THE NEW ZEALAND MARITIME RECORD
The first modern torpedo boat was built for the British navy in 1877 by the shipyards of Sir John Isaac Thornycroft (1843-1928). Torpedo boats were adopted by most of the world's major navies, but as they increased in size the destroyer was developed as an effective defense against them. They diminished in importance after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5.
Defender was something of a curiosity. With a length of 63 feet, she was only 7ft 6in in the beam and her displacement was twelve tons. Steam power was provided by a locomotive boiler to a single engine of 173 horsepower. She had two funnels side by side and a conning tower with quarter-inch bulletproof plating to protect the coxswain. Defender was originally capable of steaming at 17½ knots over a measured mile; a high speed for those days. The boat was equipped with a 36 foot spar tipped with a gun cotton charge, which projected over the bow of the vessel and would be exploded on the side of a ship below the water line. A Nordenfelt gun was also fitted.
1882 Ordered by the government in response to the "Russian Scare", the first warships were acquired for New Zealand's external defence at a cost about £4,000 each. These were four second class spar torpedo boats. Yard number 168 was the first and constructed at the Thornycroft Shipyard at Chiswick on the Thames near London.
1884 February 1 Departed from London aboard the sailing ship Lyttelton.
1884 May 9 Arrived at Port Chalmers.
1884 December She arrived at Lyttelton from Port Chalmers having been towed up the coast by the government service steamer Stella.
1885 January 1 The torpedo boat made her first public appearance at the Lyttelton Regatta on New Year's Day and attracted a great deal of interest as she sped about the harbour. A shed and slipway were constructed for her in Baker's Bay below Erskine Point. However, it seems that after the first flush of enthusiasm the torpedo boat was rarely taken out and was kept mostly out of the water, because of her galvanised steel plating, in the shed at Baker's Bay.
1886 30 March Rear-Admiral R. A. E. Scott of Dunedin, honorary Commodore of the Naval Artillery Volunteers, arrived at Lyttelton in the course of a tour of inspection. Captain McLellan, the harbour master and commanding officer of the Lyttelton unit met him at the station and escorted him to where the torpedo boat was waiting, steamed up at Gladstone Pier. A trip was made round Ripa Island to observe the progress of the defence works and then on to Little Port Cooper. The Navals were kept busy working the spar for the discharge of the torpedo.
The trip was not a success. The Lyttelton Times describes the vessel's performance as 'enough to make a marine engineer weep tears of gall!'. Her engine was so rusty that only 12½ knots could be got out of her. The steam engines quickly used up all supplies of fresh water and the tanks had to be refilled with salt water, the boat proceeding slowly while this was done. The Lyttelton Times writer did not blame the Volunteers for this dreary performance but rather the inability of the Government to provide a full time engineer to service her.
To add to the uselessness of the vessel as a defence unit for the port she was laid up to rust in a shed a mile from the town. It was in an exposed and totally unsuitable position. If there was any kind of swell it was impossible to launch the boat without the certainty of it being smashed. A torpedo corps was formed at Lyttelton soon after this and trained in the use of mines and little more was heard of the torpedo launch.
1886 The spar torpedoes were replaced with Whitehead mobile torpedoes, which could be launched from the torpedo boats by means of dropping gear amidships. However the narrow hull remained stable only if both torpedoes were dropped simultaneously. There was no question of flotilla tactics, since the four harbours were too far apart. Rather, each boat was a single shot weapon, but integrated into the overall defence plan for each harbour.
1900 The Naval and the Torpedo Corps were merged with the Garrison Artillery. The torpedo boat, by then thoroughly outmoded, was neglected and not replaced.
When the Government later offered the vessel for sale it was bought for a song by Mr Mark Thomas, a well-known Lyttelton steam launch proprietor. He removed many parts and dumped the hull on the Purau Beach. The tidal scour around the hull began to undermine the beach road.
For many years the rusty remains of the Defender lay on the beach at Purau Bay. The conning tower was eventually used in a nearby paddock as a watering trough, the steel plating, funnels, and deck fittings long since removed. Her ignominious end was the result of neglect and misuse from the time of her arrival at Lyttelton.
1909 The Mt. Herbert County Council used a traction engine to pull the hull further up the shore but the whole thing broke in two during this operation.
1930 The painting by Jesse Hollobon below, shows her stern section to the right of the bow on the beach at Purau.
The rusty remains littered the beach until well after the Second World War. The local Borough Council eventually bulldozed what was left into a pit.
The LYTTELTON TORPEDO BOAT MUSEUM opened in 2003. Housed in the historic magazine building in Magazine Bay, it is open at weekends and exhibits the remains of the hull, an engine and other artefacts. Details
New Zealand Maritime Record
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