The People of Gibraltar
1823 - The Hulks of Gibraltar - Deathlike in their Stillness

Jules Verne and Inglefield - The Earl of St Vincent and Archibald Hunter
Recanno and Gaggero - Smith Imossi, John Mackintosh and Thos Mosely

On the 10th of October 1823 the packet Royal George anchored in Gibraltar. She attracted considerable attention from the locals as she was the very first steam ship to do so. What those curious lookers-on were probably not aware of was that her arrival signalled a change in the appearance of Gibraltar harbour that would last for nearly a century. 

Steam engines were fuelled by coal and it was not long before Gibraltar's enterprising merchants were setting up shop selling the black stuff both to the Royal Navy and to merchant shipping.  Most of the coal was stored in old hulks that eventually came to litter the Bay from the New Mole right through to the north end of the Old Mole. 


Coal hulks and other craft to the north of the Old Mole  (Undated )

By the early 20th century coal had given way to oil. As this was stored underground in Gibraltar the old coal hulks had served their purpose. They were sold for scrap and that well known view of the bay of Gibraltar disappeared for ever.


A very empty inner and outer harbour in the 1920s (Unknown )

Before 1823 the harbour had already been full of permanently anchored boats mostly used either to store goods earmarked for smuggling or to house people who for one reason or another were refused permanent residence on the Rock. As such most of them were generally considered to be an unmitigated nuisance by the British authorities.

Soon after the various yellow fever epidemics of the early 19th century had wrecked their havoc on both the civilian and military population of the Rock (see LINK) the authorities were more or less forced to take notice and attempted to improve the less than adequate hygienic condition of the town. The harbour hulks and crafts came in for their share of the blame. This is what J. Hennan - one of the doctors stationed in Gibraltar at the time - had to say about them.
The offensive matters thrown up on the beach from the numerous small craft which are crowded around the vicinity of the Old Mole, (see LINK) must tend to deteriorate the purity of the air in no small degree ; much of these exuviae are carried away daily, but much remain afloat, and when old hulks, timber, boats, and other incumbrances are allowed to lie on the beach, a considerable quantity of filth accumulates among them beyond the reach of the scavengers. When it is recollected that the floating population of the Bay of Gibraltar may be estimated at 2000 souls the year round, the amount of animal and vegetable offal must obviously be considerable.
By the mid 19th century most of the larger hulks were used for storing coal. When Jules Verne visited Gibraltar in the 1870s (see LINK) he was able to watch as his ship the Saint-Michel was coaled in Gibraltar harbour. The ship was tied up to the appropriate hulk and the coal was taken aboard in baskets by coalheavers (see LINK) along dangerously rickety gangplanks.


Coalheavers at work in Gibraltar in the late 19th century


"The craft that lay eastward on the tide, with sail-less spectral masts and black dismal hulks, looked deathlike in their stillness"   (1895 - Legend of Gibraltar - Anonymous) (G.W. Wilson) (See LINK)  

Gibraltar's hulks however were by no means unique to the place. By the 1880s more than a quarter of the Royal Navy's 460 odd ships were hulks doing harbour service.  Some of the ships in Gibraltar were undoubtedly owned by the Navy but the great majority were the property of local merchants such as the Gaggero's (See LINK), Smith Imossi, John Mackintosh and Thos Mosely to mention just a few.

Prior to the age of steam the word 'hulks' was used mostly to refer to old Royal Navy or captured enemy ships that were so old or so badly damaged as to be unserviceable. These were often the cause of friction among naval administrators as certain officers insisted on listing some of these hulks as ships-of-the-line. The intricate diplomatic manoeuvrings occasioned by these hulks is neatly encompassed by an argument between Inglefield, the Commissioner of the Navy in Gibraltar and the Admiral of the fleet at the time - the Earl of St Vincent who was himself stationed in Gibraltar.


Admiral John Jervis 1st Earl of St Vincent

St. Vincent continued to list (a certain ship) as a ship-of-the-line, but Inglefield, not wanting to waste the money or effort to bring the ship up to that status, appealed to the Admiralty on several occasions.  The ship caused Inglefield a great deal of trouble before it was officially entered in the hulks establishment. 

It was thereafter used to store extra provisions and as a prison ship until it was eventually broken.  Before receiving the official approval to declare the ship a hulk, Inglefield had to provide extra cables and hawsers for the ship and at one point complained that its anchors were stolen. . . .   

A century later the hulks were causing a different kind of problem. As international tensions caused by the Agadir crisis of 1911 began to increase the governor of Gibraltar - Archibald Hunter - decided it was time to review the military effectiveness of the Rock. When the gun angles of the fortress’s artillery were checked it was found that many of the lines of fire were obstructed by some of the hulks moored out in the bay. 

Hunter ordered the owners to remove them. The merchants not only refused but complained to the secretary of state for the colonies - Lewis Vernon Harcourt. What they failed to mention was that some of those hulks were not just coaling stations but also stores for large quantities of tobacco earmarked for smuggling into Spain.

Hunter responded by sending his thoughts on the matter both to Harcourt and to the War Office. He was adamant that he alone as commander in chief was responsible for the security of the fortress. He also pointed out that licences issued for the hulks included a clause that allowed them to be removed if they interfered with security. 

The Gibraltar merchants response was that the hulks could easily be moved if the Rock ever came under attack. Hunter was not only not convinced but threatened to test their claim by ordering that the hulks be beached at a moment's notice during the next annual mobilisation. He went so far as to threaten to open fire and sink any hulk that failed to get out of the way soon enough.

In the end the merchants  succeeded in getting rid  of Hunter  for entirely  other reasons but 
Throughout his governorship Hunter did managed to reduce the number of hulks by the simple expedient of refusing to renew their licences. When the merchants protested he referred them to Harcourt who refused to intervene.

