Thursday, May 01, 2014

I have been to ... HMS Excellent (Whale Island)

Picture courtesy Wikipedia
A good mate of mine, who I've sailed with for more years than I care to mention () keeps his boat in a marina on the side of the Royal Naval shore establishment known as HMS Excellent, or Whale Island (which is in Portsmouth Harbour).

The other week he happened to mention that he knew the  chap who ran the museum there, and that this chap was willing to show us around if we liked - not surprisingly I almost bit his arm off - Whale Island is a military station so it's quite difficult to get in there - an opportunity like this was not to be missed!

First off though, a bit of history ...  Whale Island (or rather the tidal mud bank that became Whale Island) was purchased in the second half of the 19th Century and was intended to eventually replace the permanently moored ships that up until that time had provided gunnery training to the Royal Navy since the War of 1812 (HMS Excellent, and later HMS Queen Charlotte - which was renamed Excellent) .

The first Excellent was a prison hulk already moored in the harbour... cleaned up and repaired she was pressed back into service....  the Navy used Royal Marine Light Artillery gunners as instructors.. Live firing was at high tide only, otherwise the shells sometimes bounced out of control across the harbour... the Navy used to pay salvage for the return of used cannon balls as it was cheaper than buying new...

The original HMS Excellent (image courtesy swaythlinglawn.co.uk)

The requirement for shore space to practice gunnery was driven by the new heavier iron clads coming into service that were using larger/heavier guns which could no longer be mounted and used in the constrictive space available in the older traditional wooden ships.

Manoeuvres - turn of the century...
By a chance of serendipity, those same new Ironclads also meant that the Navy need more space for dry docking in the existing naval base - by digging out the new dry docks, the royal Navy could use the spoil they extracted to expand the mud bank, and join together what had been the two smaller islands to become the Whale Island we see today (interesting to note that the buildings on the island still suffer from erosion!). They used convicts to do this, and shifted a quite astonishing volume of soil over a number of years..

"If you want peace, be prepared for war" or words to that effect - base motto over the doorway to the officers wardroom

In the end the island comprised shooting ranges (for small arms) and eventually a custom built "gun deck" where the biggest guns could be set up to allow live firing training..

The Island also houses the gun carriage used in several state funerals since the death of Queen Victoria


This was in active service until the death of Queen Victoria and is (I believe) a Royal Horse Artillery 18 pounder. The story is that when the funeral cortege arrived at Windsor the horses that had been pulling the carriage became restless, and were considered not able to pull the carriage for safety reasons...  the funeral cortege included a naval party who had been trained (at Excellent) in manhandling guns so they did the job, and have done at all State funerals since (only the Sovereign is automatically accorded a State Funeral, for anyone else to be afforded one, a motion must pass in the Houses of Parliament) Other members of the Royal family get a Royal Ceremonial Funeral, one of the differences being that the carriage would be pulled by horses at a Royal Ceremonial Funeral...

Victoria's funeral with Naval side party



The following is Churchill's funeral - clearly not a Sovereign, but his funeral was voted for by Parliament. It gives an excellent view of the Naval Party, and how they were arranged...  about 140 men all told... hugely impressive..


As a gunnery school there are of course lots of examples dotted around the place...  much to the Museum curators disgust they have mostly been polished within an inch of their lives over the years!

12pdr howitzer

Inside the Wardroom - the silver in the cupboards at the end was presented by gunnery classes at their completion

Although the base is still used by the Navy - the gunnery school as a separate entity closed down in the mid-80's - still chock full of history though and if you get the opportunity to have a tour I would grab it with open hands...

