From Admiral Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, at the Battle of Trafalgar, to the Cutty Sark transporting tea from China to the UK, ships and boats have played a leading role in countless pivotal moments in British history.
Though many famous vessels have been lost throughout history, there are several that have survived war, natural disasters and the slow decay of time. Museums, heritage trusts and collections across the UK work tirelessly to preserve and celebrate these remarkable vessels.
Here are some of the UK’s historic ships that you can visit today.
1. HMS Victory, Portsmouth
HMS Victory was Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. She is the only ship to have served in the American Revolution, the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic Wars.
Now located in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Victory carries out two roles: being the flagship of the First Sea Lord and serving as a museum ship. This makes Victory the oldest commissioned naval vessel in the world. Visitors are able to walk around the decks of Victory that bring to life how sailors in Nelson’s navy lived and worked. A plaque has been placed in the spot where Nelson died on the ship, allowing visitors to pay their respects to one of Britain’s great naval heroes.
2. HMS Warrior, Portsmouth
Launched in 1860, HMS Warrior was the largest and fastest warship of her day. Warrior combined sail and steam power at a time when steam power was becoming the dominant method of power in shipping. She was decommissioned 20 years later when mastless and superior ships were introduced to the Royal Navy.
After a career serving in the Channel Squadron, as a depot ship, training ship and oil ship, Warrior was donated to the Maritime Trust for restoration. Today, she sits alongside HMS Victory at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Visitors can wander her decks and learn more about life in the Victorian Royal Navy.
3. Cutty Sark, London
Launched in 1869, Cutty Sark formed part of the Jock Willis Shipping Line transporting tea from China to the UK. At the time of her launch she was one of the fastest tea clippers in the world.
With the introduction of steam power and the opening of the Suez Canal, Cutty Sark was no longer deemed efficient for the tea trade. She was then used to transport wool, was sold to a Portuguese business and later became a training ship on the Thames.
In 1957 Cutty Sark took up permanent residence in Greenwich where she was opened as a museum ship. Today, as part of Royal Museums Greenwich, the public can walk around this remarkable ship and descend below her deck to see her copper hull.
4. Golden Hinde, London
The Golden Hinde, originally called the Pelican, was captained by Sir Francis Drake when he circumnavigated the globe in 1577-1580.
At the end of the voyage, the Golden Hinde was turned into a museum ship in Deptford where she slowly rotted away. In the 1970s a project was launched to build a replica of Drake’s ship using traditional shipbuilding methods. The replica travelled around the world before being berthed in St Mary Ovarie dock, London.
Today, she is visited by historians, ship lovers and families alike. The museum delivers expert educational sessions and resources on life afloat in Tudor England.
5. HMS Belfast, London
HMS Belfast, part of the Imperial War Museums, currently sits along the Thames, a short walk from Tower Bridge.
Launched in 1938, Belfast served in the Royal Navy for 25 years including active service during World War Two and the Korean War.
Today, HMS Belfast is a museum dedicated to telling the ship’s fascinating history and the wider history of Britain’s 20th-century conflicts. The public can explore the decks of the Belfast and learn more about what it was like to live and work on a British warship.
6. Royal Yacht Britannia, Edinburgh
Royal Yachts, often referred to as ‘floating palaces’, were grand vessels designed to transport members of the royal family around the world.
Britannia was launched in 1953 and spent 44 years in service. In her career as the Royal Yacht, Britannia travelled over a million miles, held receptions and banquets and transported members of the royal family for state visits and even honeymoons.
Today, Britannia is berthed in Edinburgh where members of the public can wander around her grand interiors and learn more about the royal family’s personal connections to the yacht and her incredible service.
7. SS Great Britain, Bristol
Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and launched in 1843, the SS Great Britain was the largest passenger steamship afloat at the time. Operating between Bristol and New York, she was the first ship to be built of iron and use a screw propeller.
