Fort Gilkicker



Haslar Gunboat Yard


The gunboat yard in 2017 taken with the permission of the current owners


This Victorian, purpose-built, gunboat yard was designed and built by William Scamp the Deputy Director of Engineering and Architectural Works of the Admiralty Works department under Colonel Greene and, despite some sources reporting to the contrary, there is no written evidence that Brunel was connected in any way with its design or construction. (One source states that the wheeled traverser, known as the Elephant, used to move the gunboats around was designed by Brunel). The ironwork was contracted to Henry Grissell's Regents Canal Iron Works. The yard was built, as an adjunct to Portsmouth Dockyard for the maintenance of wooden gunboats, on the south side of Haslar Creek off the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour, the creek at Haslar being suitable for the launching of boats of shallow draught at certain heights of tide. The yard was built at the conclusion of the Russian War for the storing and preservation of the many gunboats that had been constructed by private builders under contract during that war. It was considered an important lesson learned from the War that England needed a strong fleet of vessels ready-built for any future emergency. At Haslar they were to be stored and ready for use at an hour's notice in sufficient numbers to enter the Channel. This was nothing to do with the much quoted idea of 'Gunboat Diplomacy' where a show of limited force was used to overawe third world nations. These gunboats were needed for their close inshore capabilities against forts and defences of major powers. The use of propellers in ships meant that small vessels with one or two heavy guns could bombard from long range. The first prototype was the iron hulled Royal Yacht tender Fairy of 1845. The building of these gunboats accelerated during the Russian War when the target was Cronstadt, starting with the Arrow class gunboats which carried two 68pounder 95cwt guns. They proved unsuitable and the Gleaner and Dapper class followed which were smaller, with a 7ft draught and carried the same armament. Over 100 were built. In 1855 these gunboats were used successfully in the Baltic and Black Sea followed by the bombardment and destruction of Kronstadt in 1856.


Map of Haslar Gunboat Yard 1858. Map of Haslar Gunboat Yard circa 1865. The  sheds are clearly divided into fifty bays.
Map of Haslar Gunboat Yard 1858. Map of Haslar Gunboat Yard circa 1865.




When Haslar gunboat yard was built in 1857/58 (on the site of Haslar Farm) it was 2,640ft. in length and 816ft. in width within the brick boundary walls; it had a water frontage throughout its entire length. At each corner of the yard was a watch tower, also of brick. On the side opposite to its water frontage stood a line of galvanized iron covered sheds (one report states zinc covered) for 50 gunboats, divided by five brick walls into as many divisions, the entire length of the shed line being 1,900ft. The sheds were at right angles to the slipway with roofs carried on cast iron columns and wrought and cast iron trusses. The rear of the sheds were closed off by a brick wall. In front of and parallel with these sheds were 14 lines of rails exceeding in their collective width the length of the largest of the gunboats.


Over these travelled the transporting frame and cradle (42metres/137feet long with a load capacity of 160tons which became known as the 'Elephant') propelled by a powerful locomotive engine, which conveyed the gunboats to or from the launching and hauling up slipway or the sheds as required. The machinery was supplied by 'Messers Humphrys and Tenirant of Deptford' who at the official trial on February 16 1858 declared that the success of the machinery was perfect. Gunboats of 300 tons weight could be moved in and out of their sheds as rapidly as a man would move a wheelbarrow. Humphrys and Tenirant declared that they would put forty gunboats out of their sheds and afloat in twenty four hours.


Between this line of sheds and the south boundary wall of the yard was established the nucleus of an engineering range of workshops with the necessary forges, lathes, &c., employing about 30 junior naval engineers and 40 stokers, the latter working at their trades as boiler makers, moulders, coppersmiths, carpenters, or fitting the machinery of the gunboats with condensers, and undertaking all the work required for the alteration and repair of machinery, except heavy iron castings, which were supplied from the iron foundry in Portsmouth dockyard.



The enclosing wall of the yard was of brick, and substantially built with brick sentry-boxes at the angles. At the entrance was a spacious guard-house, police-station, and an official residence, occupied by the acting master shipwright.


The gunboat yard at Haslar 1890 The gunboat yard at Haslar 1890

Haslar Gunboat yard: Plans dated 1890


The purpose of the yard was to allow the gunboats to be hauled up above high tide and stored beneath the sheds on blocks so that their hulls could be inspected and machinery preserved for immediate service afloat whenever needed. In 1858 Parliament was told that the total sum estimated for the cost of the Gunboat Yard at Haslar was £70,000. The sum voted the previous year was £40,000, and the amount expended was £51,270.


In Parliament on 23 April 1858 the question of the expenditure of money on the gunboat yard at Haslar was raised by Mr Bentinck, member for Norfolk. Hansard recorded: The opinion of the naval authorities on the spot was that, using the utmost diligence, it would be utterly impossible to launch the gunboats at greater speed than five in a fortnight. Thus it would seem that £70,000 had been expended in housing boats which were entirely unavailable in case of an emergency. The tramways upon the slips were made to fit the present gunboats; but if it should hereafter be requisite to build larger gunboats, the money would be wasted, as other slips would be required.


Sir Charles Napier added: If these slips were to be made useful, there must be a basin dug, and locks and gates must be constructed to keep the water in the basin, so as to allow the gunboats to be launched. He did not believe it would be possible to make these additions for less than £150,000. He would suggest that competent engineers, not connected with the Admiralty, should be sent down to examine the slips, so that some means might be devised of having the vessels ready as soon as they were wanted.


