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Torpedoes trigger war in Medway

By Ron Green

Fishermen went to war when torpedoes began causing problems in the River Medway more than 140 years ago. And they won.

It was early days in the development of this new weapon of war. The prototypes were not slender tin fish streaking through the water but iron drums, secured in one place like mines.

The Brompton-based Royal Engineers began testing “torpedoes” on the river in 1871. It would not be plain sailing.

Ships were damaged and fish killed. Fishermen and boat users, supported by the Mayor of Rochester, were furious.

Meanwhile a business called Spencelayh and Archer was contracted to manufacture hundreds of torpedo casings at its Medway Iron Works in Chatham.

According to the Gazette’s Naval and Military Intelligence column these “wrought iron, cylindrical boxes” were in three sizes. The smallest was to be “tinned” to prevent rusting.

There were two types. One could be wired up and it’sgun-cotton explosive triggered by electricity from a “convenient spot in the vicinity”. The other would explode if hit by a passing vessel.

Companies elsewhere in England were making other torpedo components, such as 500 miles of electrical cables, galvanised batteries, wire mooring ropes and wooden jackets to keep the weapons afloat.

A £50,000 order for guncotton was delayed by an accidental explosion so severe it required another manufacturer to be found.

Back in Medway the torpedoes were strung out across the river and wired up to a hut on the river bank which contained an instrument“resembling an ordinary pianoforte” but with each key numbered.

The Gazette explained in detail how the system worked.

If a passing vessel struck a mine it depressed a lever which sent a signal to the hut. The operator could then touch the corresponding key on the instrument and send an electric charge through a connecting wire which would cause the mine to explode and destroy the vessel passing over it.

The story included two doubtful reassurances.

It insisted: “A distinction can be made at all times between friendly ships and those of the enemy, providing they can be seen from the shore.”

And, just in case river users were worried: “There is no risk at present to vessels for the torpedoes are not charged with gunpowder.”

However complaints began to flood in to water bailiffs.

Fishing boats and merchants ships were ramming the dummy torpedoes and suffering damage. Test explosions of live torpedoes were killing fish.

The Admiralty Court, which policed the river, asked the Commandant of the School of Military Engineering to restrict the tests. He refused.

In August 1872 the Mayor said the torpedoes were highly dangerous and a serious threat to shipping and the Medway fishery.

He said – and remember this was 140 years ago – that river users were entitled to compensation.

It was decided to ask all local MPs to join the struggle to get the troublesome torpedoes removed. It went all the way up to the Secretary of State for War, who was informed of Medway’s concerns.

Just before Christmas there was a summit meeting between the warring factions on board a river steamer. War Department officials and officers from the Royal Engineers joined the Mayor and Corporation members on an inspection of the torpedo sites.

The War Department decided to retreat from Medway the following year and move the torpedo companies from the School of Military Engineering to Portsmouth or Plymouth where, it was said, there were more suitable facilities for the kind of tests required.

The Gazette reported that the War Office had yielded to local representations but added somewhat ruefully: “Now probably the whole work and the large number of men engaged in it will be removed from the Medway.”

By then, though, self-propelled torpedoes of the type we are familiar with today, were already being built.

The Navy began experimenting with them in 1872 at the Royal Laboratories, Woolwich, working with inventor Robert Whitehead who had been working with the Royal Engineers on the Medway the previous year.

The Gazette said that the workings of these new weapons were known only to a few officials but three or four torpedoes tested in a canal at Woolwich Arsenal were seen bubbling through the water in a straight line at about eight miles an hour.

That was April 1 1873, but it was no joke.

Not long afterwards Mr Whitehead’s factory was selling self-propelled torpedoes around the world and in 1878 a ship was sunk by a torpedo for the first time.

Sources: 26 September, 30 September, 5 December, 16 December 1871; 17 August, 21 December 1872; 1 April, 23 September 1873.

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