Ryde Quarantine Ships

Isle of Wight Observer January 27 1897

The “Daily Graphic” referred to these old and interesting Quarantine ships which have been a feature for many years off Ryde, in a recent issue. By the coming into force two months ago of the Public Health (Ports) Act, 1896, by which the local Government Board is vested with special powers to deal locally, all round our coasts, with cases of dangerous disease brought from abroad into British harbours, all preceding enactments on the subject of quarantine have been superseded. The new order of things also finally brings about the disappearance of the old quarantine hulk establishments that for upwards of three quarters of a century have existed at or near certain of our ports. The last establishment to go has been maintained by the Customs at the Motherbank, off Ryde, Isle of Wight, where the two old hulks Edgar and Menelaus have been so long stationed at moorings a few hundred yards west of Ryde pier. The quarantine hulk system has an existence dating back to the passing of the Quarantine Act of 1825, which consolidated all previous acts passed in the reigns of the three preceding sovereigns George the First, Second and Third, and themselves were based on the special Act, which for the first time instituted quarantine regulations in England for infected ships from abroad, passed under Queen Anne in the year 1710 – the first special statute made by the legislature to prevent the introduction of infectious disease from abroad.
By the Quarantine Act of 1825, which itself was introduced owing to the appearance of cholera in Southern Russia and Eastern Europe, strict regulations were laid down with regard to the admission into British ports of infected vessels, and dealing also with the measures to be taken in regard to the isolation and disinfection of persons and merchandise on board the vessels. By the act all vessels from infected ports, or which had touched at suspected countries, whether with a clean bill of health or not, were compelled under severe penalties before nearing the ports to which they were bound, to call and report themselves at one or other of certain quarantine or “Foul Bill” stations near their ports, where quarantine hulks were kept moored in readiness for an emergency. These were the places specially appointed round the coast for the performance of quarantine:- Cromarty Bay, Moray Firth, for Dundee; off North Queensferry, for the Firth of Forth; White Booth Roads, between Hull and Grimsby; Standgate Creek, in the Medway; the Motherbank; off Plymouth; off Falmouth; Milford Haven; Bromboro Pool, in the Mersey; and Hollock, in the Firth of Clyde. Gradually, however, in after years, the number of these “Foul Bill” stations was reduced, and one by one hulk establishments were broken up, until within the last twenty years or so only one was left in existence, that at the Motherbank, off Ryde, where the old Edgar and Menelaus, replacing older vessels, have remained at their last moorings to the present hour. Since last autumn the two vessels named have been taken over again by the Royal Navy, to which they both formerly belonged as vessels of war on the Ineffective List.
The two old vessels in themselves are interesting, for both have stories of their own. The bigger of the ships, the screw two-decker Edgar (built in 1868) before she became attached to the quarantine service, was well-known in the fleet as the last sailing line of battleship that ever served in the Channel Squadron, in which capacity, furthermore she was the last British man of war of the line that ever left Portsmouth Harbour under sail. This was on the 22nd of March, 1865, when the Edgar was flagship to the Channel Squadron, and flying the flag of Sir Sidney Dacres, with the late Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Geoffrey Hornby as flag-captain, and the present Admiral Sir John Hopkins. Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, as flag-lieutenant. The rest of the Squadron, it is worth noting, comprised five ironclads – the Warrior, and the Black Prince, still existing, and the Resistance, the Defence, and the old Royal Oak – all have long since gone to the scrap heap. With the second quarantine hulk at the Motherbank, the old frigate Menelaus, of 1810, there are stirring fighting associations. The Menelaus has been at her present station at the Motherbank, first as hospital ship, and then as quarantine ship for over sixty years; but in earlier days still, at the beginning of the century during the war with Napoleon, the name of the Menelaus was widely famous for numerous dashing exploits done under the command of the heroic Sir Peter Parker, so untimely cut off in action in a landing party skirmish in the Chesapeake in 1814 – under the batteries off Toulon and off the coast of Brittany. Both Edgar and Menelaus are now awaiting the final order, which will inevitably consign them to the ship-breaker at the price of firewood.
Sketches of the two vessels and Capt G R Casse, the last of the quarantine superintendents, also appeared in the same issue.