HM Frigate Unicorn - Interview

22 October 2014
imports_CESC_600px-hms-unicorn-close-up-cropped-version-83925_61356.jpg HM Frigate Unicorn - Interview
Bob Hovell, manager of HM Frigate Unicorn, talks to us about what it's like to work on Scotland's only preserved warship. ...
HM Frigate Unicorn - Interview Images

Bob Hovell, manager of HM Frigate Unicorn, talks to us about what it's like to work on Scotland's only preserved warship, and one of the oldest ships in the world.

HMS Unicorn was built in 1824 as a sailing frigate for the Royal Navy. She is one of the world's six oldest ships and the only original ship to have survived from the 'age of sail'. The ship is berthed at Dundee's Victoria Dock.

What makes the HM Frigate Unicorn unique in a city with such a strong maritime heritage?

The Frigate Unicorn has been a feature of Dundee's waterfront for over 140 years. Launched at the Royal Dockyard, Chatham in 1824, Unicorn represents the last days of the wooden hulled sailing warship. Although never commissioned for active service, and therefore never fully rigged, Unicorn was used by the Royal Navy for 144 years. Her first fifty years were spent on the Medway and the Thames as a storage hulk and gunnery training ship. In November 1873 she was towed to Dundee to be commissioned in January 1874 as the new Headquarters and Drill ship for the local unit of the Royal Naval Reserve, eventually being designated as HQ for Tay Division Royal Naval Reserve and Volunteer Reserve.

The ship was used during both World War One & World War Two as the regional officer's HQ and the main recruitment centre for the Navy in the Dundee area. In 1945 Unicorn had the honour of becoming the only Georgian Warship to take the surrender of a German submarine and there is a small display on board to commemorate this event.

Unicorn continued her service with the RNR after the war, training local people in seamanship skills and naval traditions.

She was finally decommissioned in 1968 when the RNR took over the newly commissioned concrete frigate HMS Camperdown, a new purpose-built shore base.

Unicorn has, over the last 140 years, become a well loved but often overlooked fixture on Dundee's waterfront and the new Central Waterfront redevelopment should help to enhance her standing as a visitor attraction and venue for functions, events and music.

Which of the four decks is your favourite?

My favourite deck has to be the one where I spend most of my working days, the Gun Deck. This is where my ‘office’ is, its where I meet and greet visitors and as the main purpose for which the ship was built, it's where the Great Guns are. Although only replicas the guns give the deck some definition and explain what the ship was without the need for words.

Because I spend so much of my time on this deck I often find myself explaining the working of the guns, powder and ammunition, this has become a bit of a special interest for me and visitors, especially children, like to hear about how the guns were handled, loaded, fired and the various actions required for doing so.

What feature of the ship should first time visitors be sure not to miss?

The ship itself. Unicorn is unique in the world of big ship preservation. She was the first large vessel to be taken into private ownership for preservation in 1968. Unicorn also represents the final flourish of wooden warships from the ‘Golden Age of Sail’. Her uniqueness lies in the design and structure of the hull, the only example of the work of Sir Robert Seppings, surveyor to the Navy from 1813 to 1832.

Seppings is often thought of as the creator of modern ship design as it was he who introduced the use of iron into the building of wooden ships and changing the shape of the hull from the traditional square stern to a rounded shape allowing the same weight of timbers to be carried all round the stern and offering more protection from raking enemy gunfire.


People are sometimes put off by the fact that the ship has no rigging and has a roof, however without the roof the ship would have rotted away over the past 190 years.

The roof is also an interesting structure which mirrored the inside of the covered slipway, at Chatham Dockyard, where the ship was built, and forms an integral part of the ship's story.

What was the last real action that the ship saw before she was retired?

As the ship was never in active service she has never participated in any actions at sea. However, ships by the name of Unicorn have served the Royal Navy from the time of the Spanish Armada and have amassed more battle honours than ships by the name of HMS Victory. The last Unicorn commissioned for the Royal Navy was an aircraft carrier/repair ship and during its service the name of this Unicorn was changed to HMS Cressy to avoid confusion.

HM Frigate Unicorn, Victoria Dock, Dundee DD1 3BP; tel: 01382 200900; website.

(Ship image copyright M J Richardson)


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