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HMS Philomel in the Red Sea


HMS Philomel in the Red Sea during the First World War. By the time the ship was commissioned for service in New Zealand shortly before the outbreak of the First World War it already had a quarter-century worth of experience behind it

Philomel was a third-class cruiser of the Pearl class, one of nine similar ships. Five of this class of ships were paid for by Australia under the 1887 Imperial Defence Act to be stationed in Australian waters. Philomel was ordered along with three other of this class of cruiser in 1888. Built at Devonport Dockyard in England, the ship was laid down on 9 May 1889, launched on 28 August 1890, finally completed in November 1891 (at a cost of £141,802), and first commissioned into the Royal Navy on 10 November.

In mid-1892 Philomel was deployed to the Cape of Good Hope Station, where it would spend the next six years. At the end of the first commission the ship took part in the Brohemie Creek Expedition (Gambia) in September 1894. This punitive expedition followed an incident in August when a government boat had been fired upon, killing or wounding several men. Captain Charles Campbell of Philomel led one detachment of seamen in an attack on the principal town, where there was no opposition but 106 guns were captured, as was the local chief’s treasury.

Recommissioning on station in August 1894, Philomel participated in the M’wele Expedition in August 1895 and the bombardment of Zanzibar in August the following year. The latter conflict broke out when a prince tried to usurp the Zanzibari throne on the death of the Sultan. Britain, with the acquiescence of the other European embassies, supported the Sultan's heir. Supported by HMS Sparrow (later the New Zealand training ship Amokura), Philomel bombarded the Sultan’s palace for 37 minutes, forcing the rebels to evacuate and allowing Britain's favoured successor to be proclaimed. In January 1897 the British Consul General in Niger was attacked and the following month an expedition was mounted to Benin to arrest those responsible. Personnel from Philomel formed part of the Naval Brigade and during the attack the ship’s Captain and Gunner were wounded.

After an eventful three-and-a-half-year commission, Philomel returned to England in March 1898 and paid off for refit. With the refit completed the ship recommissioned at the end of 1898 and returned to the Cape of Good Hope Station.

The following year the Anglo-Boer War broke out in South Africa and Philomel was tasked on various duties around the coast, while some officers and members of the ship’s company were employed ashore in actions such as Modder River, the march to Pretoria, the Battle of Colenso and the relief of Ladysmith. 

Philomel returned to England on 22 March 1902 and paid off, being laid up at Bowness in the Firth of Forth. In 1904 Philomel was included in Admiral Fisher’s famous list of 'sheep, llamas and goats' – ships too old to fight and too slow to run away. The ship was placed in reserve without any maintenance, but three years later was towed to Haulbowline in Ireland and refitted, being commissioned again on 1 February 1908. This time Philomel joined the Red Sea Division of the Mediterranean Fleet. During operations in Somaliland Philomel landed troops as well as its own landing party, but the men saw little action.

After a commission of just over a year the ship paid off at Portsmouth in mid-1909, immediately recommissioning and deploying to the Persian Gulf and Middle East. Two years later, at Aden, Philomel again recommissioned, spending a further two years in the area. Most of this time was spent intercepting and inspecting dhows, looking for weapons and slaves. In October 1913 the ship was recommissioned again at Singapore with the aim of handing it over to the New Zealand government, which eventuated in July 1914.


Royal New Zealand Navy Museum
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HMS Philomel in the Red Sea, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated