In Brands Bay there is a small unassuming hulk, which at first glance seemed to be the heavily eroded remains of a small, unusual looking barge that appeared to have the double bottom of a much larger ship.
At the time this hulk was first spotted, while working on a project with help from the Fleet Air Arm Museum investigating the two known surviving Seaplane Lighters, BU’s maritime archaeologists were also conducting another project, mapping the hulks and coastal features in Poole Harbour visible on aerial photographs. As such, it was decided to survey the wrecks and structures on Redhorn Quay in Brands Bay in the far south of the Harbour. This also eventually formed part of the taught units at BU.
On the other side of Brands Bay, Poole Harbour lay the mysterious metal hulk which was investigated and found to be of riveted construction indicating that this vessel likely pre-dated WW2. Further investigation of the hulk made it clear that we were, in fact, investigating a Seaplane Lighter bringing the total known surviving seaplane lighters in the world to three. It is still unclear as to how the vessel ended up in Poole Harbour wrecked at the end of an abandoned 19th century quay.
The 58’ Towing Lighters were the first purpose built vessels for carrying aircraft, thus gaining them the moniker of the “world’s oldest aircraft carriers”. After much experimentation by the Admiralty Experimental Works, the Navy placed an order with Thornycroft for the construction of four Seaplane Lighters. The vessels were originally designed to work as a floating dry dock, flooding their rear trimming tanks in order to allow the seaplanes (usually a Felixstowe F2a) to be winched into the rear dock before using compressed air to pump out the tanks to allow the vessel to be towed. The Lighters proved to be such a success for the transportation of flying boats, an order for the construction of a further 50 was placed, however by the time the war ended only 36 were completed.
Due to their construction a Lighter could be towed at high speeds and remained relatively true, it was therefore decided that if a deck was built on to the top of the vessels they could be towed at a sufficient speed (over 30kts) to allow a Sopwith Camel to take off a relatively short runway. This provided an advantage over the other methods used in the early days of naval aviation where a destroyer would usually have to sacrifice firepower for the fitting of a flight deck.
With the development of the first flat top carriers and the end of the First World War, the Navy’s need for the towed Lighters was no longer and the Lighters became a dead end in the evolutionary tree of the aircraft carrier. However, Lighters were still used as a safe way to transport seaplanes and can be seen in use by the Navy in footage from the Schneider Trophy Races in 1929.