The HMS (His/Her Majesty’s Ship) is a British Royal Naval ship that is docked in the Alexandra Dock in Belfast. You’re probably wondering, what on earth is a war-ship doing in Belfast? Well the HMS Caroline was the headquarters of the Royal Naval Reserve Headquarters in Northern Ireland from 1924 until 2011! Before this the HMS Caroline served in the East Indies and most famously she is the last surviving ship of the Battle of Jutland in 1916.
The Battle of Jutland took place between 31st May-1st June 1916 and was the only full scale naval battle of WW1. The German navy wanted to draw out the British Navy and destroy some of her best battleships as the German navy was incapable of fighting the British Royal Navy full on as it didn’t have sufficient ships to battle the British. From a casualty point of view. even though the German’s had less ships, the British Royal Navy lost over six thousand men in the short battle. Notably, a lot of the sailors and officers on board the various ships where from Ireland, meaning a large amount of Irish casualties.
The HMS Caroline survived the battle and was moved to Belfast in 1924, as stated above. During the 2nd World War (1939-1945), the Caroline acted as an administrative headquarters for the British Royal Navy in Northern Ireland. There was also a large contingency of WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) personnel on board. These women learnt to load and dispatch torpedos, read charge depths, interpret signalling and undertook maintenance both on board the Caroline and at Belfast Castle, their land headquarters.
There was a ‘Wrennery’ on the Antrim Road in Belfast, and many women from both Ireland and Britain served in Belfast. Belfast was seen as a ‘cushty’ role as Northern Ireland didn’t suffer as much from the privations of rationing as the UK mainland. As many people forget that people from Northern Ireland (WRNS) included would take advantage of being to travel to un-rationed Southern Ireland to make purchases of food and clothing!
Christian Lamb, an english WRNS in Belfast, remembers the gaiety of going down to Dublin and smuggling ‘contraband’ i.e. stockings, red lipstick and chocolate, in her duffle bag and buying copious presents for family back home in England.1 Christian served onboard the HMS Caroline, as well as many other WRNS. Other WRNS, such as Maeve Kelly, who was from Derry and was stationed there for the entirety of the war, finally seeing the U-Board surrender in 1945 at Lisahally.
WRNS members were recruited and stationed at the HMS Caroline after WW2, when the WRNS were reformed as a permanent part of the British Royal Navy. Many WRNS from the 1950s onwards remember the fun and frolics on board during dances and social events. One WRNS even named her daughter Caroline after her service in the WRNS in the 1960s. I have completed research for the HMS Caroline on Irish WRNS and currently volunteer for the ship, which includes dressing up as a WW2 Ship-Bound WRNS! As you can see in the picture of yours truly below practicing semaphore!
Photo courtesy of the National Museum of the Royal Navy. Kindly supplied by the HMS Caroline.
The HMS Caroline is Northern Ireland’s newest visitor attraction and as explained above, its main focus is the role of the ship during the Battle of Jutland and after. The HMS Caroline is near to other visitor attractions, namely the Nomadic and Titanic Visitor Centre, so you can have a fun-filled nautical day out by staying in the same area! You start your tour of the ship by walking up the gang plank and into the former mess hall that has a 3D animated re-telling of the Battle of Jutland.
From there you make your way to the stern of the ship where the Officers (both Senior and Junior) had their quarters. The quarters of the most Senior Officers had what today would be thought of as ‘built-in’ furniture, as all the furniture was fitted so that it didn’t move whilst the ship was at sea. Most of the senior officers had their own roll top enamel bath, seen below, that would be filled with sea water or from the ships reserves. Basically, the officers’ quarters were a kin to the top hotels at the time and quite frankly I wouldn’t have minded that roll-top bath in my own bathroom!
Moving on throughout the tour we come to where the ratings slept, side-by-side in hammocks, which were apparently quite comfortable. We also toured the Officer’s ‘Mess’, i.e. dining room with food that looked realistic enough to eat! The ratings mess was typical of what you would associate with a Naval ship; blue and white enamelware eaten of long benches. The HMS Caroline’s café is also designed in the same style as the ratings mess and the Irish Stew that the café is served is some of the best I’ve had.
Throughout the ship there are various rooms that have been conserved that show where food was stored, where patients stayed on the medical ward, the kitchens and various offices for the different officers on board. There was also plenty of information for the naval enthusiast (myself included) or for those who wanted to know more about the long history of the HMS Caroline.
One of my favorite parts of the entire ship was being able to walk down to see the engine room that has a sound and image projection of what the engines would have sounded like when the ship was moving. It was fantastic to be able to see this, as on other historical ships that I have visited, the engine rooms have been glanced through a glass wall or hole in the floor.
I’d definitely recommend visiting the HMS Caroline as the ship is very good value for money and has something for all ages and abilities. Be sure to check out all the panels and information leaflets on board the HMS Caroline to learn more about the ship. Or ask one of the friendly staff members or volunteers a question if you’re not sure of the answer! Don’t forget to check out my Vlog of my visit to the HMS Caroline on my YouTube Channel (including squinting my eyes in the sunshine!)
Also have you seen my blog about my recent visit to Florence? Or checked out what I think about the repatriation of objects in museums to their original owners?
- Taken from Millions Like Us, by Virginia Nicholson.
All content and photographs (c) Rachel Sayers 2013-2016.