The Unicorn Preservation Society

Now approaching her 200th anniversary, HMS Unicorn is the third oldest ship still afloat in the entire world.

This society with such a striking name has nothing to do with a white horse-like creature with a single horn, nestling its head in a virgin’s lap, although just such a mythological creature does feature as the figurehead of HMS Unicorn, the ship that the eponymous society was set up to preserve in 1968.

TEXT: C Catling
HMS Unicorn is one of 47 Leda-class frigates built between 1794 and 1830, a fast and agile warship made light by having only a single deck for firepower. They were used to harass enemy vessels, to carry dispatches and orders, and to seek and destroy hostile merchantmen, pirates, and slave ships. One other Leda-class frigate has survived: built in Mumbai, HMS Trincomalee is preserved at Jackson Dock, Hartlepool.

Now approaching her 200th anniversary, HMS Unicorn is the third oldest ship still afloat in the entire world, after the USS Constitution and HMS Trincomalee. Her excellent condition is due to the fact that she never saw active service. The Napoleonic Wars had just ended by the time she slipped out of Chatham Docks on 30 March 1824. Instead of being given masts and rigging, she was roofed over immediately and laid up in reserve, being maintained as a powder hulk at Woolwich until 1873. By then, sailing warships had been replaced by steam-powered vessels and she was towed to Dundee, there to lead a sheltered existence as a drill ship for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.

top left HMS Unicorn is one of 47 Leda-class frigates built between 1794 and 1830, a fast and agile warship made light by having only a single deck for firepower. They were used to harass enemy vessels, to carry dispatches and orders, and to seek and destroy hostile merchantmen, pirates, and slave ships. One other Leda-class frigate has survived: built in Mumbai, HMS Trincomalee is preserved at Jackson Dock, Hartlepool. top right The figurehead of HMS Unicorn. Horns from the legendary unicorn (narwhal tusks in reality) were once worth 11 times their weight in gold. Powdered horn was used by popes and monarchs to test for the presence of poison in food and drink, as well as being deployed as an antidote to snake bites and the plague. inset This bronze medallion commemorating HMS Unicorn was recently added to the database of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, having been found by a detectorist in Buckinghamshire. It was probably struck in the 1960s as part of a fundraising campaign to save the ship and find her a new home.
The figurehead of HMS Unicorn. Horns from the legendary unicorn (narwhal tusks in reality) were once worth 11 times their weight in gold. Powdered horn was used by popes and monarchs to test for the presence of poison in food and drink, as well as being deployed as an antidote to snake bites and the plague.

HMS Unicorn came close to being scrapped in 1961, when her berth was filled in to make way for the Tay Road Bridge, but successful lobbying saw her moved to the Victoria Dock and placed into the care of the Unicorn Preservation Society (UPS) in 1968 under the patronage of HM Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother (HRH Princess Anne is the current Royal Patron).

This bronze medallion commemorating HMS Unicorn was recently added to the database of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, having been found by a detectorist in Buckinghamshire. It was probably struck in the 1960s as part of a fundraising campaign to save the ship and find her a new home.

The UPS proudly claims that the ship is the ‘most original old ship in the world’ – an odd boast, but what it means is that very little of her original timbers and ironwork has been replaced: even the incongruous roof that covers her upper deck is largely original. The aim of the UPS is to keep her in her current condition, although she could soon be on the move again – this time to the East Graving Dock in Dundee, where a purpose-built dock will house the historic ship in perpetuity.

Those who join the UPS as a Friend get free entry, a quarterly newsletter, and access to events and lectures. Volunteers are always welcome to serve as tour guides, undertake research, work with the collections, support learning activities, and help with maintenance tasks.

Further information: www.hmsunicorn.org.uk

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TEXT: C Catling.
IMAGES: Mariusz Matuszewski; Yottanesia; Portable Antiquities Scheme.