By Saba Purkar, Project Research Associate, MHS
The average lifespan of a ship at sea is considered as 25-30 years. After that, the maintenance of the ship becomes too expensive and dangerous to voyage in. However, today i.e 12 October marks the launch date of the Royal Navy’s Leda class frigate HMS Trincomalee who carries in her bones over two centuries worth of history, making her the oldest afloat surviving warship of Great Britain. What is interesting and makes it relevant to us is that this ‘Grand Old Lady’ was built in the Bombay dockyards by none other than the famed Wadia shipbuilders.
The ships of East India Company covered a wide range of trade routes and to tap into this network they established a shipbuilding industry in Bombay under the local builders, the Wadia’s in this case. The HMS Trincomalee was built after the end of the Napoleonic wars by the Wadia group in Bombay at a whopping cost of 23,000 pounds back then. It was in May of 1816 that the work of building this ship began after none other than the master builder Mr. Jamsetjee Bomanjee Wadia himself hammered a ceremonial engraved silver nail into the ship’s keel, which was considered vital for ships well-being, according to the Parsi Zoroastrian tradition. What sets this ship apart from her sisters is that, she is made of teakwood in place of the commonly used oak. This was probably because of the scarcity of oak wood in Britain, in those times, owing to the rapid shipbuilding during the Napoleonic wars.
HMS Trincomalee was launched on 12 October 1817 with Captain Philip Henry sailing her to Portsmouth Dockyard at a total cost of about 6,600 pounds. After reaching Britain she went into ‘ordinary’ for 26 years, which meant that the vessel was put under repair for maintenance or standby. Moreover, the oil in the teakwood preserved the iron nails rather than rot them, so even after being in service for a long time, HMS Trincomalee remained in an excellent condition.
In 1845, she was brought out of the reserve and upgraded with guns and reshaped stern before being reclassified as a 26-gun Corvette. The ships built post Nepolianic wars mostly spent their life in ordinary, but HMS Trincomalee travelled around the world. She served in the West Indies and then in the Eastern Campaigning of the Crimean War to police the Slave trade and also assisting in protecting British interests in Haiti and Cuba in 1847. In 1852 she was re-commissioned and sent to join the Pacific Squadron, charged with defending British interests. In 1854 she was involved in the war declared against Russia and in operations to seek and destroy Russian frigates.
After the pacific patrols, she was sent into ‘ordinary’ again in 1857. She was moored in deckhouses from Sunderland to West Hartlepool to finally in Southampton. From 1860 – 1897 she served as a training vessel to train teenage Naval Volunteers. She was sold to scrap in 1897 and was later bought and given a second life by G Wheatly Cobb. After years of repair works, she was towed to Flatmouth for refitting and repainting and was renamed as TS Foudroyant. For the next 25 years, she served as a training vessel to introduce teenagers to nautical skills. After the death of Mr. Cobb, his widow handed the ship over to the Implacable Committee of the Society for Nautical Research where she was moored in Portsmouth as extra accommodation for the youth.
In 1947, under the Foudroyant Trust, she became an adventure training base for Sea Cadets, Sea rangers, and Sea Scouts. For this time period, she remained in service as a training ship until 1986 and then was moved to Hartlepool for restoration. Her restoration started in 1990 and the Foudroyant Trust became HMS Trincomalee Trust. The vessel was opened to the public by 2001 and only recently, around 2015 she became a full subsidiary of the National Museum of the Royal Navy and restored as a Museum of the Royal Navy based in Hartlepool. In 2020, a wooden figurehead known as the Turbaned Man was restored at its original place at the mast of the ship. It was carved from teak wood for HMS Trincomalee in 1817 and the restoration of the same costs more than 55,000 pounds.
HMS Trincomalee comes under the Core Collection of the National Register of the Historic Vessels of UK as it highlights the importance of maritime history and heritage and it is indeed a living example of Wadia’s prowess in shipbuilding.
- ‘Last of Nelson’s Frigates, HMS Trincomalee, Joins the Illustrious Fleet of National Museum of the Royal Navy’, The National Museum of Royal Navy, accessed 09 October, 2021. https://www.nmrn.org.uk/news-events/nmrn-blog/last-nelson%E2%80%99s-frigates-hms-trincomalee-joins-illustrious-fleet-national-museum
- ‘HMS Trincomalee’, National Historic Ships UK, accessed on 09 October, https://www.nationalhistoricships.org.uk/register/497/hms-trincomalee
- ‘HMS Trincomalee: Figurehead of oldest warship afloat to be restored’, BBC News UK, accessed on 09 October 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-tees-51536415
- Wyn Davis and Max Mudie, 2015, ‘HMS Trincomalee 1817 Frigate’, Great Britain, Seaforth Publishing.