Wooden & Composite Ships

Here we have some details on two Sunderland built tall ships.


Gross weight - 1335 tonnes

Builder - James Laing

Launched - 1875


"A ship of brilliant qualities - the way the ship had of letting big seas slip under her did one’s heart good to watch. It resembled so much an exhibition of intelligent grace and unerring skill that it could fascinate even the least seamanlike of our passengers".


Joseph Conrad (Josef Korzeniowski)

Torrens First Mate

A 'composite' clipper - iron frames and wooden decks. Fast and popular with its passengers.


Built for A. L. Elder & Co. ('Elder'), of London. Captain Henry Robert Angel ('Angel') was the vessel's 1st Master - thru 1890. He was, in fact, the majority owner of Elder. The figurehead of the ship was of Flores Angel, Angel's daughter, who in fact launched the vessel. It is possible that the figurehead, headless, still exists, at the Queen Victoria Museum, in Launceston, Tasmania.


"The vessel was able to sail well, even in light winds, faster than most other vessels" - Robert Snowdon's thoughts on that subject. 336 miles in a single day was achieved. The vessel sailed from Plymouth to Adelaide, Australia, 27 times, & in 1880, did it in 64 days - one day faster than the record set by City of Adelaide.


A 'lucky' ship, it would seem, at least while under the command of Captain Angel. The ship, returning to England & approaching the busy shipping of the English Channel, ran out of lamp oil. But ... a barrel was passed, floating in the water. The 'ship was hove to and a boat was lowered, and the cask, when recovered, was found to contain oil.' In 1890, in her first voyage under Captain W. H. Cope, the vessel lost her foremast & main topmast in a squall, & put into Pernambuco, Brazil, under jury rig, for repairs. She caught fire there, her masts had to be replaced, but she still made Adelaide in 179 days. In 1896, Falkland Angel, the son of Angel, took command. On a voyage which commenced on Oct. 25, 1898, the vessel hit a large iceberg while en route from London to Adelaide, was partially dis-masted, but was able to make Port Adelaide in 103 days.


On Sep. 4, 1903, whileTorrens was being towed in the River Thames, carrying Boer War explosives loaded at St. Helena, Cauplet cut across the bow of Torrens & was sunk in the collision. No blame to the Torrens Captain (Falkland Angel), but considerable concern at the time with the cargo containing explosives. It would seem that the vessel was soon afterwards sold, to Italian interests, in 1903.


The vessel was later twice run aground. After its last stranding, it was towed, in 1910, to Genoa, Italy & there broken up. Józef Korzeniowski [later author Joseph Conrad (1857/1924)] served as Chief Officer/Mate under Captain Cope on two 1893 voyages, from London to Adelaide & back (he also served aboard Amity).


A Polish postage stamp, issued in 1957, featured Joseph Conrad with Torrens under full sail (image above). A painting of the vessel, likely by Montague Dawson, is referred to here. 




City of Adelaide

Gross weight - 791 tonnes

Builder - William Pile

Launched - 1864

A passenger & cargo clipper ship, the City of Adelaide was launched on May 7, 1864 at the North Sands, Sunderland yard of 'William Pile, Hay & Co.' Of composite construction. 


It was built with iron frames & wooden hull, at a period when ship designs were in transit from wood to iron. There are only 2 composite ships left in the world, I read (City of Adelaide is 5 years older & a bit smaller than the Cutty Sark, also of composite construction).


She (City of Adelaide) was built for Devitt & Moore, of London, (Lloyd's Register of 1864/65 states Devitt & Co.) for the Australia trade & for 23 years travelled the seas with cargoes & passengers. 176 ft. 8 in. long, signal letters WGLQ. The Mercantile Navy List of 1870 & 1880 records Joseph Moore of Surrey as the vessel's owner while the 1890 list records Thomas S. Dixon of Belfast.


For a long time she held the record of 65 days for the passage from London to Adelaide. But was beaten out by Torrens, a Laing vessel built in Sunderland, that did the voyage in just 64 days. I read that it is estimated that more than 60 per cent of the current population of the state of South Australia can trace their families' arrival to the City of Adelaide.


For a while she worked as a collier & in the lumber trade with North America. In 1893 she was purchased by Southampton Corporation for use as a sanatorium & floating isolation hospital - until 1923. Then she was bought by the Admiralty, towed to Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland, (SW of Glasgow) renamed HMS Carrick, & used as a Drill Ship for the Clyde Division of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve ('RNVR'). She served as an administration centre during WW2 and, scheduled to be broken up, became instead a clubhouse for RNVR.


She would seem to have had an unfortunate history in Glasgow, & was flooded twice. Glasgow City Council applied for 'Listed Building' status for the ship to facilitate preservation of the ship, & she was listed as Category A (i.e. of the highest importance). Later she was acquired by the Scottish Maritime Museum ('SMM'), who raised her from her sunk position, towed her to Irvine, & put her on display. Alas, that is not the end of the story. SMM were unable to support the costs of maintenance & restoration & applied for permission to break up the vessel, which request was denied. Major efforts were made to have the vessel returned to Sunderland & put on display.


A further proposal was made to break up the ship. In the late summer of 2006, Somerset commercial property developer, Tim Roper, of Isle Abbots, near Taunton, stepped in to save the ship - hoping to transform her into a floating visitor attraction at Falmouth, Cornwall. He was reported to have reached agreement with SMM to buy the vessel for only £1, 'subject to him pouring in millions to secure her restoration on the River Fal.' There the matter stood in late 2006. The vessel was then in very poor condition indeed. And restoration costs will surely be astronomical.


Sunderland is sad that the vessel may not ultimately return to the river from which she was launched so many years ago. But glad to see her preserved somewhere since she is a most famous vessel indeed not only in the history of Sunderland shipbuilding but in the very history of shipbuilding itself.



© Sunderland Maritime Heritage, registered charity in England and Wales (1089465)