HMS Speedwell, the graceful, useful Ketch


HMS Speedwell, ketch rigged sloop, 1780; after action on 2 continents,  she was lost with all hands off Dieppe in 1807 .

c. 43 x 36 cm (17 x 14 inches)

Description below


In stock

Select delivery location

  • Stripe
  • Visa Card
  • MasterCard
  • American Express
  • Discover Card
  • PayPal
  • Apple Pay


Vessels like HMS Speedwell, below the size of the smallest frigates, were not rated and generally referred to as sloops until 1760, when the ship rig was introduced into the class.  These were always two-masted and rigged as snows, brigantines or ketches (snows were square-rigged vessels with two masts, complemented by a snow- or trysail-mast stepped immediately behind the main mast.)  Of these names perhaps the ketch is the most familiar, as the rig has survived into the present day and is commonly seen on larger-sized yachts.  They appeared first as naval vessels at the end of the seventeenth century and were distinguished by their armament.  Instead of the normal range of cannons they were equipped with one or two large-calibre mortars which fired very heavy shells or bombs. The great blast and flash of this caused great damage to a foremast rigged with square sails and yards.
This problem was solved by taking a conventional ship-rigged vessel and removing the foremast, leaving the square-rigged mainmast amidships and the mizzen aft. The strange two-masted vessel which resulted was known in the navy as a bomb ketch.  In the course of time and as the rig developed, the square sails and yards disappeared and were replaced by more easily handled and more efficient fore-and-aft rigged sails. This was the type of vessel so familiar among small merchantmen and fishing boats at the end of the nineteenth century and which we see today among yachts. The distinguishing factor of the rig remains. A ketch has a mainmast set forward and a mizzen aft: other two-masted vessels, such as the schooner and brig, have a foremast with mainmast aft.
Early naval ketches were mortar vessels or ‘bombs’ but the rig was adapted to become the more general-purpose vessels among the small unrated sloops.  Speedwell is an example of one of these and a model can be seen at the Science Museum in London.  Some doubt existed about her origin, and it was thought that she may have been an American prize of 1780.  She was more probably one of a class of six sloops built in this country, three of which were snow- rigged and three, the Speedwell, Fly, and Happy, ketch-rigged. With an armament of eight 4-pounder cannons, the Speedwell was useful as a small fleet auxiliary acting as a tender or performing general patrol duties.

royal caroline like speedwell
The Lady Caroline by John Cleveley the Elder (1712-1777). Speedwell, Fly and Happy were apparently designed to resemble this Royal Yacht. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England)

She was a comparatively small vessel of 135 tons, 72 ½ feet in length with a beam of 20 ½ feet.  Our print shows a hull with a graceful sheer, decorated at the quarters and beakhead with gilt- work. Beside the row of gunport lids, smaller oar ports can be seen. These were common on the smaller classes of warships and the crew, working sixteen long sweeps, could move the vessel at one or two knots in a dead calm.
Speedwell was one of a class of six sloops, three of which were snow- rigged and three, the Speedwell, Fly, and Happy, ketch-rigged.  Speedwell was a merchant vessel purchased by the Admiralty during the Great Siege of Gibralter where  she arrived after an engagement en route that wounded her commander.  During the Great Siege, it seems her officers had some problems with potentially mutinous crews.  In late 1782, the Spanish two decker San Miguel got into difficulty during a storm and was beached after being fired on.  A boat from Speedwell later took possession. The Spanish ship was a new build from Havana with a crew of over 600 men. The officers and crew of Speedwell subsequently participated in 4 bounty distributions – largely arising from capture of the San Miguel.  At the commencement of the war with France in 1796 Speedwell  was altered at Portsmouth to a brig before capturing a French privateer that attempted to board her. After more adventures in the English Channel and North Sea, Speedwell was finally lost at sea in a storm near Dieppe in 1807. There were no survivors. (See also HMS Speedwell on Wikipedia).

Leingth: 22.9 m o/a; Beam: 7.9 m; Crew: 70; tons:  19 BM [Builder’s Old Measurement]; Armament: 14 x 4-pounder guns (later 16) + 10 x ½-pound swivel guns.

Additional information

Weight 0.022 kg
Dimensions 43.1 × 35.6 cm