More background info:
HMS “Caroline” was laid down in Birkenhead, Great Britain
, in early 1914, built in record time, launched in September and completed and commissioned in December that same year. She joined the Royal Navy’s “Grand Fleet” at Scapa Flow and served in the North Sea throughout WW1
Classed as a ‘light cruiser’ HMS “Caroline” was built for speed, reaching almost 30 knots under full steam. Her purpose was to hunt down German torpedo boats and submarines and thus to protect the larger dreadnought battleships which had bigger guns and heavier armour but were hence much slower.
In that role “Caroline” took part in the Battle of Jutland, near Denmark
’s coast, from 31 May to 1 June 1916. This was the largest (surface) naval battle of the war, in fact the biggest ever in the era of steel ships, involving some 250 warships in total, including 50 battleships. It was the largest direct confrontation of battleships – and the last battle of this sort – ever.
The outcome was somewhat ambiguous and both sides claimed victory. The German fleet inflicted severe losses on the British, about twice as high as those on the German side (with a total of 25 vessels sunk and many thousands of seamen killed, about one in ten). On the other hand, the Royal Navy prevented the Germans from breaking through in the North Sea and subsequently contained the German battle fleet at sea. Outnumbered, Germany
avoided any further direct surface fleet confrontation shifting its efforts instead to all-out submarine warfare in 1917.
Following WW1, HMS “Caroline” was in 1919 sent to serve in the Royal Navy’s ‘East Indies Station’, i.e. the waters of the Indian Ocean from Malaysia to Mauritius and the Gulf of Aden in East Africa.
In 1922 she returned to Britain and was actually destined for the breaker’s yard but in 1923 the then Northern Ireland Prime Minister James Craig saved the ship by persuading the Navy to move “Caroline” to Belfast
to serve as a drill ship and floating base for the newly established Ulster Division of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. She took up that duty from 1924. For this reason her guns were removed and the large steel “shed” behind the funnels was added. HMS “Caroline” continued to appear seaworthy, though she could no longer move under her own power as some of the engine rooms’ boilers were also removed. So she became stationary but remained in commissioned service for the Royal Navy.
“Caroline” became the Royal Navy’s HQ for Belfast. During the Belfast Blitz, the German Luftwaffe’s attack on the city in April/May 1941, she was narrowly missed by a huge bomb.
After the war, “Caroline” returned to her previous duties and in 1951 underwent a refit at the Harland & Wolff shipyard (see Titanic Quarter
During the Troubles (see Northern Ireland
) “Caroline” was once fired at by a sniper in 1971.
From the 1990s, she was berthed in Alexandra Dock, a former dry dock, whose deteriorated caisson gate had been removed so that the dock was allowed to fill with water.
HMS “Caroline” continued her role as home of a naval training centre until this moved out in 2009. In 2011 she was decommissioned, after having been in service for almost a century. Only HMS “Victory”, Lord Nelson’s flagship, now berthed as a museum ship in Portsmouth, has had a longer service history.
At the time I first saw HMS “Caroline”, in December 2012, her fate was still unclear. There were campaigns to save and preserve this venerable ship, though; one poster I saw on the fence around the dock used the "SOS" abbreviation to read as "Save Our Ship". At that time the vessel was not regularly accessible to the public – but I watched what looked like a film shooting taking place on deck, which was peopled with men in period naval uniforms! It was quite surreal.
Over the next few years funding was secured to restore the ship and turn it into yet another visitor attraction in Belfast
’s Titanic Quarter
. Repairs began in 2014 and in 2016 “Caroline” was moved again to the Harland & Wolff shipyard for a hull inspection and further repairs, after which she was towed back into Alexandra Dock, stern first. Her guns were replaced and reinstated but the large midship deckhouse from her days as a training centre HQ remains in place. So her look has not been fully reverted back to that of the WW1
era, as had also been proposed. Now under the aegis of the National Museum of the Royal Navy (with its HQ in Portsmouth) “Caroline” opened her doors to the public after restoration. Yet shortly after, in March 2020, the doors were closed again, as almost everywhere, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In the following year there were funding gaps and the continuation of the museum ship and it staying in Belfast became threatened. But again the necessary funds were eventually raised, and HMS “Caroline” reopened to the public on 1 April 2023 – just in time for me to go and pay her a visit during my Easter trip to Northern Ireland
that year. See below for what I found …
What there is to see: Before you enter the ship itself, there are a few things to see on dry land – not least the exterior of the vessel itself. You can circle it to see it from all angles, also thanks to a footbridge where the gate of the former dry dock would have been.
