ASK THE AVERAGE Hongkonger what the “Tamar” in Tamar Street, the Tamar government buildings and Tamar Park refers to and you’ll probably draw a blank.

That’s hardly surprising. Knowledge of HMS Tamar, the ship that was part of Hong Kong’s living history from 1865 – yes, 1865 – until it was scuttled, on December 18, 1941, has always been a bit thin, even when she was a floating fixture.

Shipwreck found in sea bed off Wan Chai most likely famous Hong Kong ship HMS Tamar

In 1909, the fledgling South China Morning Post described the Tamar as having arrived “about fifteen years ago” – close, but no cigar. Twenty-five years later, in July 1934, the Post stated that the ship had been launched in June 1863 – whoops. It reported that her maiden voyage had been to China – it wasn’t. It went on to state that the Tamar first came to Hong Kong in 1878 – it didn’t. It outlined the ship’s service history as involving two more visits to Hong Kong in 1886 and June 1895 – wrong. The paper rounded off the brief background by saying that in June 1895 the Tamar became the British Royal Navy’s receiving ship in Hong Kong – umm, no and no. It is curious how so much misinformation can accrue in just 40 years and remain set in stone for the next 80-plus. Gresham’s law as applied to history – bad data drives out good.

So what is the story?

Births, deaths, bigamy, murders, suicides, food poisoning, imperial adventure, theatricals, courts martial, stints as hospital ship and royal yacht, fires, groundings, collisions, wars, scuttling, revenge, the Japanese national anthem … and recently rediscovered remains. In the Tamar’s 78 years afloat and 75 years a wreck, a heck of a lot happened. Too much to cover in its entirety here and enough, it seems, for an entire book.

Laid down in November 1862, HMS Tamar and her sister ship, HMS Orontes, were a radical, hitherto unexplained departure from three centuries of British naval policy. From 1690, to shift its troops around as it fought wars and acquired global real estate, the British Army had always chartered the tonnage it needed. So the decision to build the Orontes and Tamar – Royal Navy designed, manned and run troopships – was an about-face. Working out why is a challenge because the story of Her Majesty’s Transport Service, 1845-1895, is a very large gap in British naval history.

More than one year on, zero progress made on wreckage thought to be HMS Tamar

There are clues. The British military’s Crimean war (1853-1856) transport debacle, in which it proved difficult and expensive to move both troops and supplies for want of navy ships. The 26 French steam troopships in service by 1857 capable of transporting a full division. And the Indian rebellion of 1857 and second opium war (1856-1860), both of which stretched transport tonnage until the rivets were popping.

The two ships were the first of only seven purpose-designed, manned and operated Royal Navy troopships ever commissioned – all between 1862 and 1867. The Tamar was the second to be launched, just two months after her Liverpool-built sister. Ada D’Aguilar Samuda – and that’s a quaint genealogical link to D’Aguilar Street, Ada being a distant relative of George Charles D’Aguilar, after whom the road in Hong Kong’s Central district is named – cracked the bottle on the ship’s elegant bow at the Samuda Brothers yard, in Cubitt Town, London, on January 6, 1863, a cold, wet, miserable day. On October 17, the Tamar was commissioned under the Royal Navy’s Captain Frederick Stirling and, after further trials and modifications, on January 12, 1864, set off on her maiden voyage. No, not to China. To the West Indies and West Africa.

There were further trooping trips in the Mediterranean and to the West Indies in 1864 before the Tamar set out for Hong Kong, on October 15. She should have left two weeks earlier but Portsmouth, Britain’s main naval base, had run out of coal.

That first voyage to Hong Kong stands as an example of what the Tamar had been built to do. A key purpose of the voyage was to relieve the Shanghai and Hong Kong garrisons, which had been suffering an 8 per cent to 10 per cent death rate from malaria and the recently arrived scourge of cholera.

The result was a classic example of the intricacy of British imperial troop movement, which was all arranged with pen and paper, sending messages that took months to get from London to some far-flung outpost.

Stories behind Hong Kong districts: Admiralty, always a place apart

From Portsmouth the Tamar went to Ireland, to pick up the 86th (Royal County Down) Regiment, which was bound for a 10-year period of service in Gibraltar. In Gibraltar, once the 86th was ashore, she embarked the 2nd/9th (East Norfolk) Regiment for Hong Kong. She arrived in Hong Kong on February 7, 1865 (not 1878), embarked the disease-stricken 99th (Lanarkshire) Regiment and some of the 67th (South Hampshire) Regiment and left Victoria Harbour on March 1 to take them to recuperate in South Africa. After stopping for coal at Batavia (Jakarta), she reached Port Natal (Durban) on April 10. With the 99th Regiment disembarked, she headed to Buffalo Mouth (East London) to land the 67th and embark a wing of the 2nd/11th (North Devonshire) Regiment for Hong Kong, leaving on April 15. By May 28 she was back in Victoria Harbour, via coaling stops in Mauritius and Singapore. That quick trip, with the Tamar arriving a month earlier than expected, meant the 2nd/11th had to be put into emergency accommodation in a godown. They were to suffer badly.

