HMS Spiteful (1899)

HMS Spiteful (1899) was a B class destroyer that became the first British destroyer to be entirely oil powered, and spent the entire First World War as part of the Portsmouth Local Defence Flotilla.

The Spiteful was one of only six destroyers ordered in the 1897-8 programme, and the only one ordered from Palmers. However the company did lay down a second destroyer later in 1898, which was eventually purchased as the Peterel.

The first Palmer 30-knotters had four boilers with the middle two feeding a single funnel, but this changed in the 1897-8 programme, with all four boilers getting their own funnel. The middle two funnels were positioned close together, in the same area as the original merged funnel. As a result the earlier ships became part of the C Class in 1912 while the later ships joined the B Class. Otherwise they were very similar.

By April 1918 she had the approved depth charge armament of two throwers and eighteen charges, with the aft gun and the torpedo tubes removed to compensate for the extra weight.

Pre-War Career

The Spiteful was laid down on 12 January 1898 and launched on 11 January 1899, becoming the 50th ship to be launched by Palmer’s for the British Government and their ninth 30-knotter.

In 1899 the Spiteful  took part in speed and fuel efficiency trials. She reached 29.901 knots at 6,596ihp, consuming 2.32 pounds of coal per iHP per hour and 29.511 knots at 6,444ihp

HMS Spiteful from the front
HMS Spiteful from the front

Brassey’s Naval Annual of 1900 reported the results of her trials as a speed of 29.901 knots at 6,596ihp with a fuel consumption of 2.32lb of coal per ihp per hour.

The Spiteful was accepted into the Royal Navy in February 1900.

The Spiteful took part in the 1900 naval manoeuvres, when she formed part of the Portsmouth division of Fleet B, the defensive fleet. Fleet A was smaller, but was expecting reinforcements from the Mediterranean, suggesting that the potential enemy at this stage was France.

The Spiteful took part in the 1901 naval manoeuvres, which began in late July. These involved two fleets – Fleet B began in the North Sea, and had the task of keeping the English Channel open to trade. Fleet X began off the north coast of Ireland, and had the task of stopping trade in the Channel. The Spiteful was part of a force of destroyers from Portsmouth that joined Fleet B. This was the first time both sides in the annual exercises had been given an equal force of destroyers. The exercises ended with a victory for Fleet X. The destroyer forces didn’t live up to expectations, either in torpedo attack or as scouts.

On 26 January 1903 the Spiteful was chosen for conversion into an experimental oil burning destroyer. She was the first British destroyer to be entirely oil powered – the Surly, which had been used for experiments with oil firing for several years, had kept two coal powered boilers.

The advantages of using oil for fuel on the small destroyers were so obvious that the pressure was soon on to build all new destroyers as oil burners. One of the limits on destroyer speed was the sheer amount of work required to keep the coal burning furnaces fully fuelled combined with the limited size of destroyer crews - it didn’t take long for the stokers to become exhausted when maintaining full speed. In contrast oil burners needed very little physical effort to run. It was also almost impossible to refuel a coal burning destroyer at sea, while oil burners could be refuelled fairly easily.

Despite these obvious advantages, there were problems with early oil burning systems, and by May 1903 both the Surly and the Spiteful were said to be producing thick clouds of black smoke.

In 1904-5 the Spiteful took part in trials against her coal burning sister ship Peterel.

In the summer of 1905 the Spiteful collided with the Preciosa, a barge based at Rochester. The barge was lost in the collision. The Spiteful’s commander on the day was found guilty of an error of judgement and reprimanded.

HMS Spiteful from the left
HMS Spiteful from the left

Brassey’s Naval Annual for 1906 reported that the Spiteful was in commission as ‘an instructional vessel for the trailing of engine room complements in the manipulation of oil-burning appliances’, part of the wider process of introducing oil fuel across the Navy, which by now had been accepted as the new standard.

On Monday 5 August 1907 an oil fire broke out in one of her stokeholds while she was preparing to leave Portsmouth. The ship was preparing to raise steam at the time, and the fire broke out when the fuel sprayer was lit, igniting leaking oil. Two stokers were killed in the fire, and four injured. Her magazines were flooded to prevent a more serious disaster, and she was later checked for any structural damage, but none was found.

