HMS Powerful, 1895

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HMS POWERFUL of 1895 was a large four-funnelled 1st Class Armoured Cruiser and was built at Barrow by the Naval Construction & Armaments Company Limited. Along with her sister-ship HMS TERRIBLE, these two vessels were the largest warships in existence at the time of their construction and were designed to match the Russian Cruisers ROSSIYA and RYURIK. Because of their size and steaming capacity, these ships carried much larger crews than other Battleships of that time, mainly due to the large number of Stokers necessary to feed up to 140 tons of coal per day into their many Boiler furnaces.

This Yard of Naval Construction & Armaments Company Limited was previously known as the Barrow Iron Shipbuilding Company, founded in 1871 at the northern end of Barrow Island with massive investment from the Cavendish family, major landowners in the area, who were headed by the Duke of Devonshire. Later, the Yard was to become the world-famous Vickers of Barrow. Other significant investors and shareholders in this Yard were Mr. Thomas Henderson of Glasgow, owner of the Anchor Line and the Clydeside shipyard of Tod & McGregor, and the Shipbuilder Mr. Robert Duncan of Port Glasgow who was brought in as the first Manager on account of his shipbuilding expertise. The Yard’s name was changed to The Naval Construction & Armaments Company in 1888. At this time, it was expanded in area and the number of shipbuilding slipways, which were increased in length in readiness for the future large naval constructions being planned. (The Yard became Vickers about nine or ten years after this)

HMS POWERFUL [Yard Number 237] was laid down in 1894, launched on 24 July 1895, and commissioned on 8 June 1897. Having a displacement of 14,200 tons, this large Cruiser was 499 feet 8 inches in length, 70 feet 10 inches in breadth, and 31 feet in depth. Propulsion was by means of two 4-cylinder triple-expansion steam reciprocating engines driving twin screw shafts, and developing just over 25,000 IHP, giving her a top speed capability of 22 knots. Designed to carry 3,000 tons of coal, HMS POWERFUL had a steaming range of 7,000 nautical miles at an economical cruising speed of 14 knots. Like her sister-ship, she carried a total crew complement of 894 officers and ratings.

Along with her sister-ship, HMS TERRIBLE, (launched on 27 May 1895 from the Clydebank Yard of J & G Thomson – see further notes on this Yard below) these two large naval vessels were the first to use water-tube Boilers to the design of a French engineer named Julien Belleville. This followed a decision taken in the early 1890’s by the Admiralty Engineer-in-Chief, Sir John Durston (1846-1917) that water-tube Boilers offered significant advantages over the traditional ‘fire-tube’ Boiler. These advantages included improved heat transfer, reductions in total heat transfer surface area requirements, accelerated steam raising times, and significant material savings and Boiler weight and mass reductions. These were important factors when it came to fighting ships and, as demonstrated in later years, water-tube Boilers became the standard choice in the mercantile marine.

The decision by the Admiralty E-in-C was not taken in haste and was largely based on the successful tests carried out for a number of years beforehand. The Glasgow-based engineering Company of G & J Weir played a significant role in the development and eventual changeover to water-tube Boilers. Mr. James Weir, a qualified Marine Engineer of notable stature, had flirted with the concept of water-tube Boiler designs for a number of years, and indeed had taken out a patent in 1894, two more in 1896, and another in 1898.

(His early work on water-tube Boiler designs is referred to in Rowan’s ‘Practical Physics of the Steam Boiler’ of 1903) G & J Weir in fact formed a subsidiary Company (Weir Boilers Limited) and for a number of years Boilers were manufactured at the Holm Foundry Plant at Cathcart.

However, this business was short-lived and was finally closed down in 1908 due to the aggressive reception it invoked from established Boiler manufacturers and the fact that G & J Weir already enjoyed a high degree of prosperity with their own unique and specialised products.

At the personal request of the Admiralty E-in-C Sir John Durston, James Weir accepted the challenge of developing a pump design that could accommodate the increased pressures (400-450 lbs per square inch) associated with the new water-tube Boiler designs. In this regard, he was very successful and the two new large Cruisers utilised Weir Feed Pumps in preference to the French designs available at that time.

This was the start of a long and prosperous relationship between the British Admiralty and G & J Weir which was to last for the following seven decades, and also lead to orders from many other foreign Navies and the mercantile marine in general.

HMS POWERFUL and HMS TERRIBLE were each equipped with a total of forty-eight Boilers accommodated in no less than eight Boiler-Rooms.

The principal armament of these large warships consisted of :

2 Nos. 9.2 inch Guns
12 Nos. 6 inch Guns
16 Nos. 12-pounder Guns
12 Nos. 3-pounder Guns
4 Nos. 18 inch Torpedoes (submerged tubes)

and, for defensive protection, they carried the following armour-plating :

Deck Variable between 2 inch and 6 inch thickness
Turrets 6 inch thickness
C.T. 12 inch thickness
Casemates Variable between 2 inch and 6 inch thickness

HMS POWERFUL led a largely uneventful naval career, mainly due to the introduction, in 1906 and 1907, of the new class of naval fighting ships, HMS DREADNOUGHT, HMS INDOMITABLE, HMS INFLEXIBLE and HMS INVINCIBLE. These new ships were so advanced on previous designs that in one stroke they rendered obsolete all pre-1906 vessels. The only significant action in which HMS POWERFUL was to take part came about when she sailed on 26 October 1899 for Durban, South Africa carrying armaments to support the British Army fighting the Boers.

