HMS Unicorn

HMS Unicorn figurehead

A unique survivor

Dundee’s Victoria Dock is home to just two ships: the North Carr lightship and HMS Unicorn (also known as HM Frigate Unicorn).  She’s the sixth oldest surviving ship in Europe and the fourth oldest in the UK – the oldest still afloat – and has several claims to uniqueness.

Built in 1824, Unicorn never fired a shot and, indeed, wasn’t even fitted with masts or rigging.  But she still played an important role in the Royal Navy right up until the 1960s.

Her design is based on that of a captured French ship from the Napoleonic War.  By the time she was built, that war was long over: she was basically redundant before she was launched.  So she was never completely fitted out, but was kept in reserve or “in ordinary” and had a roof installed instead of masts.

The roof is still there and is the only surviving example in the world.  It’s helped to preserve the ship and also makes for a much more comfortable visit on a cold or wet day than an open deck would.

Naval service

Built at Chatham in Kent, HMS Unicorn was used as a naval gun-powder hulk (store) at Woolwich for some years.  She made the voyage to Dundee in 1873, where she served as the Navy’s Reserve Drill Ship.

Her trainees served in both world wars.  During the second world war she was largely “manned” by women, the WRENs learning Morse code and other communication techniques.

During WWII, Unicorn was the naval headquarters in Dundee and earned her second claim to uniqueness.  She’s the only wooden warship to have accepted the surrender of a German U-Boat.

Just think about that for a moment: an 1824 wooden sailing ship taking the keys, as it were, of top-of-the-range technology in 1945.  I wonder what the German crew felt about it.  (There’s a photo of one of them rubbing his head as he left the ship, having walked into the low doorway.  Maybe he wasn’t thinking abut much at all after that!)

Moving to a new berth

Unicorn had been berthed in the same place, in Earl Grey Dock, from her arrival in 1973 right up until 1962.  The dock was due to be filled in to make way for the Tay Road Bridge and the Royal Navy, thinking Unicorn wasn’t fit to be moved, decided to have her broken up.

Luckily some of the Reservists who had trained on board fought that decision and she was moved – with considerable difficulty.  She’d become stuck in the mud and had to be dredged and hauled clear of it.  As she came clear, part of her false keel stayed put and was left behind.

Some 20,000 people enjoyed the sight of HMS Unicorn being towed to Camperdown Dock.  A year later she moved again, to Victoria Dock.  Once she had been moved, the Navy decided she was fit for further service “for an indefinite period of years”.  That period ended a mere five years later, when the Royal Naval Reserve moved to a permanent base on shore.

Again, the Navy wanted to break up the old ship.  Again, her Reservists fought the decision.  They formed the charmingly-named Unicorn Preservation Society, got Royalty involved – and the result is that you can visit history on the water.

Visiting HMS Unicorn

There are four decks.  Start at the top, on the (roofed) Weather Deck from which the ship was steered.

Then there’s the Gun Deck, which is where you come aboard: HMS Unicorn carried 46 cannon.

Stern of HMS Unicorn
The Captain’s Cabin windows. Photo from

The Captain’s Cabin is also on this deck, comparatively luxurious and with a rather extraordinary arrangement of windows.

On the outside of the ship, the area around the gun ports is painted white.  This was Nelson’s idea, so that different types of ships could be recognised at sea by the number of gun decks they had.

Below the gun deck is the Mess Deck, where the rest of the officers and crew lived and ate.  Finally, down in the bowels of the ship, there’s the Orlop Deck and Hold where all the stores were kept.  (“Orlop” comes from the Dutch “overloop” or covering: the orlop deck covered the hold).

There are plenty of artefacts to see, including the daggers of the U-Boat officers, WREN uniforms and, of course, the guns.  There’s also a replica of the Unicorn figurehead – perfect for selfies!

You visit at your own pace, though you can arrange a tour in advance if required.  For obvious reasons, access to all but the gun-deck is limited to the able-bodied; and tall folk should watch their heads.

