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.
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.
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 http://www.frigateunicorn.org/visit/.