8th December 1893. British Naval Might.
From the Warrior Class of the 1860’s to the Vanguard of mid 20th century, there were about fifty intervening Classes of Royal Navy battleship with names such as Colossus, Formidable, Indefatigable, Devastation, Conqueror and Swiftsure; powerful names reflecting the assured power of a great naval tradition.
In 1895 Britain had twenty-nine 1st Class Battleships; France twenty-one and Germany eight.
Today in 1893 the 1st Lord of the Admiralty, John Poyntz, 5th Earl Spencer (Red Earl) presented his naval programme to the Cabinet’. It followed the Salisbury Naval Defence Act of 1889.(1)
The Spencer Programme firstly saw the Majestic Class of nine battleships being commissioned, which were to be the oldest to see service in World War I and comprised the largest class in naval history in number of ships built.(2)
However when the Liberals returned to power in August 1892, Gladstone opposed any idea of increased naval expenditure as advocated by the Sea-Lords and was to finally resign in March 1894.(3)
Designed by Sir William White, the lead ship was HMS Majestic launched in 1895 and at 16,000 tons, was the largest pre-Dreadnought battleship.
She was laid down in Portsmouth on 5th February 1894, launched 31st January 1895, to be completed in December of the same year. She converted to oil in 1907/8.
Hannibal (4) of the Majestic Class, was launched at Pembroke on 28.April 1896 and was the first to attempt conversion from steam to oil burning in 1903, but a faulty boiler caused the ship to fill with smoke.
So it was Mars, launched on 30.3.1896 which was first to satisfactorily convert to oil between 1905/6 (5), all others of the Class following between 1907/8.
It was this ship which had suffered a terrible disaster, back in April 1902, when a 12 ” faultily-loaded gun exploded, killing 2 officers and 6 men.(6)
The other eight of the nine ships of the Majestic Class were: Caesar, Hannibal, Illustrious, Jupiter, Magnificent and Majestic, the only one to be lost, in the Dardanelles Campaign 1915/16). Prince George and Victorious, were the last to have side-by-side funnels.
This Class was preceded by Renown, the only one of a class of 2nd-Class battleships, to be succeeded by six Canopus Class pre-Dreadnoughts.
The rapid march of naval technology however, meant that by World War I, The Majestic Class was the oldest and least effective ships in the Royal Navy, having been rendered obsolete by the 1906 Dreadnoughts. As a result none fought at Jutland in 1916, and were confined to minor roles in the war.
(1) Called the ‘Red Earl’ owing to his red beard.
(2) Builders were Laird Brothers of Birkenhead; J & G Thomson of Clydebank, and Chatham, Pembroke and Portsmouth Dockyards.
The Spencer Programme also included the Eclipse Class of 2nd-Class Cruisers, launched between 1893-95.
(3) Gladstone wanted Spencer to succeed him, but in the days when the monarch had residual powers, he was over-ruled by the Queen, who hated Gladstone in any case, and chose Lord Rosebery.
(4) Hannibal was 10th ship of that name.
(5) Gibbons, Tony, Complete Encyclopaedia of Battleships and Cruisers. London, Salamander Books Ltd, 1983 P.137.
(6) After other naval casualties of the time, Mr Kearley MP (Devonport asked the Civil Lord to the Admiralty whether a charge could be made on public funds to aid pensions for sailors killed, instead of the grant from Greenwich Naval Hospital which amounted to a meagre 5 shillings/6 pence + 1 shilling for each child. No doubt officers were treated differently.
Ref: Burt R.A. 1988 British Battleships 1889-1904 Annapolis Maryland Naval Institute Press.
Ref: House of Commons debate 24.4.1902 v 106 cc 1183/4.
Ref: Pic: navyphotos.co.uk/wikipedia.org’majestic.