Significance of the torpedo boat: HMVS Lonsdale

Jane Mitchell

My directed study project set out to analyse 18 excavated shipwrecks and assess their significance statements. So far I’ve completed some research into the history of shipwreck significance and the significance statements within the overall Victorian Heritage database (which you can read about here), but since then my research has kept me locked inside the Victorian Heritage Register, sifting through all the information attached to each of the 18 ships’ records.

My research is now complete and my next task is to update (or write) statements of significance for some of these wrecks. Not all of the wrecks I’ve been looking at have management plans in place and the statements and their evidence-based evaluation criteria are designed as a jumping-off point for ongoing management of these wrecks.

First cab off the rank is the HMVS Lonsdale.  The current statement of significance in the Victorian database reads: “The HMVS Lonsdale is historically significant as a relic of Victoria’s colonial navy” (Victorian Heritage Register 2005:S425).

It’s important to bear in mind there isn’t any way to ascertain when this statement was written, but when you research  the history of the vessel, there’s more to HMVS Lonsdale than just historical significance.

HMVS Lonsdale. Photo courtesy Heritage Victoria

HMVS Lonsdale. Photo courtesy Heritage Victoria

Brief History:
Ten torpedo boats served across Australia from the early 1880s onwards. They were purchased by the individual colonies in response to a perceived threat of a Russian (and briefly French) invasion (Hunter 2011:1). The British-based Thornycroft, the builder of HMVS Lonsdale, went on to build the fast PT attack boats used with great success in World War II. HMVS Lonsdale and HMVS Nepean, another Thornycroft second-class Victorian torpedo boat, were commissioned in 1883 and arrived in Australia in 1884.

HMVS Lonsdale never saw battle action but did take part in the annual and rather festive Easter exercises, even hitting HMVS Cerberus in 1885 with one of its spar torpedoes – the only time Cerberus came under fire in its career (Hewitt and Tucker 2009:13). Based on British advice the second-class torpedo boats underwent some Australian modification to their torpedo gear, which subsequently improved their speed and performance (Argus 23 February 1888). By 1892, Victoria had three-second class torpedo boats, two first-class boats and 32 torpedoes (Cahill 2009:134).

The torpedo boats were handed over to the Commonwealth after Federation in 1901 and put up for sale in 1902, but, with no buyers, Nepean and Lonsdale continued to take part in manoeuvres (Cahill 2009: 132). When the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was officially formed, Lonsdale and Nepean, considered ‘outmoded’, were again unsuccessfully put up for sale in 1914 (Hewitt and Tucker 2009:13). What happened to HMVS Lonsdale over the next six years is unclear, but, sometime before 1920, the vessel ended up on the beach at Queenscliff, briefly becoming a meeting point for local beach goers before the sand slowly swallowed it and it faded from memory.

The remains of HMVS Lonsdale were first located in 1983 by members of the Maritime Archaeology Association of Victoria (MAAV) by following the long-buried 1920s shoreline (Cahill 1999). A short survey followed to confirm the identity of the vessel. The conning tower was re-excavated in 1997 for an attempted geophysical survey, but it was largely unsuccessful due to the large amounts of extraneous ferrous material scattered around the site (Shwartz 1997:2). Due to the recent redevelopment of Queenscliff Harbour, HMVS Lonsdale was re-excavated in 2005/2006 in an effort to determine the full extent of the wreck (Hewitt and Tucker 2009).

Significance Criteria
As discussed in my blog post here, the criteria I used to assess the significance of HMVS Lonsdale is based on AIMA’s Guidelines for the Management of Australia’s Shipwrecks, incorporating the values listed in the Burra Charter.

Criterion 1. Historic
HMVS Lonsdale has historical significance as a key element of the Victorian Colonial Navy. International wars, threats of invasion and local rebellions encouraged uncertainty, fed partly by popular press, in Britain’s ability to protect its colonies. As an early member of Victoria’s Colonial Navy, HMVS Lonsdale was a significant part of Victoria’s defence. Along with the other first- and second-class torpedo boats—Nepean, Childers, Countess of Hopetoun and GordonLonsdale formed part of the frontline defence for the last twenty years of the Victorian Colony.

Criterion 2. Technical
HMVS Lonsdale was built at the shipyard of John Thornycroft, who went on to produce the fast attack Patrol Torpedo (PT) boats used with great effect in the Pacific during WWII. Lonsdale represents a rare, early example highlighting the development of these fast, hit-and-run type vessels.

Criterion 3. Social
HMVS Lonsdale has minor social significance. The vessel had some social significance as a member of the colonial naval defence force of the late 19th century.