Regarding the launching machinery Sir James Elphinstone stated that: (he) thought the invention which had been resorted to for launching these boats was one of the most extraordinary which had ever entered into the mind of man to conceive. It had been attended with very great labour and expense and by the inconvenience resulting from the curtailment of the area of Haslar and the cutting off the water from its wells. If the Committee would bear in mind that £70,000 had to be laid out in digging new wells and constructing a new cemetery in lieu of that portion of the old one which was taken up by those railway slips, as well as a sum of £1,400 a year for the purpose of watching them, it could not, he thought, fail to come to the conclusion that a very considerable outlay had been incurred for no adequate object.


Sir Charles Wood commented that the greater part of the money had been spent in providing means of hauling up the gunboats. The gunboats were better preserved when hauled up than when left in the water. The only question appeared to be as to the means of launching, and he thought there could be little doubt that the engineers of the present day would find little difficulty in providing for that proceeding. They had all been drawn up by the help of this machinery, and to say that they could not be drawn down again in the same way did seem to him to be an extraordinary notion. Captain Dacres assured him that with the present means thirty boats could be launched per month, and that with an outlay of £8,000 that number could be increased to forty. The question was whether, after the money which had been spent, and, as he believed, was admitted, usefully spent, the Committee were prepared to vote £5,000 more to effect further improvements in the launching.


According to The Times (This may have been before the fitting of the machinery. See note below), the first boat was hauled up on the 1st January 1857. (An early colour painting shows the yard with the sheds full and a single gunboat resting on a wooden cradle having just been hauled up the slipway. Another gunboat is shown being hauled into its storage shed with a small locomotive nearby). Shortly afterwards more vessels were hauled up and stripped of their copper as it was supposed that this was the most sensible plan which could be taken for their preservation. It was soon realised that this resulted in the vessels requiring repairs and the cause of the problem was assumed to be be due to them being deprived of their coppering and set up high and dry on blocks, thus exposing their planking to the action of air-draughts beneath the sheds. A number of shipwrights were therefore employed to undertake the repairs and 22 vessels were declared fit for service, with the exception of coppering. It was later realised by the examination of a number of coppered gunboats that were kept afloat they were far more defective than those stored beneath the sheds.


The large order for gunboats had come at a time when the Navy was building warships and using up the stocks of seasoned oak, so the chief constructor had given builders of minor warships permission to use a variety of woods. When this was not enough 'green' unseasoned timber was resorted to because it was not expected that gunboats, which were expendable, would be retained in the postwar fleet. Gunboat after gunboat had been launched and towed to Woolwich or Deptford (and possible Gunwharf at Portsmouth) for arming and fitting of engines. When the need for gunboats suddenly vanished many of them went straight into the reserve and were laid up, like those at Haslar, waiting for the next war.


The original sailplan of HMS Gleaner, a wooden Gleaner Class gunboat, built 1854 Starling a Dapper class gunboat launched 1855.
The original sailplan of HMS Gleaner, a wooden Gleaner Class gunboat, built 1854, which included Badger, Gleaner, Pelter, Ruby, Snapper and Pincher. Starling a Dapper class gunboat launched 1855. Sold Hong Kong 1871



The Times reported that "the whole of our gunboats afloat are totally unfit for service. Of the nine vessels now under repair not one but bears the marks of having been constructed with the most reckless regard to quality of material. ... They stand upon their blocks stripped of planking and scarcely a sound piece can be seen about them, every part bearing the marks of 'sap' and some of their ribs are completely enveloped with it; the pressure of the hand upon their frame crumbles it to dust. The white fungus matter grows all over and nothing remains but decay and rottenness." Only the Escort and the Ernest, Albacore class boats built by Patterson in 1856, were believed to have been constructed in a creditable manner regarding labour and materials but this nearly resulted in the builder's ruin. It was found that some of the copper bolts that should have been driven clean through and clinched on each end were changed for short ends of about two inches driven in on each side. The Caroline and the Mackerel were condemned and taken to pieces, their parts to be seen scattered around the yard. The one consolation was that the machinery of the boats was considered to be in good condition. Other gunboats had as much as £1,000 and £1,500 spent on repairs.


A Clown Class wooden gunboat of 1856

A Clown Class wooden gunboat of 1856 which included Clown, Drake, Fenella, Garnet, Handy, hunter, Janus, Kestrel, ready, Thrush, Watchful and Woodcock.


It was thought that the 12 wooden mortar boats in the yard on blocks underneath temporary sheds would prove to be as defective as the gunboats. In April 1860 the gunboats of the Steam Reserve at Portsmouth included First Class: Brazen, Beaver, Snapper, Traveller, Grinder, Blazer. Second Class: Cracker, Fancy, Swinger, Pincher, Badger. More were laid up at Haslar.


The Times remarked in 1860 that as Haslar had only one launching cradle and one locomotive "it would take nearly a month to get all its boats, stored in the yard, into the water." When the gunboats Decoy and Blazer were launched from the yard on April 20 1860 and two other gunboats, Angler and Fancy, were afterwards hauled up and placed beneath the vacated sheds, the time occupied in removing each boat from its shed, with its cradle, placing it on the transporting platform, transferring it on to the launching cradle and then to the water, finally returning the cradle to the shed from whence it came, took 69 minutes. This was not to be considered a fair test of the time required however as the two boats given as an example were already taken off their blocks and set up on their cradles in readiness for the operation. It was calculated that to select any one of the 47 craft, for example one at either end of the line, would take nearly four hours. In 1860 there were 47 gunboats, besides mortar vessels, hauled up at Haslar yard. Twenty two of these had been repaired at great cost and, apart from coppering, were ready for launching. Nine vessels were under repair, fourteen waiting examination and repairs, five of which were uncoppered, the remainder being coppered.


