Almost everyone in the UK maritime sector will have heard of the Dreadnought, but how much do we really know about this famous hospital ship? Peter Coulson, secretary of the Seafarers Hospital Society, uncovers the history of this iconic vessel
The original Dreadnought was a three-decker battleship, launched at Plymouth in June 1801 and the sixth ship to take that name. It weighed 2,111 tons, was 185ft long and carried 99 guns. From 1803-1805 it fought against the French, helping blockade enemy ports.
Dreadnought rose to fame in Nelson's fleet at Trafalgar, where the crew captured the Spanish ship San Juan Nepomuceno in only 15 minutes.
The vessel went on to challenge the Principe de Asturias, causing the death of the captain, the Spanish commander-in-chief, and so became legendary.
Almost 30 years later, in 1831, this noble warhorse was decommissioned and refitted as a hospital ship moored off Greenwich and run by the Seamen’s Hospital Society – now Seafarers Hospital Society.
The Dreadnought was the second of the Society’s hospital ships, following on from the famous Grampus and succeeded in 1857 by the Caledonia, renamed the Dreadnought as it had become so well-known.
In 1870 the service moved to dry land at the Royal Hospital in Greenwich, and, retaining the name of its famous ancestor, became the Dreadnought Seamen's Hospital. More of that later.
Like the Dreadnought itself, the need for a hospital ship to treat the country's seafarers originated in the Napoleonic Wars (1795-1815) when, after twelve hard years of war Napoleon was defeated and Britons began to rebuild their lives and businesses. All except the tens of thousands of seafarers who had risked their lives at sea, only to be laid off on their return to shore.
In 1815, with peacetime Britain in a trade depression, 125,000 merchant seafarers were laid off, with no unemployment pay, no pension and little chance of finding work. Penniless, homeless and confused, many with sickness brought on by insanitary conditions at sea, these increasingly desperate men roamed the streets of London and haunted the ports of Britain. By the end of 1817 the situation was so bad that the elders of Trinity House established a committee for the relief of distressed seamen and agreed to engage a ship as an asylum for sailors on the Thames.
The cause was taken up by anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce MP, who became chairman of the committee and within weeks had persuaded the Admiralty to loan three ships as floating hostels and equip them with iron beds, mattresses, linen and clothes. Word spread, three ships became six and what was supposed to be a temporary measure stretched from months into years.
Caring for those who were sick or dying was clearly a long-term problem, and the surgeon responsible for their care, Dr Bob Blake, argued the need for a permanent base.
The committee agreed, and asked the Admiralty for a larger ship. They were given HMS Grampus, a 50-gun vessel which had been used as a store ship in Chatham. If its work was to become permanent, the committee needed to formalise its own arrangements. And so, in 1821, a new charity, the Seamen's Hospital Society, was set up to administer a hospital for seafarers on the Thames.
Like the Dreadnought itself, the need for a hospital ship to treat the country's seafarers originated in the Napoleonic Wars of 1795-1815