In general, of course, most of the Gibraltar hulks were small craft of relatively little consequence - but there were indeed some that had been in their heyday quite well-known ships in their own right. One of them - HMS Euryalus - took part in the Battle of Trafalgar and briefly served as Admiral Collingwood's flagship. She was decommissioned in 1825 and served for several years as a prison hulk for boys in the UK. In 1847 she was moved to Gibraltar and served as a convict ship. In 1859 she was renamed the Africa but didn't last long under that name. The following year she was sold to a Mr. Recanno and broken up. 


HMS Euryalus  ( Geoff Hunt )

Perhaps the two best known Gibraltar hulks were the Owen Glendower (see LINK) and the Java. (See LINK) The Glendower was another convict ship and was anchored inside the South Mole rather than in the Bay. 


The Owen Glendower as a Royal Navy Frigate


The Owen Glendower as a prison hulk ( 1870 - G.W Wilson )


The Java as a coal hulk

Yet another striking hulk was the 3000 ton wooden ship, the Three Brothers. Originally a merchantman she was commissioned as a USN man-of-war and was known as the paddle steamer Vanderbilt. In 1872 she was sold to a British firm owned by three brothers who renamed her accordingly.  They ripped out her engine and refitted her as a full-rigged ship touted at the time as the largest sailing ship in the world. 


In 1885 she was sold to the Anchor Line who sent her to Gibraltar to be used as a coal hulk to service their India bound ships. In 1924 she was sold to another coaling company in Gibraltar and finally for scrap four years later. 


The hulk on the left might be the Three Brothers

The Ocean Telegraph was built in Boston in 1854 - she was described as one of the most perfect ships ever built". In 1866 she was renamed the Light Brigade. After a relatively short career she arrived in Queenstown in 1883 leaking badly, was condemned and then sold that same year to a Gibraltar merchant who put her to use as a coal hulk.


The Ocean Telegraph - an American clipper -  "No expense was spared to make her one of the most perfect and beautiful ships ever built." (1850s)

The Orient, was the pioneer of the Orient line of clippers started by James Thompson & Co. She was launched in 1853 and intended to cope with the Australian gold rush. Unfortunately the Crimean War intervened and she was taken over by the Government for troop transport. In 1856 she began her service as a passenger ship doing the London to Adelaide run. 

After an eventful life - she carried the first sparrows to Australia and was once involved in a serious fire - she was demasted in 1891 and was sold as a coal hulk in Gibraltar - which according to an article in the internet was an unusual occurrence for a clipper.  As far as I can make out after researching Gibraltar's hulks, it was anything but. The Orient  was not broken up until 1925. 

The Orient  (1853)

The Young America was built in New York and launched in 1853, at the height of the clipper construction boom. In fact she was at one time advertised by one of her owners as an extreme clipper ship. 



The Young America worked the California trade, took on transatlantic routes, and made voyages to Australia and the Far East. Her fate is open to argument but according to Henry Collins Brown's The Clipper Ships of Old New York which was published in 1919, the Young America was last seen lying off Gibraltar as a coal hulk.


The Young America

The Lyderhorn - launched in Liverpool in 1892 - was a steel barque. She was sold to a Hamburg company and renamed the Jersbek. In 1922 she joined the swelling ranks of coal hulks in Gibraltar harbour.


The Lyderhorn

Launched in 1846 for conversion into a frigate the Malborough made a single voyage to Australian during the Gold Rush. She didn't last too long. In 1869 she was withdrawn from service and converted to a coal hulk at Gibraltar.


The Marlborough

There were also considerably more modern ships that ended up as hulks in Gibraltar. One such was the Cable Ship Faraday. She was sold for scrap in 1924 but proved too tough to break up. She was then moved to Gibraltar and used to store coal.


CS Faraday

Another was the RFS Santa Margherita. She ended up being used by the Shell Oil company as a fuelling hulk - the days of coal were now over. She was scrapped in 1950.


The Santa Margherita

The Clan Macfarlane was a three masted barque built in Greenock, Glasgow in 1881. She became a hulk in Gibraltar at an unknown date. She was scrapped in 1946.


The Clan Macfarlane

The Scottish Isles was a three masted iron ship built in Liverpool in 1883 and became a hulk at Gibraltar probably during the early 20th century. She was scrapped in 1946.


The Scottish Isles

HMS Cormorant was laid at Chatham Dockyard in 1875. She became a well known accommodation ship in Gibraltar in 1894. She had a very distinctive black hull with a red line and had her deck covered with a white awning.  She was renamed HMS Rooke in 1946 but was scrapped and broken up in Malaga three years later.


A derelict HMS Cormorant

HMS Rapid was launched in 1883 at Devonport.  Around 1902 she was sent to Gibraltar as an accommodation hulk to house British workers at the Dockyard.  She also acted as a mother ship to the submarine flotilla in Gibraltar. In 1912 she became a coaling hulk but returned to her role as an accommodation ship four years later when she was also renamed HMS Hart. She spent the next 30 years berthed alongside HMS Cormorant. In 1948 she was decommissioned, used for target practice and sunk off Gibraltar. 


HMS Hart - once known as HMS Rapid - to the right of HMS Cormorant, both with white awnings at Coaling Island

There were of course very many more ships used as hulks in Gibraltar over the years - some had once been as well known as the ones mentioned above, others less remarkably so. Whatever the case it is curious to realise that modern Gibraltar owes a debt of gratitude to these old ships - be it from the wealth produced from selling coal to both civilian and Royal Navy ships or from the tremendous amount of money generated by the smuggling trade - of which many of these ships were used as illegal bonded warehouses so to speak. And typically of Gibraltar - we didn't do things by halves - nothing but the best would do - and lots of it.