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Birkenhead-Built: An Unrivaled Historical Legacy

The Laird, Son & Co. shipyard that launched Denbigh in 1860 was already famous for its advances in iron ship construction.  Although other iron-hulled vessels of the day, like Great Eastern, usually captured the headlines, the Laird yard was well-known for constructing vessels that were both structurally sound and which often incorporated innovative (and occasionally unorthodox) technological advances.  Under the direction of its founder, John Laird (right), the shipyard quickly established a name for itself in the building ships of iron, very much an untried and somewhat mistrsted material in the 1830s and 1840s.  This reputation secured a position for the Laird yard and its successor, Cammell-Laird, at the forefront of the British shipbuilding industry, a position which it retained well into the 20th century.  Between 1829 and 1947, over 1,100 vessels of all sizes and types slid down the Laird slipways into the Mersey.  In addition to Denbigh and the infamous Confederate raider Alabama, dozens of Birkenhead-built ships have left their mark on the world's maritime heritage.  A handful of these are listed below: jlaird.jpg (36699 bytes)


Name Date Notes
Robert F. Stockton 1838 An iron-hulled, twin-screw steamboat, designed by John Ericsson (later of Monitor fame). Built to prove the viability of screw (propeller) propulsion, Stockton was a great success. Renamed New Jersey, she was brought to the United States in 1839 and operated for 30 more years on the Delaware and Raritan Canal in her namesake state.
Mary Somers
(also Summers, Sumner)
1839 Iron-hulled sidewheeler built in prefabricated sections and assembled at Baltimore, 1839. Taken over by U.S. Quartermaster Dept. in 1846; renamed United States in 1848. Fragmentary documentation suggests she was operating in the Indianola, Texas area as late as 1860.
Nemesis 1839 Iron-hulled paddle frigate built for the British East India Company and used in India, Southeast Asia and China. Although Nemesis was over 180 feet (55m) long, she drew only six feet, making her ideally suited to the sort of coastal and riverine warfare engaged in by the "Bombay Marine," the naval service of the East India Company. Nemesis’ successful performance in numerous actions encouraged the Royal Navy to give more consideration to iron construction as a replacement for traditional wooden hulls.
(also Guadlupe)
1842 Iron-hulled paddle frigate, the largest iron ship built to that time. Built on speculation by Laird with the anticipation of selling her to the Royal Navy, Guadeloupe was eventually sold to the Mexican Navy. With British officers and crew, Guadeloupe engaged the Texas Navy in the Battle of Campeche in May 1843. Guadeloupe played an important role in convincing the Royal Navy to adopt iron construction in large ships, by demonstrating the value of watertight bulkheads, improved internal storage capacity and the ability of iron plating to endure gunfire without being splintered like wood.
H.M.S. Birkenhead 1845 The Royal Navy’s first iron-hulled frigate; converted to a troopship in 1848. On February 26, 1852, struck a rock and sank off the coast of South Africa. During the sinking, the soldiers of the 74th Highlanders were drawn up on deck in ranks, allowing the women and children aboard to escape in the handful of boats available. The term "Birkenhead Drill" became synonymous with 19th century British ideals of discipline and courage.
Ma Robert 1858 Steel-hulled steam launch; first steel-hulled paddlewheel vessel built.  Launched in 1858, Ma Robert was taken to Africa in three prefabricated sections and assembled onthe Zambesi River as part of Dr. David Livingston's exploration of that waterway.  Ma Robert proved to be badly underpowered, however, and was soon dubbed Asthmatic.
H.M.S. Wivern and H.M.S. Scorpion 1863 So-called "Laird Rams," iron-hulled, armored warships built for the Confederacy but never delivered. The construction and outfitting of these ships caused a major international dispute, which was only resolved when they were seized and taken into service by the British Royal Navy. With twin turrets, telescoping funnels and 3 to 4.5 inches (7.5 to 11.5cm) side armor, these ships (intended as C.S.S. Mississippi and C.S.S. North Carolina, respectively) were superior to any in the U.S. Navy at the time. Both remained in service with the Royal Navy until the 20th century.
Wren 1864 Purpose-built, steel-hulled, sidewheel blockade runner, built for Fraser, Trenholm & Co. Made three successful round voyages through the blockade between Havana and Galveston.
Lark 1864 Purpose-built, steel-hulled, sidewheel blockade runner, built for Fraser, Trenholm & Co. Made four successful round voyages through the blockade between Havana and Galveston. On one occasion, Lark's crew successfully fought off a Federal boarding party, and almost unheard-of event in blockade running.  On the evening of May 24, 1865, carrying Denbigh’s crew, Lark ran out of Galveston through the blockade, bound for Havana. In doing so, Lark became the last blockade runner to clear a Confederate port during the Civil War.
Albatross 1865 Purpose-built, steel-hulled, sidewheel blockade runner, built for Fraser, Trenholm & Co. Unfinished at war’s end.