Another problem was a private bridge spanning the creek which required every craft passing beneath it to take down its mast. Also at certain times of the tide there was a danger of "the gunboat not clearing the passage beneath the bridge without jamming her broadside on to the piles or against the portion of the arch supporting the roadway above in which case either the centre of the bridge must be carried away or the gunboat sunk." The Admiralty tried to purchase the bridge but could not agree terms with the owner.


The Mechanics Magazine had already suggested in 1857 that the process of hauling up the gunboats at Haslar, and launching them again could only be performed at high water and at low neap tide there was not even sufficient water for this. The Mechanic suggested that a dam across the creek, with gates, at the point at which Haslar bridge crossed it would "transform this now almost useless creek into one of the finest wet docks in the kingdom, and which would not only enable the gunboats to be launched or hauled up at any time but also provide a safe out-of-the-way place for any vessels of this description now blocking up our principal harbours."


A wooden jetty with crane was installed by 1861. This enabled engines and boilers to be installed in gunboats and in December 1861 the new gunboat Tyrian, a 60 horse-power, 267-tonnner made by Maudslay and Company had its new boiler and engine hoisted into place using this new facility which would also allow the fitting of rigging. However this new class of gunboat had its masts fixed at the heel and it would therefore be necessary for Haslar bridge to be made to open and shut in a similar manner to the camber bridge at Portsmouth.


In February 1862 an unexpected signal was given for all men to man the gunboats of the first class reserve and within two hours every gunboat was manned, provisioned and reported as officially ready for sea.


In anticipation of the Lords of the Admiralty's annual visit in September 1863 a report of the condition of the boats at Haslar was prepared. Further investigations resulted in the yard being relegated from "Gunboat yard and slipway" , to "a yard for building and repairing ships boats and repairing gunboats". The gunboats that were condemned to be broken up were: The Tiny, The Midge, The Flirt, Ready, Pincher, Swinger, Thrush, Badger, Beaver, Beacon, Traveller, Savage, Porpoise, Pert, Grinder, Brazen and Bullfinch. To be surveyed for sale or breaking up were The Wolf, Crocus, Camel, Garland, Garnet, Primrose, Prompt, Pickle, Gnat, Redbreast, Parthian, Blossom, Confounder, Gadfly and Rocket. Those to be repaired and added to form the Reserve Fleet were Brave, Peacock, Cherokee, Wave, Swan, Whiting, Fenella, Hunter, and Skylark. The Pet and Snapper were to be fitted as coal Depots. In addition to the gunboats at Haslar a further 110 of the same class of vessel afloat in home ports and foreign stations were looked upon as in a still more unfavourable average condition than those at Haslar. In 1863 there were nineteen mortar vessels on blocks at Haslar, nine of iron and ten of wooden construction. The iron ones were being converted as needed to open lighters for dockyard use whilst the wooden ones were to be handed over to the coastguard for use in the rivers and creeks around the coast.


When wooden gun boats were to be replaced by ones constructed of iron the question arose as to what use the yard at Haslar would serve.


In 1863 The Times reported "The condemnation of the old class of wooden gunboats at Haslar, and the certainty that iron alone will be used in the construction of this class of vessel in future, has liberated Haslar yard to a great extent from the duties it has hitherto performed as an appendage of Portsmouth Dockyard, and raised the all-important question, What shall we do with it? To consider this question it will be necessary here to state the present extent and position of the yard, the amount of plant it contains, and the advantages it offers while remaining still an adjunct to the yard at Portsmouth."


"... about a score of shipwrights at Haslar Gunboat Yard are currently employed on four new wooden gunboats, which have now been building there some time, and a gang of hands from the steam factory of Portsmouth Dockyard is employed in taking the boilers and engines out of the condemned gunboats. A few iron and wooden mortar vessels stand on their blocks in one part of the yard, but, as they can only be looked upon as waste material and not as plant, they may be dismissed from all further consideration."


The Times argued thus:

The advantages that Haslar yard offers as an adjunct to Portsmouth are many.

At this time the extension to Portsmouth Dockyard was being carried out under the Deputy-Director of Works to the Admiralty Mr Scamp C.E. Possibilities for the now redundant yard at Haslar were proposed. The first was for it to be appropriated as a boat-building, repair and storage yard as an attachment of the department of the master shipwright;

Secondly, it could be handed over to the chief engineer of Portsmouth yard, and become a part of the factory, establishment;

Thirdly, it could be handed over entirely to the naval engineers in commission afloat, and thus become the head-quarters of the steam reserve ;
Fourthly, it could remain as it was, attached in part to all.