The Portsmouth Evening News also printed a detailed description of an oil fire on the Spiteful in September 1904, during the trials with oil fuel, but no other mention of this incident has been found. According to the article a fire broke out in one of her oil tanks while she was returning to Portsmouth Harbour late on 15 September 1904. The flames soon reached the top of her mast, even with the help of four or five dockyard hand pumps the fire continued to burn. The decision was made to tow the Spiteful into deeper water in case she sank, but at that point the supply of oil began to run out, and the fire was eventually put out. The lack of other mentions of this incident suggests that the fire was probably not quite as severe as suggested!

In July 1914 she was in active commission at Portsmouth.

First World War

In August 1914 she was one of six destroyers in the Portsmouth Local Defence Flotilla.

One of her first tasks was to form part of a life saving patrol that stretched across the Channel from Southampton to Havre to support the passage of the BEF across the Channel. The Patrol was active twice, from 8/9 August-17 August to cover the first convoys and again on 22 August to cover the passage of the 4th Infantry Division. The patrol’s services were never required, as all of the troop transports got across the channel safely.

In November 1914 she was one of six destroyers in the Portsmouth Local Defence Flotilla.

In June 1915 she was part of the Portsmouth Local Defence Flotilla.

In January 1916 she was one of fifteen active destroyers in the Portsmouth Local Defence Flotilla (another three were undergoing repairs).

Stokers in cowling on HMS Spiteful, 1901
Stokers in cowling on HMS Spiteful, 1901

In September 1916 the Spiteful took part in the hunt for a submarine that was used as an example in the official history of Naval Operations (volume 4). On 3 September the Admiralty learnt that a U-boat was operating somewhere between Beachy Head and Cape d’Antifer, and a major effort was put into place to find it. A series of sightings were made, and more than one U-boat was discovered to be in the area. At around 7pm on 6 September the Spiteful actually sighted the U-boat off Cape Barfleur, and forced it to dive. This was the nearest she came to the U-boat. By the end of the week three U-boats had sunk thirty British and neutral ships in the Channel despite being actively hunted by thirteen destroyers and seven Q-boats! This clearly demonstrates the difficulties of actually detecting U-boats in the open sea, and points to one of the advantages of the convoy system – it forced U-boats to operate in the same part of the sea as the Royal Navy’s escorts.

In October 1916 she was one of nine destroyers in the Portsmouth Local Defence Flotilla

In January 1917 she was one of eight destroyers in the Portsmouth Local Defence Flotilla. At this point Portsmouth was also the home of the Fourth Destroyer Flotilla and the Portsmouth Escort Flotilla, so was rather crowded with destroyers.

In June 1917 she was one of nine destroyers in the Portsmouth Local Defence Flotilla

On the night of 26-27 September 1917 the hired drifter Ocean Star disappeared while on patrol near the Nab light vessel near the Isle of Wight, probably after hitting a mine. The Spiteful found one of her boats 6 ½ miles to the south-east of Culver Cliff, on the east coast of the Isle of Wight, some way to the west of where she had been sunk.

In January 1918 she was still part of the Portsmouth Local Defence Flotilla, but was undergoing repairs.

From April 1918 she was commanded by Acting Lt Robert L.F. Hubbard.

In June 1918 she wasn’t recorded as part of the flotilla in the Pink List, but she was one of five destroyers in the flotilla in the July and August 1918 Supplements to the Navy List.

The Portsmouth destroyers aren’t listed in the published version of the November 1918 Pink List.

In December 1918 she was one of four active destroyers listed as being in the Portsmouth Local Defence Flotilla in the Supplement to the Navy List,

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

The Spiteful was sold for break up in September 1920.

April 1918-February 1919-: Lt Robert L. F. Hubbard (acting)

Displacement (standard)


Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed

30 knots






219.4ft oa
215ft pp




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

Crew complement


Laid down

12 January 1898


11 January 1899


February 1900

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 (24 January 2019), HMS Spiteful (1899) ,

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