In 1870 Edward James Reed (later Sir Edward), formerly naval architect and chief constructor to the Admiralty, took charge of the newly reconstituted Earles Shipbuilding and Engineering Company. During his short period as chairman and managing director the shipyard developed an international reputation. He moved into Kirkella House, Church Lane, Kirkella, not far from the parish church, and whilst resident there his shipyard built two steam yachts for the Czarewitch of Russia. A plaque on the gatehouse of Kirkella House still records the visit of the Czarewitch and his party as guests of Reed in 1873. Under Reed’s leadership Earles also began to build warships, not only for the Royal Navy but also for other countries. Not least amongst the warships the yard turned out was the Kongo which occupied a significant position in the development of Japan as a modern naval power.
(photographs courtesy of Alan Hopper, MHSC)
The Imperial Japanese Navy had a history stretching back centuries but failed to keep fully abreast of all the latest technological and military developments after the country’s rulers, the Tokugawa Shogunate, enforced the policy of ‘Sakoku’ from 1640. Sakoku, which means exclusion, strictly limited contacts between Japan and the rest of the world for more than 200 years.
The country’s isolationist stance was abruptly disrupted after a US naval force, commanded by Commodore Perry steamed into Edo (Old Tokyo) Bay in 1853 with four warships. Perry’s arrival was perceived as a show of force and his fleet of modern steam warships exposed the backwardness of the Japanese Navy. He returned again the following year, this time with seven warships and demanded that the government of the Shogun sign a Treaty of Peace and Amity; the long term result was the opening up of Japan to international trade. Many Japanese regarded this and other treaties which followed as unequal having been secured by a show of force. The relative vulnerability of the country thanks to its long standing policy of isolation by then all too evident and shortly afterwards the country embarked on a period of rapid modernisation. After the government of the Tokugawa Shogunate was finally removed in 1867 and the Meiji Emperor restored to full power, the Japanese were free to travel overseas for the first time in over two hundred years and looked increasingly abroad in order to modernise their navy.
From 1870 the Royal Navy was seen as a model for the development of Japan’s navy and in the later 1870s, through the agency of Sir Edward Reed, the country ordered the armoured steel hulled frigate Fuso and two armoured corvettes. These were the first warships to built abroad specifically for the Japanese navy. The order for the Kongo went to Hull whilst the construction of the Hei was allocated to the Milford Haven Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, although the engines were supplies by Earles. Meanwhile the Fuso was to be constructed by the Samuda Brothers at their yard on the Isle of Dogs. All three ships were designed by Reed.
Edward Reed was an energetic and ambitious man. He harboured political ambitions and stood had unsuccessfully stood as a Liberal candidate for Parliament in Hull in 1873. However, in 1874 he was elected as Liberal MP for Pembroke Boroughs and the following year he resigned as General Manager of Earles. His influence on the whole Japanese warship order however is evident. The Kongo was built by Earles, his former company whilst the Hei was launched in Milford Haven, within his Pembroke Boroughs constituency. Reed was also clearly fascinated by Japan. He visited the country in 1879 and later published a history of the country.
Earles soon began work on the Kongo and the vessel was ready for launching by the middle of April 1877. Japanese officials were also able to oversee aspects of the construction at Earles and the other shipyards and they were able to make the most of the experience when modernising Japanese shipyards. The launch of the Kongo was a major event in Hull, being attended by representatives of the Japanese government and many Hull dignitaries including Llewellyn Longstaff as well as Sir Edward Reed. The warship was reported to have glided into the Humber, decorated with bunting and the Japanese Imperial flag. Tugs quickly brought her into dock for fitting out whilst the dignitaries enjoyed a breakfast in Earles board room and the Japanese visitors were afterwards taken on a tour of the docks and then to lunch at the Town Hall.