The Times continued:

It is evident that, as we are to have iron gunboats, Haslar yard, with all its costly plant of covered berthing, high and dry, for 50 boats, its transporting lines of rails, and launching and hauling up slipway, will be retained as their head­quarters. This at once narrows the question as to the retention and future use of the yard. As a yard for the storage, repair, and building, if necessary, of iron gunboats, it would come under the management of the steam reserve more than any other department, and if the steam reserve is to be continued as a distinct department of our chief naval port, then the iron gunboat yard at Haslar appears to offer unusual and extraordinary advantages as the officially appointed head-quarters of the force. We have already said that the nucleus of a naval engineering establishment exists at Haslar, and there is plenty of space to extend the workshops on their present line of ground, so as to afford full employment for all the naval engineers and stokers on the books of the reserve in the port, who would thus have the advantage of being employed in the shops upon work they might be called upon to do on an emergency at sea. With the Captain of the Steam Reserve in residence on the establishment; and the "factory" system of work and accounts introduced (as now arranged in Her Majesty's dockyards, and than which nothing can well be more efficient), Haslar, as the head-quarters of the Portsmouth steam reserve, would become a most important and economical establishment. There is abundance of room at Haslar to build as well as store 50 gunboats, whether they were built by private contract or not, and there is also abundance of room—and this is a most important consideration—for the erection of a building at the southern extremity of the yard, which would contain the necessary barrack accommodation for the stokers, quarters for the officers of the establishment, including the naval engineers on duty in port, and the school and lecture rooms, &c., which would form if necessary part of such an establishment.


The first batch of ten Britomart class of gunboats, an improved version of the Dapper class, was approved in November 1859 and the second batch of six followed in October 1860 with another four of this batch approved in March 1861. The boats of the second batch (suspended until 1862/3) were constructed at Haslar gunboat yard and consisted of Cherub, Netley, Minstrel, Orwell, Cromer, Bruiser (Bruizer). They were all barquentine rig with square sails on the foremast only.


In February 1865 the first, 'Minstrel' was launched at the yard. It was 120ft in length 22ft in breadth and of 268tons. Her armament was expected to be two Armstrong 110 pounders and two small howitzers. Her sister ship 'Cherub' was launched at Haslar in March 1865. Bramble, Crown and Protector had previously been cancelled whilst on the stocks at Portsmouth in 1863 and the order for Danube was cancelled before she was laid down. Netley was built at Portsmouth in July 1866, Orwell in December 1866, Bruiser in April 1867 with Cromer in August 1867. All were armed with two 68 pounders, (later two 64pr R.M.L. guns).


A Britomart Class wooden gunboat of 1860-1867

A Britomart Class wooden gunboat of 1860-1867 which included Bramble, Britomart, Bruizer, Cherub, Cockatrice, Cromer, Crown, Doterel, Heron, Linnet, Minstrel, Netley, Orwell, Pigeon, Protector, Speedfy, Trinculo, Tyrian, Wizard and Danube.


In August 1867 it was reported in The Times that the Haslar Yard, with its 45 covered building sheds and its costly parallel lines of railway and launching stages, was employing in the Master Shipwright's Department, 20 shipwrights, 40 labourers and 2 smiths. In the Engineers of Steam Reserve Department were 4 engineers, 14 stokers (mechanics) 4 seamen, 1 warrant officer. In the yard there were six wood-built screw gunboats, nine mortar floats of iron and a number of ships' boats and remnants of machinery boilers stored under cover. Three of the gunboats, the Wave, the Cherokee and the Peacock were 'inframe' (It is not clear what this means: It could be that the boats existed as frames only i.e. with no planking or it could refer to the timber frame constructed around the hull of a ship while she is on the launching ways during the building. At the launch the cradle slides down the ways with the ship.) after rebuilding and had been 'inframe' for seven years. It was supposed that they were well seasoned and ready to be fitted with their machinery again. The remaining three gunboats were to be fitted as coal depot ships to convey fuel to ships at Spithead. This was to cost £3,000 each for the conversion. Two of the mortar floats had been fitted as dockyard lighters, one converted as a coastguard receiving vessel, one as a mud clearing barge for Cowes harbour off Trinity pier and one for fitting at Malta as a mooring lighter. Four remained unappropriated. The Board of the Admiralty had not yet decided what to do with the yard at Haslar.


In September 1868 a communication was sent from Whitehall to the Master Shipwright's Department at Portsmouth calling for the return (report) of shipbuilding or repairing work in hand under the department at the gunboat yard Haslar, and the time by which all such work could be completed. The return gave half a dozen gunboats at Haslar and it was inferred that after November 1868 the gunboat yard at Haslar would cease to exist as a separate establishment and as an offshoot of the shipwright department of Portsmouth Dockyard. After that time it was supposed that it would probably be permanently attached to the steam reserve at the port as well as its shore factory. Here steam launches and other boats for the navy could be constructed and fitted with their machinery and repaired when required or put into store. The Steam Reserve already had a valuable working plant at Haslar and the use of this in the repair and construction of steam launches and cutters with their machinery would be economical and a way of providing practical employment for naval engineers not attached to ships in commission.


In March 1869 it was reported that the clearance of the gunboat yard at Haslar, in preparation for its closure as a public establishment, was being carried out. All the stores and materials were being moved across the harbour to Portsmouth Dockyard. The three gunboats Brave, Peacock and Cherokee, still inframe under the building sheds, were to be taken to pieces and moved to the Dockyard where their probable use was in the construction of more powerful vessels. Ten of the buildings were also being taken down to be re-erected in Portsmouth Dockyard as storage sheds for timber and planking. Forty out of the fifty storage compartments were taken down and moved across the harbour.


In January 1870 the Haslar site comprising 34 acres including the buildings, slips, sheds, hauling up machinery, piers etc was put up for let on lease for seven, fourteen or twenty-one years.


In December 1870 the local press reported that the yard was to be brought back into use and that the foreman of the establishment had already taken possession of his quarters.