Penguin 1865 Purpose-built, steel-hulled, sidewheel blockade runner, built for Fraser, Trenholm & Co. Unfinished at war’s end.
Huascar 1865 Armored, iron-hulled warship fitted with a revolving turret housing a pair of 300-pounder guns. Ordered by the Peruvian government for use in its was with Spain, Huascar arrived after hostilities had ended. In 1879 Huascar was captured by the Chilean navy. Preserved today as a museum ship at Talcahuano, Huascar is the last monitor-type warships afloat, and represents the rapid advances being made in ship design and armament in the 1860s.
H.M.S. Captain 1870 Designed and built as a test platform for Captain Cowper Coles’ design for a warship with turrets arranged on the vessel’s centerline. Captain had an extremely low freeboard – only 6.5 feet (2m) – and was badly over-rigged with 50,000 square feet of sails. After participating in gunnery trials with the British Mediterranean Squadron in September 1870, Captain was blown over in a gale and sank with all but eighteen of the 499 men aboard.
H.M.S. Audacious 1912 British dreadnought battleship of World War I. Struck a mine and sank off the Irish coast, October 26, 1914. Crew rescued by the liner Olympic, sister to the ill-fated Titanic.
H.M.S. Iron Duke 1912 British dreadnought battleship of World War I. Served as flagship of the commander-in-chief of the Grand Fleet, 1914-16. Flagship of Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty at Jutland, 1916. Hull built at Portsmouth Dockyard; boilers and engines built at Laird’s Yard, Birkenhead.
Stavangerford 1917 Twin-screw, 13,000 GRT passenger steamer of the Norwegian-American Line.  After launching and installation of machinery, Stavangerford steamed to the United States to complete her fitting-out.  Operated between New York and Oslo, with occasional summer cruises to Scandinavia and the North Cape.  Survived World War II as a floating barracks for Kriegsmarine crews in Oslo and, remarkably, was not destroyed in the German retreat from Norway.   Remained in operation until late 1963, when she was retired after 45 years' service on the North Atlantic.  In all, Stavangerford had made 770 Atlantic crossing, steaming 2,800,000 miles while carrying 500,00 passengers.  Scrapped at Hong Kong, 1964.
H.M.S. Rodney 1927 British battleship of World War II. On the morning of May 27, 1941, with H.M.S. King George V intercepted and engaged the German battleship Bismarck in the North Atlantic, bringing an end to the German ship’s brief but dramatic sortie. Later provided support for the Allied invasions of North Africa and Normandy, and served as escort on convoys to the Soviet port of Murmansk.
H.M.S. Achilles 1933 British cruiser of World War II. With H.M.S. Exeter and H.M.S. Ajax, engaged and damaged the German "pocket battleship" Admiral Graf Spee on December 13, 1939 in the Battle of the River Plate. (Graf Spee was subsequently scuttled by her own crew at Montevideo.) In 1941 recommissioned into the new Royal New Zealand Navy. In 1948 was transferred to the Royal Indian Navy as R.I.N. Delhi.
H.M.S. Ark Royal 1938 British aircraft carrier of World War II. In May 1941 Ark Royal’s Swordfish torpedo bombers caused critical damage to the German battleship Bismarck, allowing the British fleet to catch and sink her the following day. Torpedoed and sunk by U-81 near Gibraltar, November 1941.
H.M.S. Thetis 1938 British T-class submarine. Sank during trials on June 1, 1939 with 103 people on board – her own crew of 53 plus 50 other technicians and other observers. As the result of a trim error, the submarine plunged bow-first into the sea bottom off the Welsh coast in 165 feet (50m) of water. Four men managed to get out through an escape hatch, but the 99 others suffocated. The submarine was eventually raised and put into service during World War II as H.M.S. Thunderbolt. Sunk March 14, 1943 in the Mediterranean by the Italian corvette Cicogna. Bizarrely, only a week before Thetis sank, the U.S. submarine Squalus sank off the New England coast in a similar accident.
Mauretania (II) 1939 High-speed ocean liner for the Cunard-White Star Line, intended to augment the "Queens" (Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth) on the North Atlantic run if either was taken out of service in an emergency.  Served as a troop transport beginning in 1940.  Returned to civilian service in 1947, operating as a cruise ship out of New York in the winter months.   Broken up in Scotland, 1965.
H.M.S. Prince of Wales 1941 British battleship of World War II. In May 1941, while still in her "working up" period, Prince of Wales and Hood intercepted the German warships Bismarck and Prinz Eugen. Hood was destroyed minutes into the action, but Prince of Wales scored three hits on Bismarck before breaking off the action. Later Prince of Wales brought Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Argentia Bay, Newfoundland, where he and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Atlantic Charter which created the United Nations. Sunk on December 10, 1941 with H.M.S. Repulse in a coordinated air attack by Japanese bombers and torpedo aircraft.
Windsor Castle 1959 Flagship of the Union Castle fleet, began operating on the Southampton-Cape Town route in 1960.  Adaptable accommodations allowed for a complement of either 241 First Class and 591 Tourist Class passengers, or 191 First and 691 Tourist.

