HMAS
Albert
(HMVS)

Type
Gunboat
Builder
Messrs Wm. Armstrong, Mitchell & Co. Ltd., Elswick, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Launched
6 June 1883
Commissioned
24 June 1884
Decommissioned
20 May 1895
Fate
Sold
Dimensions & Displacement
Displacement 350 tons
Length 115 ft (35.05m)
Beam 22 ft (7.62m)
Draught 9.5 ft (2.89m)
Performance
Speed 10 Knots
Complement
Crew 41
Propulsion
Machinery Twin Screws
Horsepower 400 HP
Armament
Guns
  • 1 x 8-inch B.L. (203mm) 11.5-ton gun (forward)
  • 1 x 6-inch (152mm) 3 ton B.L. gun (aft)
  • 1 x 6-inch (152mm) 3 ton B.L. gun (aft)
  • 2 x Nordenfelt machine guns

In 1884 the Australian colony of Victoria added two “flat-iron” type gunboats to its navy. The vessels were patriotically named Victoria & Albert in reverence to Queen Victoria and her late consort Prince Albert.

Each mounted forward, a single heavy gun in a protected citadel, firing over the bows which were barely four feet above the waterline. The vessels were constructed of steel and the design incorporated a slightly ‘turtle’ bow, a rounded stern and a bridge-deck amidships enclosing the engine room. Victoria was the larger of the two vessels.

Albert was ordered in 1883 from the English shipbuilders Messrs Wm. Armstrong, Mitchell & Co. Ltd., Elswick, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She was launched on 6 June 1883 and completed in January 1884 at which time she undertook pre-acceptance trials.

On 26 January 1884 a crew comprising active and time expired Royal Navy personnel was signed on in Newcastle in readiness for the long delivery voyage to the colony of Victoria. Accompanied by Victoria, Albert sailed to Spithead on 3 February 1884. There, for legal reasons, the two vessels were classified as ‘War Vessels at the disposal of the Imperial Government’ thus enabling them to undertake the passage to Australia as units of the Royal Navy.

Albert leaving Portsmouth, England, for sea trials January 1884.
Albert leaving Portsmouth, England, for sea trials January 1884.

Prior to departing on their maiden voyage the gunboats were presented with portraits of  Her Majesty the Queen and her late husband Prince Albert by Queen Victoria and the then Prince of Wales.

A fine sketch of Albert showing her low freeboard by Allan C. Green (State Library of Vicrtoria)
A fine sketch of Albert showing her low freeboard and general arrangement. Allan C. Green (State Library of Vicrtoria)

Both vessels sailed for Gibraltar on 14 February 1884 under the overall command of Captain Alan Broderick Thomas, RN, embarked in Victoria, who, on arrival in Australia assumed the role of Commandant of the Victorian Naval Forces.

Captain  AB Thomas, RN who had overall command of the three vessels during their voyage to the Victorian colony (State Library of Victoria)
Captain AB Thomas, RN who had overall command of the three vessels during their voyage to the Victorian colony (State Library of Victoria)

The vessels did not have good sea-keeping qualities and were described by some as ‘sluggish and unwieldy’ craft owing mainly to their low freeboard which saw their bows and sides continually shipping water. This made for an uncomfortable passage for their crews.

The gunboats arrived at Gibraltar on 21 February before proceeding to Malta, where, on 26 February, they rendezvoused with the new torpedo boat Childers which was also making its maiden voyage to the Victorian colony.

At that time Britain was engaged in a long-running campaign in the Sudan to put down a revolt by Sudanese Madhists. As the situation there had intensified, the Victorian Colonial Government offered use of the three ships to the Imperial Government. The offer was gratefully accepted and they were subsequently diverted to the Red Sea port of Suakin where they arrived on 19 March 1884; only to learn that the fighting had receded inland as British troops rushed to the relief of Khartoum.  As a consequence their presence was no-longer considered necessary.

On 23 March 1884, the trio resumed their voyage with Childers under the tow of Victoria to conserve the latter’s meagre supply of coal. Following a short passage to Aden the voyage continued across the Indian Ocean bound for Colombo. Throughout the voyage heavy weather was encountered and the tow-line between Victoria and Childers parted numerous times. Childers was constantly swept by the sea with an anxious Captain Thomas, aboard Victoria, observing:

At one moment a glistening prow would be seen emerging from the body of an immense wave at the angle of 45 degrees, while at another a quivering stern with a wildly whirling screw would appear jutting into mid air’

In spite of the difficulties the three small ships reached the Gulf of Carpentaria, later making their first Australian landfall at Thursday Island where they arrived in time to observe the Queen’s birthday holiday. The voyage continued down the eastern Australian seaboard via Townsville and Sydney where time was taken to carry out maintenance and repaint the vessels prior to their much anticipated arrival at Melbourne.

At 9 a.m. on 24 June 1884, following a nineteen week voyage, the trio were met in Port Phillip Bay by HMVS Cerberus with members of parliament embarked to celebrate the occasion.

Albert nested alongside the slightly larger Victoria
Albert nested alongside the slightly larger Victoria

Following her arrival in the colony Albert served as part of the Victorian Naval Forces for the next nine years participating in exercises and annual manoeuvres with other ships of Victoria’s navy, chiefly on Port Phillip Bay with an occasional foray into Bass Strait.

Left: Torpedo boats attack Albert during manoeuvres on Port Phillip Bay. Right: Albert leads a mock attack on HMVS Cerberus
Left: Torpedo boats attack Albert during manoeuvres on Port Phillip Bay. Right: Albert leads a mock attack on HMVS Cerberus

On 2 April 1895, all explosives on board Albert were transferred to the flagship HMVS Nelson as preparations were made to decommission her. Over the following week she was de-stored and all useful ship fittings removed. The removal of her armament followed and at 11:45 on 20 April 1895 Albert was placed ‘out of commission’ and her ship’s company broken up.

Albert in dock with Victoria visible in the background. Note that Albert has been stripped of her armament andfittings.
Albert in dock with Victoria visible in the background. Note that Albert has been stripped of her armament and fittings.

 On 10 April 1897 Albert was sold to the Victorian Public Works Department and was, for a time, employed on towing and general harbour duties around the bay. Service as a blasting ship followed during which she was employed deepening the channel through the Rip at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay.

Albert following her transfer to the Victorian Department of Works
Albert following her transfer to the Victorian Department of Works

Albert looked as though she might briefly return to naval service during World War 1 when she was acquired by the Royal Australian Navy and taken to Cockatoo Island Dockyard, Sydney, for conversion to a naval tug. The cost, however, was found to be uneconomical and she was listed for disposal in September 1917 and subsequently sold. Her new owners converted her to an oil fuel lighter for use on Sydney Harbour.

Further Reading:

Ross Gillett, Australia’s Colonial Navies, The Naval Historical Society of Australia, Sydney, NSW, 1982.

John Bastock, Australia’s Ships of War, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, NSW, 1975.

Colin Jones, Australian Colonial Navies, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, ACT, 1986.