A Unique Ship with Remarkable History

The Unicorn, of 40 guns, from Chatham Dock-yard on the 30th ult.; she is ordered to be docked, to be coppered, and put in a state of ordinary.

Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 8 April 1824

Welcome to HMS Unicorn’s brand new Ship’s Blog and what better subject to launch this new venture on the digital high seas than a piece commemorating our beloved ship’s own launch, which took place 194 years ago on 30th March 1824.

HMS Unicorn is a rather special old girl with an impressive and curious history, and whilst she never sailed, nor took part in any naval battle, her story is just as intriguing, surprising and revealing, in fact in many ways even more so, than her more famous contemporaries.

Ordered on 21st July 1817 and laid down in February 1822 on No. 4 slipway, Chatham Royal Dockyard, HMS Unicorn is a Leda-class frigate. In all, forty-seven Leda-class frigates were built during 1805-1832. They were intended as fast, typically 13 knots, and powerful vessels, perfect for patrol missions, support to the fleet’s ‘line-of-battle’ ships and trade escort. Very few survived into the 20th century; out of the forty-seven only two remain today – HMS Trincomalee (1817) and HMS Unicorn.

Engraving of “Chatham Dockyard from Fort Pitt” from Ireland’s History of Kent, Vol. 4, 1831. Facing p. 349. Drawn by G. Sheppard, engraved by R. Roffe.

As a ‘fifth-rate’ frigate, denoted according to the number of guns aboard, HMS Unicorn possessed 46 guns in total whereas a ‘first-rate’ ship would have over one hundred. Designed by Sir Robert Seppings (Surveyor of the Navy between 1813 and 1832) and built during the Industrial Revolution she is also a unique example of the transition from wooden warship to iron. Consequently she has a number of exceptionally unique features which highlight her rarity, included her rounded stern and use of iron riders and iron knees (if you’re not sure what these are then you really must pay us a visit!) making HMS Unicorn the only remaining ship in the world with this particular combination of iron and wooden elements in her build.

By the time HMS Unicorn was completed, ‘Pax Britannica’ (the long era of peace in Europe from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the outbreak of the First World War) had begun, so she wasn’t required for service. The roof that we see today was actually fitted in 1824 to protect the hull from rainwater – a common practice then but this does mean that HMS Unicorn is the only 19th century ship placed in ‘ordinary’, or reserve, that still exists today. It was fortuitous too as this protection has ensured that HMS Unicorn is the best preserved Georgian warship still in existence (over 90% original).

Therefore, as a survivor from the early 19th century, HMS Unicorn is incredibly rare. So what also makes her so unique? Well apart from the fact she is #ScotlandsOldestShip she is also the third oldest ship in the world afloat (after USS Constitution, 1797 and HMS Trincomalee).

She’s also the 4th oldest British ship in existence, after Mary Rose (1511), HMS Victory (1765) and Trincomalee. In local terms, at nearly 200 years old, she is one of the oldest structures in Dundee; older than the first Tay Rail Bridge (1878) the Albert Institute, today known as the McManus Galleries (1867), and the Caird Hall (1914-23). She’s even older than the Forth Rail Bridge (1882).

In terms of HMS Unicorn’s Dundee history, it wasn’t until 1873 that she finally made her way to her adopted city, under the tow of HM Paddle Sloop Salamander, but that’s a story for another day…

Billy Rough, HMS Unicorn Learning & Engagement Officer
Justin Dempster, HMS Unicorn Volunteer

With thanks to Finlay Raffle, HMS Unicorn Museum Assistant