Friday, November 27, 2015   

Harbour bed holds memories

Eric Cavaliero

Thursday, November 13, 1997

How first

Tamar met

a sad end


T was the end of an era.

On 11 April 1997 HMS Tamar, the British naval shore establishment in

Hong Kong, was de-commissioned and the White Ensign was lowered ashore

in the Far East for the last time.

The ships of the Royal Navy's Hong Kong Squadron, after taking part in

the final ceremonies on 30 June were sold to the Philippines. The

Prince of Wales Barracks, the fifth HMS Tamar, became the headquarters

of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Hong Kong garrison.

The 3,650-tonne ship from which the shore establishment derived its


name served in the Royal Navy for 34 years before returning to

Victoria Harbour in 1897 to become a receiving ship.

Tamar's sad and undignified end _ she was scuttled in 1941 _ could not

have been foreseen. Nor could anyone have predicted that she would

lend her name to a naval establishment in the heart of Hong Kong.

Before the naval base came on shore, receiving ships served to provide

office accommodation for the naval authorities, staff quarters,

assembly hall, entertainment and catering facilities. Courts martial

also were held aboard.

In his book, White Ensign _ Red Dragon: the History of the Royal Navy

in Hong Kong 1841 to 1997, Commodore P J Melson noted that as early as

April 1841 the naval authorities began to erect buildings along the


He added: "The first naval store sheds were at West Point and

Possession Point, and early maps reveal that major construction was

also carried out at another, slightly more westward site, between 1845

and 1855.

"Store depots were quickly established on shore, and the first naval

storekeeper and agent victualler, Thomas McKnight, was appointed on 21

March 1842. He held the post until 12 October 1849. The navy also made

use of ships moored in the harbour."

The original HMS Tamar was built at Millwall, England, and launched at

the beginning of June 1863. She began her maiden voyage on 12 January

1864 as a troopship to the Cape and China.

At that time the Royal Navy had not yet fully changed over to steam

power, consequently Tamar was equipped with masts, whose functions

were later replaced by a steam engine, giving a speed of 12 knots. An

early photograph shows her with two funnels, but she was later

re-boilered and reduced to one funnel.

The ship's crest was based on the coat of arms of the British county

of Cornwall, which the River Tamar divides from Devon.

Tamar first visited Hong Kong in 1878 with reliefs for the crews of

the gunboats. She returned once in 1886 before her final return in

1897. Before 1878 she had seen service off the Gold Coast, taking

troops to the Ashanti war.

The Royal Navy's presence in Hong Kong _ cutting through the Atlantic

Ocean, across the Pacific and up into the South China Sea _ was

provoked by the historic commercial conflict dating back to the 18th


Commercial trade between China and Europe had grown slowly over the

years since the Portuguese discovered the sea route linking Asia to

the West in the 16th century. And trade was busy between Canton and

Britain as early as 1757. China exported silk and tea to the British

through Canton, whereas Britain imported opium, grown in the British

colony of India, to the Chinese.

In 1854, the naval authorities demolished the West Point store sheds

and surrendered the land to the colonial government, in exchange for a

piece of land at what is now the Mass Transit Railway Admiralty

station. New buildings were erected at the expanded naval yard.

The yard expanded further west in April 1858, with the addition of a

victualling yard at what was then the North Barracks. Two officers

were initially appointed as responsible for the machinery and spare

parts, respectively, needed to maintain and repair ships in the

dockyard, and for dry goods and foodstuff in the victualling yard.

All this expansion was provoked by the Arrow War in China (1856-58),

to help the British cope with the increased demands of warships

operating in the Pearl River Delta for supplies, ammunition and spare

parts. Hong Kong thus served as the Royal Navy's reserves base.

In more recent years the on-land naval base was expanded seawards with

the reclamation of 16 hectares of land, and the inclusion of a 3.58

hectare square-shaped floating basin to repair and refit vessels

afloat. There was also a 183-metre graving dock capable of taking

three submarines at one time.

Much of the base's modernisatiion was completed in the early years of

this century.

World War I scarcely affected Hong Kong, but this was not the case

with World War II. When it became obvious in 1941 that the Japanese

invasion could not be stopped, orders were issued that any type of

vessel which could be useful to the enemy be put out of action and


Tamar was one of the first to be taken out of the basin on 8 December

1941. She was scuttled at the buoy on 12 December that year. The

actual operation was not as easy as it might seem, because the ship's

superstructure (built over her decks to provide accommodation) became


A sizeable portion of the ship remained resolutely above water for

some time, until the Royal Artillery was called in to finish the job.

Tamar thus sank to the bottom of Victoria Harbour after 78 years of

Royal Navy service.

The final illustration in Commodore Melson's book shows a navy ship

silhouetted by a setting sun. Has the sun also set on HMS Tamar?

Noting Tamar's new PLA role, Melson wrote: "The military presence in

Central, so long resisted by the Hong Kong government, seems certain

to continue for the foreseeable future."

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