1926 Submarines and HMS Titania | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

1926 Submarines and HMS Titania

1926 Submarines and HMS Titania

When / Where: A note on the back of the photo answers both questions -

Back of photo

H.M.S. "Titania"
Hongkong 1926 

Gwulo talk: More photographs of old Hong Kong and the tales they tell

When: Wednesday, 20th November at 7pm

Where: Harold Smyth room, St. John's Cathedral

Details and booking: http://www.cab.org.hk/Old_Hong_Kong.png

What: If you think this looks like mother duck with her ducklings, you're not far off the mark. HMS Titania, the ship on the right, was a Submarine Depot Ship. It provided supplies to, and accommodation for, the submarines and their crews.

From left to right we have [1]:

  • L? - not clear, maybe "L8"?
  • L3 (1916-1931)
  • L4 (1916-1934)
  • L5 (1916-1931)
  • L19 (1917-1937)
  • L2 (1917-1930)
  • HMS Titania (1915-1949)
The submarines are all members of the L-class. The dates above show they entered service late in WW1, and were scrapped during the 1930s. HMS Titania had a longer life, serving several generations of submarines and making it through two world wars.

Who: I bought this thinking of R E Jones, author of one of the wartime diaries we're serialising [2]. His family say he first visited Hong Kong as a submariner with the Royal Navy. Could he be one of the men shown in this photograph?


Unfortunately not, as we've since seen his service record which tells us where he was in 1926 [3]:

R E Jones service record

I believe his move to submarines began with the entry dated 27 Feb 1926, when we see him move to the "ship" Vernon. HMS Vernon was actually a shore establishment, training sailors to work with mines and torpedoes [4].

On 2nd October he moves to HMS Dolphin, the location of the Royal Navy Submarine School [5]. Training must have gone well because on 26th November he joins HMS Cyclops. Like Titania, Cyclops was a Submarine Depot Ship, but based in the Mediterranean at that time [6]. His visits to Hong Kong must have come later.

So no R E Jones in this photo, unfortunately. Then what about the men we can see - what was their life like?

Not an easy one, according to this account of life onboard submarine J3 in 1918, by G. Hawthorne [7]:

On these patrols we never washed, shaved, or took off our clothes and after a couple of days at sea were hardly on speaking terms with each other. We lived in a strange and weird dream world, just doing our watches, maintaining the boat, facing unsavoury meals, attending to diving or action stations and then sleeping as much as possible. This was particularly so in my case, because there were only two 'Sparkers' so we were on watch and watch about. The remainder of the crew were in three watches, so they did one on and had two off. As there were only six bunks available for the seamen and stokers, crew members just lay on the decks, wherever they fancied and fell asleep. We all became terribly constipated and many had bad sores from the arsenic in the oil fuel. However, after returning from a trip, we longed to be out on patrol again, always hoping to bag something.

There is a very good description of conditions at sea, which I picked up somewhere. 'The wind was rough and the sea mountainous. The motion of the boat was a perpetual swinging, swaying, racking, rolling and listing. Inside the humidity was intolerable; moisture condensing on the cold steel hull ran in streaks to the bilges; food turned rotten and had to be thrown overboard. Bread became soggy and mildewy. Paper dissolved. Our clothes were clammy and never dry and whatever we touched was wet and slimy. The air we breathed was a mixture of hydrogen and chlorine from the batteries, foul air, the smells of cooking and unwashed bodies, of arsenic and oil fuel and finally carbon monoxide. No wonder we hardly spoke to each other!'

Coincidentally, Hawthorne's depot ship at the time was the same Titania shown in the photo above.

The little I know about submarines in Hong Kong comes from today's search on the internet. If you can tell us any more, please let us know in the comments below.

Regards, David


Titania and her submarines left Portsmouth for Hong Kong in 1919. The journey took over five months, though three of those were spent in Malta. We can follow their route through Titania's log-books []:

  • 28 October 1919. Place: Portsmouth. Person: Other: Lt. Com. ~ Gill: joined ship for passage
  • 29 October 1919. Place: Off Nab Lt Vessel. Other: Submarines took up cruising formation in 2 divs in line ahead.
  • 3-8 November 1919. Place: Gibraltar.
  • 13 November 1919 - 18 Feb 1920. Place: Malta.
  • 22-25 February 1920. Place: Port Said
  • 26-28 February 1920. Place: Suez
  • 7-9 March 1920. Place: Aden
  • 19-26 March 1920. Place: Colombo. Other: Started Tropical routine
  • 1-2 April 1920. Place:Penang.
  • 4-8 April 1920. Place: Singapore.
  • 14 April 1920. 
    Place: Sighted: 0123 Gap Rock Lt: N20E
    Place: Sighted: 0515 Waglan Lt: N56E
    Place: Visited: 1017 Secured to "Storm Signal Buoy" Hong Kong
    Other: submarines secured alongside