In 1866 Captain Cooper Key (later Admiral and First Sea Lord) saw the need to test guns at sea and with the help of Mr Rendel of the Elswick Company introduced the 'Staunch' followed soon afterwards by the 'Plucky', which was built at Portsmouth. Each carried a single 9-inch Rifled Muzzle Loading gun of 12 tons weight. This was hydraulically lowered into the hold when not in use. It took 6-8 minutes to raise it for firing and with its hydraulic loading it could be worked by a crew of six men instead of the usual crew of sixteen. They soon realised that a flotilla of such craft, which could be built at the cost of one ironclad, would be a economical system of coast defence. Staunch cost £6,719. At first it was thought hey would present a small target to an enemy whilst being able to inflict heavy damage. They could 'pepper' away at a battleship with a good degree of impunity. These coastal iron gunboats were under 100 feet in length and steamed at less than nine knots. They became known as the flat-irons and were totally unsuited to use on the high seas and were later to be found unsuitable for their intended role for coast defence. It was easier for a large ship to hit a smaller one that for a smaller vessel to hit a large one due to the motion of these small, shallow draught, flat-bottomed ships in even a slight sea. They were vulnerable to fast attack craft due to their slow rate of fire.


Staunch, one of the new Rendal designed Iron Coastal Gunboats built 1867 Staunch, one of the new Rendal designed Iron Coastal Gunboats built 1867

Staunch, one of the new Rendel designed Iron Coastal Gunboats built 1867: the first warship to be built without sails and the only one of this class.


Between 1870 and 1880 twenty-six of these vessels weighing 250 to 260 tons were built each carrying a 10-inch RML gun of 18tons weight. Three classes were built, twenty of the Ant class (after the two prototypes Staunch and Plucky), four Gadfly type and two Bouncer type. The Ant class had a complement of 30 officers and ratings. These vessels lasted due to their construction; Snake became a cable lighter in 1907, Kite was converted to a dredger in 1920, Tickler was broken up in 1937, Cuckoo was sold in 1959. Plucky was renamed Banterer circa 1916 and was sold in 1928. Staunch was sold 1904-1905.


Staunch, one of the new Rendal designed Iron Coastal Gunboats built 1867 Staunch, one of the new Rendal designed Iron Coastal Gunboats built 1867 Staunch, one of the new Rendal designed Iron Coastal Gunboats built 1867
Staunch:Rendel gunboat 1867    


Gunboats built at Haslar (Portsmouth)

Name Class Launched Fate
Ringdove Plover Sept 1867 Sold 17 May 1882
Magpie Plover Feb 1868 Sold Sept 1885
Swallow Plover Nov 1868 Sold to Mr Tobin  18 Oct 1882
Avon Beacon Oct 1867 Sold 1890
Cracker Beacon Nov 1867 Broken up at Portsmouth 1889
Elk Beacon Jan 1868 Reduced to harbour service1890: Sold 1905 as a dredger

Prototype iron

coastal gunboat

July 1870 renamed banterer c1916: Sold 1928
Blazer Ant Dec 1870 Sold to Lerridge 19 Aug 1919
Comet Ant Dec 1870 Sold in Hollland 12 May 1908
Nymphe Nymphe Sloop 1 May 1888 Reduced to harbour service 31 Dec 1906: renamed Wildfire: Became Gannet 1916
Britomart Britomart May 1860  Sold Castle 1892: resold and became mooring hulk at Dagenham: Broken up 1946
Bramble Britomart Cancelled on stocks 1863
Bruizer Britomart April 1867 Broken up at Devonport May 1886
Cherub Britomart Mach 1865 Sold for breaking up 1890
Cromer Britomart Aug 1867 Sold 24 May 1886
Crown Britomart Cancelled on stocks 1863
Minstrel Britomart Feb 1865 Hulked (coal depot) at Bermuda 1874 and discarded 1907
Netley Britomart July 1866 Sold at Portsmouth 1885
Orwell Britomart Dec 1886 Discarded 1890
Protector Britomart Cancelled on stocks 1863
Danube Britomart Not laid down: order cancelled 1863





In November 1871 it was announced by The Times that Haslar gunboat yard, which had been for some time cleared out and closed, was again to be brought into use for storing gunboats. Portsmouth Dockyard had been given orders to move gunboats of the iron-built twin-screw 'Blazer' class over to Haslar to be built up and stored in the sheds. (Not to be confused with the earlier mentioned 'Blazer', which was an Albercore class wooden gunboat of 1855. The 'Blazer' class of 1870 referred to in The Times included Comet illustrated below, although Send a Gunboat by Preston & Major describes this class as being the 'Ant' Class.) Blazer and Comet were both built at Portsmouth. Each of these had a displacement of 254 tons and carried an armament of one 10inch RML 18ton gun. They were 85ft x 26ft x 6ft 6in. Their machinery was 2 sets of 2-cylinder reciprocating engines, 28 horse power giving 8.5knots. Their complement was 30 officers and ratings. At this time there were twelve of this class on the Navy List with two of them smaller and carrying the 9inch RML gun.