In the months that followed the fitting out of the Kongo was completed. The 231 foot ship was of composite construction. That is the frames were made of iron covered with two thicknesses of teak planking. She was barque rigged with iron lower masts and capable of carrying a total spread of sail of 17000 square feet. Her compound engines enabled her to run at from thirteen to fourteen knots. By all accounts she was an elegant vessel, her handsomely ornamented with carved work, surmounted with the emblematic Japanese dragon, her stern decorated with tracery formed of leaves.
Yet this outward elegance covered a rugged core. She was the first ship of her type to be fitted with an armour belt, a strip of armour four and a half inches thick extending the whole length of the engine, boiler and magazines. The Kongo was equipped with three Krupp long centimetre guns, each weighing 5.5 tons with a seven inch calibre capable of firing 142lb steel shells. One of these guns was mounted at the stern on rails so that it could be fired aft or from ports on either side of the vessel. The other two large guns were mounted on the bow so each could be fired forwards or give a respective port or starboard broadside. A further six Krupp guns were mounted in ports on either side of the vessel.
In early December the vessel completed a trial trip off Withernsea which by all accounts proved very successful and in February 1878 the Kongo set off for Yokohama, hoisting the Japanese flag as she left the Humber for the last time. Her voyage to Japan took her by way of Malta where she coaled and then through the Suez Canal. She arrived at Yokosuka at the mouth of Tokyo Bay on the 26th April 1878. Edward Reed despatched the other two ships of the Japanese order a few weeks after her. Because of the relative inexperience of the Japanese, all three warships were taken east by British Royal Navy crews, the Kongo being commanded by Captain J.W. Webb, R.N., but a number of Japanese officers went with them. One young officer who sailed with the Hei had completed much of his naval training in Britain. He was Tōgō Heihachirō later to become win renown as Admiral Togo who destroyed the Russian Baltic Fleet at Tushima during the Japanese Russian War of 1905. This was the very same Russian Baltic fleet that had bombarded Hull’s Gamecock Boxing Fleet in the North Sea in October 1904 in the mistaken belief that the unarmed trawlers were Japanese torpedo boats. Admiral Togo was sometimes described by British journalists as the ‘Nelson of the East.’
The Kongo subsequently had a fairly eventful naval career. In 1882 and again in 1884 she carried out patrol work off the coast of Korea during periods of political tension and crisis and at the end of the 1880s made a series of long distance navigational training voyages, visiting Hawaii on a number of occasions. All three of the vessels from Reed’s order provided a means for Japanese officers and men to gain valuable experience in handling steam warships and deploying them effectively. In effect, they played a crucial role in laying the foundations of Japan’s rise as a naval power. In 1890 the Kongo and the Hei both visited Istanbul as part of a goodwill mission to the Ottoman Empire. The two corvettes both saw action during the First Sino Japanese War of 1894/5 taking part in battles of Lushunkow, Wehaiwei and Yalu River. The old corvette was deployed once more in the Russo Japanese War of 1904/5. After the end of this conflict the Kongo was assigned to surveying duties before being withdrawn from service and scrapped in 1909. Her sister ship Hei met the same fate a couple of years afterwards.
Thus the first Japanese Imperial Navy ship to be specifically ordered abroad and delivered was built by Earles of Hull. Today, little remains of Earles at the time of Edward Reed. The shipyard, of course, closed in the early 1930s and the modern Victoria Dock Estate covers much of the old yard. However, Kirkella House still stands with its plaque marking the visit of the Czarewitch and there is a story that the old redwood tree in its grounds was planted by the Russian heir apparent on his visit to Hull and district in 1873. There are still a few reminders of the Kongo and Hei out there. In Hull, Admiral Togo is still remembered as the man who at the Battle of Tushima in 1905 decisively defeated the Russian Admiral Rozhestvensky villain of the Dogger Bank Incident. When she was built, the corvette Kongo was named after Mount Kongo in the Nara Prefecture and later a World War Two battleship took the same name. The name is still in use today as the Kongo class destroyers form a key part of modern Japan’s Maritime Defence Force, perhaps a distant reminder of their predecessor built so many years ago on the banks of the Humber.
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The Story of HMS Captain: The Main Characters