  1. The dates of commissioning & scrapping of the submarines are given at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_L-class_submarine, while Titania is described at http://www.naval-history.net/OWShips-WW1-50Titania1.htm
  2. R E Jones' wartime diary: http://gwulo.com/node/9660
  3. R E Jones' service record: http://gwulo.com/node/16238
  4. HMS Vernon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Vernon_(shore_establishment)
  5. HMS Dolphin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Dolphin_(shore_establishment)
  6. HMS Cyclops: http://www.battleships-cruisers.co.uk/hms_cyclops.htm
  7. HMS Titania 1917-1918 by G. Hawthorne, http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol051gh.html
  8. Log-books: HMS TITANIA - October 1919 to December 1921, UK out, China Station  (Part 1 of 2).

Reference: ED001

Date picture taken (to nearest decade for older photos): 
Friday, January 1, 1926


Given the year 1926, naval men, including Prince George were despatched from Titania, Hawkins and the submarine L2 to help contain the Hong Kong Hotel fire on New Year's Day, 1 January 1926.

That's very interesting Moddsey.  My great uncle was serving on the L class submarines at that time, with Titania as the depot ship.   I wonder now if he was despatched to help contain the fire. 

That is interesting.

Good to hear about the family conenction too - could Nashie's great uncle be one of the men in the photo? Any idea which of the submarines he was on?

Regards, David

He could well be on the photograph which makes it so interesting to me.    During 1926, he was assigned to L19, L8 and L7 as well as Titania. He spent a total of 3.5 years on China Station serving on both the submarine depot ships and the L class submarines themselves.  

Would your great uncle have any photos of Hong Kong and the L class submarines of the period? If available, it would be interesting to view them.

Barbara Anslow writes:

In Hong Kong in 1929 when I was 10, my parents took my sisters and I to visit a submarine then dockside.  We found it very claustrophobic.  Afterwards I wrote a poem about it, beginning 'One day I went on a submarine, for the very first time of my life...'    I forget what came next, but the poem ended, 'And the sailors who go on submarines do a very noble deed.' 

The description on Gwulo of living conditions on submarines is so graphic... I still think submariners do a very noble deed!



Unfortunately we have no photos of the submarines themselves in Hong Kong.  We only have a few photographs of the submarines and men participating in various activities in Wei Hei Wei, the summer port for the Submarine Flotilla. 

Sadly my great uncle died in a submarine accident in 1929 in the waters of St David's head, a year after his return to the UK from spending 2.5 years on the China Station.  He only had three months left of a a 12 year engagement with the RN.  

I noticed a medal hanging up in a cabinet in my tailor's shop in Wanchai. Bob Yu the military tailor. Presented to him in 1976 by the Queen of the Fairies Lodge. He told me they were based at Tamar. A lodge of the Royal Order of Antediluvian Buffaloes. Named after HMS Titania I believe and originally based up in Wei Hai Wei until the lease was surrendered in mid-1930s.  I hope the photo posts here. If not I'll try again. 

I have posted a photograph of the medal ( referred to as a jewel I think). but I can't work out how to link it to this page. I also came across this article whilst googling around. Familar story about foreign graves in China, but has a photgraph of Petty Officer Sells in full Buffaloes regalia.


HMS Titania - Queen of the Fairies Lodge - Royal Order of Antediluvian Buffaloes - ROAB
HMS Titania - Queen of the Fairies Lodge - Royal Order of Antediluvian Buffaloes - ROAB, by Happy Valley


My Great Uncle, John Edward Barrow, was an Engine Room Artificer in the Royal Navy.  In 1919 he was assigned to HMS Titania and he sailed from England to Hong Kong.  According to my family members, he spent a lot of time aboard submarines.  After HMS Titania docked in Hong Kong in April 1920, he left the Royal Navy and settled in Hong Kong.  He began work at the China Light and Power Company and he remained in Hong Kong until 1938, when the political situation had changed and he felt he should leave.  He returned to England and never came back to Hong Kong.  Some of his friends who decided to stay in Hong Kong had very bad experiences during the Japanese Occupation.  I am gradually reconstructing his story from whatever fragments I can find.  The story of HMS Titania here on this website is interesting.

If any readers know of other crew members of HMS Titania who sailed to Hong Kong and arrived in April 1920, please get in touch with me.