HMS Alexandra (1877) was launched from No.7 Slip by the Princess of Wales (later to become Queen Alexandra). The Cabinet and more than 100 MP’s attended the grand ceremony. The entire Board of the Admiralty arrived by steamer at Strood Pier. Horse drawn carriages took the guests to the launching past decorated masts, artificial flowers, triumphal arches and a Guard of Honour through a gate specifically cut in the Dockyard wall.
Main Gate was considered too narrow and the ‘old’ Pembroke Gate was considered too inconvenient. Alexandra Gate was sited not far from the ‘new’ Pembroke Gate and was still in use for Out-muster until the 1970’s.
A religious service for the launch, the first to accompany a ship launch since the reformation, was conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The ship at the centre of all this ceremony was built despite an adverse report from the Admiralty Design Committee and was considered to be out of date before completion. HMS Alexandra went into service and had an illustrious career; she was a Flagship for most of her service.
Built as a fully rigged, broadside armed ironclad. Steam powered by 12 boilers, 670 tons of coal carried gave a range of 3800 nautical miles at 8 knots. Two auxiliary engines were used for turning the screws to reduce drag when the ship was under sail (these could also be used to drive the ship at 41/2 knots if required). Total sail area was 27000 sq ft and never drove the ship at more than 6 knots. Maximum speed under steam power was 15 knots making HMS Alexandra the world’s fastest warship at the time – this record was unbeaten by any other similar ship for 10 years.
In 1875 Princess Alexandra, wife of the Prince of Wales, introduced an Anglican choral service in the launching ceremony for the Alexandra. It included the singing of Psalm 107, is still used today, and holds a special meaning to mariners:
‘They that go down to the sea in ships;
That do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep.’
The religious element of the ceremonial launch of HMS Alexandra on 7th April 1875, the first at a launch since the reformation, was led by the Archbishop of Canterbury assisted by the Bishop of Rochester.
HMS Alexandra took part in the bombardment of Alexandria in Egypt in 1882, where a Royal Navy squadron was sent out to support the pro-Ottoman Khedive against the Egyptian nationalists. The squadron bombarded several forts along the coastline, as well as putting troops ashore. The Alexandra was one of the few ironclads to suffer damage in enemy action.
Our Collections, Galleries and Interpretation Manager, Nick Ball, has a personal connection to HMS Alexandra. Nick’s great great grandfather, Robert Boast, who was born in Malta in 1855, served on HMS Alexandra between 5 January 1877 to 11 March 1880 as Able Seaman. Boast died in 1933, survived by his daughter Violet Boast, who married Nick’s great grandfather Percy Ball (who had survived the sinking of the Titanic).
With thanks to our volunteer, Tony Peacock, for researching and writing this month’s Warship Wednesday.