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Reviewing the fleet

3 March 2008 by stepheng

oil painting of several ships and boats on a river

Campania at the Spithead Review, 1897 by Parker Greenwood

The Spithead Review of 1897 is one of the great historical naval spectacles that I would have liked to witness. It was a sight to freeze the enemy’s blood – a fleet of warships lined up in the greatest display of sea power the world had ever seen.

The Review is depicted in a remarkable painting at Merseyside Maritime Museum which captures the pomp and power of that day. In the centre of Parker Greenwood’s picture is Campania, at that time the pride of the Cunard Fleet. She steams slowly between lines of ironclad battleships bristling with guns.

The Campania, along with several other famous merchant ships, attended the Review to accommodate the guests. The event was to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee – 60 years on the throne. However, the Queen was not feeling up to taking to sea and her son Bertie – Prince of Wales and the future Edward VII – took her place. He was accompanied by guests from all over the British Empire and beyond.

This Spithead Review was claimed to be the largest number of warships ever gathered at anchor together. In two seven-mile-long lines between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight were 170 British naval ships including 50 battleships. Nearly all were less than 10 years old and were immaculately ablaze with brass and bunting. Crews stood in serried ranks in wide straw hats and spotless white uniforms in the stunning spectacle.

The painting shows guests crowded on the deck of the Campania under canvas awnings, looking at the warships as they pass by.

There was an incident that day which is not seen in the picture. In an impudent publicity stunt, Charles Algernon Parsons brought his revolutionary turbine boat Turbinia uninvited to the Review.  As the Prince of Wales, Lords of the Admiralty and other dignitaries looked on, Turbinia – much faster than anything else afloat – raced between the lines of big ships. She easily evaded the Royal Navy’s patrol boats.

Parsons, who invented the steam turbine in 1884, had made his dramatic point. In 1905 the Admiralty confirmed that all future Royal Naval ships would be turbine powered. The following year the first turbine powered battleship, the famous HMS Dreadnought, was launched.

Campania and her sister Lucania were ordered in 1891. They were Cunard’s response to recently-launched rivals on the Transatlantic service – White Star’s Teutonic (1889) and Inman Line’s City of New York (1888). When launched in 1893, both Campania and Lucania were described as “the most magnificently appointed passenger liners in the world”.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

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