HMS Express (1897)

HMS Express (1897) was ordered as a 33-knot ‘special’, but never achieved her target speed and became a ‘B class destroyer’, serving with the Eighth Flotilla on the Firth of Forth in 1914-1917, the East Coast Convoys in 1917 and the North Channel Patrol at the top of the Irish Sea in 1918.

The Express was ordered as one of three 33-knot ‘specials’ in the 1896-7 programme. They were ordered in response to the 31-knots that the French torpedo boat Forban was reported to have achieved on trial in 1895, but this was an unrealistically fast result, and none of her sister ships achieved the same speed.

Plans of HMS Express
Plans of HMS Express

The Express was built with reciprocating engines from Laird, powered by four Normand boilers. Her four boilers each had their own funnel. The engines were placed between the two boiler rooms, so the four funnels were fairly evenly spaced. Her target speed was 33 knots at 10,000hp, but the best she managed was 31 knots.

Her construction was the subject of press interest right from the start. In July 1896, before she had even been laid down, the Shields Daily Gazette and Shipping Telegraph was reporting that Laird’s had guaranteed to produce ‘a torpedo boat destroyer, the Express, which shall attain a speed of 33 knots per hour, or exactly 38 statute miles’. The news was also reported in the Liverpool Mercury, but not until November.

Her launch on 11 December 1897 also attracted press and foreign interest. She was sponsored by Mrs John Laird, part of the founding family of Laird’s shipbuilders, and the launch was attended by officers from the Argentine, Italian and Japanese navies and a representative from the Russian Embassy. At the time she was the largest destroyer ever built, and her target speed of 33 knots would have made her the fastest ship in the world (although by 1898 the newly ordered turbine powered destroyer Viper was expected to be faster).

The Express was damaged during her original trials in 1898. She was then used to test out a series of different propellers in an attempt to improve her speed, but she only ever reached 31 knots. She was considered to be very unreliable early in her career, especially when asked to put on speed. She carried a slightly larger than normal complement of 74.

When the older destroyers were placed into lettered classes she became a B Class destroyer, alongside the four funnelled 30-knotters.

Pre War Career

In mid June 1901 she began a new series of trials, but these had to be abandoned after the low pressure cylinder in one of her engines broke down.

On Monday 28 October 1901 a navigating party left Devonport to travel to Greenock to provide a crew for the Express during her contractor’s trials on the Clyde. By this point her promise of high speed had largely been forgotten, and she was described as ‘being similar in most respects to the other 30-knot destroyers’, other than the use of high tensile steel in the deck plating.

In November 1901 her trials were carried out, and on her four hour run at full power she averaged 30.16 knots, well below her original target, despite all of the efforts to boost her speed.

By August 1902 the Express was considered to have completed her contract trials, after undergoing 27 preliminary and 13 official trials! A crew was sent from Devonport to bring her to Plymouth, where she was to carry out further trials. The main reason for the large number of trials was described in the press as ‘the inability to attain the speed contracted for’.

From 1902-1905 she was part of the Devonport Flotilla, one of three that contained all of the home based destroyers.

The Express took part in the 1903 naval manoeuvres, under the command of the rather splendidly named Henry St. George Somerset Clive.

In August 1904 it was announced that the Express was to be refitted for service with the Instructional Flotilla.

In 1905-1907 she was part of the 3rd Division, one of the destroyer formations attached to the Channel Fleet.

In May 1906 the Duncan class battleship HMS Montagu ran aground off Lundy Island. A major effort was made to save her, but without success and eventually she had to be scrapped in place. The Express took part in these efforts, and was used to transport Mr George Lambert, the Civil Lord of the Admiralty, during his visit to the scene. In June she was used to transport Sir Philip Watts, the Director of Naval Construction and A.E. Richards, the chief constructor at Pembroke Dockyard to Lundy to inspect the wreck.

In 1907-1909 she was part of the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla, still attached to the Channel Fleet, but now with a nucleus crew.

