Monday 21 October 2019

The Woolwich Navy


This extract is taken from London Ship Types, by Frank C.Bowen published 1938 by the East Ham Echo

The units of the 'Woolwich Navy' which is maintained by the War Office with its headquarters at Woolwich Arsenal are among the very familiar sights of the River but most people know very little about them.   For one thing their flag is difficult to identify, a Blue Ensign, defaced by gold guns which is not included in most popular books on flags, and, for another thing although they are painted black with a buff funnel and a black top, they do not carry their names painted on their bows like ordinary merchant ships but man of war fashion in very small letters on the stern which are generally difficult to read.  As most of them are built on the lines of coasting cargoe steamers or motor vessels and are quite small the average Londoner who encounters them on the River is quite content to put them down as coasters and leave them at that, although really they deserve much more attention.

The War Office which in the old days controlled the Ordnance Department  which supplied guns and ammunition to the Navy as well as the Army has maintained a fleet sorts from time immemorial.  Not the only had guns and ammunition to be carried round the various forts and naval bases along the coast, but transport and storeships proceeding abroad had to be loaded at whatever port they were using as a base and on the London River itself a large fleet of sailing barges carried ammunition from the various factories to the arsenals, the magazine’s at such places as Purfleet and forts, rifle ranges and gunnery experimental stations in the lower reaches.  These barges, it may be mentioned, were among the best built on the River and several of them have been converted into first class cruising yachts.

In addition to this transporting work the War Office was for many years after the American Civil War had proved the potency of the submarine mine, in charge of all the mining defences of the country, for the Navy regarded the mine as an ungentlemanly weapon and would have nothing to do with it as long as possible.  The Royal Engineers therefore had charge of a larger number of submarine mining vessels of about 80 tuns displacement, each of which were stationed at various points along the coast and which periodically caused interest and considerable confusion by practising mining and counter mining in or alongside of commercial waterways.  It was not until the turn of the century that the Navy took seriously to mining and even so it was quite unprepared for the pitch of perfection which the German Navy had brought that arm to by 1914.

The War Department fleet has nothing to do with mining nowadays it is very busy on the transporting side.  Guns and ammunition from Woolwich Arsenal make the principle and most picturesque cargo and there are always two or three of the ships alongside the various piers and jetties on the riverfront.  Sometimes the run is only down to the gunnery stations on the Isle of Grain or at Shoeburyness; sometimes it may be round the posts which Britain still maintains in Southern Ireland, or to the coast defence fortifications anywhere round Britain.  The large variety of their duties which include the movement of stores, food and occasionally troops as well as amunition and the towing of targets for the gunnery practice of the coastal forts, necessitates a very wide range of types including dumb and motor barges,tugs and vessels very much akin to yachts. 

They are manned by an entirely separate service, the personnel generally being entered as boys and promoted through the various ranks of Ordinary Seaman, AB, Second Mate and Mate to Captain, whole below deck the grades are, Fireman, Leading Hand and Driver.  They wear a uniform of sorts and although the discipline is not be compared with either the Army or the Navy they are generally men of a very superior steady type who have a good job and who look after it well.  Pensions have only been introduced in a comparatively recent years for the officers

Of the many types which are including the fleet the steamer SIR EVEYLN WOOD - must of the vessels are named after famous generals or battles - must be taken as she has been well-known on the River for over 40 years.  She was built by Fleming and Ferguson of Paisley in 1896, a steel screw steamer on the laines of a superior coaster.   Her dimensions are 160 feet by 24 feet by 14 feet depth of hold and as a large part of her work was the csarriage of big guns she was given exceptionally heavy scantlings which perhaps accounts for her long life.  On trial as a new ship she averaged  a speed of ten knots and she still working at about nine which is a fine tribute to her original construction and the way she has been maintained by the Army.  During her long life she has carried every conceivable article that can be required by the troops , from ordinance to food and on many occasions she has also been used for transporting bodies of men over short distances

No comments: