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Saturday, 17th May 2008
Ships for shore

N ASA plan too launch

a telescope to supersede the Hubble sometime in the early part of the 21st century. The report droned on about how incredibly sophisticated this thing was going to be. In fact it was so sophisticated they reckoned it would not be bettered for perhaps twenty years.

How the world has changed. The pace of computers mean we all know todays shiny computer will be next years lump of plastic in terms of performance (the computer I am hitting at the moment is now two years old and people openly laugh at me for using it).

All this progress thing is pretty new, even the Victorians had the idea they were building stuff which would make people go glassy eyed with wonder for all eternity. Now we chuckle at NASA when 300 million pounds worth of Mars explorers go astray and it turns out we are not going to be hearing what it sounds like on another planet. I suppose we need to know, but I put money on it sounding a bit like putting a shell to your ear only less interesting.

Things were so very different when Wills issued the set Celebrated Ships in 1911. We had only just got around to visiting the extremes of our own planet and the heights and depths of the place were still going to be a mystery for some time to come.

Card 35 shows the Terra Nova, the ship known for Polar exploration, most famously as being part of Captain Scotts expedition to the South Pole. They had set of June 1910 and still going when this set came out. It is not till after the set is a year or so old it is discovered Scott not only failed to be the first person to get to the South Pole but that he dies trying to get back.

The vessel was built in Dundee 1884 and was originally a Scottish Whaler.

A lot of these types of sets you can trace to an event that inspired the company to issue the set. There is mention of the Titanic being under construction but it had not yet been completed. I think the real clue is card 34 HMS King George V. On Jan 16th 1911 this ship was laid down. A super-dreadnought, 555 ft long, ten 13.5 inch guns, 24 4 inch guns and 3 21 inch torpedo tubes.

presumably Raleigh without his head no longer needed it

It is also a measure of the time we have a set called Celebrated Ships, I very much doubt such a set would be produced today.

A quick run through the set surprised me as to criteria the ships had become celebrated. It seems sinking and killing a lot of people was not a good enough reason for excluding a ship.

Card 32 shows us the 'London' this was obviously something of a coffin ship. On Dec 30th 1865 she left Gravesend for her third journey to Australia. Travelling these huge distances it seems the designers had speed to the fore but something had gone wrong on the drawing board it would seem. The card suggests it was rather too long and for whatever reason lay too low in the water.

This it has to be said is not a comforting feature of an ocean going vessel. Heavy seas ensured plenty of water was finding itself inside the vessel where it was best not. She got no further than the Bay Of Biscay where on Jan 11th she sank whereupon 230 passengers and crew drowned.

Quite how a ship that didn't do what it was meant to do and then failed to the extent of sinking gets to be celebrated I do not know. Mind you the Titanic will eclipse all this a year or so after this set was issued.

The end of the Revenge

HMS Royal George seems to have been famous for foundering. She was a large vessel for the time (1780's) being 143.5 feet long. Careened at Spithead for repairs you would think she would have been relatively safe. Not a bit of it though as she keeled over, filled with water and sank with Admiral Kempenfelt and 1000 other souls, 800 being lost (says the card although it is more likely over 900 were lost).

Card 49 is the Eurydice. March 24, 1878 was the last time it sailed above the waves. A sharp squall caught it unawares of the Isle of Wight and within 5 minutes it had sunk. Only 2 of the 300 crew were rescued.

This is as nought to the unfortunate mishap which befell the final card of the series, Princess Alice. This was a popular steamer which would take people from Gravesend to London. On the 3rd September 1878 they met up with the 'a big iron screw-steamer the Bywell Castle'.

Rather unpleasantly the Princess Alice sank in 4 minutes with the loss of some 670 souls.

At the time there was a great deal of fuss made. A public inquiry demanded better safety standards and there was a demand for the Captain of the Bywell Castle to stand trial as he had reputed drink problem. The London Times wrote of the incessant collisions which occurred in the Thames and of it being a wonder that such loss of life did not happen more often. If you do not learn from history you are doomed to making the same mistakes.