Dotted around are several open-air information panels about the Alexandra Dock, which is home to HMS “Caroline” these days, as well as some about the vessel itself. Some of the latter I found to be outdated when I visited the site in April 2023. Some said the ship was still in Royal Navy service, which hasn’t been the case since 2011 (see above
Next to the ticket counter inside the dock’s pump house is also a small exhibition about HMS “Caroline” that you can view in preparation for visiting the ship itself. This consists mostly of text-and-photo panels about the history of the vessel but also features a few original artefacts, such as two of the ship’s bells.
You then go up the ramp to the entrance to the ship itself – this ramp changes in steepness with the tide, since “Caroline” is afloat in a no-longer dry dock that was allowed to fill with water from the River Lagan and hence the ship goes up and down with the tide.
On deck you can inspect one of the ship’s reinstated guns and then go inside. Here staff hand out audio guides if you want one … I declined, as I find them often a bit tedious and they get in the way of photography. During my visit I also found that such additional guiding wasn’t strictly necessary, as so much is already explained by other means (in text or audiovisual form).
The first part proper that you enter is the large midship deckhouse from the years of “Caroline” serving as a drill ship and Navy HQ. One outer wall is clear and its portholes are closed so that the wall can serve as a large cinema screen of sorts. On to this an animated short film about the Battle of Jutland (see above
) is played at regular intervals. Also in the same hall is a series of text-and-photo panels providing yet more details about the battle, its context and aftermath.
You can then walk through different parts of the remainder of the ship and inspect, for instance, a number of officer cabins, with their beds, desks, cabinets and washing bowls. Some come with a number of extra items and posters on the wall (e.g. medical ones – presumably for the ship’s doctor). Further on is a space with furniture I would not have expected aboard a ship, such as a large wooden office desk and a couple of leather armchairs. There is also a tiled stove attached to one wall, presumably this was coal-fired. Turning a corner there was a dining table (complete with a plate of plastic food) with a ventriloquist seated at it operating a captain’s puppet … one element for the kids, I should guess (I did find it a bit childish). In other parts of the ship’s interior you can also spot various cuddly toys, such as rabbits, cats and mice/rats, again presumably put in place to entertain younger visitors.
There’s also the captain’s cabin with its private bathroom complete with a bathtub and a flush toilet.
You can go outside on to the deck at the stern and inspect another couple of “Caroline’s” big guns, and get a view of the rest of Alexandra Dock.
Below deck there is the officers’ bathroom with two bathtubs right inside the stern, as well as yet more officers’ cabins.
And then there’s the officers’ mess, again featuring unexpected furniture for a warship, such as more leather armchairs, another tiled stove, a well-filled bookcase, a desk, very living-room-like cabinets and a long table with a white tablecloth and ten table sets with glasses of (presumably fake) white wine and plastic mock-up food on each plate in front of the café-house-like chairs arranged around the table. Two vases with flowers decorate the table. How any of this would have stayed in place in heavier seas is a mystery to me. On one side cabinet even stands a gramophone/turntable! It all feels a little too comfy and on-dry-land-like. Maybe it’s intended to represent the state the interiors were in once the ship was in stationary service (whereas the guns, for instance, hark back to the ship’s service at sea).
Further towards the bow comes another mess, this time presumably for lower-ranking sailors who had to sit on simple benches and at tables without tablecloths, vases or glasses of wine. A few crew members must have been a little more privileged, going by the two separate small dining rooms for two and six diners, respectively. To the side of the mess is a section with several hammocks, presumably the sleeping quarters for ordinary ship hands. Next to these is a rack with a number of rifles!
A more museum-like section has panels about communication and signalling, including one about codes and cyphers that also comes with a hands-on interactive station. One wall further on sports 18 small video screens playing various kinds of footage.
There then comes a section with text-and-photo panels about the role of HMS “Caroline” in WWII
and the Battle of the Atlantic
Visitors can then take the steep and narrow steps down to the engine room to marvel at the ship’s steam turbines that once gave her such formidable speed. People who are into vintage technology will be impressed … others maybe less so.
There follows a section on ‘dazzle ship’ camouflage and how that is modelled on nature, i.e. the camouflage that has evolved in the animal world. Again there’s some hands-on interactive element for the kids (of all ages).
Next comes a section about torpedoes and about the ‘torpedo school’ that HMS “Caroline” also served as during her time as a drill ship. A special panel is devoted to the sinking of the RMS “Lusitania” after having been torpedoed by a German submarine in May 1915, resulting the loss of almost 1200 lives.
Following a communal washroom for ordinary sailors and some long steel-clad corridors you come to another mess, used as an onboard cafeteria. Next is a station with three interactive touchscreens about people connected with HMS “Caroline”, and then there’s another larger scale projection on to a white wall, this time about the restoration of the ship.