In December 1907 the Express collided with the fleet repair ship Aquarius off Lamlash on the Isle of Arran. The Express suffered damage to the plating on the port side near the stern and one propeller was broken. Luckily the Aquarius was designed to deal with just this sort of problem, and her crew patched up the Express, which was then able to steam south to Pembroke Dock under her own power, arriving on Saturday 7 December, escorted by HMS Foyle. She was described as being in a ‘crippled condition’ when she arrived.

In August 1908 she was part of a flotilla of destroyers that took part in night manoeuvres off Budleigh Salterton. The local press noted that gunfire continued until after midnight on the night of Monday-Tuesday 17-18 August, and that the Express anchored in the bay on the following day.

In 1909-1911 she was part of the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla at the Nore, one of the patrol flotillas. In this role she only carried a partial crew complement.

On Thursday 4 March 1909 the Express was moving from Devonport to rejoin her flotilla at Portland when she hit the Portland breakwater. She had to use signal rockets to summon help, and after 75 minutes was towed off the breakwater by the tug Petrel. She was able to reach the harbour under her own steam, although with her bows underwater. She then had to return to Devonport for repairs to a large hole in her hull. 

From 1912-1914 she was part of the 7th Destroyer Flotilla, a patrol flotilla based at Devonport.

On the night of Monday 5 May 1913 the Express ran around on the Banks in a fog, while operating off Spurn Point, but refloated at 1.15am on Tuesday morning.  However this didn’t end her misfortunes, as when entering Grimsby docks towards the end of the week she collided with the Great Central Railway steamer Leicester. Both ships suffered damage.

By July 1914 she was part of the Eighth Patrol Flotilla at Chatham, part of the Second Fleet of the Home Fleet.

First World War

At the outbreak of war in August 1914 she was part of the Eighth Flotilla, now based on the Firth of Forth, but she was one of two destroyers recorded as being at sea.

In November 1914 the Express was one of three destroyers that formed 1st Division Outer Patrol of the Eighth Flotilla, with the job of patrolling the coast between St. Abb’s Head and Greg Ness (to the south and north of the Firth of Forth).

In January 1915 she was part of the Eighth Destroyer Flotilla, a patrol flotilla

In June 1915 she was part of the Eighth Destroyer Flotilla, now based at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth.  

In January 1916  she was one of six destroyers in the Eighth Flotilla, all of which had been fitted with submarine sweeps. Between them their role was to have two destroyers patrolling near May Island, two on stand by at Queensferry and two resting.

In October 1916 she was one of seven destroyers in the Eighth Destroyer Flotilla on the Firth of Forth.

In January 1917 she was one of seven destroyers in the Eighth Destroyer Flotilla on the Firth of Forth.

By June 1917 she had been transferred south to form part of the new East Coast Convoys, Humber, a new formation introduced to help with the new system of convoys.

From 10 November 1917 she was commanded by Lt-Commander Thomas W. Young OBE. Young was a pre-war officer, promoted to lieutenant in October 1909.

In January 1918 she was one of four of the six destroyers allocated to the North Channel Patrol, Larne that was actually operating from there, two have been taken over by the senior naval officer at Liverpool. However she was also undergoing repairs.

In June 1918 she was serving with patrols that support the Grand Fleet, and was one of four destroyers from the North Channel Patrol that were based at Larne.

In November 1918 she was one of six destroyers in the North Channel Patrol.

Young was awarded his OBE on 31 December 1918.

By February 1919 she was one of a large number of destroyers temporarily based at the Nore.

The Express was sold for break up in July 1920.

1903: Commander H. St G.S. Clive (during the 1903 manoeuvres).
10 November 1917-February 1919-: Lt Commander Thomas Wallace Young OBE

Displacement (standard)


Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed

31 knots


Laird reciprocating engines
Four Normand boilers




239.25ft oa
235ft pp




One 12-pounder gun
Five 6-pounder guns
Two 18in torpedo tubes

Crew complement


Laid down

1 December 1896


11 December 1897


February 1902

Broken up


British Destroyers From Earliest Days to the Second World War, Norman Friedman. A very detailed look at the design of British destroyers from their earliest roots as torpedo boat destroyers, though the First World War and up to the start of the Second World War, supported by vast numbers of plans and well chosen photographs [read full review]
cover cover cover

Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (27 February 2019), Title,

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