Summary Timeline
  1. 1862, what is now Whale Island, was just a narrow strip of land. Whale Island of today is predominantly reclaimed land which used deposits dredged from Portsmouth Dockyard during the 19th Century which increased the land area by about 125%.
  2. 1867 a viaduct was constructed from the north wall of the dockyard to the south-east corner of Big Whale Island which allowed spoil to be moved from dredging at the docks which was used to reclaim the land between Big Whale Island and Little Whale Island forming the land mass that is the island of today. The construction work was mostly undertaken by convicts.
  3. 1885 Whale Island was home to five rifle ranges, three of which were soon decommissioned to make way for the Gun Drill Battery and Drill Ground
  4. Mid-1980's - Gunnery School closes

15 comments:

  1. My uncle Bob (recently deceased) led the Naval party that pulled the gun carriage at Churchill's funeral. I recall visiting him on Whale Island several times in my youth, and also going to family receptions held in the Wardroom.

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    1. Simon, the chap who showed us round was a retired commander and was in the Naval party at Mountbatten's funeral.. like you I remember going to the Island in my youth for their firework night displays -and I think I saw the field gun run one year..

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    2. I think I saw Firework displays, too. I used to go to navy days, and saw the field gun run. I also remember when Eastney Barracks was still occupied by the marines, who stood guard at the gate- in my memory they had the white pith helmets, but I'm not 100% on that. Happy days...

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    3. Simon - my second house backed on to the old Eastney barracks walls... 3 doors down was the old garrison church where the Royal Marines band rehearsed... and I remember the marines at the gate... happy days indeed! :o)

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  2. Really interesting read Steve! I'm sure lots of folks are quite green with envy at your visit.

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    1. David - should you get the chance it's well worth doing.. it's a little time capsule really...

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  3. Interesting to see the ratings with sennet hats at Victoria's funeral - I had always associated them with hot weather service abroad.

    When I was a little boy I remember going down to the foot crossing at the railway to watch Churchill's funeral train go past. Can't believe it was nearly fifty years ago! My childhood is now history!

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    1. Legatus - yes I was quite surprised at the sennet hats as well... but the following may give a clue.. Queen Victoria died in 1901, so the black version was abolished just before she died... "The sennet/sennit hat, removed from kit lists in 1921, a part of the dress of the sailor when uniform was first established, along with a few other items, probably formed a part of the sailor’s irregular uniform for many years prior to 1857, and it or something very similar, was probably associated with the Napoleonic wars. The hat was to be black in home waters, and white when serving in the tropics. The black hat, along with the jacket, sometimes known as the "tar" or "tarpaulin," was abolished in 1891. The white hat or "straw" aka sennet, when out-of-shape, could be stiffened by being painted or moistened with a solution of gelatine, and set to dry on a hat-block."

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  4. Very interesting read there Steve.
    Getting convicts to do the building - now that sounds like a plan to help reduce the cost of civil works.

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    1. Paul - according to the guy who gave the talk, the convicts were practically beating the doors down to get on the work parties as it meant better food.. I'm guessing it might have added a little interest to their daily existence as well to be out from behind bars... Victorian community service!

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  5. In a previous incarnation I spent much time at Whale Island - especially when it was run down to the brink of closure in 84-85. It was once also home to the Naval Zoo - a repository for the (sometimes very large) animals presented to (or liberated by?) RN ships whilst overseas. Many were killed during Luftwaffe bombing raids in WW2 and in my time the gravestones were still visible. One of the stranger official trophies was a small brass plaque on the skirting board on a Wardroom staircase which celebrated the occasion when a visiting Army officer, retiring to bed (possibly very late?), shot at what he claimed to be a rat!

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    1. Jeremy - the site of the zoo is now a garden.. it was touched on in the tour.. I think he said that they had taken the decision to kill a lot of the animals due to concerns about them running wild during air raids.. fascinating though.. they even had a couple of polar bears!

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  6. Thank you for sharing this with us less fortunate who cannot do so ourselves. This was a very interesting and informative read for my Sunday morning. Cheers.

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  7. I've been having lots of problems with my blog accounts and to save my sanity have decided to restart my blog if you would like to 'refollow' me please use this link
    http://tonystoysoldiers.blogspot.co.uk/
    Cheers Tony (Mosstrooper)

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