CILT Logo Gradient1 The Scottish Region Website

Visit to HMS Unicorn - Dundee meeting of Thursday 3 October 2019

HMS Unicorn in Victoria Dock, Dundeed

HMS Unicorn in Victoria Dock, Dundee

© John G. Fender 2019

Now the third oldest ship afloat anywhere in the world and the most original Georgian warship in existence, HMS Unicorn took two years to be built at Chatham, costing £26,000 and consuming almost one thousand oak trees but incorporating a circular stern and "small-timber" system of construction with diagonal riders made with iron straps and iron "knees" that strengthened the hull.

She was launched in 1824, however the start of the post-Napoleonic era of international peace meant that her services as a fighting vessel were no longer required. She therefore was not rigged but roofed over, and was laid up "in ordinary" as a reserve vessel or hulk. By 1838 over 80 Royal Navy frigates were in this condition.

She was used to store gunpowder at Woolwich in the 1850s, but her only seagoing voyage was when under tow she was transported from Chatham to Dundee in 1873, where she would be used for 95 years as a training ship for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and acted as the Headquarters for senior naval officers in both wars. Because she remained unrigged and roofed throughout her entire working life, she is considered to be the best preserved of all wooden ships from her era.

CILT group with Kyle Penman(second from right) in front of HMS Unicorn in Victoria Dock, Dundeed

CILT group with Kyle Penman(second from right) in front of HMS Unicorn in Victoria Dock, Dundee

© John Yellowlees 2019

The captain lived separately in his great cabin with a marine guarding the door and a separate toilet but would have shared the space with some of the great guns in the main battery. He could decorate his cabin as he wished and could afford, and his furniture would be stored in the hold prior to battle.

Officers had bedrooms of a size according to their rank, but ordinary seaman slept on hammocks. Each sailor received a daily tot of rum from the spirit locker. Menus showed a variety of meals making use of foodstuffs that could be stored on board.

In 1962 a crowd of 20,000 witnessed the Unicorn being pulled into the Tay from Earl Grey Dock, her home for almost 90 years, to make way for construction of the Tay Road Bridge, en route to her berth in preservation at Victoria Dock, where she is a neighbour of the North Carr Lightship and in walking distance from Captain Scott's Discovery and the V&A. She was donated by the Ministry of Defence to the new Unicorn Preservation Society formed in 1968 which has worked tirelessly as one of the first in the world to tackle the preservation of a large warship. A new fo'c'sle roof replacing a portion removed during renovation in the 1970s is adding greater protection for the forward port and starboard planking. With the support of Dundee City Council, the ship has been completely rewired with improved lighting opening up to visitors areas that had been previously inaccessible.

There is a link with CILT in that Princess Anne is also patron of the Society, which in April 2019 received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Now a consensus has emerged that for her preservation she should not remain in the water for much longer, and the Society aims to move her to a nearby dry dock as part of Dundee's City Quay development.

The Society's Kyle Penman led us on a tour of the ship's four levels during which we saw her two dozen cannon and learned how every-day English words like "sideburns" and expressions such as "a clean slate", a "flash in the pan" or "going off at half-cock" and "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" are of naval origin. We examined commemorations of some of the other ten ships to have borne the name Unicorn, learned about another Dundee training vessel, the Mars, which gave purpose to the lives of many generations of orphaned boys and were told how sailors and their cats managed the Unicorn's rat population. She was designed for a war complement of 300, and rigours of life in the Royal Navy meant it sometimes felt as though a ship's surgeon was in competition with her chef as to who could kill the most sailors. We returned to dry land relieved to be alive in today's world!

Report by John Yellowlees. Photographs by John Fender and John Yellowlees.


The CILT Logo is a registered trademark of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport
Unless otherwise stated, site and contents © John G. Fender 1997 - 2024
Site designed & maintained by John G. Fender