The Gin Palace – a ship that ended an empire

HMS Agincourt must have look quite a sight as it steamed out of Scapa Flow in September 1914. Heavy and sitting low in the water; weighed down by a massive array of guns. It had far too many guns and too little armour to be a ‘proper’ Dreadnought and the Royal Navy wouldn’t have dreamed of commissioning such a ship for themselves. However, back in 1911, when the Brazilian Navy asked for it, there were no complaints in Britain. Foreign powers could have whatever they wanted as long as they paid hard cash. Intense rivalry between Brazil and Argentina meant that when Brazil commissioned a ship, it had to look impressive, and that meant guns. But, Brazil ran out of money and before the ship had even been finished, it had been sold on to the Ottoman Navy who had their own ideas on what made a ship impressive.

The Ottomans took no time in asking for the ship to be modified to their needs. They took the money which had raised by public subscription and lavishly decked the officers’ quarters. Alas, no Ottoman officer ever got to enjoy their little bit of luxury.

The ship was ready for trials when war broke out in August 1914. The Turkish crew was in England and the payment for the ship had already been made, but the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, decided that releasing warships to the Ottomans when they hadn’t formally declared their allegiance to the Allies posed a risk. The Turkish crew were barred from their ship which was impounded and the money confiscated. Istanbul was outraged – the Ottoman government sided with Germany and Austro-Hungary and the rest is history: Gallipoli, Lawrence of Arabia, the Balfour Declaration, the creation of Turkey and the Middle East as we know it.

As for the Gin Palace, it didn’t have the most eventful war. The Royal Navy had had little time to make it battle ready and the only significant modification was the replacement of the Turkish-style toilets with something British bottoms were more used to. The ostentatious quarters remained intact but didn’t house regular Royal Navy officers or even reservists but a more refined set of gentlemen who had been reassigned from the royal yachts, perhaps nursing pink gins to relieve sea sickness.

Meanwhile the crew, a rag-tag bunch of early-released prisoners worked below decks to keep the hulk moving. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that its new patriotic name, HMS Agincourt, didn’t stick but instead it was nicknamed the Gin Palace (A-gin-court).

Its only significant action was in the Battle of Jutland where it reportedly fired 255 shells but isn’t known to have hit anything. As soon as the war was over, it was mothballed then send for scrap. Let’s hope some of those interiors ended up where they belong – in a Turkish bathhouse or an East-end London boozer.

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