Gunboats at Hilsea during the 1872 manoevres Gunboats Ant, Speedy, Medina and Medway during the Volunteer Review of 1882

Gunboats at Hilsea during the 1872 manoeuvres

Gunboats Ant, Speedy, Medina and Medway at Portsmouth during the Volunteer Review of 1882




In 1872 it was reported "Where 40 covered sheds stood is now a chaos of uprooted timber slabs upon which the old gunboats stood, sprinkled with heaps of old iron and other debris with half starved cattle and goats in full possession endeavouring to browse upon the scanty crop of thistles and tufts of grass which is gradually and slowly taking possession of the shingly ground." A change of plan resulted in the need once more for a storage facility for the new class of gunboat. By this time 24 were already built and more were to follow. At Haslar only ten of the original sheds were left therefore more needed to be built. The new Blazer (Ant) Class vessels Bonetta, Snake, Blazer, Scourge, Bustard, Victor, Bloodhound, Mastiff and Arrow were to be stored here. All were of 6ft draught driven by twin screws and carrying the Scott carriage supporting a gun of 10inch calibre and 18tons weight. This new class had been painted below the waterline (under the direction of Dr Robert Sim) with the new preservative and anti-fouling paint developed previously at Haslar. When Bonetta was hauled up at Haslar it was found that this anti-fouling paint had ensured that it had less weeds adhering and no mussels or other shellfish. In April 1874 18 gunboats were hauled up at Haslar ready to be steamed-up and launched at six hours notice.



Captain Scott's Patent Broadside Carriage

Captain Scott's Patent Broadside Carriage


Amongst the other warlike preparations which have been going on in Portsmouth Dockyard, arrangements are being made to get ready for sea the flotilla of iron gun-boats which were built for service in the Baltic during the last Russian war, but most of which have since that time been lying ingloriously on the slips at Haslar. These are formidable little vessels of 254 tons displacement, with twin screws, and carrying each an 18-ton gun in the bows. They are called the Ant, Badger, Blazer, Bloodhound, Bonetta, Bulldog, Bustard, Comet, Cuckoo, Fidget, Hyaena, Kite, Mastiff, Pickle, Pike, Scourge, Snake, Snap, Tickler, and Weazel.


The slips occupied by the gun-boats are situated adjacent to Haslar Hospital. Each gun-boat is placed undercover in a separate compartment, as shown in our Illustration, and is entirely sheltered from the weather. The gun-boats can be hauled up and down by machinery adapted to that purpose. It is understood, however, that only seven will be employed in active service upon the present occasion. Mean-time, it has been stated this week that a squadron of twenty vessels, consisting for the most part of ironclad ships, is to be at once formed for naval operations, it is believed in the Baltic. In addition to the armour-plated ships at Devonport, which, during the last few days, have been taken inhand to be prepared for sea, all the available ironclad vessels at the several naval ports are being surveyed and examined, in order to enable the authorities to judge whether they can be made available for immediate service. The Hector will be ready for sea by May 4, the Warrior by the 8th, and the Lord Warden, which arrived at Portsmouth on Saturday, will be refitted about the 16th. It is Expected that the Reserve Squadron, of which they will form part, will rendezvous at Portland at the end of May.

The gunboat yard at Haslar ILN 1887



In 1882 the local press reported that at last the bridge at Haslar was to pass into the hands of the Admiralty and to be released from toll. However the bridge remained in private hands until after World War Two and the Admiralty did not purchase it.


HM.S. Kite, a Flat-Iron Ant Class gunboat, was firing a salute at Stokes Bay during the Fleet Review of 1887 on 23rd August when an accident occurred. She was firing three rounds from each of her guns as part of the salute. There were three men stationed at the gun on board the Kite when the accident occurred. One of these was a bluejacket who had passed through the gunnery schools, and one was a bombardier of the Royal Marine Artillery, who was also captain of the gun. The gun crew had been exercised three times since commissioning on July 7, and one round had been fired during this period. Details on the Stokes Bay Disasters page.


In 1884 there were proposals to develop the area at Haslar Lake to provide ready access for small craft to the gunboat yard. The Lake was to be deepened and widened at its eastern end with another communication to the sea by cutting a channel from a spot just westward of the Royal Military Hospital (it is possible that this referred to a hospital attached to Haslar Barracks rather than the more well known Royal Haslar Hospital close by) to the arm of the lake flowing at the back. This does not appear to have been done as in 1885 it was reported that the Admiralty had not authorised the sum of £30,000 needed for the proposal.


By now the flaw in the idea of the need for a gunboat flotilla had been realised. By the time that such vessels would be required to act the Empire would be in such a state of collapse that an enemy could transport and land military forces and the gunboat flotilla would have little or nothing to defend. The gunboats by 1899 were no longer a fighting unit and some such as Comet and Handy were employed as gunnery training vessels able to be equipped with the heaviest guns available. Ant seems to have ended its life as an auxiliary to Vernon, ferrying visitors. Bouncer was ordered to be converted to a tank vessel but was sold at Sheerness in 1905. Insolent, her sister ship, foundered in Portsmouth Harbour in July 1922 and was sold to J.H. pounds ship breaker and scrap metal dealer in 1925.


Gunboat Comet, one of twenty six vessels of this class built between 1870 and 1880 to carry the 10-inch RML, here seen with the 9.2-inch 22ton gun passing Blockhouse towards Spithead for gunnery training. Gunboat Handy built 1882 to carry the 10-inch RML, renamed Excellent and used for gunnery training. Here seen with a 12-inch wire gun in 1899. Gunboat Drudge in 1907.
Iron coastal Gunboat Comet (1870), one of twenty six vessels of the Blazer class built between 1870 and 1880 to carry the 10-inch RML, here seen with the 9.2-inch 22ton gun passing Blockhouse towards Spithead for gunnery training in 1899.

