In the early days of the First World War the Royal Navy requisitioned many of the paddle boat pleasure steamers (there were a lot of them at that time) and used them in a variety of ways. They were found to be particularly suitable as minesweepers; the manoeuvrability afforded by paddles, together with their shallow draught made them ideal for the job.
The Admiralty commissioned a fleet of 32 to be built, all named after racecourses, and known as the ‘Ascot’ class. The first 24 810 ton coal-fired steamers were built and commissioned between January and October 1916 to a design by the Ailsa Ship Building Company. As a class they were fairly good sea boats, but prone to lose speed through the paddle boxes getting choked with water.
Between January and June 1918 a further group of eight 820 ton ships were completed to an improved Admiralty design, adapted from the Ailsa Ship Building Company one and known as the Improved Racecourse type. However they suffered from thesame defects as the earlier group. The fifth to be completed in February 1918 was HMS Harpenden. There had been a one day race meeting on Harpenden Common in May every year between 1848 and 1914.
HMS Harpenden was first commissioned for service on 22 April 1918 and joined the Kingtown Fast Sweeping Flotilla in the middle of May. She transferred to the 16th Fast Sweeping Flotilla at Granton in July, and was moved with that flotilla to Sheerness at the end of 1918. Later moving to Dover, the 16th Fast Sweeping Flotilla combined with the 11th Fast Sweeping Flotilla in July 1919. HMS Harpenden joined the 11th Fast Sweeping Flotilla in the Baltic from the end of October until mid November, when the Flotilla was sent home to pay-off at Sheerness, arriving on 17 February 1919.
In January 1919 the Harpenden was berthed at Harwich for disposal, and was sold for scrapping in April 1928. In 1930 the ship’s bell was presented by the Rt Hon J C C Davidson C.H. C.B. M.P. to Harpenden Public Library where it still hangs.
Information from an insigned typescript of c. 1976, LHS archive BF51/14B. Sources:
- Janes Fighting Ships, 1919
- Dumpleton, Bernard – The Story of the Paddle Steamer, 1973
- Commander R C Burton RN, Naval Historical branch, Ministry of Defence, 1976