Visit soon, while you can still experience HMS Unicorn on the water.  Dundee’s Waterfront is being massively redeveloped and the ship may be moved to the old dry dock (itself a listed building) when Victoria Dock becomes a marina.  While this would help preserve the ship’s timbers and is probably necessary for her continued survival, you’d miss the gentle rocking under your feet that makes a boat feel alive.

Find out more at


Mercury Seaplane

Mercury seaplane plaque
Mercury seaplane with Maia flying boat

World record long-distance flight

Walking along the Tay Embankment next to RRS Discovery, I stopped to read a bronze plaque attached to the sea-wall.  It commemorates the world record for long-distance seaplane flight. This was achieved by the Mercury seaplane, which took off from Dundee.

The illustration shows  a combination of one plane under another.  This rather ungainly but intriguing arrangement was known as the Short Mayo Composite.  The name commemorates its builders (Short Brothers Ltd) and designer (Robert Mayo).

An epic adventure

It was high tide and windy as I stood at the edge of the river.  The Tay roiled and slopped against the embankment below me.  Conditions were much the same in early October 1938, but by the 6th they had cleared up enough to be safe.

This is what the plaque says:

“Commemoration of the 1938 flight of Captain Bennett from the Tay Estuary to South West Africa.

The world record long-distance flight by a seaplane was achieved by the aircraft “Mercury”, the upper component of the Short Mayo Composite that took off from the Tay Estuary at Dundee on 6th October 1938.

The seaplane was positioned on top of the “Maia” flying boat for assisted take-off, enabling her to carry a greater fuel load.  The planes separated in the skies north of Dundee and “Mercury” flew 6,041 miles to Alexander Bay, South West Africa.

The two experiment planes, “Mercury” and “Maia” were built by Short Brothers Ltd. for Imperial Airways and designed to carry mail long distances without refuelling.

This tribute to the epic flight by Captain D.C.T. Bennett and First Officer Ian Harvey was unveiled by Captain Bennett’s wife Mrs Ly Bennett and Lord Provost Mervyn Rollo on 4th October 1997.

Captain Bennett, later Air Vice Marshal D.C.T. Bennett, C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O., was the famed founder and Commander of the Royal Air Force Pathfinder Force during the Second World War.”

The story of the Mercury seaplane

The reason for creating the Short Mayo composite is that planes can’t take off with the amount of weight they can carry once they’re actually flying.  They also use a lot of fuel to get airborne.  If another plane can assist with take-off, the smaller plane can travel further on its fuel-load.

A frame on the lower plane (Maia, a flying boat) held the upper one (the Mercury seaplane) until the moment of release.  There were two release levers, one in each cockpit, to avoid mishaps.  Aerodynamics then provided the lift to get the upper plane airborne.

Before the African trip, the Mercury seaplane had successfully flown across the Atlantic to Canada to deliver mail.  Her flying ability was proven.  But the African journey was considerably longer.

The expectation was that Mercury would fly all the way to Cape Town (some 6,400 miles) but poor weather meant she hadn’t enough fuel to get all the way.  Instead she landed on the River Orange.  Apparently she came down through a flock of flamingos, which must have been somewhat unnerving for Captain Bennett.

Mercury didn’t beat the overall long-distance flying record.  However, no other seaplane has beaten her record (mostly because very few seaplanes make long-distance flights these days).

Mercury and Mayo seem to have been the only Mayo Composite plane combo built and neither plane survived World War II.  However, the idea lived on.

The piggy-back concept was used again when 747s carried the US Space Shuttle around America.  The coupling idea also developed into in-flight refuelling, according to Wing Cdr Colin McCrae of the Air Training Corps, quoted in a BBC report of the 70th anniversary celebrations of the flight.

Find out more

You can watch contemporary footage of the Short Mayo Composite on YouTube and at the British Pathe site.

And you can learn all about Captain (later Air Vice Marshall) DCT Bennett here.  Perhaps surprisingly, he was an Australian.  He joined the RAF in the early ’30s, left to become a commercial pilot, then rejoined the RAF in 1941. After the War he became an MP and designed cars and light aircraft.

If you know what happened to First Officer Ian Harvey, please let me know.  As so often happens with the “junior” members of a team, I couldn’t find anything on the internet apart from his connection with this flight.