Between June 1 and October 20, 1865, of the 2nd/9th, which had arrived from Gibraltar in the Tamar in February, 29 men, six women and 24 children died. Of the 2nd/11th, which had come in the Tamar in May, 43 men, three women and 48 children died. Altogether the casualty rate was nearly 10 per cent for men, 8 per cent for women and a terrible 41 per cent for children. There was always a doleful aspect to Tamar’s trooping duties.

Why were women and children on board? British regiments were allowed to take a percentage of wives and children with them on their decade or more overseas postings. Whose dependents went was decided by rank and lottery, but about 40 wives and 80 or so children would accompany an average regiment of 700 to 800, which explains Tamar’s many births aboard and the deaths in Hong Kong. A rough tally of wives and children aboard over the ship’s trooping years carrying members of more than 100 identifiable regiments and corps comes to 2,000 to 3,000 wives – or, as the record has it, “officers’ ladies and soldiers’ women” – and at least 5,000 children.

Back in Hong Kong in the summer of 1865, the Tamar waited for the remaining units of the 67th and 99th regiments that had been recupe­rating in north China and, on July 27, left with them for South Africa. On September 11, she arrived in East London, where most of the troops disembarked, then called at Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth), to drop the remainder. She reached Simon’s Bay (Simonstown) on September 16. There she embarked invalids for Britain – these return trips were seldom with fewer than 100 invalids. With stops for coal at St Helena, Ascension and St Vincent (Cape Verde Islands), she reached Portsmouth on November 6. There had been 25 deaths on the voyage.

For the next 30 years, with breaks to be refitted, repaired after she’d run aground or been damaged in storms or in collision, have her accommodation extended by raising the poop deck and forecastle, be re-boilered, re-rigged (from barque to barquentine) and re-engined – though never to receive a promised lengthening, as was carried out to the Orontes – the Tamar’s routines were more of the same. Under her 12 captains over the years, she worked long-distance routes around the Atlantic, to India, the Straits Settlements (Singapore and Malaysia), China, Japan and Australia. She also worked the shorter routes to the Mediterranean and around Britain’s coasts. As a workhorse of the last major phase of British imperial expansion, she carried troops to two of the four Ashanti wars (1863-64 and 1873-74), the annex­ation of Cyprus (1878), the first Anglo-Boer war (1880-1881) and the bullying subjection of Egypt (1882). But most of the time she carried sailors, and soldiers and their families, from place to place around the far-flung empire. She carried them to bore­dom, exercises, war. She carried a frighteningly large number to death from disease and a lucky few she finally carried home.

By the late 1880s, the British Army had worked out that chartering newer, faster and more comfortable tonnage for their trooping needs from the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) cost far less than they’d been handing over to the Senior Service. The Royal Navy’s trooping service was wound down, effectively disappearing by 1896. By that time, the Tamar was worn out, although she’d set a personal best from Hong Kong to Portsmouth via Suez between February 26 and April 6, 1892, exclusive of coaling stops, of 29 days and four hours – an average of more than 13 knots and a lot faster than P&O. She did about 853,786 nautical miles – nearly 32 times round the globe – in 32 years.

In addition to her crew of 208, a full load was about 1,200 troops and dependents, though often she carried as few as 600, in three classes of accommodation. Fewer aboard didn’t always mean better conditions. Letters to newspapers in 1890 and 1894 referred to “floating styes [sic]” where a soldier was “treated more like a pig than a human being” and, specific to the Tamar, “purgatory on a troopship ... a month of misery”, with particular mention of the unbearable smell below decks in bad weather. By September 1895 she had carried some 60,000-80,000 British naval and army personnel from Belize to Bombay, Halifax to Hakodate, Dublin to Durban, Quebec to Queenstown and Sheerness to Sydney. On the way she had made 18 – not three – calls in Hong Kong (1865 [2], 1868 [2], 1871 [2], 1877 [2], 1878 [1], 1886 [1], 1888 [1], 1889 [1], 1891 [1], 1892 [1], 1893 [1], 1894 [1] and 1895 [2]).

The final 1895 arrival owed to the first of three bits of luck for the old lady. On January 26 that year she had been adver­tised for sale and would almost certainly have been scrapped. A refit to keep her in service would have cost too much but, luckily for her, a parsimonious Admiralty withdrew her from sale in favour of turning her into an ammunition hulk (floating ammunition store). Then they realised they could save even more money by paying for a refit and sending her to Hong Kong, full of naval replacement crews for ships on the China Station, to become the nominal depot ship. (Not as a receiving ship; the last one of those in Hong Kong was the ship the Tamar was to relieve, the Victor Emanuel. The difference is a nice point of naval terminology that can wait for another time.)

The Tamar’s last working voyage as a trooper began from Plymouth on June 18, 1895. She arrived in Hong Kong on August 2 (not June) and left for Japan on August 20. On September 30, after she got back from Hakodate and Yokohama, she was paid off for conversion. The work, done by Hong Kong and Whampoa Dock Company in Hung Hom, was a protracted affair, requiring a second visit in mid-1897, to cure leaks in her new permanent awning and to re-ballast her to try to reduce her frantic roll in any kind of harbour slop.