The British Navy would not be the British Navy without an Ark Royal and on card 46 is the original. It started life as the Ark Raleigh in 1587 having been built for Sir Walter. Later Queen Elizabeth bought the vessel (presumably Raleigh without his head no longer needed it) for 5000 pounds and renamed it Ark Royal. James I felt it was better named Anne Royal (that tongue-lolling lanky streak would). It then sank in the Thames in 1636.

Not all the vessels in the set were doomed to sinking and killing most on board. No, a good few of them were responsible for sinking and killing a lot of people we were at war with at the time. Now this of course is more common cause for national celebration and none could be celebrated more than HMS Victory (card 11).

The Revenge is on card 16 which is famous for not surrendering. In 1591 it took on the might of The Spanish Fleet and withstood the battering for 15 hours. Mind you once basically everyone on board had been killed and the vessel had been reduced to a barely floating hulk they did surrender. She is seen in that state on the card.

On a slightly different tack is card 19, The Alabama. Having been kicked out the US the UK were not exactly going to get involved when the Civil War broke out. Still in the great British tradition this did not mean we could not arm them and in this instance ships were built for the Confederate States in a number of our ports.

The Alabama was the most successful of these. In fact before it was sunk of Cherbourg (June 19 1864) it had managed to destroy and capture approximately 100 vessels.

Now selling arms is all well and good as long as you pick the winning side. In 1872 the British Government paid the US 15.5 million dollars in damages.


Card 21 is one of those bizarre events that happen from time to time. The year is 1843 and there is some consternation in the British Admiralty and it cannot be determined which is the better propulsion method, the paddle steamer or the screw-prop. To determine this the Rattler (prop)and the Alecto (paddle) were roped together for a tug-o-war competition. When the game commenced despite all efforts the paddle steamer was constantly dragged backwards at a speed of some 2.5 knots, thus settling the argument.

The Voyages of discovery have to be some of the most important ever undertaken. Naturally enough the vessels in which the people travelled are represented in the set. The Mayflower is represented on card 25 and needs no further comment really. Mind you if it had not been for the 'Matthew' in 1496 (this is on card 38 which might make you wonder exactly how this set is ordered) the Mayflower would not know where they were heading. I am mashing the facts a bit here, the Mayflower lands in New England, the Matthew discovers Newfoundland). There were only 18 souls on board the Matthew at the time.

The one thing 49 of the ships shown on the set have in common is they are designed to sail on the surface. There is one vessel which was intended to be happiest below the surface. this being the Nautilus.

Details from Card
The Nautilus
.This vessel, one of the earliest successful submarine boats to be constructed, was the invention of the great American engineer, Robert Fulton. The Nautilus was launched in May 1801, in Paris, where Fulton was working under patronage of Bonaparte. The boat was subsequently greatly improved, but neither France nor England was sufficiently far-sighted to adopt the invention.

The reverse of the card does not quite tell the entire story. Fulton, the scoundrel, having studied painting in London, turned on the British and tried to sell the French the Nautilus. This was with the express idea of sinking British ships. The French were having none of this, so the cad returned and tried to sell the Brits the idea (no doubt to sink French ships). The British weren't interested in this, finding the whole idea of skulking beneath the waves, rather underhand and not very British at all.

The vessel illustrated seems to be about what the thing looked like, it really did have that ridiculous looking sail on it. This was folded flat when diving, which was managed by three of the crew frantically working on a screw to propel the thing which got the thing to a depth of 25 feet.

Try as I might there is a very large part of me which knows if Fulton had offered the idea to me I would have probably died laughing when I saw this contraption in action. Mind you it did have rudders and a compressed air supply and even pretty much looked like a modern submarine (sort of).

All in all this is a really rather good set of cards, full of all those bits of history that seemed so important once but have rather been left behind as the world changes ever faster.