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Author Topic: HMS Atlas (1860 - 1904)  (Read 5418 times)

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Offline mikeb

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Re: HMS Atlas (1860 - 1904)
« Reply #3 on: June 22, 2012, 13:03:44 »
A very interesting post. Many thanks.

Offline cliveh

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Re: HMS Atlas (1860 - 1904)
« Reply #2 on: June 22, 2012, 11:39:47 »
A great & very informative post - thanks Bilgerat!  :)


Offline Bilgerat

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HMS Atlas (1860 - 1904)
« Reply #1 on: June 21, 2012, 22:03:20 »
HMS Atlas was a 2nd Rate Ship-of-the-Line built at Chatham. The ship was designed to carry 91 guns on two gundecks.

The ship was built during a time of great change for both the Royal Navy and the Dockyard at Chatham. Iron was replacing wood in the construction of warships and steam was beginning to replace sail as the main method of propulsion. HMS Atlas was of a more conservative design, being built from wood, but she was designed with an 800hp steam engine driving a single propeller shaft.

The ship was laid down on No 6 slip, which had been covered over with an iron roof ten years previously, on 23rd February 1858. During the construction of her hull on No 6 slip on 23rd August 1859, HMS Atlas and other ships then also under construction was inspected by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. She was launched into the River Medway by Mrs Schomberg on 21st July 1860. Three days later, the ship was taken to Sheerness to be fitted with her steam engine. This work was completed by April the following year, when the ship is recorded to have been undergoing sea trials of her steam engine.

When HMS Atlas was ordered, she was intended to be commissioned into the Channel Fleet, but by the time the ship was ready for commissioning in the summer of 1861, she was surplus to requirements and instead of being commissioned, she was placed into the reserve at Sheerness.

IN 1870, she was reduced to 54 guns and in 1874, the ship was towed to Chatham, where she was completely disarmed in 1879.

Her future was looking bleak, the ship had never been completed for sea and in the almost 20 years since her launch, the ship had never served the Royal Navy. In 1881 however, things took an entirely unexpected turn and the ship was about to enter the next phase of her career and the one for which she was most famous. In that year, a serious epidemic of smallpox began in London and the Metropolitan Aylums Board, then responsible for hospitals in London, was struggling to cope with the huge demand for hospital beds that this created.

In early 1881, the Metropolitan Asylums Board approached the Admiralty looking for surplus ships which could be converted to floating hospitals and in June, the Admiralty agreed to lend them HMS Atlas and another surplus vessel, HMS Endymion, provided that the Board agreed to insure Atlas for 11,000 and Endymion for 8,000. HMS Atlas was to be converted into a floating hospital with 120 beds for acute cases whilst HMS Endymion, a 56 gun frigate, would be converted into the administration and stores ship. Between the two ships, the conversions cost 11,000. The Board originally wanted to moor the ships at Halfway Reach, near Dagenham, but the Thames Conservancy who controlled the river denied this request and insisted that the ships be moored instead off Deptford Creek, near Greenwich. The Board agreed and the first patients were admitted to the Atlas in July 1881. By the time the epidemic officially ended in AUgust 1882, over 1000 patients had been treated of whom 120 had died.

Growing public concern over the spread of infectious diseases from isolation hospitals into the surrounding houses had led to the establishment of a Royal Commission to look into the matter and they produced their report in 1882. The report recommended that those suffering from smallpox be treated in isolation hospitals along the banks of the Thames or on hospital ships moored in the river and that the convalescent hospitals be established in the country, away from urban centres. Among the other recommendations from the Commission was that a central ambulance service be set up.

As a result of the report, Atlas and Endymion were moved to new moorings at Long Reach, 17 miles downstream from London Bridge in 1883 and those ships were joined in 1884 by a third vessel. This was the former iron paddle steamer Castalia. This vessel had been bought outright by the Board and was converted into a floating hospital. This conversion entailed the removal of her engines and the lower decks were converted into a 5 ward hospital for 84 female patients with a further 5 ward blocks being built on her upper deck housing a further 70 female patients. The conversion was said to have made the ship like a row of floating houses.

The three ships moored together

Side view of HMS Atlas as a floating hospital

Bows-on view of HMS Atlas as a floating hospital

The three ships were moored in a line with Atlas at the front, Endymion in the middle with Castalia bringing up the rear. Although not connected to the shore despite only being 50 yards from it, the three ships were connected to each other by a series of bridges which were built to compensate for the movement of the ships on their moorings. When the hospital was completed, Atlas contained the male wards and had a chapel on the upper deck. The chapel was used as overflow accomodation during further epidemics of smallpox. Below decks, she had 200 beds for male patients on the main, lower and orlop decks with isolation wards on the upper deck. New admissions were taken to a reception ward on the orlop deck, then taken by a lift to the isolation wards on the upper deck. Also aboard Atlas were the sleeping quarters for the medical staff and the dispensary. The ships gunports had been converted to windows and because she had originally been built as a warship, conditions aboard were cramped and the ceilings were low. Endymion housed the administration offices, further sleeping quarters, the kitchen where the food for all three ships was prepared, together with a steam heating plant which also served all three ships. In order to prevent the spread of infection ashore, all staff were required to wash their hair, bathe and change their clothes before leaving. A pier was later built to connect the ships to service buildings which had been constructed ashore, these also provided more accomodation for staff together with a laundry, dressing rooms for female staff and a mortuary. There were also stables for horses used to transfer patients to convalescing facilities at Darenth Camp, an hours drive away. In 1886, a shed was built ashore for engines and dynamos to generate electricity for lighting as the oil lamps then in use were deemed to be a fire hazard.

A ward aboard Atlas

Dr Ricketts and some of the nursing staff aboard Atlas

In February 1885, the Board was informed by the Admiralty that if they wished to continue using Atlas and Endymion, they would have to buy the ships for 8,400 and 6,500 respectively. Although the Metropolitan Asylums Board agreed in principle, they asked that the price be reduced. In June of 1885, the Board authorised the purchase of both vessels.

The floating hospital including the former HMS Atlas continued to treat smallpox patients but by 1893, the ships were in poor condition and were becoming too expensive to maintain. They were vulnerable to the weather and there was a risk of collision with ships in the river. Indeed, in 1898, Castalia was struck by the immigrant ship SS Barrowmore. There was an ever-present risk of delirious patients throwing themselves overboard and it was impossible to increase the number of patients the ships could hold. In 1893, the Board decided to build a new hospital ashore, but for various reasons, building work did not start until 1901. The ships became obsolete in 1903, when the Joyce Green Hospital was opened, which allowed for a five-fold increase in the numbers of smallpox patients which could be treated.

In their 20-odd years of service as hospital ships, between them, they had treated over 20,000 smallpox victims.

Although HMS Atlas never got to cover herself in glory in some great war-winning naval battle, she did so in a quieter way, The ship built to fight wars against our nations enemies at sea instead played a small part in helping to win the war against a far deadlier, far more insidious, ruthless and indiscrimitate enemy, that of disease and smallpox in particular. Thanks in part to the efforts of those who served aboard her, the war was won and the scourge of smallpox was eradicated, hopefully for good.

Atlas was sold for scrap at auction in 1904, for 3,725. In a mind-boggling act of short sightedness by the Board, the electrical equipment aboard the ship was scrapped with her and the shiny new hospital at Joyce Green remained lit by gas until 1923.
"I did not say that the French will not come, I said they will not come by sea" - Lord St Vincent


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