She was finally commissioned as Hong Kong’s nominal depot ship on October 1, 1897, two years after paying off.

The ship’s life thereafter was prosaic – the newspaper stories are confined to personnel up before the magistrate for the usual sailors’ misbehaviour, sports matches, courts martial, changes to the 22 commodores who flew their flags aboard, and social events.

The one change was that the majority of her crew were Hong Kong Chinese Royal Navy personnel. Sadly, the record of who they all were was lost during the Japanese occupation. We have the names of five because of their bravery. On June 4, 1919, leading seaman Tai Sing and able seamen Kum Shui and Kun Shun between them saved the lives of nine whose sampans had capsized in squalls. Tai Sing was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s Albert Medal and Kum Shui and Kun Shun commendations on vellum. On August 3, 1934, leading seaman Sai Fook was awarded the Belilios Star for rescuing four people, also from a capsized sampan. And on July 2, 1935, able seaman Chan Hon-kwan was awarded the Belilios Bronze Medal for rescuing a young lad swept into the harbour from a storm drain.

The only other dramas during the period were the Tamar’s two further reprieves from being turned into razor blades. In 1913, the obsolescent battleship HMS Triumph arrived as her replacement. Then, just before the Tamar was to be sold, the first world war broke out. The Triumph was deemed not so obsolescent after all and was sent back into service, only to be sunk on May 25, 1915 at Gallipoli, happily not drowning Lance Sergeant Edgar Charles Goodman, Royal Marines Light Infantry, who was aboard.

Goodman enters the story because a brass baggage tally belonging to him must have become separated from his kit when it was passing through the Tamar as he was moved from ship to ship in 1914 before ending up on the Triumph. The tally emerged from what the Civil Engineering and Develop­ment Department (CEDD) and the Antiquities and Monu­ments Office (AMO) declared to be an “unidentified metal object” found during work on the Central-Wan Chai Bypass in March 2015; exactly where the Tamar was scuttled, in 1941.

Having survived a second sentence to the scrapyard, the Tamar faced a third disposal attempt, announced in September 1938. But again the clouds of war brought reprieve. It was a brief one. What man proposes, war disposes.

On December 18, 1941, just weeks short of her 79th birthday, the Tamar’s luck ran out. Worried that if she were sunk in the basin of the naval dockyard the wreck would interfere with operations, the naval authorities decided to tow her to naval buoy No 10, off Wan Chai. Once there, she was to be sunk, to deny the Japanese a floating observation platform. That night, she was scuttled by explosive charges, the torpedoes that had been intended to sink her – and would have sunk the demolition party, too – having fortunately missed after the order to MTB 08 to abort the operation had failed to get through. The next morning, her awning, full of trapped air, was still awash. She was shelled by British artillery to finish the job.

And there she stayed until the war’s end and a clearance operation to put the harbour back into usable shape. It is evident from the charting record (well, evident to everyone except the CEDD and the AMO, who have yet to acknowl­edge the “unidentified metal object” is, in fact, the remains of the Tamar) that the clearance was only partial, since there is a continuous record of wreck remains, initially labelled “HMS Tamar”, in the old position of naval buoy No 10 from October 1945 until the 1960s. That’s when the now demolished Wan Chai Ferry Pier was built pretty much on top of where naval buoy No 10 and the scuttled ship had once been. Continuing to record the remains had become navigationally irrelevant.

ON NOVEMBER 21, 1946, in recognition of its long link with the Royal Navy in Hong Kong, HMS Tamar’s name was given to a new “stone frigate”, as the Royal Navy calls its shore bases, created from the old Royal Engineers’ Wellington Barracks – the Golden Clock Barracks that gave the Admiralty MTR its Cantonese name. The 45 ft Medium Speed Picket Boat No 44315 took the place of the old ship as the “nominal depot ship”. Oh, and my father became the first chaplain of the new Tamar, helping to dedicate its Holy Trinity Church on June 15, 1947, which provided my two-year-old self with a walk-on part in the story.

That’s how “Tim Ma” became a bunch of Royal Navy buildings on the waterfront between Central and Wan Chai. And how Tamar Street, the Tamar government complex and Tamar Park got their names. Just so.

Stephen Davies’ book Transport to Another World: The Life and Times of HMS Tamar, 1863-2015 will be published by Hong Kong University Press.

Fact or fiction?

The Tamar’s anchor is at the Museum of Coastal Defence, in Shau Kei Wan
Not true. It is the wrong type and too small. It is a relic from the old naval dockyard and was used as a decoration at the Tamar complex during the 1970s.

A mast from HMS Tamar is outside Murray House in Stanley
Also untrue. That came from either the HMS Tamar base in Admiralty or the HMS Tamar shore station on Stonecutters Island.

The doors to Central’s St John’s Cathedral are made from wood from HMS Tamar
No. HMS Tamar was made of iron. The cathedral’s high altar was made of Royal Navy supplies of teak by Chinese carpenters at the HMS Tamar naval base in 1948.

A gate badge shows the Tamar first came to Hong Kong in 1878
No, 1878 is the year the new gates to the old naval dockyard were installed. The Tamar first came to Hong Kong in 1865.