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Warspite – the Last of the Line

There have been Royal Navy vessels called Warspite since the time of the Tudors. Sir Walter Raleigh commanded the first ship of that name, while later Warspites served with distinction throughout the age of sail. With such a proud heritage, it was small wonder that the name was chosen in 1807 for the latest ship of the line for the Royal Navy. Designed by Sir John Henslow, she was much larger than the standard 74 in service, which permitted her to carry 24pdr cannon on her upper deck in place of the more usual 18pdrs. From the outside Warspite appeared to be a traditional oak warship, but a number of innovations had been tried in her construction, including the use of iron to supplement and strengthen her frames. Few of those who were present at the launch of yet another wooden warship could have realised that they were witnessing the end of an era. The success of such early experiments with iron in ship construction would lead, step by step, to the remorseless replacing of wood with metal, and later sail with steam. Within a few decades the oak warship would vanish altogether.

The first commander of the Warspite was Sir Henry Blackwood, Nelson's favourite frigate captain. Blackwood’s ship had been built to fight a naval war that by 1807, two years after Trafalgar, had been largely won. Instead of the major fleet actions that her designers had envisaged for her, she spent much of her war service on other tasks. She spent three years supporting Wellington’s army in Spain, followed by time blockading the French fleet in Toulon. Her most successful action came whilst she was defending convoys from American attack after 1812 and captured an American blockade runner leaving France bound for Philadelphia with a valuable cargo of silks, brandy and fine wines. Useful work, but hardly what Warspite had been created for.

In the years after the defeat of France in 1815, the Warspite continued to serve her country. Most of her contemporaries were scraped when the war ended, but she was in such excellent condition that she was kept in service. She took part in the suppression of the slave trade by the Barbary states of North Africa, before being transferred to the Indian Ocean to help with the British campaign in Burma.

In 1825 she became the last Royal Navy sailing ship of the line to circumnavigate the globe. During that voyage she also became the first ship of the line to visit Australia. It was during her stay that her crew took part in the earliest known military parade on Australian soil. Three years later, Warspite was involved in the birth of another nation, helping the Greeks to win their independence back from centuries of Ottoman rule. She helped to blockade several Turkish-held ports, and hosted the conference at which Ibrahim Pasha agreed the withdrawal of his troops from Greece.

By the middle of the 19th century time had caught up with Warspite. She was a relic from another age amongst a fleet of steam-powered and iron-clad ships, but she would still serve her country for another two decades. In 1862 the grand old ship was moored on the Thames, where she was used as a training ship for the Marine Society. Founded by the philanthropist Jonas Hanway a century earlier, the society took homeless boys from the streets of Britain’s cities, fed and educated them, and trained them up to be apprenticed into the navy or the merchant service. Thousands of future sailors learned their new profession aboard the ship.

For eighteen years, Warspite was a local landmark on the edge of the bustling river, but in 1880 the end finally came. How the blaze started is unknown, but the fire quickly took hold in her ancient oak timbers, and had soon grown to such an intensity that nothing could be done to save her. But the Warspite name did not die with her. It was used again for a First World War dreadnought, one of the Queen Elizabeth class that were the most powerful warships afloat at the time. She served at the Battle of Jutland and, after modernisation, throughout the Second World War, accumulating more battle honours than any other vessel in the Royal Navy. The name continues today - the current Warspite is a nuclear powered submarine, presently laid up at Devonport.

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