Another touchscreen, this time a very long one, gives access to a section-by-section virtual exploration of HMS “Caroline” as she was when she was in action at the Battle of Jutland in WW1
. And then there is a reconstruction of the ship’s infirmary.
Back outside you can explore “Caroline’s forward guns and the anchor winches on the forecastle (or “fo'c's'le” as they prefer to spell it here) as well as the bridge tower. You can go up steep steps to the bridge to see the ship’s wheel and the map room below. But you are not allowed to climb the ladder up the characteristic tripod mast to the lookout at the top just behind the bridge.
Back on deck you can peer through a glass roof into the main galley of the ship. Going back under deck you can also look into it from the side. It features lots of mock-up plastic food, predominantly big hunks of meat.
And that’s more or less it. Walking back through the entrance you return your audio guide (if you have used one) then it’s back down the ramp to the quayside. If you haven’t walked all around the ship yet, now is also a good time to do so. From the footbridge connecting the two sides of the dock stop in the middle and have a look at HMS “Caroline’s” bow from in front of it. Seen from here it seems extraordinarily narrow and sleek. You can feel that she was built for speed …
All in all
, I found the MHS “Caroline” museum ship a good addition to the Titanic Quarter
, even though she has no connection whatsoever with the tragic RMS “Titanic
” as such. A visit will appeal to fans of maritime and naval history, and of ships in general, others may get less out of it.
Access and costs:
a bit of a walk from Belfast
city centre but not tricky to find; not too expensive.
From the Titanic Belfast Experience
it’s a fairly easy walk of a bit over half a mile (800m). Coming from the city centre of Belfast
, however, it’s more like 2 miles (3km), so you may want to get public transport: bus lines G2 and 94a go up nearby Queens Road; get out at Thompson Dry Dock or at Catalyst and walk the rest from there.
Opening times: daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., last admission an hour before closing. Possibly closed Mondays and Tuesdays part of the year (the official website has some conflicting information on this; to make sure you can visit, time it between Wednesday and Sunday).
Admission: 11 GBP on the door, but only 9 GBP when pre-booked online through the website of the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN); some concessions for seniors and children apply.
You can also use an audio guide, which is available in several languages (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Chinese). As far as I remember these were available at no extra cost.
The ship is only partially wheelchair-accessible. On board there are a couple of lifts specifically installed for visitors with mobility issues, but a few parts (especially the engine room) involve steps and stairs and are hence inaccessible to wheelchair users. And the main entrance is at the top of a ramp that at high tide can be a bit steep for ascending unassisted.
Time required: I spent about an hour and a half at the HMS “Caroline”, including the additional exhibition on dry land next to the ticket counter. But if you want to closely read and watch everything there is, you may need longer than that (I only skim-read many of the panels and didn’t do much of the interactive stuff).
Combinations with other dark destinations:
One of the key attractions of the Titanic Quarter
is right next door: Thompson Graving Dock (where HMS “Titanic
” was outfitted). Within fairly easy walking distance is also the main attraction of the area, the Titanic Belfast Experience
. It’s also an interesting walk, thanks to the many information panels along the way by the coastal path.
One extra attraction along the way, for those interested in maritime history, is “The Great Light”, which sports two giant lighthouse lenses plus some info panels, about the two historic lighthouses that these lenses were taken from in particular, as well as generally about various other lighthouses around Ireland
and the wider world.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Right next door to the ship inside the former Pump House of Thompson Graving Dock is a new Irish whiskey distillery, called (you may have guessed it) “Titanic”, which may be of interest to some. There are tours and tastings available.
- HMS Caroline 01 - still inaccessible in 2012
- HMS Caroline 02 - commodified for tourism in 2023
- HMS Caroline 03 - on board
- HMS Caroline 04 - sole survivor from the biggest naval battle of WW1
- HMS Caroline 05 - wall of screens
- HMS Caroline 06 - interactive elements
- HMS Caroline 07 - reconstructed officer cabin
- HMS Caroline 08 - another cabin
- HMS Caroline 09 - officers mess
- HMS Caroline 10 - galley
- HMS Caroline 11 - plenty of mock-up crew food
- HMS Caroline 12 - crew hammocks
- HMS Caroline 13 - wash room
- HMS Caroline 14 - flush toilet
- HMS Caroline 15 - big pipe
- HMS Caroline 16 - double bathtubs
- HMS Caroline 17 - rifles
- HMS Caroline 18 - engine room
- HMS Caroline 19 - another galley
- HMS Caroline 20 - back on deck
- HMS Caroline 21 - way up to the bridge
- HMS Caroline 22 - on the bridge
- HMS Caroline 23 - looking down from the bridge
- HMS Caroline 24 - back on land