WOODEN WALLS OF PURFLEET


 

 The Training and Powder ships moored at Purfleet by Sherwin Chase

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The fighting ships of the Royal Navy, built of oak, were known as ‘wooden walls’. In the 18th century the earlier ships moored off Purfleet were frigates in service as powder ships because of the close proximity of the Government Gunpowder Magazines.

The Training Ships came later. Early in 1859 Sir George Henry Chambers entertained the idea of trying to reclaim friendless and uncared for boys who often were led in to trouble. He approached the Admiralty for a suitable ship and they immediately offered him HMS Cornwall if he could raise 2000 (a considerable sum in those days) to start the venture. This he did and the School Ship Society was formed in 1859, under the Reformatory Act of 1854. In 1881 the name of the Institution was changed to the Reformatory Ship Cornwall and later to the Training Ship "Cornwall". Thus was started a venture on the Thames which was to last for over 80 years.

HMS Cornwall (first Training Ship) was built as a 3rd rate, 74 gun ship at Deptford in 1809 – 1812 by Barnard & Co; she was 176 ft x 48.2 ft. In 1831 she was razed to a 50 gun ship, 4th rate. In 1859 she was lent to the School Ship Society and moored off Purfleet. In 1868 she was moved to South Shields and had her name changed to TS Wellesley; here she was used as an Industrial School, and was eventually broken up at Sheerness in 1875.

HMS Conquestador Prize name taken in 1762, 3rd rate of 74 guns. Built by Guillaume at Northam (Southampton). Ordered 20th October 1806, begun August 1807. Launched 1st August 1810, cut down to a frigate of 50 guns (4th rate) 1831. Lent as a powder ship and moored off Purfleet (1858) where there were Government gunpowder magazines, moved to Plymouth as same in 1863, broken up 1897.

HMS Mermaid Leda Class frigate of 38 guns. The largest frigates ever built for the Navy (1055 tons b.m.) built at Chatham Dockyard. Ordered 1817, begun September 1823, launched 30th July 1826. Lent as a powder ship to Purfleet 1858, returned to Naval service 1863 and sailed to Dublin, again in use as a powder ship, broken up 1875.

Note: Two ships of the Leda class are still in existence; Unicorn at Dundee and Trincomalee at Hartlepool.

HMS Wellesley (second Training Ship ‘Cornwall’) was built by the East India Company at Bombay and launched on 24th February 1815 as a 3rd rate 72 gun ship. She was built of teak and cost 55,147. Her dimensions were 175.10 ft x 48.4 ft.

She saw active service in the Far East on several occasions and was for a time Flag Ship of Rear-Admiral Sir Frederick Lewis-Maitland. When she returned from this service, some 27 cannon balls were found embedded in her sides.

She was loaned to the School Ship Society by the Admiralty in 1868, and fitted as a training ship, was re-named ‘Cornwall’ to be moored off Purfleet in April of that year. Owing to industrial development at Purfleet, she was moved to Denton, below Gravesend in 1928.

In 1940 she was severely damaged by enemy action and subsequently sank; she was raised in 1948, and beached at Tilbury-Ness, where she was broken up. Her timbers were found to be still in good condition and were used in the rebuilding of the Law Courts in London.

When the Cornwall was broken up, her figurehead was taken to Chatham Dockyard, where it still stands, just inside the Main Gate under her original name of Wellesley. Many souvenirs were made from her timber, such as ashtrays, candlesticks, serviette rings etc, each with a metal plate giving details of the ship. These can now be found in maritime antique shops and fairs.

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