Much of the above material is adapted from Lincoln Paine's outstanding reference work, Ships of the World: An Historical Encyclopedia, and Stephen R. Wise's history of Civil War blockade running, Lifeline of the Confederacy.


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What's New?

new.gif (977 bytes) John Newland Maffitt and the Galveston Blockade | Chasing a Fox new.gif (977 bytes)
new.gif (977 bytes) 2001 Field Crew | In-Kind Contributions  | How Much Coal? new.gif (977 bytes)
new.gif (977 bytes) Denbigh Wallpaper new.gif (977 bytes)


"An Extremely Fast Boat" | The "Mobile Packet" | A "Bold Rascal" | Denbigh Today
Denbigh's Crew | The Erlanger Loan | Birkenhead-Built: An Unrivaled Legacy
Denbigh Primary Source Documents | Galveston During the Civil War | Denbigh, Clwyd, Wales
The U.S. Coast Survey and the Blockade, 1861 | The Ship's Library: Recommended Reading
Running the Blockade Into Galveston: A Personal Narrative | Denbigh Day-by-Day
Denbigh Portrait | Official Number 28,647 | Valve Chest Animation (300kb) | Investors
Links of Interest | Denbigh F.A.Q. | Denbigh's Engines | Denbigh's Boiler
Feathering Sidewheel


April 27-28 Side Scan Survey | May 7-10 Site Mapping
June 16-17 Sub-Bottom Profiling | Site Mapping, July 9-12, 1998 | Dive Trip, October 18-30, 1998
Underwater Images | 1999 Summer Field Season | Denbigh Site Plan
Jerry Williams Speaking Tour | Denbigh Project Benefit Dinner |
Denbigh Artifacts | 2000 Field Crew | 2000 Field Crew Photo Album |
The Denbigh Wreck Site: A Quicktime VR Panaorama
Connecting Rod Recovery, July 22-24, 2000 | Modeling a Shipwreck
Credits & Thank-Yous

J. Barto Arnold et al. 1998-2000, The Denbigh Project, World Wide Web,
Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Texas A&M University, E-mail: (  
Monday, July 03, 2000 Revision.

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