Criterion 4. Archaeological
The 2006 excavation results appeared to indicate that the section forward of the machinery space is no longer coherent, although a 1.7 metre section of the bow exists lying on the port side, disarticulated from the main structure. Information gathered to date suggests that the ship, aft of the conning tower, still exists, although its condition is unknown (Hewitt and Tucker 2009:32).

HMVS Lonsdale Conning tower. Photo courtesy Heritage Victoria

HMVS Lonsdale Conning tower. Photo courtesy Heritage Victoria

Abandoned watercraft and subsequent site formation processes are a current and ongoing research topic in Australia (see Richards 2008, Hunter 2011). HMVS Lonsdale has contributed to this topic and further study and conservation of the vessel has the ability to continue to add to this subject literature.

Criterion 5. Scientific
Anodes were placed on the wreck during the archaeological survey in 1997, but there has been no subsequent electrode potential survey. Due to high ground water and tidal fluctuations, the wreck is frequently exposed to water and is at risk of collapse (Hewitt and Tucker 2009:32). Although HMVS Lonsdale has been scrapped and hulked, it still has possible scientific significance through contributions to ongoing work on corrosion studies.

Criterion 6. Interpretive
HMVS Lonsdale is currently the subject of a small interpretive display at the Queenscliff Maritime Centre. The vessel has future interpretive significance not only in regards to the development of the Navy in Australia, but also the types of vessels that contributed to the defence of the colonies.

Criterion 7. Rarity
HMVS Lonsdale is a rare surviving example of a second-class torpedo boat and the only surviving example of a second-class torpedo boat from the Victorian Colonial Navy.

Criterion 8. Representativeness
HMVS Lonsdale is significant as one of only three surviving second-class torpedo boats that were used in the defence of the Australian and New Zealand colonies.

Using the criteria above, I’ve re-written HMVS Lonsdale’s significance statement:

HMVS Lonsdale Significance Statement:
Ten torpedo boats made up part of the frontline defences of several of the Australian colonies in the late 19th century, when there was a real and perceived threat of invasion by the Russians and French. HMVS Lonsdale is historically significant as a rare and representative example of a Victorian second-class torpedo boat. Lonsdale demonstrates technical significance as an early example of the development of the fast attack torpedo craft, culminating in the ‘PT’ boats used so effectively in WWII. The vessel has archaeological significance, contributing to the study of abandoned watercraft and subsequent site formation processes and scientific significance through future corrosion studies.

HMVS Lonsdale on Williamstown slipway pre 1915. Image courtesy Australian War Memorial.

HMVS Lonsdale on Williamstown slipway pre 1914. Image courtesy Australian War Memorial.

References:

Anon. 1888 ‘Improvements in the Naval Defence.’ The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.: 1848 – 1957), 23 February, p. 13, retrieved 13 August 2013, <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article6104784&gt;.

Australia ICOMOS 1999 The Burra Charter: The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance.

Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology. Special Projects Advisory Committee & Australian Cultural Development Office & Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology 1994 Guidelines for the Management of Australia’s Shipwrecks. Canberra: Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology and the Australian Cultural Development Office.

Cahill, D. c.1999 HMVS Lonsdale 1882—1914. Retrieved 12 August 2013 from <thttp://home.vicnet.net.au/~maav/hmvslonsdale.htm>

Cahill, D. 2009 The Lonsdale: A Victorian torpedo boat. In M, McCarthy (ed), Iron, Steel & Steamship Archaeology: Proceedings of 2nd Australian Seminar, held in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney 2006, pp 133–135. Fremantle: Australian National Centre of Excellence for Maritime Archaeology.

Hewitt, G. and C. Tucker 2009 Queenscliff Harbour. Consolidated Excavation Report. Unpublished report prepared for Queenscliff Harbour Pty Ltd.

Hunter, J.W. III 2011 Abandonment issues: An assessment of military vessel discard trends derived from Australasia’s torpedo boat defences, 1884-1924, The MUA Collection. Retrieved August 12 2013 from <http://www.themua.org/collections/items/show/1194&gt;

Richards, N. 2008 Ships’ Graveyards: Abandoned Watercraft and the Archaeological Site Formation Process. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Shwartz, T. 1997 TM-4 and TM-4E survey for positioning of Lonsdale, unpublished report to Heritage Victoria, Geophysical Technology Limited, Armidale.

Victorian Heritage Register, 2005 VHR Number S425.  Retrieved 13 August 2013 from http://www.heritage.vic.gov.au.

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