commonly supposed the Admiralty were doing has never been done at all.
If our naval authorities simply designed to build a floating battery on Captain Coles's system, they began that system at the wrong end. This was the least valuable of the proposed experiments, and the one, moreover, in which evidence was least required. Nobody doubted that a turret-vessel might serve well enough for a guardship, but Captain Coles, besides offering to produce this, had offered to produce something very much better. He declared that upon his principle he could build a vessel 100 feet shorter than the Warrior, drawing less water, requiring only half the crew to man her, and costing 100,000l. less. With this smaller, cheaper, and handier vessel he asserted that he could disable and capture the Warrior in an hour. Be it understood that we are not professing our own faith in these principles. We are not called upon either to believe or disbelieve the assertions. We only say that if the proposals of the inventor were deemed, as they were deemed, worthy of trial, it was an extraordinary proceeding to select the least doubtful and least important proposal for the experiment. If the Royal Sovereign was not constructed as a seagoing shield-ship, but merely as a floating battery, then Captain Coles's system has in reality received no trial at all, and a new experiment should be commenced in which the Admiralty, the inventor, and the public may understand each other better.
Again, when it is alleged that the peculiar configuration of the Royal Sovereign renders her unfit for a sea voyage, the argument amounts simply to an assertion that no turret-ship can go to sea; which is begging the very question at issue. What everybody understood and expected was that the Royal Sovereign was constructed for the express purpose of proving whether such assumptions were sound or unsound. No doubt, there is a strong and not altogether unreasonable suspicion that turret-ships can never be good, safe, weatherly vessels. We have ourselves admitted that no turret-ship has proved a good sea-boat yet, and we can hardly deny that the presumption at first sight is against such a model. But what the country believed was that Captain Coles, on his part, undertook to disprove these presumptions, and the Admiralty, on their part, undertook to give him a fair trial. Captain Coles has not only declared on many occasions that his turret or shield ships would, notwithstanding the lowness of their decks, and other novelties of construction, be good seaworthy vessels, but he has supported this theory by elaborate arguments before scientific audiences. He asserted, before a meeting at which an ex-First Lord of the Admiralty presided, that ships built on his model would not only carry heavier guns and be more impregnable to shot than broadside vessels, but would be better sailers, admit of better handling, and give better ventilation and better comfort to the crew. These were bold assertions, no doubt, especially as proceeding from one who had no professional acquaintance with shipbuilding, but they did not want for backers, and when the Admiralty at last consented to allow a three-decker to be converted on Captain Coles's principle all the world supposed that the captain's pledges were to be brought to the test of actual trial.
Of course, there is a division of opinion on this question, but that is all the more reason for settling the dispute by experiment; nor can we omit to remark that such trials as were actually made of the Royal Sovereign proved favourable to the principle on which she was built. That principle has its advocates in professional circles, and we are distinctly assured not only that the guns of a turret-ship can be conveniently worked, but that they could be worked to good purpose in such weather as would reduce broadside batteries to silence. It appeared, in short, to the public as if the experimental frigate was performing unexpectedly well when her performances were abruptly cut short. We are now told that she was not an experimental frigate at all, but only a floating battery, which had been sent as far as Portland for gun practice. In that case, we can but repeat that our authorities, while they have been making much ado about nothing, have left a most important experiment altogether untried. It could hardly have required the conversion of a fine three-decker, the employment of a distinguished commander, and the adoption of a new principle of armament, to make a vessel fit to be paddled about a harbour as a shot-proof raft. It required all these things, and perhaps more, to test a system which might be either a great mistake or a great discovery; but our officials appear to have expended all their pains upon the unimportant purpose. This, at least, is the only conclusion to be drawn from the explanation now put forward. A novel specimen of naval architecture, long expected and much discussed, has at last been constructed and commissioned in the capacity, as everybody imagined, of a seagoing ship. She is now, however, described as a mere floating battery, and so we are left to understand that the experiment which was really of consequence has never been attempted at all.
