The History of HMS Unicorn

HMS Unicorn, of 46 guns, was built for the Royal Navy in the Royal Dockyard at Chatham and launched in 1824.  She is a rare survivor from the days of sail, one of the six oldest ships in the world and Scotland’s only representative of the sailing navy.

There are only five ships left in the entire world older than HMS Unicorn.

HMS Unicorn as she might have appeared under full sail, by Harold Wyllie
HMS Unicorn as she might have appeared under full sail, by Harold Wyllie

A sailing frigate was a powerful cruising vessel, heavily armed and fast, and HMS Unicorn would have been one of the elite ships of the fleet in her day.  However, she was built shortly after the great sea campaign against Napoleon, as part of a programme for re-equipping a battle-weary Royal Navy.  This was the start of a long period of peace and she was not required for immediate service: she was not rigged, but instead her hull was roofed over and she was put into reserve.

HMS Unicorn spent her early years in reserve or ‘ordinary’ in the south of England and was brought to Dundee in 1873 to serve as the reserve training ship for the Tay.  She carried out this function for nearly a century, and also acted as the headquarters ship for the Senior Naval Officer in Dundee during both World Wars.

She remained unrigged and under the cover of a roof her entire working life, and the roof which now covers the ship’s upper deck is believed to be the same one which was fitted immediately after her launch.

As a result of this continuous protection, HMS Unicorn is considered to be the best preserved of all historic wooden ships in the world from her era.

The ship was also built at a time of great technological change, under the supervision of Sir Robert Seppings, the Surveyor of the Navy 1813-1832, at a time when a shortage of timber and the availability of iron was beginning to affect the way ships were built.

HMS Unicorn represents the last great flourish of wooden shipbuilding and illustrates the birth of the iron steamship.

Click a button below to explore more of the history of HMS Unicorn!