Early in 1900, a Naval Brigade from the ship played a significant part in relief of Ladysmith during the Boer War. The Boer attack on Ladysmith was duly repulsed. As the defending army had no ordnance capable of matching the range of the Boer guns, the Naval Brigade from HMS POWERFUL was deployed to set up a battery of QF (Quick-Firing) 4.7’s and 12-pounders and distinguished themselves according to the official records of that incident. It is recorded that the Gunnery Lieutenant from HMS POWERFUL, Lieutenant Egerton, was killed in this action.

The records show that her sister-ship HMS TERRIBLE played an even more significant role in the Battle of Ladysmith. The records also show that both these vessels underwent a major 18-month refit in the period 1902 – 1904

However, they played no active role between the years 1914 through 1918 in the various theatres of naval warfare enacted during this troubled period, e.g. Heligoland, Falklands, Cameroons, Mesopotamia, Dogger Bank, Suez, Dardanelles, Jutland, Dover, Zeebrugge, Ostend, Belgium and Scandinavian Convoys. In effect, they were by this time already obsolete and no match for the new Battleships emerging in the early years of the 20th centrury

In 1915, HMS POWERFUL was taken out of active service and took up new duties as a Training Ship. In this capacity her name was changed to HMS IMPREGNABLE II in 1919. She was to remain in this capacity for a further ten years until stricken in 1929 and sold by the Royal Navy on 31st of August 1929, at the age of 34 years. The purchaser was the Hughes Bolckow Shipbreaking Company Limited of Blyth, Northumberland, who also had a shipbreaking facility on the River Tyne.

Her sister-ship HMS TERRIBLE was used as a Troop Ship in 1915, then as an Accommodation Ship from 1916 until 1920. In 1920 she was renamed HMS FISGARD III and converted to become a Training Ship until scrapped in 1932.

(See attached images of HMS POWERFUL, the guns she carried, and HMS ANDROMEDA, a similar-looking but slightly smaller Armoured Cruiser launched from the Pembroke Naval Dockyard on 30 April 1897 and only taken out of service in 1956.)



The brothers James Rodger Thomson and George Paul Thomson moved from their previous Yard in Govan to a new green-field Site at West Barns Farm, Kilbowie, in the year 1871. The reason behind this move was due to the Govan Site being wanted by the Clyde Navigation Trust for the construction of a new up-river Dock (later to become Prince’s Dock)

Their old Yard in Govan was known as the Clyde Bank Yard and had been in business since 1850 when it was opened up for ship construction by their father (George Thomson) and uncle (James Thomson). George and James Thomson had set up an Engine and Boiler manufacturing business at Finnieston in 1847 before moving into ship construction at Govan. In 1872, the old Clyde Bank Yard at Govan launched the last of the 124 ships built there under the Thomson brothers and finally closed down shortly after this.

The new Yard, located some seven miles down-river from the Glasgow Bridge, was laid down in 1871/1872. Being a green-field area with almost no population, a new township was built around the new Yard. When selecting a name for the new town that was being built, the choice was between ‘Kilbowie’ and ‘Clydebank’. In the event, Clydebank was chosen as the name for the new town, thus naming the town after the old Clyde Bank Yard that led to its creation.

The first ship to be built at the new Clydebank Yard of the brothers J. & G. Thomson was launched at the end of 1872 and sailed on her trials in February 1973. (S.S. Braemar Castle, 2,182 GRT, built on behalf of Thomas Skinner of Glasgow) The 2-cylinder compound steam reciprocating engine for this vessel was built at the Company’s Finnieston Engine Works. A first class shipbuilder, J. & G. Thomson rapidly flourished and business remained brisk until the general slump of 1897 forced the Thomson family to sell out to a Consortium which renamed the Yard ‘Clydebank Engineering & Shipbuilding Company Limited’, under which name a further 12 ships were built.

In 1899, the Yard was taken over by a Sheffield Steelmaker called John Brown & Company Limited, who were at that time looking for an outlet for their steel plate products, in particular armoured plate which a speciality of their Atlas Works in Sheffield.

Over the ensuing seven decades, the Yard was therefore to become the world-famous John Brown of Clydebank, builders of some of the finest and largest vessels ever launched and a world-leader in ship design and second to none.

[The above research work on HMS Powerful was occasioned by the discovery of a large and heavy set of estate gates in Renfrewshire that were manufactured by shipbreakers Messrs Hughes Bolckow (Blyth) from timber salvaged when they were breaking up the large Protected Cruiser] 

Angus MacKinnon (deceased)