Th 1 December 1864Capt. Sherard Osborn, C.B., yesterday went on board his ship, the Royal Sovereign, at Portsmouth, for the last time as her commanding officer, Capt. Osborn resigning his command of the ship this morning on the completion of his captain's service in sea time entitling him to flag rank on the active list. The Royal Sovereign maintains a present complement of 104 officers and men, comprising one senior lieutenant, one surgeon, one paymaster, one chief engineer and three assistants, three warrant officers, and 94 seamen, marines, and stokers. Her books and accounts are kept on board and entirely separate from those of the ship (Excellent) to which she has been formally attached as a tender temporarily for experimental purposes; and, in fact, the appointment of a captain and a certain number of officers and men to fill up her complement would render her competent to cross the Channel at a day's notice on active service. Various and modified orders have been issued from the Admiralty respecting the ship, but she now appears to be held in hand for any possibly unforeseen contingency as readily as is possible under the circumstances. The alterations on board are in accordance with the suggestions contained in Capt. Osborn's final report on the ship, which was drawn up by that officer and forwarded to the Admiralty at the termination of the ship's period of active commission.
Th 1 April 1869The Royal Sovereign, turret-ship, Capt. A.A. Hood, C.B., arrived at Spithead at 7 p.m. on Tuesday from Dover, and yesterday morning went into Portsmouth Harbour to take up her usual moorings, and transfer her officers and crew back to the gunnery ship Excellent. The Royal Sovereign was officered and manned from the Excellent on Wednesday, the 24th inst., Capt. Hood hoisting his broad pendant on board pro tem., as commanding officer of the Review Squadron. The turret-ship left Spithead the next morning at 7 o'clock under steam, the smaller craft having started some hours before. At about 2 p.m. the Stork gunboat was sighted under Beachy Head, utterly unable to steam against a strong north-easterly breeze which had sprung up, and with a signal flying asking for assistance. The Royal Sovereign soon had the Stork secured to her stern, by stout hawsers, and steamed on for Dover, where both anchored the next morning. No land was seen during the night or the early part of the morning owing to the thickness of the weather, until a sudden rift in the fog enabled the officers of the watch to discern the light on the Foreland on the turret-ship's port bow, when the Stork was cast off and both, vessels ran in to an anchorage berth off Dover. The floating steam gun-carriage Staunch, which had left Portsmouth on Wednesday evening, was safely navigated round by Lieut. Hall (Her Majesty's ship Excellent) into the inner harbour at Dover before the stormy weather came on. Friday afternoon, off Dover, was fine, and nothing of importance occurred connected with the squadron; but on Saturday the wind sprung up strong from the N.E., and continued increasing in strength, until it culminated in the gale of Sunday night and the early part of Monday morning. The small vessels of the squadron took shelter in the inner harbour, but those in the outer roadstead were exposed to the full violence of the long heavy seas which rolled round the Foreland from the North Sea. The Royal Sovereign rolled heavily, and for a time dragged her anchors, but steam being up, her screw was set working sufficiently to take the greater part of the strain off the cables, and thenceforward the heavy, broad-beamed, old craft rode out the weather bravely. The vessel, however, in her then exposed position, in one of the most unreliable anchorages on the coasts of the United Kingdom, required unremitting care and attention, and as no protection can be found on the upper deck from the violence of the weather or the tons of water that "skeet" over her fore and aft, under such circumstances officers and men suffered considerably during the night and the early part of the following day. At 3 p.m. the anchor was weighed and the ship took part in the attack upon the Dover defences, 55 rounds being fired from her turret-guns. The conduct of the officer commanding the late training brig Ferret, Lieutenant Carré, after his vessel broke adrift from the Admiralty buoy and struck on the pier, is spoken of in the highest terms by officers and others who witnessed the wreck. He is stated to have given his orders from the deck of his stranded vessel as deliberately as if he were carrying on the usual evening drill, and this exhibition of cool execution of duty under such unexpectedly trying circumstances did more than anything else possibly could to allay the terror of the boys on board, nit one of whom had ever been at sea before. When the Ferret first went in alongside the pier her hammock netting on the rise of the waves would be above the level of the pier, and on the fall of the sea the latter would be touched by the brig's yardarm. This fact will tell what difficulty there must have been in getting the 86 boys and the 27 seamen and officers out of the brig. All were fortunately got out safe, and were taken round to Portsmouth from Dover in the Royal Sovereign.

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