Today, the SS Great Britain sits in a dry dock in Bristol where she was built. The most popular tourist attraction in the city, the Great Britain complex features the Dockyard Museum (which charts the ship’s history from her conception to the modern-day), the Being Brunel exhibition (covering the life of the great Victorian engineer) and the ship itself, which has been lovingly restored.
8. HMS Cavalier, Chatham
Located in the Historic Dockyard Chatham, in Kent, HMS Cavalier is a Royal Navy destroyer that saw service in the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific in her 28-year career.
Today, she acts as the National Destroyer Memorial, commemorating 11,000 lives and 142 ships lost during World War Two. Visitors get a sense of what life was like to serve on a World War Two destroyer, from the close quarters to the dangers of life at sea.
Visitors can also explore the nearby HMS Gannet, a 19th-century Royal Navy warship.
9. HM Submarine Ocelot, Chatham
An altogether different kind of vessel, HM Submarine Ocelot was the last naval warship to be built at Chatham’s Historic Dockyard in Kent.
Launched in 1962, Ocelot was designed to undertake surveillance missions. Her full service records have yet to be released by the Ministry of Defence, which makes visiting her all the more fascinating.
Visitors will get a sense of what it is like to serve aboard a submarine, living and working in cramped, often claustrophobic conditions.
10. RRS Discovery, Dundee
The RRS Discovery was built for Antarctic research and launched in 1901. Her first expedition was for the British National Antarctic Expedition under the commander of Robert Falcon Scott.
Discovery was also used as a merchant ship during World War One and became the first Royal Research ship, carrying out scientific research on behalf of the British government.
Today, Discovery is located in Dundee, Scotland, the place she was built, and is open to the public. Visitors can expect to learn all about the intrepid world of polar exploration.
11. HMS Trincomalee, Hartlepool
Located in Hartlepool, and part of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, HMS Trincomalee has the honour of being Britain’s oldest warship still afloat. Her career saw her transport Napoleon’s surgeon from St Helena, serve on anti-slavery patrols and mediate against conflict in the Caribbean.
The history of the vessel has been brought to life through displays and guides, telling the story of the sailors that served on Trincomalee in the early 19th century. Her sister ship, HMS Unicorn, has also been converted into a museum and can be visited in Dundee.
12. Branksome, Windermere
Windermere Jetty Museum celebrates the remarkable history of Lake Windermere and the Lake District. Housed in the museum are several historic boats including the Branksome.
The Branksome was built in 1896 by George Brockbank of Windermere and was used to sail across Windermere in luxury. In 1966 the Branksome carried HRH Prince Philip across the lake during a royal visit.
The museum carries out day trips onto the lake in historic vessels from its collection including Osprey and Penelope II.
13. SS Nomadic, Belfast
The SS Nomadic was built alongside the Titanic and was used as the Titanic‘s tender ship, transporting passengers from the dock in Cherbourg to the ship prior to her maiden voyage. Nomadic had a 50-year career carrying passengers to liners around the world and served during both world wars.
Affectionately known as the Titanic‘s ‘little sister’, Nomadic is the last White Star Line vessel. She can be explored by the public at Titanic Belfast, providing visitors with an insight into the White Star Line’s history and a real connection to the Titanic.
14. HMS Caroline, Belfast
Located in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, HMS Caroline saw active service in World War One, including being present at the Battle of Jutland. Caroline also served as the Royal Navy’s headquarters in Belfast during World War Two.
Walking around Caroline gives visitors a sense of what life was like for sailors in the Royal Navy during the 20th century, touching on all aspects of their routines, from how they dined to their daily workload.
15. Turbinia, Newcastle
Turbinia was the first turbine powered ship to be built and was the fastest ship in the world at the time of her launch in 1894. She demonstrated her speed and power at the Spithead Fleet Review in 1897.
Turbinia is now on display in the Discovery Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne, where visitors can get up close to this incredible feat of engineering. At 34m long, the vessel takes up an entire hall in the museum and is well worth a visit for maritime historians and curious families alike.