Gunboat Handy built 1882 to carry the 10-inch RML. Here seen with a 12-inch 50ton wire gun in 1899.

Renamed Excellent in May 1891 as a training ship based at Whale Island, then Calcutta on 1 November 1916, and finally Snapper in August 1917. Sold in April 1922 to Dover Harbour board who converted her to a floating crane and re-named again to DEMON. She was sold again to Pounds ship breakers at Portsmouth in the 1970s but not broken up. She was finally scrapped in 2008.

Gunboat Drudge in 1907.

Ordered as a trial boat by Armstrong in 1897 she is seen here with a 9.2-inch B.L. Mk XI turret mounted, later fitted to the Lord Nelson class battleships. Drudge was constructed by Armstrong in 1887 for use by that yard as a trials platform. She was purchased by the Royal Navy in February of 1901, becoming HMS Drudge. Drudge became a base ship in 1916 and was renamed Excellent, and became the navigational training ship Dryad in 1919. She was sold in March of 1920 and became a civilian salvage vessel. After many years in salvage service in the UK, and many changes of ownership, she was sold into French ownership. Renamed Francoise Quere, she was finally scrapped in 1969.


In 1902 the Navy and Army Illustrated reported that the gunboats currently in use at Portsmouth for testing amrmament were to be retired and the armoured cruiser Narcissus was to take over the role as gunnery training ship. She was scrapped in 1906.


Gunboats in use for armament trials at Portsmouth in 1902 Ant carrying visitors to 'Vernon'.
Gunboats in use for armament trials at Portsmouth in 1902 9.2inch B.L. mounted on a gunboat (probably Handy) at Portsmouth Dockyard Ant carrying visitors to 'Vernon'
Blazer Class gunboat Comet, in use as a gunnery training vessel at Portsmouth. Ant Class iron screw gunboat HMS Bonetta, launched in 1871 and sold as the civilian salvage vessel Disperser in 1909.  
Blazer Class gunboat Comet, in use as a gunnery training vessel at Portsmouth. Built at Haslar, sold 1908 and broken up in Netherlands. Ant Class iron screw gunboat HMS Bonetta, launched in 1871 and sold as the civilian salvage vessel Disperser in 1909. Lost 1940.  



In 1902 the Admiralty ordered experiments with oil fuel to be carried out at Haslar gunboat yard on two steam pinnaces. In 1905 an Admiralty Committee visit to the gunboat yard reported a large number of horse and troop boats maintained and in readiness for use in any military expedition requiring to be landed in hostile territory. By this time an establishment for the instruction of officers and men in the use of oil fuel in marine boilers had been founded at Haslar.



Halsar Gunboat yard shown on a War Department plan of circa 1898. Haslar gunboat yard: Plan revised 1931. The experimental tank is the second one.
Halsar Gunboat yard shown on a War Department plan of circa 1898.

Haslar gunboat yard: Plan revised 1931.


During World War One and Two the gunboat yard continued to fit and repair a variety of coastal craft, torpedo boats and and patrol boats. Thornycroft "CMB Type" MTBs 327 to 331 were completed between June and October 1941 and on 10 January 1942 they were instructed to pay of and lay up in Gunboat Yard, Haslar at one months notice. After a short period of commissioning they were placed in Reserve in the sheds at Haslar and in May 1945 all five were placed on the Disposal List and later sold.


In 1952 the Elephant transporter was broken up and replaced by an electrically-operated transporter. A new slipway was added in the 1955. In the 1970s the role of the yard was diminished and finally it was considered superfluous and unworkable when the new Haslar bridge was constructed in 1978 restricting access to the yard. English Heritage scheduled the yard and gunboat sheds as an Ancient Monument in 1976. It ceased use for refitting vessels two years later. Many of the sheds were removed in the 1980s and 1990s leaving ten which are now listed for the following reasons:
* Historic interest: a unique facility built to house the gunboat fleet found so invaluable during the Crimean War, and one of a handful of sites built in reaction to the conflict;
* Technological interest: a pioneering and successful large-scale example of a steam-driven traverser system for gunboats;
* Architectural interest: illustrating the foremost developments in iron framing and prefabricated iron technology, and incorporating architectural flourishes and good-quality construction;
* Interest of the architect: built to designs by William Scamp, the Deputy Director of the Admiralty Engineering and Architectural Works, and the overseer of significant C19 building works and developments at the Naval dockyards;
* Group value: with the other structures of the gunboat yard, and within the context of Haslar, Gosport, and Portsmouth as an important national centre of naval history and development.


In June 1980 a report by the Ancient Monuments Board for England explained the damage done by treasure hunters on archaeological sites and also castigated official carelessness, citing the example of the "disastrous consequences" that came from the destruction of the machinery installed on the traverser slip at Haslar gunboat yard, even though it was an Ancient Monument.


An English Heritage survey of the site found that Numbering from the north end, sheds 1-10 appear to be original, 11-14 have been modernized but retain some original ironwork, 15-16 are completely modernized, 17-19 have been heightened but (like 11-14) retain some original features. Some parts of the yard have been demolished whilst some is still original including the guardrooms at either side of the entrance (one marked as a Police Station on a plan of 1890) and the surrounding perimeter wall with two corner watch towers. A small wooden pier with mechanical crane still exists, jutting out into Haslar creek. The guard rooms and gunboat sheds, workshops and power house (which housed the original steam engine for providing the power for the traverses), the master shipwright's house, main gate and yard wall are included in the Scheduled Ancient Monument.


The Guard House and Police Barracks stand just within the main, north-east entrance to the gunboat yard; the Police Barracks is the southern of the two. In plan they were originally an approximate mirror image of each other, each roughly square and with a central courtyard. They later became part of the HMS Hornet site which is now used for Joint Services training. They are Grade II Listed and are on the 2001 English Heritage at risk register, as are the Boiler House, Workshops and Engine Room. "The buildings are already in a poor state of repair and are deteriorating. Parts are no longer stable (including sections of the workshops roof). There is no current use."


In April 2021 it was announced that Historic England had awarded £3,999,983 to Hornet Services Sailing Club for repairs to the former police barracks in the Haslar Gunboat Yard. The money is to be used to prevent further deterioration to the building so that it can be used for future projects. HSCC hopes to use the building for facilitiies and storage for both its club members and the sea cadets.

2001 At Risk Register



At Risk entry Haslar Gunboat Yard Guardrooms


At Risk entry Haslar Gunboat Yard Guardrooms


In October 2014 it was announced that Starvale Developments had bought the gunboat yard from QinetiQ with the intention of converting the gunboat sheds into business units with 10 new homes also on the site. They have asked for the sheds to be delisted to Grade II. They have confirmed that once developed the yard will be open to public access.

This proposal for the site of the Victorian Gunboat Yard was to create a centre for the historical preservation of the region’s naval heritage. The site will be composed not simply of passive museums with ‘static’ exhibits, but include premises for the maintenance and reproduction of historic vessels; an ‘active’ history – an ongoing process of historic discovery and preservation, that will in itself be the cultural attraction.

The proposals.


In 2017 the current owners expressed a wish to develop the site in a way that will give the public access to the waterfront and to utilise the sheds for their original purpose, to provide facilities for boat maintenance.

They have confirmed that the surviving row of 10 gunboat sheds are now listed Grade I rather than Scheduled (date of listing 14 June 2016), together with the Power House, Boiler House and Pump Room which are Grade II. The Gunboat Yard Wall and watch towers remains Grade II*.


The entrance to Haslar Gunboat yard One of the corner watch towers A watch tower and the perimeter wall along Haslar Road The Power House

The entrance to Haslar Gunboat yard

One of the corner watch towers

A watch tower and the perimeter wall along Haslar Road

The Power House
South watch tower with Froude's first experimental tank behind. South watch tower with Froude's first experimental tank behind.    
South watch tower with Froude's first experimental tank behind. South watch tower with Froude's first experimental tank behind.    
The Power house Boiler House and Pump Room The rear of the gunboat sheds The rear of the gunboat sheds The wooden jetty with crane
The Power house Boiler House and Pump Room The rear of the gunboat sheds The rear of the gunboat sheds The wooden jetty with crane



The gunboat yard viewed from across the creek at Gosport


The gunboat yard in 2017 taken with the permission of the current owners

The remaining sheds at the gunboat yard taken in 2017 with the permission of the current owners.


The Haslar gunboat yard on flashearth.




William Froude and the Haslar ship testing tank

Close to the gunboat yard at Haslar is the Model Testing Tank. In 1868 William Froude proposed that a covered tank be built to aid in calculating the resistance of a ship's hull rather than using the previous method of calculating using the Admiralty Coefficient. He estimated the cost of building the tank and running it for two years at £2,000 and offered his own services for free during that period. The tank became operational at Torquay by May 1872. Froude extended the use of his tank to testing the performance of propellers. His use of wax models to test hull form meant that one could be ready to test in a two days. From 1873 the tank was used to match hull form and power with the requirements of the whole ship. It was the work of Froude on developing a hull form, that would give 8.5 knots under its own power and 15knots when towed in the open sea, that convinced the Admiralty that there was a role for the gunboat as coast defence. William died in 1879 and was succeeded by his son Edmund.

In 1886 Robert Edmund Froude supervised the transfer of the Admiralty Experiment Works from Torquay to Haslar adjacent to the gunboat yard. It required a building 520ft long and 10ft high with a width of 27ft. At an estimated cost of £7,230 it was constructed with a concrete floor, brick walls and a iron roof covered with slate. Here Professor Froude, Superintendant of the Admiralty Experimental Works, as it had become by 1905, supervised the testing of new designs for stability and correctness before they were handed to the constructors.


Note: The Times, and other newspapers, are a valuable source of information but this does not necessarily mean that what was reported actually happened or was true.



My thanks to Gosport Historian Philip Eley who assisted with this page.



The Times, various dates.

Mechanics Magazine July 25 1857.

Illustrated London News Feb 11 1871 and 4 May 1878.

English Heritage Pastcape.

Gosport Borough Council's Haslar Peninsula Conservation Appraisal March 2007.

Warrior to Dreadnought by D.K. Brown.

Sea, Steel, Shellfire:The Steam Warship 1815-1905 Conways History of the Ship.

The Navy and Army Illustrated: April 22 1899

The Sail and Steam Navy List: Lyon and Winfield

Send a Gunboat! A study of the Gunboat and its role in British Policy 1854-1904 by Anthony Preston and John Major:

Hansard: 23 April 1858.



Gunboat classes on Wikipedia

At Risk Register : Gunboat Guardrooms and Power House

Gosport Borough Council: Haslar Peninsula Conservation Area Appraisal

English Heritage Pastcape: Haslar Gunboat Yard

William Froude


Gosport Borough Council Sustainability Appraisal Gunboat Yard




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